Shut Up, Grandma
52 Authors: Week 36 - Charles Dickens

Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism

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.

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Funny, Mac, but I had a similar response to the book. I was at first disappointed that it wasn't what I thought it was going to be, then somewhat overwhelmed with what it actually was. (I had the same reaction to Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic.)

This past spring I read Lasch's The True and Only Heaven, which I'd recommend even above Narcissism. It caused me to adjust my viewpoint on several things -- Populism, Progressivism, the New Left, etc. Also extremely valuable is Eric Miller's intellectual biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. Eric teaches at a college near here, and I've gotten the chance to know him through a mutual friend. We've met several times and talked about Lasch over beers. He's currently working on a book on Wendell Berry.

"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...."

Sontag's comments on photography are interesting, but it seems to me that the prolification of images on the internet has altered the landscape in many ways. Along with the sheer number of images available, the rise of photo-shop and other digital tools for the manipulation of images has made photography itself untrustworthy. We've gotten to a place where the Word has been devalued in favor of the image, but now the image itself has become inherently doubtful while still maintaining its cultural power. One wonders where things will end up when the culture eventually figures out that images can be trusted no more than words are. When you kill both the word and the image, what's left?

"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."

The "younger woman" when Lasch was writing is now the middle aged woman. I know these women -- I work with them. Divorcees in their 30s and 40s who all want a man who is smart and nice and good-looking and good in bed, with these qualities being in near-perfect proportion, and who view anything less as "settling." They don't realize it, but feminism has sold them a bill of goods. I used to think that such women were just shallow, but in fact it's become apparent to me that they've been conditioned to think this way.

I read some time around 1993, shortly before or shortly after Lasch died. The psychoanalytic scaffolding I found perplexing and distracting, as it is in Triumph of the Therapeutic, which he cites a dozen times or more. It's a book that needs to be re-read to be appreciated, I think. I found his critique of social work (found in various loci) more engaging.

Actually, the 'younger women' he was referring to at the time the book was published (in 1979, IIRC) are now in late middle age or the earlier years of old age. Some of them managed their domestic life passably, some did not.

I recognize the character that Rob G is referring to, but in the workplaces I've been in and places I've lived, they're not that thick on the ground. Many years ago, NPR offered it's morning listeners a memoir called "Dads Moving Out", recalling the day in 1969 his father had done just that. It was interspersed with recordings of his mother and his father, correcting or elaborating on his recollections. One poignant thing his father had to say was "you think life's going to be so new and different. Then the dust settles and life's pretty much the same". You've a mess of women who sue their husbands at age 40 who learn that the hard way, and also learn that demography is a great deal crueler to women than to men. Some acknowledge that, some double down.

"It's a book that needs to be re-read to be appreciated, I think."

Yes, I've thought that too, especially having read some of his subsequent work.

"Actually, the 'younger women' he was referring to at the time the book was published (in 1979, IIRC) are now in late middle age or the earlier years of old age."

True. The women I'm encountering would in effect be their granddaughters, not their daughters.

"in the workplaces I've been in and places I've lived, they're not that thick on the ground."

I imagine I see more of it because I work in a field in which women significantly outnumber men.

Granddaughters of the "older women" Lasch mentions, I mean.

Photography-as-verification really has not lost as much of its authority as it probably should have. That may reflect a certain indifference to reality. Or perhaps the prevalence of very casual photos which are assumed not to have been modified.

You're not on Facebook, are you, Rob? The most striking thing about Lasch/Sontag on photography is that this is an uncannily accurate description of a lot of what goes on there, and no doubt in other "social media" that I don't participate in: "it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny...renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self."

I work in a predominantly female workplace, too, and the majority of women there are married and don't seem to have the generalized anger. Possibly this is related to the fact that I live in a more conservative part of the country and don't have much direct interaction with women who are consciously liberal-left-feminist. It seems more usual than not for single women (whether never-married or divorced) of conventional left-liberal views to seem to be simmering with anger whenever anything at all related to marriage, sex, etc. is discussed. Or for that matter anything political, because after all...

No, I'm not on FB but I certainly get what Lasch/Sontag are saying, and agree wholeheartedly. My point has more to do with the idea that "the prevalence of very casual photos which are assumed not to have been modified" and the ubiquity of modified images from other sources necessitates some sort of conflict or disconnect. Imo both lead to a devaluation of the image, but how this devaluation will eventually play itself out is what interests me. We've already, in effect, killed the word. What happens when the image follows? What's left to bank on, so to speak, outside of ourselves?

Sandra Tsing Loh wrote a long article about herself and her circle of women friends and their dissatisfaction with men. Just exactly as Rob describes, only the man has to also do half the housework to the woman's standards.

Exactly the same sort of thing was going on in the '70s.

Rob, I think the tendency in the culture at large is for the relationship of both word and image to reality to become less important. They retain their power, but a challenge to their fidelity to reality is met with a shrug. It's a similar phenomenon to the one in which admirers of Dan Brown's novels would say to those debunking his claims "You idiot, it's only fiction," and then in the next breath "You can't handle the truth."

I work in a predominantly female workplace, too, and the majority of women there are married and don't seem to have the generalized anger. Possibly this is related to the fact that I live in a more conservative part of the country

Headline attrition rates for marriage tend to be higher down South, but if you control for a number of confounding variables, indicator variables for Southern residence tend to be inversely related to attrition rates. That was the way it was in 1997, though I was using data from an earlier period. New York actually has fairly low divorce rates. A transplanted Southerner in one place I worked (herself on her 3d marriage told me that divorce is a 'plague' in Tennessee).

My personal suspicion would be the bundle of sentiments that attend divorce suits are simply different in a Southern environment and that marital dissatisfaction has different sources and textures. Just a guess.

In my mother's circle of friends, divorce was common, but expressive divorce was unknown, and my mother tended to find it perplexing or foolish when she encountered it. Among those women, it was socially acceptable to divorce an alcoholic, to divorce a tomcat, and, if the children were out of the house, to divorce a man known to have a volcanic temper. Men only filed suits when they were abandoned.

"the tendency in the culture at large is for the relationship of both word and image to reality to become less important. They retain their power, but a challenge to their fidelity to reality is met with a shrug."

That part I get. I just wonder where it'll all lead.

A witty acquaintance of mine said the other day "Is it getting solipsistic in here, or is it just me?"

That's very good.

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.

This made me think of how much Sontag put herself before the camera, and especially of the photos of her during her last, harrowing, dying days. Curious, but it adds even more heft to her observations.

I've had friend who said they got divorced 'for growth' and I just don't know what that could mean.

As with Anne-Marie's account of the Sandra Tsing Loh piece, it sounds pretty familiar, but I don't really know what it means, either, beyond "I'm bored."

By the way, in referring to the women I work with and the fact that this is a more conservative area, I didn't mean to be implying that the state of marriage is generally better here. But I think the ideological slant is much less prevalent. It's two people having problems, not a skirmish in a larger war.

Marianne, maybe Sontag wrote so strongly about photography because she felt the attraction of that "ceaseless self-scrutiny."

"Is it getting solipsistic in here, or is it just me?"

LOL!

"I've had friend who said they got divorced 'for growth' and I just don't know what that could mean."

It means s/he is selfish. Frivorcees say the dumbest things.

This made me think of how much Sontag put herself before the camera, and especially of the photos of her during her last, harrowing, dying days.

She was supposedly shacked up with a photographer, though that woman has been somewhat cagey about the precise nature of her association with Sontag. If I understand correctly, the photographer in question, Annie Leibowitz, is one of the rare people in the arts fraternity who produces representational work, gets passable critics' reviews, and is able to make gobs of money on sales.

I've had friend who said they got divorced 'for growth' and I just don't know what that could mean.

My mother was, ca. 1987, congenially associated with a woman about a half generation her junior. The woman seemed content with life even though she and her husband had been through the mangle with children who had various sorts of deficiencies (not Down's, but some things on that axis). Then one day, my mother hears the woman has filed for divorce. A contemporary of this woman tells my mother 'well, she was bored'. My mother's reply, "that's the stupidest reason for getting a divorce I've ever heard". There's a reason marital attrition rates for the 1930 cohort were consistent with a lifetime probability of divorce of 25% and those for the 1950 cohort suggested a lifetime probability of 60%. (Currently, it runs to 40%).

Do you mean that your mother is the 1930 and the other woman is the 1950?

In any case that is a very stupid reason for getting a divorce, but I suspect it's probably more or less the same thing as "for growth."

My mother actually was born in 1930, but I was referring to what I was able to derive from studying a portfolio of statistics on divorce. The peak propensity was somewhere around the 1950 cohort, though that was not measured directly in the statistical sets I had. This woman was a 3d drawer friend of my mother's and I only met her once (in Mumford, N.Y., around about 1987). A White Pages search with the right inputs reveals someone with that name resident at some point in Rochester and born in 1950. From what I remember of her, 37 would have been a passable guess at her age. I suppose you could say 2/3 of a generation younger.

So, yes, a woman born in 1930 assessing the conduct of a woman born in 1950. But that's quite by accident. It was the statistical study I did in 1997 to which I was referring.

Art, do the lifetime probabilities of divorce that you mention account for people getting repeated divorces?
Your numbers make me feel like I won the lottery. Of my friends and relations, only five have been divorced. I know almost as many people who were widowed young as who are divorced.

I see, Art--I wasn't sure what the relationship between the anecdote and the statistics was meant to be.

I have at times over the past thirty years felt like everyone I knew had been divorced at least once. Interesting tidbit: the longest-running marriage I know of among my more-or-less-contemporaries is that of two hippies who were married in (as I recall) a sort of made-up ceremony in someone's back yard, never had children, and practice no religion. I think the marriage was in late 1969 or early 1970. I don't know all that many couples besides them who could even theoretically make it to the golden anniversary.

I guess I tend to hang with people who are likely to stay married (and have lots of kids). But even in our home school group there have been five divorces in the past 20 years out of about 150 families. There are a lot of divorces in my extended family of origin.

I have not kept in touch with all that many people over the years, but the behavior of my circle does not leave me with the feeling that divorce is pervasive or durable marriages odd. More salient would be the people who've never married (which is not that common in the world at large) or had bastard children (now very common).

Art, do the lifetime probabilities of divorce that you mention account for people getting repeated divorces?

Yes.

Noticed this while deleting some saved links on my computer (it was in an incorrect folder). In it Lasch speaks about some of the things we've discussed recently re: conservatism, capitalism, etc.

http://www.firstthings.com/article/1990/04/003-conservatism-against-itself

Thanks; will read later today.

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