Issue Two

We Are a Nation of Narcissists

Erik van Versendaal Download Article

Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations​ (W.W. Norton and Co., 2018, 1st ed. 1978).

The proliferation of social media as a vehicle for extemporaneous “confession” and commentary, an unabating and tawdry cult of celebrity, the superficiality of both journalism and political discourse, the introduction of gadgetry that promotes solipsism with evermore finely calibrated sophistication, the subordination of rational inquiry to the vociferous broadcasting of identity, and the entanglement of everyday life within bureaucratic policy and predatory advertising—such things make the accusation that America is inveterately narcissistic seem obvious, even uncontroversial. Yet as Christopher Lasch demonstrated in his 1979 study The Culture of Narcissism, this charge need not be regarded first as a matter of widespread moral corruption, nor as a problem that appears in some isolated spheres but could be otherwise regulated or suppressed, nor as a disturbing trend that sprang up with the invention of iTunes or the first-person shooter, but, rather, as a way of being with deep roots that pervades our culture and within which we already find ourselves implicated. In other words, narcissism as a cultural disorder describes a basic feature of our national character at present, one so widespread it cannot even be examined easily, let alone excised. Though marked by methodological and ideological limitations, Lasch’s work is a stimulating guide into both the variety of ways in which this disorder manifests itself, and, perhaps more importantly, the unifying principles behind these phenomena. The fact that his forty-year-old observations remain undeniably relevant attests both to his clear-sightedness and to the scope of the problem he discerned. Those who seek to articulate a critique of our dominant culture for the sake of its healing (its salvation) will welcome Lasch’s work, even if his sociological diagnosis, informed throughout by categories drawn from Freudian psychoanalysis, begs to be deepened with a genuinely philosophical account of human personhood and community. 

Lasch insists that the narcissism of which he speaks should not be confused with mere selfishness. Early on, he distinguishes what he means by narcissism from other forms of egoistic self-absorption—for instance, the celebration of rootless individualism found in 19th-century literature of self-reliance. Rather than, say, glorying in his own personality and boldly imposing his image upon the world around him, the narcissist seeks in vain to validate himself through conforming himself to any number of images of prestige or influence that make an appeal to him. The narcissist so conceived suffers from an anxiety about himself that necessarily enfeebles and frustrates any attempt at faithful and generative self-gift toward his family, neighbors, and community. He lacks the spirit even to desire, enjoy, and mourn wholeheartedly. This powerlessness rests, strikingly, not so much on an overestimation of his own significance and a consequent indifference towards others, but on an inability to consent to his own wholeness. Understood from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, this malady consists in a person’s recoiling before the affirmation of and acquiescence in his own being as good. Lasch often presents the desperate and relentless grasping after external approval that characterizes narcissism as self-hatred, the interiorization of a primordial wound of rejected love. It is the lack of security in his own being, the doubt that he is always-already beloved and worthy of love, that makes it difficult for the narcissist to identify with and commit himself to others. He cannot open himself freely to his fellow man, but is instead caught in an inescapable cycle of self-loathing and self-clinging, precisely because he does not recognize and accept that he is already whole before he has any opportunity to prove it. The world around him diminishes to an instrument by which he aims, hopelessly, to make himself loveable. This futility rests on his refusal to accept that the world’s irreducible goodness is not a threat to or contradiction of his own. “Narcissus drowns in his own reflection, never understanding that it is a reflection” (286).

Late-twentieth-century American society, Lasch argues, instills in its members a disposition akin to this pathological condition. He suggests that narcissism as a cultural disorder expresses itself first in a ubiquitous lack of confidence in reality, where such wavering is itself an underlying cause of the individual’s revulsion before his own personhood. A society suffering from such an affliction takes excessive refuge in consumable and attractive images of success and security as a convenient substitute for truth, which has long fallen into disrepute. As much in the commercial as in the political sphere, that is esteemed best which most convincingly gives the appearance of mere “credibility”—the spectacle. Anyone in this milieu might find himself tempted to study, curate, and market his own “story” in the tacit hope of manipulating the public and gaining himself at last through the approval of followers. Lasch offers remarks in this context that sound eerily familiar: “Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions—and our own—were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time” (62). Or again: “Men and women alike have to project an attractive image and to become simultaneously role players and connoisseurs of their own performance” (113). Disappointment in the elusiveness of any reality anterior to the self compels the contemporary American towards an effort of self-creation that often remains miserably cosmetic.

Significantly, Lasch notes that The Culture of Narcissism grew out of his earlier study of the long decline of the family in American life. The unity of the many kinds of narcissistic behavior that Lasch records comes to light when we turn to the breakdown of natural familial relationships of which they are an effect. So the book’s engaging fifth chapter deals with the functionalization and commercialization of sport as an instance of our culture’s discomfort with the gratuity of play, that essential feature of mature human life, closely related both to art and to liturgy, that is like the abiding and animating memory of childhood. Paradoxically, then, his distrust of reality likewise closes the narcissist off to the goods of representational “illusion” (from Latin in-ludere, “to play at”). “Play has always, by its very nature, set itself off from workaday life; yet it always retains an organic connection with the life of the community, by virtue of its capacity to dramatize reality and to offer a convincing representation of the community’s values. … It is only when games and sport come to be valued purely as a form of escape that they lose the capacity to provide this escape” (148).

Our culture’s obfuscation of gratuity and mystery is also reflected in educational reforms (Chapter VI). In the name of making learning more pertinent and effective, these reforms have increasingly cut the student off from the living sources of his culture. This failure to transmit the treasures of Western wisdom have resulted in commodified approaches to study that attempt to negotiate, and only succeed in reinforcing, the narcissist’s sense that reality is hidden, wanting, or deceptive. The assault on childhood by the professionalization of education is part, Lasch claims, of a larger transference of parental responsibilities to experts and agencies (Chapter VII). Such violence against the home’s authority expresses itself, too, in the sexual difference, where the modern promise of intensified affective union between man and woman is doomed to failure by virtue of the separating of this intimacy from childrearing—a point from which Lasch does not shy away (Chapter VIII). “The inability ‘to take an interest in anything after one’s death,’ which gives such urgency to the pursuit of close personal encounters in the present, makes intimacy more elusive than ever” (224). The obsession with sentimentality reflects not only a rejection of childhood and children, but also of aging and death (Chapter IX). “When the prospect of being superseded becomes intolerable, parenthood itself, which guarantees that it will happen, appears almost as a form of self-destruction” (252). “An age of diminishing expectations,” indeed!    

As the tenth and final chapter of the book makes clear, one basic root of this evacuation of family life is the loss of fatherhood, the refusal of paternal authority that marks our fundamentally revolutionary (and autogenous) notion of liberty. The narcissist finds himself devoid of self because he no longer knows how to regard himself as beloved son and heir. For this same reason, we might say that our crisis is a crisis of adulthood: the fear of becoming a father or mother in keeping with our own origin. Our desolate cultural landscape gives evidence that the once-rich soil of tradition within which one could once expect to grow into his distinctive character and task on behalf of his community, has been furiously eroded. “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future” (13). Forgetfulness of membership among a people and of the call to receive and deliver forward a cultural deposit to which one is an heir, eradicates the possibility of wholesome self-discovery. Once the capacity to identify with one’s forebears and descendants has been thwarted, one is left to seek a spurious immortality through a self-fascinated performance of personality. With the present moment emptied of both memory and promise, the actor is hindered from living meaningfully through his commitment to an inherited pattern of life and through his hopeful surrender of his own labors to be taken up by his successors. Remarkably, the narcissist cannot embrace and enjoy the time he has been given because he has forgotten that his essential task consists in passing on the good he has received, now increased through his own stewardship of this patrimony. This failure to carry on a tradition fruitfully is a societal expression of the collapse of family life, within which parents mediate reality to their children and so ultimately liberate them to their own parenthood. While Lasch is perhaps reluctant to recommend a way forward, the overwhelming lesson of his book seems to be that our wounded culture’s first recourse must be to its sources: to the best testimony of our ancestors, to the primacy of natural reality, and to the God who has eternally been a trustworthy Father.

Erik van Versendaal received his PhD from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute (Washington, D.C.) and is a Philosophy Tutor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

Keep reading! Our first issue on theme of "Adulthood: Man Fully Alive" has more great articles and reviews.