In “Game Change,” the recent tell-all book about the 2008 presidential campaign, the authors blame John Edwards’s narcissism for his downfall and describe Bill Clinton as a “narcissist on an epic scale.” Do a Google search on “Tiger Woods” and “narcissist” and you get tens of thousands of references. Try it with the Salahis and you get thousands more. Rush Limbaugh calls President Obama a narcissist, it seems, every 24 hours, while a writer on The Huffington Post recently declared that “advanced stages of narcissism thrive on the Right these days.”
This would all sound familiar to Christopher Lasch. Just over 30 years ago, in “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch, a historian at the University of Rochester, took what was still mainly a narrowly clinical term and used it to diagnose a pathology that seemed to have spread to all corners of American life. In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval. Lasch saw the echo of such qualities in “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations, the horror of death.” “The happy hooker,” Lasch wrote, “stands in place of Horatio Alger as the prototype of personal success.”
Not all reviewers cottoned to Lasch’s relentlessly grim tone, but Time magazine described him as a “biblical prophet,” and the broader public embraced his jeremiad. Appearing at a time of inflation and recession, oil shortages, soaring crime rates and faltering cities, Lasch’s book leapt onto the best-seller list, making him famous. Jimmy Carter was so taken with Lasch’s ideas that he invited the academic author to advise him on the famous “malaise” speech of July 1979.
Lasch wasn’t the first to comment on our rising self-absorption. Three years earlier, Tom Wolfe had written an epoch-anointing cover story in New York magazine called “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” But where Wolfe celebrated narcissism as a millenarian outburst of vitality — “the greatest age of individualism in American history,” as he put it with winking enthusiasm — Lasch saw a decadent defiance of nature and kinship. In “The Culture of Narcissism,” he asked a simple question that cut deeper than Wolfe’s provocation: How had the radical changes in American economic and social arrangements since the 19th century affected the individual? Armed with Marx’s conviction that economic forces shape character and with Freud’s insight into the bourgeois mind, he answered with a sulfurous indictment of contemporary American life. “Long-term social changes,” Lasch wrote, have “created a scarcity of jobs, devalued the wisdom of the ages and brought all forms of authority (including the authority of experience) into disrepute.”
The son of a newspaperman and a social worker with a doctorate in philosophy, the Nebraska-born, Harvard-educated Lasch learned to read history through a psychological lens from the political historian Richard Hofstadter, with whom he studied at Columbia. Lasch, however, rejected his mentor’s harsh view of the role that irrational emotions like anxiety over declining social status played in shaping the politics of the middle classes. As if in response, in “The New Radicalism in America: 1889-1963” (1965) Lasch wrote sourly about the role a rationalist conception of human nature played in liberal intellectuals’ programs for social improvement. In “Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged” (1977), an almost Oedipal retort to Hofstadter, he made a blistering attack on the “therapeutic” society in which professional elites medicalize acts of will and minimize personal responsibility. To Hofstadter’s scorn for unrestrained market forces, Lasch added his own contempt for the way commercial appeals so nicely accommodate the liberal ideal of personal freedom.
In “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch again blamed both the right’s veneration of market forces and the left’s cultural progressivism for weakening the bonds of family and community — and thus deforming the growth of solid character. Freudian that he was, Lasch laid much of the blame for “the narcissistic personality of our time” on the way packs of experts had taken child-rearing out of the hands of parents, thus interfering with traditional stages of attachment, especially to the mother. If such ideas never endeared him to feminists, his critique of late capitalism hardly endeared him to conservatives, either. Corporate bureaucracies, he wrote, “put a premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations, discourage the formation of deep personal attachments and at the same time provide the narcissist with the approval he needs in order to validate his self-esteem.”
Lasch saw that same dynamic at work in politics, producing rootless figures devoted solely to managing the impression of managing a crisis. The Bay of Pigs disaster drove Kennedy to “overcome the impression of weakness” as he “blustered” against Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, while Nixon “devoted most of his career to the art of impressing an unseen audience with his powers of leadership.” The narcissism of the politician is thwarted by the narcissism of the voter, whose fantasies of power lead him to identify only with “winners” who then arouse his wrath when their shortcomings disappoint him.
Even as he dug deep into psychoanalytic and social theory and American history, Lasch took in a remarkable range of contemporary experience, making many observations that, if anything, ring more true today. In a chapter called “The Degradation of Sport,” he lamented the way big money and free agency were turning the athlete into a mere “entertainer” who “sells his services to the highest bidder,” bound to his team only in a spirit of “antagonistic cooperation” (a term borrowed from David Riesman). Noting how self-help experts make us feel that success or failure is at stake at every moment, he seemed to anticipate the calculating side of social networking. “The search for competitive advantage through emotional manipulation,” he wrote, culminates in a sociability that functions as “an extension of work by other means.” And long before Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” Lasch perceived that “the air is saturated with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible” — which only makes it easier for the narcissist to see the world as an extension of his desires.
In a skeptical cover review in The New York Times Book Review, the literary critic Frank Kermode called “The Culture of Narcissism” a “hellfire sermon.” Delivering one can be a gratifying exercise, and at times Lasch seems strangely heartened by his despairing diagnosis. He writes as if contemporary culture represented a fall from some earlier, Edenic period. It is hard to take him seriously when he declares that “the peculiar horror of contemporary life” makes “the worst features of
At such moments, Lasch’s disaffection with so much of contemporary life seems less intellectual than unfathomably personal. “The True and Only Heaven” (1991), published three years before his death from cancer at age 61, was an even more alienated tribute to an idealized working class, a sentimental paean that glossed over the way its rage and resentment drove the annihilating antidemocratic movements of the 20th century. It’s a book that would probably hearten the Tea Partiers of today.
But passionate excess is often the price of original perception. The next time you close a book frustrated by the author’s “pseudo self-insight” or are taken in by someone’s “nervous, self-deprecatory humor,” the next time you find yourself repelled by the general collapse of “impulse control” and by the type of person who “sees the world as a mirror of himself,” you might want to seek solace in Lasch’s illuminations. The personality of his time, it seems, is even more the personality of ours.
Lee Siegel is the senior columnist for The Daily Beast and the author of “Against the Machine: How the Web is Reshaping Culture and Commerce — And Why It Matters.”