Up from Narcissism
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton. 591 pp. $25.00.
When Christopher Lasch observes, as he did recently in the New York Times, that “the labels that are commonly used to describe political positions are no longer valid,” he is at least speaking from experience. A historian, prolific author, and leading social critic, Lasch is also a writer whose own evolution has taken him ever further from the political taxonomy to which most readers are accustomed.
That journey has been the more interesting because it began so unremarkably. In books like The Agony of the American Left (1965) and The New Radicalism (1966), for example, Lasch appeared typical of the Left of those years and orthodox in his preoccupations and views. He believed then that the American government was “a war machine”; that the anti-Communist intellectuals of his day were “the servants of the secret police”; that “socialism [was] the only hope”; and so on.
Nevertheless, before the 1960’s were over, as he recounts now in the introduction to his latest book, Lasch had come to believe that radicalism itself had run amok. It was not merely that the New Left had degenerated into what he now calls “revolutionary histrionics,” or that its spokesmen had become “clownish media freaks.” What was more important, his own studies of the American family, combined with his personal experience as a husband and father, had led Lasch to very different conclusions about the “revolutions” of the 1960’s from those reached by most of his political allies.
By the mid-1970’s, for example, he had come to “question the Left’s program of sexual liberation, careers for women, and professional child care.” That questioning encompassed a great deal more by 1978, when Lasch published his best-known book, The Culture of Narcissism. There, he argued that the pursuit of individualism and spurious forms of “liberation” had left American men and women “restless,” “perpetually unsatisfied,” and “preoccupied with the self.”
Though The Culture of Narcissism was intended as a general indictment of society, there was no mistaking that its arguments took particular aim at the Left. To many for whom “liberation” had become a rallying cry—and particularly to feminists—Lasch had now placed himself beyond the pale. (One reader who did not feel that way was President Carter, who invoked the book favorably in his disastrous speech on American “malaise.”) To this day, Lasch remains more unyielding on moral issues than almost any other critic of the Left (or even the Right); in a recent issue of Harper’s, for instance, he wondered whether divorce should not be forbidden to couples with children under the age of twenty-one. With other such heresies behind him—about crime, pornography, drugs, and most recently, even the cold war—Lasch’s break with what might be called the “liberationist” elements of the Left would appear complete.
Even so, and as The True and Only Heaven makes abundantly clear, the fact that its author became a problem to the Left has not made him a friend or an asset to the Right. He remains an opponent of capitalism, or what he sometimes calls “consumerism”; and “consumerism,” he believes, “is a more serious threat to ‘traditional values’ than the allegedly anti-capitalist ideology of the New Class.” The New Right, he thinks, was doomed by exactly this tension between traditionalism and capitalism. So too was Ronald Reagan, whose “rhetorical defense of family and neighborhood could not be reconciled with his championship of unregulated business enterprise.” Lasch has least use of all for neoconservatives, who have “obscured the difference,” as he puts it, “between opposition to ‘middle-class values’ and opposition to business.” Today as yesterday, in sum, Lasch takes a dim view of conservatism as Americans know it.
Such are the paradoxes, or at least the ideological curiosities, of Christopher Lasch. An invitation to weigh these paradoxes has now appeared in the form of The True and Only Heaven, which is, among many other possible descriptions, a 600-page compendium of the dissonant ideas that have come to occupy its author.
Though the book’s subtitle seems to promise a genealogy of ideas, that promise is somewhat misleading. A curious, almost overwhelmingly ambitious, work whose focus shifts restlessly, often from one page to another, The True and Only Heaven does not so much pursue a thesis as meditate on several theses at once, usually with the aid of several hundreds of figures drawn from American intellectual history.
It all begins rather conventionally. The “old political ideologies,” Lasch reiterates here, “have exhausted their capacity either to explain events or to inspire men and women to constructive action.” Both Left and Right, he is convinced, “share a baffled sense of drift.” Both sides, as a result, are incapable of addressing “the overriding issue of our times”—the issue of “limits.”
Our “riotous standard of living,” Lasch writes, is already on borrowed time; “the earth’s finite resources will not support an indefinite expansion of industrial civilization.” Wealth, too, is limited. In the United States, “a growing proletariat faces a grim future,” while “immigrants strain existing resources to the breaking point.” The world outside is rife with other problems, including “overpopulation,” a widening gap between rich nations and poor, and “more and more violent movements of insurrection and terrorism against the West.” In all, Lasch contends, these “darkening prospects” make a mockery of the faith in material progress—a faith, as he demonstrates, that extends to all factions of contemporary politics.
But if progress is an illusion, how are we to cope? Part of Lasch’s answer lies in resurrecting the thoughts of those, mostly Americans, who have not shared the progressive faith in its various versions. The 19th-century populists who decried industrialization and saw wages as a form of “slavery” receive particularly lengthy treatment. Among other interesting entries, Lasch also submits the German sociological tradition beginning with Ferdinand Tönnies and running through Durkheim, Weber, and Freud, among others. But by far the “most fruitful” source of opposition to the idea of progress, he finds, is “the tradition of Christian prophecy” transmitted through Calvinism and through “moral philosophers and social critics . . . in whom Calvinism remained a powerful background presence.” Here Lasch ranges over religious figures like the Great Awakening’s Jonathan Edwards to such modern Christians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there are the more secular critics: Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Georges Sorel, G.D.H. Cole, Thorstein Veblen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Josiah Royce, among many others.
A second source of moral guidance for Lasch is located in what he calls “the petty bourgeoisie”: those “small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, and farmers” who have traditionally acted to frustrate progressive designs. These are the people who know that “the true and only heaven,” in a phrase borrowed from Hawthorne, is not to be confused with this world. What the lower-middle class has to offer, Lasch asserts, are the virtues we now need most: “its moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.” He writes feelingly about the men and women so often on the losing side of the battle over “progress” in recent decades: the irate parents of bused schoolchildren; the (largely lower-class) opponents of abortion and defenders of the traditional family; the families truly victimized by crime, drugs, and other forms of social breakdown. (On the other hand, of Lasch’s own views about judicial power, abortion, and other “social issues” we are left uncertain, at least on the evidence of this book alone.)
About two-thirds of the way through, The True and Only Heaven metamorphoses rather suddenly into yet another kind of book, this one a devastating account of the contempt in which progressive thinkers have historically held the lower classes. The list of those indicted is a long one, beginning with Marcel Duchamp, Emma Goldman, and other would-be instigators of the “common assault on bourgeois morality,” and continuing into the present day. Particularly villainous to Lasch are H.L. Mencken (who taught the educated “to think of themselves as a civilized minority in a nation of Babbitts, Rotarians, and rednecks”); the Kennedys and the myth of Camelot; and, what is perhaps most interesting, such major social scientists as Richard Hofstadter, Robert and Helen Lynd (authors of Middletown), Gunnar Myrdal, and Theodor Adorno.
In short, The True and Only Heaven is not a book likely to reassure those who found The Culture of Narcissism a retrograde piece of work. And thus far, the book has been earning distinctly cool, if respectful, reviews. What has not been pointed out, however, is a most peculiar irony that pervades this learned, disorganized, deeply felt, and ultimately exasperating work. It is an irony that arises because the author, for all his dislike of conventional labels and ideologies, is himself very much a captive of the selfsame categories he would have us reject.
That much is clear from the biases implicit in his themes. The crucial discussion of “limits” offers some particularly telling examples. “Overpopulation” is asserted as a problem but never even defined, much less demonstrated; our standard of living is said to be declining, but just how is left unclear; world events are said to be against us (largely through our own fault), but events that may have benefited us—the collapse of the Soviet empire comes to mind—are left unexamined; the discussion of the “ecological” threats we face relies without comment on the testimony of a member of the German Greens (!); and so on.
Yet if the authority of the Left is somehow supposed to suffice for the reader, the authority—or even good faith—of the Right appears next to nonexistent. Indeed, in a book as promiscuous with references as this one, the failure to consort in any way with the Right-of-Center perspectives that have entered the mainstream of debate seems rather a feat. The gap is all the more glaring because the arguments to which Lasch is attached are so often reminiscent of writers who go unnamed in his pages. At times, for example, as in his attack on the progressive intelligentsia, one is reminded of Paul Johnson; his lament for contemporary culture cannot but recall Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind; his views of foreign policy do not seem much different from, say, those of the post-cold-war Robert Nisbet. And there are many, many issues—feminism, the family, the Democratic party, the “cultural class war,” and the decline of liberalism itself—on which Lasch seems to agree with arguments that neoconservatives have been making for decades.
The moral, if there is one, would seem to be that in Lasch’s case the flight from ideology is an illusory one. A true iconoclast would not divide his prejudices so predictably, one suspects. It is true that many sophisticates share those prejudices, but Christopher Lasch knows something that most of them do not. He knows, for example, who the underdogs are when federal judges decide to “uplift” a school system. He knows that “progressive men and women” are by now “dangerously out of touch not just with ‘Middle America’ but with common sense”; that those same progressives have come to “fear America”; and that they would happily bend their fellow citizens to whatever the current demands of “progress” are said to be.
To see the coercion in a school-busing order, yet to deny the naked ambition behind “redistributing” the property of others; to deplore enlightened condescension toward mass mores and appetites, yet to reduce “consumer culture” to pornography, malls, and superhighways; to uphold the dignity of working men and women, yet to hope actively for the demise of the economic system that was, and is, their chief source of mobility as well as their preference—surely these incongruities are themselves manifestations of just that “baffled sense of drift” which The True and Only Heaven ascribes indiscriminately to Left and Right.