Forty years or so after it created a great stir, I finally got around to reading this book. I have to say it is not what I expected. I expected less, to tell you the truth. I expected a look around the culture of the times, and perceptive commentary on it. I didn't expect erudition and big ideas. I got the look-around, but I also found more dense and challenging ideas than I expected, and a great amount of learning.
I also have to say that I might have preferred the more popular work I expected. That's because the biggest idea is Freudianism, which I don't know very much about, but of which I am skeptical, not just of its scientific aspirations but its perspicacity. I had taken the word "narcissism" in the title in a casual sense, as referring to a general quality of self-regard. But apparently it has a more detailed meaning in the Freudian vocabulary. Lasch assumes the reader is familiar with it, and a fair amount of other Freudian jargon as well. I don't think it's entirely an effect of my ignorance that I think this weakens the book. I often wished that he was coming at his subject from a Christian perspective. I sometimes had the feeling that he was thrashing, unable to place what he was seeing, the problems he was diagnosing, in a satisfactory explanatory framework. The concept of narcissism did not seem to me to do the job, though the problem may only be that I don't understand it well enough.
Anyway: those reservations aside, the book contains a profusion of brilliant insights into the contemporary American scene. They are extremely wide-ranging, covering almost every aspect of day-to-day life, with the major and significant omission of religion, which is mentioned only in passing. Some of the instances, naturally, are dated, but more cause one to think "still the same, but more so." I'll share a few of them with you.
The proliferation of recorded images undermines our sense of reality. As Susan Sontag observes in her study of photography, "Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras." We distrust our perceptions until the camera verifies them. Photographic images provide us with the proof of our existence, without which we would find it difficult even to reconstruct a personal history.... Among the "many narcissistic uses" that Sontag attributes to the camera, "self-surveillance" ranks among the most important, not only because it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny but because it renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self, at the same time calling into question the reality of the external world.
Modern medicine has conquered the plagues and epidemics that once made life so precarious, only to create new forms of insecurity. In the same way, bureaucracy has made life predictable and even boring while reviving, in a new form, the war of all against all.
Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in vary ing degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity--the blight of our society--falls with particularly devastating effect on the family....
The perception of the world as a dangerous and forbidding place, though it originates in a realistic awareness of the insecurity of contemporary social life, receives reinforcement from the narcissistic projection of aggressive impulses outward. The belief that society has no future, while it rests on a certain realism about the dangers ahead, also incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of a historical stream.
Faith in the wonder-working powers of education has proved to be one of the most durable components of liberal ideology, easily assimilated by ideologies hostile to the rest of liberalism. Yet the democratization of education has accomplished little to justify this faith. It has neither improved popular understanding of modern society, raised the quality of popular culture, nor reduced the gap between wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational quality.
The attempt to dramatize official repression, however, imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance--a mirror-image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask....
The delusion that street theater represented the newest form of guerrilla warfare helped to ward off an uneasy realization that it represented no more than a form of self-promotion, by means of which the media stars of the left brought themselves to national attention with its concomitant rewards....
By 1968, when the new left gathered for its "festival of live" outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the prominence of the Youth International led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman made it clear that a theatrical conception of politics had driven more rational conceptions from the field.
"You want too much," an older woman says to a younger one. "You aren't willing to compromise...."
A woman who takes feminism seriously, as a program that aims to put the relations between men and women on a new footing, can no longer accept such a definition of available alternatives without recognizing it as a form of surrender. The younger woman rightly replies that no one should settle for less than a combination of sex, compassion, and intelligent understanding. The attempt to implement these demands, however, exposes her to repeated disappointments.... Thwarted passion in turn gives rise in women to the powerful rage against men so unforgettably expressed, for example, in the poems of Sylvia Plath.
Upon finishing this book I had an impulse to turn directly back to the introduction and read it again, because I felt that I hadn't really grasped the broad picture Lasch paints, and that the sharpness of many details justified another attempt at the whole. I didn't to that because there are too many other things I want to read, but I will no doubt browse it occasionally.