A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch was published in 1979. Lasch argues that the “me generation” that Tom Wolfe previously celebrated, was in fact, dysfunctional, empty, and worthy of contempt.
He bases his argument on Sigmund Freud’s insights, who wrote an important paper on the subject called, On Narcissism. At first, Lasch points out a social paradox. People are expected to submit to the rules of society, but modern society refuses to ground these rules into a moral code. The individual’s reaction is to become self-absorbed, and far from feeling elated or grandiose, he loses self-efficacy and self-worth. The self shrinks back towards a passive state in which the world remains unformed.
The egomaniacal, experience-devouring imperial self regresses into a grandiose, narcissistic, infantile, empty self: a “dark wet hole” as Rudolph Wurlitzer writes in Nog, “where everything finds its way sooner or later. I remain near the entrance, handling goods as they are shoved in, listening and nodding.
He then borrows a term from Phillip Rieff, the author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the “psychological man.” Who is the psychological man? He is the modern individual, who has cut himself off from his roots, and from his past. He is plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, and a sense of inner emptiness.
He seeks neither self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly work against it. Whereas man used to look towards priests, self-help preachers, or models of success such as successful business leaders, his main ally in the struggle for composure is now the therapist. The modern equivalent to salvation is “mental health.”
Therapy has established itself as the successor both to rugged individualism and to religion; but this does not mean that the “triumph of the therapeutic” has become a new religion in its own right. Therapy constitutes an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adhreres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs.
The principal goal of the therapist is not help you carve out a future, but to sedate you. He does not want you to look forward to the future, but to focus on your emotions in the present. The idea here is not that the therapist should be responsible for fulfilling these functions — it is not his job to do this. But since therapy has taken over the role of religion in alleviating man’s angst about the future and the purpose of his life, it is tasked with the heavy burden of giving people good answers, and in empowering them. Yet, Lasch argues that it does the opposite, it reduces man further and further. Even meaning and love, to the therapist, are not valuable in themselves, but useful insofar as they fulfil the patient’s emotional needs.
It never occurs to the therapist, to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to others, to someone, or some tradition that is outside himself. Love is self-sacrifice and meaning is submission to a higher authority. These sublimations (of libidinal energy) are deemed intolerably oppressive. Lasch here alludes to Freud’s idea of sublimation and libidinal energy. In short, the individual’s ego is nourished through sexual (or libidinal) energy since his youth. At some point in life, he gets disappointed, when the love that he used to direct inwards, is directed towards a person who does not return the favor. He then retreats into himself and becomes narcissistic and delusional. This is a very rough sketch of Freud’s concept of narcissism which is explained in more detail here.
The post-Freudian therapies attempt to rid the individual from the ideas of love and duty, and for whom mental health means gratifying each impulse and removing all inhibitions.
In an interesting section about Ellul’s work on propaganda, Lasch notes that propaganda does not use facts to support an argument, but to exert emotional pressure. Advertising does the same. But in both cases, the point is not to make the emotional appeal obvious or direct — the emotional appeal is made through the facts themselves which give the person the illusion that they are being “informed.”
Since the propagandist knows that educated people relish facts and the illusion of being informed, they do not use high-sounding slogans, or appeal to fantastic ideas. They do not call for heroism or sacrifice or reminds his audience of the glorious past. They merely stick to the “facts.” This marks the union of propaganda and “information.”
Near the turn of the twentieth century, there was a growing conviction that everything was coming to an end. And people were so sure of a catastrophic event, a nuclear war, that people gave up on looking for a solution, and instead, kept themselves busy with survival strategies designed to prolong their lives, or programs that ensured good health and peace of mind.
After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or bellydancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past.
From Politics to Self-Examination
After displacing religion as the organizing framework of American culture, the therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics. Lasch discusses the political revolutionaries of the sixties, such as Abbie Hoffman and his associate, Jerry Rubin, who decided (a decade later) that it was more important to get one’s head together, and immerse themselves in therapeutic activities, than move multitudes.
Long lasting relationships have become more difficult. Relationships are framed in terms of combat. “assertiveness” “fighting fair”… Open relationships are more common. But they end up intensifying the disease they pretend to cure. The root of their problems are social. By refusing to commit or attach themselves to others, they presume that their problems have nothing to do with other people, and everything to do with their inner feelings.
There is the ego that is healthy, it contains the healthy judgements of others and superior ideals to strive towards. The sadistic superego, is the archaic and destructive force that is harsh and punishing. The superego is filled with destructive forces from early violent fantasies, which result from the parents failure to satisfy all the fantasies of the child.
In a society, where there is no extreme disdain for authority, the superego softens, and forms into a harsh but constructive conscience. Whereas in a society that hates authority, the child grows up still thinking of their parents as devouring monsters and fails to develop a healthy supergo.
According to Kohut, useful creative work which confronts the individual with unsolved intellectual and aesthetic problems, offers hope for the narcissist to transcend their predicament since it requires the individual think about problems that are outside the self.
Freud revised his initial theory on narcissism. He first concluded that the libido was comprised of self-love. He changed his mind and concluded that the id was in fact, the great reservoir of the libido. He acknowledged the existence of non-sexual drives, such as aggression or the death instinct, and the alliance between the Ego and the Id, Ego and aggression. This is important, because the way in which you define narcissism determines how and to what extent you recognize narcissism in society.
The narcissist does not love himself but is defending himself against aggressive impulses.
Those who deny the psychological dimension also deny the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age: dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings. They also do not discuss what might be called the secondary characteristics of narcissism: pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor.
Thus they deprive themselves of any basis on which to make connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women. For these critics, narcissism remains at its loosest a synonym for selfishness and at its most precise a metaphor, and nothing more, that describes the state of mind in which the world appears as a mirror of the self.
In short, Lasch defines contemporary man as disconnected from traditional methods of connecting with the world. The triumph of the therapeutic sensibility, particularly in the US, has resulted in a self-obsessed individual, who has no care for posterity, idealizes youth and perfect, requires constant adulation and praise, worships fame and celebrity, despises old age and weakness, hates dependence on others yet need their warmth, has pseudo self-insight, sees the world as a reflection of themselves, doesn’t want lasting relationships, doesn’t want lengthy commitments, feels empty, is a hypochondriac due to aggression directed inwards, desires the illusion of success and competence, rather than success and competence.
The narcissist thinks that people are disposable, usable, not important, and has faux intelligence, that is, he is good at intellectualizing but only to evade, for example by rephrasing what the other person said, rather than trying to find truth. He tries to defend ego from libidinal (non-sexual) forces, including death drive and aggression, disdains all forms of authority, worships consumerist culture, think it is more important to be worshipped by others than to be content, makes no real effort to understand the world.
Lasch’s criticism is an extreme point of view, and could be interpreted as reactionary. But the value of the book is not found in the literal truths of the criticisms laid forth, but by the existence of such a perspective. There is no harm in the therapeutic. An individual can find, through analysis, useful insight about the nature of their thoughts. Self-reflection is valuable. But the pathological aspect of the therapeutic emerges when it becomes the only ideal the individual is interested in.
In other words, rather than strive for personal success, or social change, or spiritual enlightenment, the modern individual is only interested in the avoidance of pain. The problem with having no interest other than the therapeutic is that it shrinks the individual, and makes life less adventurous, and less meaningful. There is nothing wrong with being interested in improving one’s health, but when it becomes one’s sole preoccupation, it leads to hypochondria and narcissism.