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.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.
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."
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.