Glimpses of “Culture of Narcissism” author Christopher Lasch


Eric Miller’s biography of American social historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, examines how Lasch came to his penetrating analyses of America through his own alienation. Wikipedia sums up his career:

Christopher (Kit) Lasch (June 1, 1932, Omaha, Nebraska – February 14, 1994, Pittsford, New York) was a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic. Mentored by William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University, Lasch was a professor at the University of Rochester , who used history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness of consumer culture. Rather than invoke nostalgia, Lasch sought to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and the culture of narcissism. His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), became best-sellers. Lasch was always a critic of liberalism, and a historian of liberalism’s discontents. His political perspective shifted from being an outspoken leftist critic of Cold War liberalism to a self-styled populist moralist, denounced by feminists for his defense of the traditional family[1] and hailed by conservatives.[2]

What this doesn’t say, and what Miller reveals in the biography, is that Lasch, the child of two politically progressive atheists, encountered the writings of Augustine and other Christian thinkers in university. This altered his perspectives on a lot of things, though it did not convert him to orthodox Christianity. His creed became a sort of “secular Calvinism,” to use Miller’s phrase.

[Though I can't upload and embed video directly without a paid upgrade to WordPress, I can point to an interesting video of Lasch in action here.]

Here are some clips from the bio, which is beautifully written and perceptive about America as well as about Lasch:

Christopher’s brilliant and talented father wrote of his supposed “unbelief”:

“‘I do hold beliefs,’ he averred, and in Painean cadence he recited them: ‘I believe that no divine power intervenes in human affairs; that death is the end of life and not a gateway to immortality; that the true, the good, and the beautiful should be pursued not for rewards in heaven but for their own sake.” (17)

“The state of the world in which Christopher Lasch made his fledgling steps as a young adult proved to be utterly decisive in the formation of his settled political orientation and his mature moral sensibilities. It was a world for which his parents’ upbeat progressivism had ill prepared him. Dachau and Hiroshima now stood alongside the likes of Paris and Vienna on the grand international landscape, as the crises of the 1930s and 1940s continued to batter progressive notions of identity and hope. Visions of fluid and steady uplift were slipping away.”

It is amusing to read this instance of Lasch’s youthful critical acumen going awry:

At Harvard, in which he enrolled in the fall of 1950, “His roommate was also planning a future in writing, though Kit was not impressed, at least initially. After a week in Cambridge he described John Updike as ‘a very intelligent kid . . . more industrious than I, but I think his stuff lacks perception and doesn’t go very deep. He is primarily a humorist. As he himself admits, he is probably a hack. At least he has more of a hack in him than a profound artist.’ Updike and Lasch would engage in a friendly writer’s competition over the next few years, one that Lasch gradually began to sense he was losing. . . .” (21)

“Lasch’s four years at Harvard coincided with the college’s most intensive period of experimentation with a new, liberal arts–driven curriculum, a weaker version of the one introduced at the University of Chicago in those same years by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins, who had become president at only thirty years of age, hoped to arrest the drift toward curricular fragmentation and what he and others feared was an amoral scientism, tendencies that seemed especially troubling in the aftermath of the world wars. Canonical texts in western civilization, especially those that focused on moral and political philosophy, were especially central to Hutchins’s vision. The historian James Sloan Allen calls this movement ‘a revival of traditional humanism.’ . . . It did powerfully reflect, as Allen puts it, ‘a hunger for certainty, unity, and metaphysical and moral truth,’ fomented by the vast moral and political crises of the 1930s and 1940s. . . . The period of experimentation came to a quick end [at Harvard], but not efore a cohort of students had been guided toward an encounter with and reconsideration of old texts and older understandings of the world.” (25-6)

“[T]his revival of respect for what became known as the nation’s ‘Judeo-Christain heritage’ touched Kit at some level, and since his parents were decidedly less than enthusiastic about such developments, Kit’s nascent interest in theology became a recurring point of tension. He was encountering religion as if for the first time, both academically and personally; besides reading St. Augustine for class, he was living with students who seemed to be believers of various sorts.” (28)

He “persisted in nurturing an interest in theology, influenced by the broad effect neo-orthodox theologians, especially the Lutheran Reinhold Niebuhr, were having on American intellectuals of all sorts in these years. In a time when both Catholic and Protestant seminaries had by 1950 doubled their prewar enrollments, and when, in the 1959 declaration of the philosopher Hans Meyerhoff, ‘Christian interpretations of history, in the Augustinian tradition, have reasserted themselves strongly after a lapse of a few hundred years,’ Niebuhr’s elaboration of the doctrine of original sin, delivered in the pointed language of social criticism, had won him a wide audience. ‘The culture craved a spokesman for the tragic sense of life,’ Niebuhr’s biographer Richard Wightman Fox has noted. ‘Niebuhr had the intellectual skill, religious credentials and personal charisma to step forward and seize the day.’” (29)

During these Harvard years, however, despite Kit’s appreciation for the Western Christian tradition, “he was far from embracing the Christian faith.” (29)

“For the time being his parents’ basic moral and intellectual deposit was safe with their son, but his exposure to the postwar burst of European humanism and the general revival of interest in religion helped to place a wedge between the world of his childhood and his own emerging adulthood.” (31)

Young Lasch, who always wanted (and continued later to want) to write fiction, penned stories “usually written in a form he described to his parents as ‘semi-autobiographical,’ featur[ing] characters at odds with the culture of the upper-middle class, despising its inanities and beleaguered at the prospect of trying to find fulfillment within it.” (32)

Lasch was evolving in these years from the sunlit, Enlightenment-based progressivism of his parents to a deep sense of the wrongness of much of American culture and politics:

“He remembered how his ‘mother always said They, the unknown forces which were trying to drag the whole world to rack and ruin and must somehow be resisted and fought and beaten so the world would be a place you could fall in love in.’ But now, he could see, the unknown forces were within the beloved nation, threatening the hopeful future he had innocently imagined.” (35)

On reading that statement, I awoke with a start: my own preoccupation in my dissertation (The Emotional Culture of The Gilded-Age Wesleyan Holiness Movement) with late-Victorian urban Northeastern American holiness folks as people struggling to find “love in the modern world” may well be rooted in the fact that early on in the writing process I was reading Lasch.

Well, that’s enough for now. Perhaps more later.

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2 responses to “Glimpses of “Culture of Narcissism” author Christopher Lasch

  1. Nice article. By the way, you can embed videos without a paid upgrade (See http://en.support.wordpress.com/videos/youtube).

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