The Weak Self: Christopher Lasch on Narcissism
In Response to Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick’s review of The Americanization of Narcissism is written with her usual cogency, verve, and elegance. But I think she and the book’s author, Elizabeth Lunbeck, are mistaken about the motivation and import of Christopher Lasch’s views on the “underlying character structure” of late twentieth-century America.
Lasch was fundamentally a critic of mass society. He located the pivot of modern psychic development in the rise of mass production, with its concomitant deskilling of workers, destruction of economic independence, change in relations of authority from personal to abstract, and professionalization of education, management, mental health, social welfare, etc. The result of those epochal changes was a drastic change in the socialization of children. Individuation largely consists of the gradual reduction in scale of infantile fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness, accompanied by the child's modest but growing sense of mastery, continually measured against its human and material surroundings. Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children's upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child's psychic development.
Narcissism refers to a weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure, manipulative self.
As fathers (and increasingly mothers) become employees, with the family's economic survival dependent on remote, abstract corporate authorities, and as caretaking parents were increasingly supervised or replaced by educational, medical, and social-welfare bureaucracies, the template changed. The child now has no human-size authority figures in the immediate environment against which to measure itself and so reduce its fantasies to human scale. As a result, it continues to alternate between fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness. This makes acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind—civic, artistic, sexual, parental—more difficult. The result is narcissism, which Lasch described in the opening pages of Culture of Narcissism thus:
Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.
Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand along or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.
Narcissism refers to a weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure, manipulative self—what the title of Lasch's next book after The Culture of Narcissism labeled “the minimal self.” It is emphatically not about “selfishness,” “self-absorption,” “self-love,” or self-assertion. The grand opposition Gornick sets up between modern “liberation” and traditional “civilized behavior”—which she deems “the way the world looked to a white, middle-class man without the gift of empathy who found all the social tumult depressing rather than stimulating, and who, feeling the ground beneath his own feet beginning to give way, came perilously close to idealizing a solidity of the past that never was”—may be relevant to understanding Allan Bloom or Saul Bellow. But it's not much use in coming to terms with Lasch's far deeper and subtler argument.