Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch
Many of these questions were raised between the lines, some in footnotes, some in asides. On the way to answering them, Lasch took a very public detour with The Culture of Narcissism (1979). It built on the legacy of cultural criticism that went from Thoreau, if not Jefferson, to John Kenneth Galbraith (Lasch found The Affluent Society compelling). He saw in the self-seeking prevalent in the culture not simply a false moral choice but a perversion of psychology that was bound to generate pathologies, one being self-absorption in the spurious guise of self-fulfillment. The book was a bestseller, and it earned its author an invitation to the White House when President Carter sought advice on the national malaise in 1979 (Daniel Bell and Robert Bellah were also invited). Lasch liked Carter’s open quest for a redefinition of moral community in the United States, and later wrote the president long letters, which went unanswered.
In The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch thought he had begun to sort out the questions of the 1960s and ’70s. The Minimal Self had much less resonance than The Culture of Narcissism, even if it was a rhetorical continuation, identifying a Party of Narcissus. Lasch again used psychoanalytic ideas, tinged with the historical pessimism of the sort found in Freud’s later writings. He argued that modern people strove for the restoration of primitive or imagined early experiences of union, of oneness, but these were impossible to attain. They had therefore to learn renunciation while not abandoning themselves to the impulsiveness and momentary gratifications of consumer culture. Where, however, could they be fortified and rewarded for so much inner strenuousness?
In 1991, in a remarkable examination of much of the Western tradition of social thought and historical interpretation, Lasch proposed an answer. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics perplexed many of his earlier admirers, as he put much of American (and contemporary) radicalism behind him. He argued that movements of social change, whether seeking reform or revolution, had been gravely mistaken in supposing that they were on solid historical ground when treating their definitions of progress—higher standards of living, maximum social mobility, ruthless rejection of convention and tradition—as absolutes. His understanding of progress was rather like that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who many years earlier in Tristes Tropiques had treated Western views of progress (and therewith, the designation of others as “primitive”) as a supreme example of ethnocentrism. Even Sartre, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, had posited a human substratum to historical events and did not use the rhetoric of progress but of authenticity. As Lasch described the path from the Enlightenment to modernity, he argued that secularization was not historically inevitable or self-evidently true, and found reason to attribute moral value to religion. His was a rather general image of religion, which included social Catholicism and prophetic Judaism (and ignored the religions of the rest of the world). Religion in his view taught gratitude for the gifts of life, forbearance of its disappointments.
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Lasch acknowledged his debts to critics of progress, from Edmund Burke to Lewis Mumford, the latter much read in the New Deal years and forgotten in the postwar ones. Lasch now emphasized the value of continuity. He insisted that rejection of the obligations of family and community led to inner emptiness and desperate and often destructive social experimentation. He accepted the view that the many servitudes entailed in advanced capitalism should be overcome, and doubted that industrial society—with its Promethean habits, its obsession with conquering new heights and building ever larger cities—could be reformed. That led him to the older critics of scale and the newer ones of environmental destruction.
In the 1960s Lasch gravitated from criticism of the liberalism incorporated in the postwar American welfare state to hopes in the New Left. What was different about Lasch’s thought in 1991 was that he no longer accepted a belief in historical progress as benign. Forty-six years after the end of World War II, he had concluded that humanity unrestrained was more likely to enchain itself or self-destruct than construct a new moral community. To answer the question of what sort of restraints were needed, he turned to moral philosophy, joining it in his own way with what he had learned from Freud.
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994) was the last book Lasch would complete before dying of cancer. (He refused chemotherapy because he had concluded that it would not save his life and would destroy his capacity to write.) It was a work with two messages. The most obvious was his denunciation of the moral isolation of the nation’s elites, their sense of superiority and justified privilege, their claim that they represented a triumphant modernity, the universal acceptance of which was delayed by the philistine shortsightedness of the less educated and less fortunate. The second message was that hope for a different life had to begin with an affirmation of ordinary life—the business of living, the rhythms of the life cycle—and not from the endorsement of a metahistorical project dispensed from on high. In his last years, Lasch, notwithstanding his lack of religious belief, traded intellectually with theologians. He decided that they were using concepts like being, suffering and redemption to describe the permanent structures of human existence that he had approached empirically. He was drawn to the Protestant existentialists, whose hero was the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rather than to the Catholic visionaries, with their exalted notions of community. Perhaps that was an oblique tribute to his familial origins, and to the American past.
Miller attributes to Lasch a final philosophy rooted in reverence for life, but it is unclear that Lasch would have tolerated so simple a formulation. He could accept neither secular progressivism nor the consolations existential Christianity offered. Lasch was a spiritual pilgrim, reminding others of the unshared past they had lost but might be able to recover. He was a reformer in a society in which the most elemental of reforms, the democratization of economic life, has not been accomplished. When he died he was planning a book on class in the United States, which might have brought together some of the separate strands of his work: the failure of democratic citizenship, the miseries of emotional life in our commodity culture, the deformations of mass culture and the inadequacies of our educational institutions. Lasch was a distinctly American figure, yet he was a true contemporary of Jürgen Habermas, the German advocate of a new public sphere, and of Pierre Nora, the French historian who insists on the indispensable contribution of memory to civilized politics. That American culture could bring forth so relentless a critic is perhaps one of the reasons to still think well of it.