A Prophet, Honored
May 1, 1995        

Christopher Lasch, who died last year, was arguably the most important American social critic in recent decades, and perhaps also the most unpalatable. In a series of important books, Lasch conducted an idiosyncratic, multidisciplinary, and disturbingly plausible polemic against the Enlightenment image of human development. The essence of enlightened moral psychology is universalism, the progressive, potentially unlimited extension of sympathy or imaginative identification beyond the local and traditional; along with disinterestedness, the ability to weigh the happiness of distant others equally with one’s own and one’s familiars. Lasch rejected both the morality and psychology of modernity. For him, the limits imposed by infantile dependence, territoriality, scarcity, and mortality between them define human nature. To accept these intractable, immemorial limits and resolve to live a life of virtue and self-control within them is true wisdom and such happiness as we are capable of. Only an “arduous, even a tragic, understanding of life” makes maturity, efficacy, and heroism possible. An understanding, that is, of :

"the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man’s rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work, which at once signifies man’s submission to necessity and enables him to transcend it."

Genuine rootedness, Lasch argued, entails particular, parochial loyalties, and as a result, at least occasional conflict among members of a large society rather than rational allegiance to the social whole and universal cooperation. What makes for psychic health and strength is local identification and primal memory, an orientation to the past rather than to the future. In The Culture of Narcissism (1978) and The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch showed that the growing child urgently needs to experience both love and discipline from the same source, and that wage labor and mass production, which made this impossible by removing the father from the home, gave rise to a culture of narcissism. In The True and Only Heaven (1991), he broadened the diagnosis, identifying capitalism with modernity, which he describes as an all-out war on the past, individual and collective.

Unlike theological and metaphysical critiques of modernity, this secular psychoanalytic one has something in it, whatever its epistemological difficulties. The infant’s and child’s outsized fantasies -- of omnipotence and terrified helplessness, of rage and undifferentiated union, and so on -- must gradually be worn down, reduced to human scale. And this inward, intensive identification -- different from the outward-turning, assimilative identification that enlarges our sympathies -- is what gives us human shape, psychically speaking, along with other, secondary identifications the same sort: with church, neighborhood, ethnic group, and their beliefs and practices. The memories of which these local identifications consist constitute us. We are our histories, in a way more precise and intimate than previously appreciated.

On this understanding of psychoanalytic theory, late and distant attachments of the kind produced by sympathy can rarely equal, much less replace, earlier ones. And “a ruthless criticism of all things existing” (Marx’s echt-modernist motto) will almost invariably encounter resistance even more tenacious than any based on economic self-interest. The theological, philosophical, and commonsense justifications of prejudice and superstition have been largely swept away. But there seems to be another, evolutionary justification. For evolution apparently dictates that in order to mature, we have to master our imagination when young by binding or investing fantasy within nearby, particular entities. Any many of us will not have much imaginative capacity left over later in life for modernist purposes.

This is discouraging. But perhaps not conclusively so; for what does “mature” mean? It means a personality strong enough to endure the stresses that begin when the developmental period ends and adulthood begins. In theory, extending the developmental period would allow the loosening of primary attachments and the incorporation of remoter, more general ones. And this is just what mass higher education in modern societies seems to have accomplished. Intellectual emancipation and political idealism may have resulted as much from simply postponing adulthood as from enlightened or “subversive” pedagogy.

But while the gradual loosening of primary attachments is one thing, their rapid, wholesale destruction is another. All too often “modernity” has meant nothing more than the assault of capitalism on tradition, with enlightenment nowhere in view. Commodification, wage labor, and mass production have drastically undermined craft, regional, ethnic, religious, and even familial loyalties and virtues, substituting only the abstract disciplines of the market. Industrial capitalism may be readier than traditional societies to exploit the distinctive virtues of modernity -- intellectual curiosity, originality, tolerance, social solidarity -- but it does little to foster them. The result is an unanchored moral culture: shallow, fragile, manipulative, in a word, narcissistic.

Modernity without enlightenment seems to be a prescription for nihilism. Premodernity, both psychic and political, must be outgrown rather than merely suppressed, as industrial capitalism tends to do. On the other hand, it is arguably only developed industrial capitalism that allows a society the economic luxury of postponing adulthood, whether through higher education, travel, or some other vocational moratorium. Between these constraints, it is difficult to see any clear path to a secular democratic-socialist utopia. Lasch’s uniquely broad and deep critique of modernity has not convinced most of his readers. But to me it seems to lie squarely in the path of those who take the desirability of large-scale production, political cosmopolitanism, and religious and moral skepticism for granted. That is, nearly all of us.