THIS BOOK is a coda to The Culture of Narcissism which upon its 1979 publication became a best seller and thereby did for the Me Generation what The Affluent Society had done for an earlier one -- it gave a name to much of what we find most troubling and least attractive about ourselves and our society. Also, it explained how we got this way. It was a work of cultural criticism, painfully accurate on our problems, frugal with our hopes. If occasionally it succeeded in what George Orwell called "the difficult feat of making modern life out to be worse than it is," more often it sounded our depths as only a handful of books published since the Second World War have done, and thus it is likely to hld a central place in the intellectual history of these times.
The Minimal Self is at once a far-ranging analysis of a subject touched on in The Culture of Narcissism and a satire upon it. That subject, to quote Christopher Lasch's subtitle, is "Psychic Survival in Troubled Times."
This is the age of the Survivor -- and the upper case is apt because the word is widely used as an honorific connoting the moral power and knowledge that comes from suffering. Survivors abound today -- if you're not convinced listen to any of the hygienic talk shows. On the one hand are the remnants of the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. On the other are celebrities like Joan Collins who titivate the tabloids with tales of how they "survived" the discovery of their first gray hair, their incipient second chin. Marx said that history repeats itself: what is tragedy the first time around is farce the second. We are now fairly gagging on the farce.
Still, the impoverished self that Lasch, a University of Rochester historian, describes is no laughing matter. Just as the ebullient 19th century extruded the Imperial Self sung by Emerson and Whitman, so the Minimal Self is what one gets from a century that has seen the destruction of peoples and the breaking of nations and that nears its end with what President Kennedy called a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over its head. Living in such a dark time, who wouldn't retreat into himself, feel and love less, make fewer and fewer commitments? It's one way to ward off the sense of danger we begin to take in with our mother's milk.
This strategy of psychic minimalism, Lasch brilliantly perceives, reflects political despair, for through political action we could order our condition along saner lines, the Soviet Union permitting -- a big if. Yet tellingly, as Lasch points out, the one movement dedicated to lifting the nuclear danger marches under the wan colors of "survival," that minimal mode of being. wants to stimulate political passion on a massive scale, yet it takes as its slogan "the freeze." This is just one of many examples Lasch gives of the way in which efforts to transcend our time whether in action or thought wind up tainted by its worst tendencies. In the case of the freeze movement, fixing on survival as the goal of goals undermines the heroic energies it must summon to end the arms race.
Lasch's criticism of both the arms race and the meager political response to it is typical of his give-no-comfort-to-anyone turn of mind. Thus he is harsh on late capitalism for surrounding us not with objects but with advertising -- etched fantasies which blur the lines between self and world and thus encourage the ever-wanting never-satisfied mental scourge of narcissism. On the other hand, Lasch attacks feminist and radical liberationist theorists for advocating an ecstatic oneness with the world, an ego-less merging with all things, that is in fact the perfect state of mind for a consumer. On one page Lasch scolds "the helping professions" for undermining the family's authority, autonomy, and confidence in the rightness of disciplining children. On another he hits neo-conservative critics of the therapeutic ethic for being political as well as psychic authoritarians. The result of all this ideological pushing and pulling, inevitably, is a book stronger in ad hoc criticism than in sustained argument.
Part cantless liberal, part intelligent conservative, Lasch is hard to pigeonhole politically. Unquestionably, though, he is a cultural radical. That is, he consistently manages to free his thinking from the basic clich,es of his culture. As a result, to a greater degree than any writer I know, he approximates to Matthew Arnold's ideal of the critic -- he strains "to see the object as in itself it really is." In The Culture of Narcissism that object was contemporary life; in The Minimal Self it is books -- what other witers have thought about such subjects as narcissism, the meaning of the Holocaust, and minimalism in modern art. This focus on books makes The Minimal Self more claustral in its appeal and limited in its reach of meaning than its predecessor.
The chapter on interpretations of the Holocaust, for example, summarizes in detail the much-ventilated views of Hannah Arendt, Bruno Bettelheim, Viktor Frankl, and Terrence Des Pres. In addition, it glances at work by Robert Jay Lifton, Dwight Macdonald, Karl Popper, George Orwell, and J.L. Talmon, as well as at Lina Wertmueller's film about the Holocaust, Seven Beauties. Lasch is insightful about these writers and artists, but the chapter is more a tribute to his scholarship than to the powers of fresh observation that made The Culture of Narcissism what one critic rightly called "an indispensable work of cultural analysis."
I see that I have committed the reviewer's classic error of criticizing an author's new book for not being enough like his last one. But should I apologize to Lasch for holding him to his own high standards?