Saturday, October 24, 2015

Christopher Lasch on Neurosis and Society

I've been reading Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, a fascinating but maddening book. Sometimes it is bewildering how hard he works to make everything about the 1970s seem worse than things used to be, but he does have a lot to say about both the present and the past.

One section that greatly interested me was about how the practice of psychiatry changed over the course of the twentieth century. Freud and his contemporaries treated upper middle class Europeans who developed hysterical symptoms as a way of coping with their rigidly repressed lives. Unable to otherwise deal with the sense that their every word and gesture had to be sufficiently respectable for their respectable families, they lost control of their bodies and their voices, falling into defensive patterns they could not then escape. This was especially true for those who had suffered some unspeakable harm; Freud famously had so many female patients who had been sexually abused as children that he decided they must be making it up.

In the fifties, psychiatrists noticed that they were no longer seeing many such patients. Instead they had patients with vague depression and anxiety, or with the constellation of symptoms -- "unstable moods, behavior, and relationships" -- that came to be called Borderline Personality Disorder. To Lasch this is a sign of the way our society had changed. Instead of too much rigidity and repression, the post-World War II world suffered from other woes, and the symptoms of neurotic patients changed in response.

After two-and-half Lasch books this month I was despairing of ever finding a clear statement of what, exactly, he thought was wrong with the modern world. I finally found this passage, embedded in his discussion of parenting. After going over all the faddish approaches to parenting that swept through psychology over the course of the twentieth century, all of them based on the assumption that without expert advice parents are doomed to ruin their children, Lasch wrote:
It is too late, however, to call for a revival of the patriarchal family or even of the "companionate" family that replaced it. The "transfer of functions," as it is known in the antiseptic jargon of the social sciences -- in reality, the deterioration of child care -- has been at work for a long time, and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible. The first step in the process, already taken in some societies in the late eighteenth century, was the segregation of children from the adult world, partly as a deliberate policy, partly as the unavoidable result of the withdrawal of many work processes from the home. As the industrial system monopolized production, work became less and less visible to the child. Fathers could no longer bring their work home or teach children the skills that went into it. At a later stage in this alienation of labor, management's monopolization of technical skills, followed at an even later stage by the socialization of childrearing techniques, left parents with little but love to transmit to their offspring; and love without discipline is not enough to assure the generational continuity on which every culture depends. Instead of guiding the child, the older generation now struggles to "keep up with the kids," to master their incomprehensible jargon, and even to imitate their dress and manners in the hope of preserving a youthful appearance and outlook.

These changes, which are inseparable from the whole development of modern industry, have made it more and more difficult for children to form strong psychological identifications with their parents. The invasion of the family by industry, the mass media, and the agencies of socialized parenthood has subtly altered the quality of the parent-child connection. It has created an ideal of perfect parenthood while destroying parents' confidence in their ability to perform the most elementary functions of childrearing. The American mother, according to Geoffrey Gorer, depends so heavily on experts that she "can never have the easy, almost unconscious, self-assurance of the mother of more patterned societies, who is following ways she knows unquestioningly to be right."
The basic problem with modern life, to Lasch, is that modernization has destroyed our sense of competence. Imagine by way of contrast a pioneer family, where both husband and wife feel confident in their ability to master their world, where both are versed in essential skills that feel real and vital: farming, making clothing, preparing food, raising children. They neither seek nor want expert guidance in how to lead their lives. They know who they are and feel proud of it; they feel they are doing as God commands. Their ideas about what they want and need are influenced by how they grew up and how their neighbors live, not by advertising or mass media. Because they feel secure in who they are, they willingly participate in society as equals with their neighbors. Their political views are of a piece with their philosophies of life, and they are neither intimidated by authority nor influenced by political advertising men. They feel in control of their lives and their fates, partly because they accept so much of what happens to them and what is as the will of God. Children grow up admiring their parents' competence and believing that adulthood means becoming like the adults they know.

We, by contrast, feel incompetent, lost, overwhelmed by global events far beyond our understanding. Our practical skills have atrophied, leaving us unable to make or repair any of the tools we depend on for living. Our computer, phones, refrigerators and cars are complete mysteries to us. Our jobs feel anything but real and vital. Career success depends, not on technical knowledge, but on navigating the corporate bureaucracy and creating the image of a winner. Constantly told by experts of every sort that we can do nothing by ourselves, we sink into indecision and anxiety, unwilling to trust our own judgment. We get our ideas about what is and ought to be from television and the internet and so are constantly exposed to unreasonable models of wealth and celebrity that make us feel like failures. With no faith in God and no reliance on tradition, we have no reason to suppose that our lives are good lives or our a society a good one, so we tend to despise everything that we have and are. Our political ideas are dominated by conspiracy theories, since nothing that happens makes sense to us on any other basis.

We respond to this sense of incompetence not with modesty, but by doubling down on our self-assertion. The model of what Lasch has in mind might be a retiree living on a government pension who reacts to his lack of independence by joining the Tea Party and talking constantly about self-reliance and entrepreneurship; unable to admit his own dependence on others, he channels his anxiety into angry accusations that others are not carrying their own weight. This is what Lasch means by narcissism. Without any proper, well-founded sense of self-mastery, we substitute loud proclamations of our own importance and virtue. Aware that we lack something but unsure what it is or how to get it, we become obsessed with the inner workings of our own minds. Constantly gazing inward, we lose sight of the outside world -- what matters most to us about anything is how it makes us feel. Our social interactions are poisoned by our sense of weakness and failure; we see the social world as a field of struggle where there are winners and losers, so we strive to be among the winners rather than just to make friends. The only way we can imagine to assuage our nagging sense of inadequacy is "success" -- money, fame, the corner office, the beautiful spouse. With no other signposts of achieving a good life, we focus on numbers; who has the most money, the most Facebook friends, the most page views on his blog. But none of it works, because no matter how much we earn and how many lavish trips we take to the far corners of the world, we never really feel that the path we have taken is the right one.

Lasch was too good a historian to mistake his model of nineteenth-century life for the real thing. But he certainly believed that we had lost something vital that our ancestors used to have. As a quasi-Freudian he believed that our personalities are formed largely within the family, and therefore that the major changes he saw in the world must derive from changes within the family, changes that we was sure must be for the worse.

I am ambivalent. My understanding of the past does include a sense that most work used to be more real and fulfilling than bureaucracy, but on the other hand people had lots of other worries: smallpox, wolves, frequent low-level warfare, drought, flood, famine. Do our lives really feel more out of control than theirs did? Now we have experts telling us how to do everything; without experts they regularly consulted oracles and shamans for some sort of guidance. What Lasch says about changes in the parent-child relationship interest me, but then in old Europe and colonial America many thousands of people hated their families and fled as far away as they could. So I am not sure that Lasch's model is the right one.

On the other hand millions of us really do suffer from vague anxiety and depression, and this strikes me as a phenomenon that needs some kind of explanation.


G. Verloren said...


My hunch is that's actually a pretty simple answer as to why many people are vaguely anxious and depressed. More than ever before, the sheer insignificance and meaninglessness of our very existence is inescapeable.

Before, we were ignorant of the universe to the point that we could imagine ourselves as being the center of it all. People lived their lives knowing only what was immediately around them, barely being aware of anything outside of their own corners of the globe. Life was straightforward - you did your labors, you obeyed your various authorities, you never questioned things, and you felt confident that this was "the way of things", or how life was "meant to be".

But today, we've discovered that huge swathes of our assumptions about the universe were flat out wrong, and that there is no one single way to live, but rather untold numbers of potential paradigms we could embrace. We've glimpsed the sheer scope, scale, complexity, and subjectivity of reality and found it staggering.

We've begun to realize just how little we actually know about the universe, and just what a terribly complicated place it really is. We used to be so unfalteringly confident precisely because we had no notion of just how ignorant we actually are. We suffered from something akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, wrongly believing ourselves to be wholly capable beings, able to accurately assessing the true nature of reality with little effort.

When your worldview revolves almost entirely around your own provincial lifestyle, in your own little corner of the world, and you rarely if ever have cause to think beyond the limits of your own experiences, confidence comes easily.

But when you start to look beyond what you know, when you start to question and to doubt - and even more meaningfully, when those doubts are proven to be well founded and your prior, deeply held assumptions are shown to be wrong - suddenly you find it difficult to feel terribly confident about much at all. Where before everything appeared as plainly black or white, suddenly you find yourself grappling with subtle shades of gray and are unable to confidently judge a given hue as quite being one color or the other.

We went from a world of small horizons to nearly infinite ones. People went from desperately yearning for other possibilites beyond their smothering accepted paradigms, to yearning for a sufficiently compelling paradigm to accept in lieu of the paralyzing number of alternatives. Instead of being confident that we know exactly what we ought to be doing with our lives, we're now terrified by the realization of just how ignorant we actually are about everything.

G. Verloren said...


As a species, we've taken the first frightening steps toward greater wisdom. But for many, the hard truths of the universe are too much to handle, and they instinctively recoil, and desperately cling to reassuring fables. Many of us want to go back to the old days, when we didn't realize how terrifyingly complex and incomprehensible vast the universe really is.

But we've opened Pandora's Box, and we can't close it again. We've eaten from the tree of knowledge, and can no longer return to the garden. Better to come to terms with the universe as we now know it to exist, rather than bury our heads in the sand and cling to delusions we know are false.

For my own part, I find great comfort in the notion that the universe is vast and incomprehensible, and that there is no "right" or "proper" way to live. It's immensely liberating and relieving to think that there are so many possibilities in life, and that we have so very much room for improvement, growth, and learning if we only have the will to pursue it.

But at the same time, I understand why certain others are terrified. They're not comfortable with doubt and uncertainty, in large part because they've been raised and lived all their lives in such as to require certainty and confidence to be happy. I find I suffer from no such requirement, and consequently am not troubled by not knowing.

David said...

"Lasch was too good a historian to mistake his model of nineteenth-century life for the real thing." Then what was the point of the model?

And, on what basis do you say he was a good historian? He sounds like a knowledgeable and skilled historian of Freudian and post-Freudian psychiatry and child-rearing theories. But his ideas about pre-modern society at large sound hopelessly naive and self-indulgent, mostly designed to feed a modern wounded narcissism ("our ancestors were awesome and I suck"). My impression is that prairie settlers weren't omnicompetent, sure of themselves, or any such stuff. Mostly, they died a lot. And before they died, they failed. A lot. Some I admit were hard, very hard, especially on other people. Perhaps that's what he means by self-confident. In any case, I'm not convinced that modern anxiety and depression "require an explanation," at least not one that imagines our ancestors didn't suffer from these things.

John said...

Lasch was an intellectual historian of the U.S., and he knew more about what Jefferson and Lincoln said about yeoman farmers than actual yeoman farmers. As I said he works really, really hard to make modern life seem worse than life in the past, for whatever psychological reason. I do not agree that life now is worse; as David said, many pioneers failed. (Like Pa Ingalls and U.S. Grant)

But I do think that modern life is different from life in the past. As you all know by now my explorations of modern life are very much colored by my worries about my two older sons, who seem to hate all the options our society offers to them. They hate school and can't bear the thought of office work, but they also have no particular skills and no desire to acquire them. They find everything that grownups do bizarre and unnatural. They have, so far as I can tell, no desire to be anything like me or any other grownup they have ever known. To me the strangest thing about Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" was the way boys in his pre-colonial Nigeria wanted to be just like their fathers. They had a very firm idea of what it meant to be an adult and they followed the program faithfully. If this ever existed it has been completely lost.

In my work I regularly meet recent college graduates who have no clue what they want to do and seem to find their range of options an intolerable burden rather than an exciting freedom of choice.

I wonder if this ultimately comes down to a mismatch between the world we evolved in and the modern world. It seems to me that our brains evolved to face certain challenges that no longer trouble us much, and not the ones we have. Most obviously, we did not evolve to refrain from eating the banquet of food that now surrounds us, so we get fat and suffer from diabetes etc. Pondering the unending anxiety that so many modern mothers feel about their children, I have to think that we evolved to worry about our children because they really were surrounded by constant dangers -- cooking fires, leopards, snakes -- and when those dangers were taken away the evolutionarily mandated worrying just found other increasingly bizarre foci. We evolved to live in small communities and many people are simply flummoxed by cities and suburbs. There may be something in what G. says, that we simply know too much about the world and the universe to have the kind of easy confidence in our own ways that many people used to have.

David said...

I agree with what you say. I am also put off by Lasch's simplistic scheme, which seems to boil down to "our ancestors were strong, and we are weak." But I would agree that modern life is different from the past.

Perhaps one should emphasize not so much the presence or absence of depression and anxiety as changes in their patterns of expression. To develop G.'s suggestion further, one might say that the comfortingly simple and centered cosmologies of the past (as well as plentiful ritual) are less expressions of an absence of anxiety than they are ways of controlling or binding it. As an aside, it is worth remembering the great anxiety that neglect of ritual and dissent from cosmology could cause in pre-modern societies.