How we've craved The Word, how we've ached for someone to define it all, to wrap up the 1970s like a Christmas present.
"I published a piece on narcissism a couple of years ago in The New York Review, and got a lot of good reaction," says Christopher Lasch, author of "The Culture of Narcissism." This is the big intellectual book of the season, the one for everyone to feel guilty about not reading, punditry in the modern American style of intellectuals telling us who we are.
Who we are, this year, Lasch states with unremitting gloom, is a nation of narcissists -- self-absorbed, empty, anxious, unheeding of past or future, full of repressed rage, fond of self-deprecating humor, scared of competition, obsessed with fame and celebrity, and so on, in phrases with which most consumers of the media can be comfortable, even pleased.
"I was afraid that interest in narcissism would have faded, but it doesn't seem to have," Lasch says. He wears a look of preoccupied satisfaction that passes for a smile.
Lasch is 46, and impeccably shabby in brown tweed jacket. He is slouched in swivel chair in his history department office at the University of Rochester, a chilly cubby with the paint flaking off the radiator, and a view of nothing but two roofs. He is peeved, not at the plaudits his book has won, but at the way it gets lumped with... well, with all the others.
His dusty bookshelf bears a lot of the others -- his rivals in the freestyle prophecy competition that has boomed in the last 30 years. Once, no subject was too small for an academic. Suddenly none was too big. Marshall McLuhan, an English literature scholar, could announce the crumbling of civilization's cornerstone, the printed word, in "Understanding Media." William Irwin Thompson resigned from M.I.T. to limn apocalypse in "At the Edge of History." And here, on Lasch's bookshelves, are "The Future of Technological Civilization," by Georgetown's Victor Ferkiss; "The Greening of America," written at Yale by Charles Reich; "The Lonely Crowd," by Harvard's David Riesman; and a crowd of other titles advertising decline, collapse, discontent.
"I'm now persuaded that any book that comes to a pessimistic conclusion gets treated in a certain way," Lasch complains, heaving out of his chair to fuss with a window, then, just as abruptly, heave back. "Part of the tendency is to use words like 'Jeremiah.'"
Sure enough, Newsweek, in its lead book review, informs us that "with the force of Jeremiah," Lasch summons us to face the despair we have wrought. Says Time: "Like a biblical prophet, Christopher Lasch appears at the gates..." Frank Kermode, leading The New York Times Book Review, points out: "To be in the midst of such a crisis is what we all want, for it makes us more interesting, is indeed an aspect of our narcissism," calling the book a "civilized hellfire sermon, with little promise of salvation."
Lasch writes: "The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence."
The narcissist "harbors deeply antisocial impulses." His "cravings have no limits," He lives in a state of "restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire." He has no interest in past or future, demands "immediate gratification," and he's going to hell in a handbasket, to judge from Lasch's chapter and subchapter headings: The Void Within, The Eclipse of Achievement, No Exit, The Degradation of Sport, The Dread of Old Age. 'It's Very Familiar'
But who is he?
With ample resort to the language of psychoanalysis, Lasch says the narcissist is created when "early feelings of overpowering rage, directed especially against the mother... make it impossible for the child to synthesize 'good' and 'bad' parental images... A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings attempts to compensate himself... with fantasies of wealth, beauty and omnipotence." Modern American government further deprives children of sound parental images by depriving citizens of responsibility for themselves. Advertising encourages obsession with self, and lack of interest in the future, with phrases such as "you only go around once," Lasch says. He even, in unexplained passing, blames narcissism for interest in oral sex.
He goes on to indict virtually every institution in American life -- schools, courts, radical politics, even paradoxically enough, our interest in the same psychoanalytic thinking he relies on so heavily.
"Yes," he says, when this contradiction is mentioned. "But Freud's work transcends it and provides a critical perspective. Of course you might see that as self-serving..."
Lasch will no doubt evoke incredulous smiles on some readers' faces when he tosses off phrases such as "the wreckage of capitalism." But when he blames defeat in Vietnam and Nixon's impeachment on obsession with public image at the expense of the facts, who can argue? Nor would anyone dispute him that the most publicized aspects of recent American spirituality have encouraged an inward seeking. One popular self-help book teaches you "How to Be Your Own Best Friend." Sidewalk philosophizing urges us to do our own thing, to get ours, to look out for number one. Our narcissistic obsession with "wealth, beauty, omnipotence" leads us to idealize anyone famous, regardless of accomplishment. Lasch lists: Patty Hearst, Charles Manson, and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Clearly Lasch has a big point.
Still, the fascination, for those who lack Lasch's facility, is: how does a trained historian transmute this popular wisdom into fact?
Frowning the frown of the sorely tried, here in the stale hush of the faculty club, the reluctant Jeremiah begins with parallel lines, drawn at the top left of his place mat.
He crosshatches the lines, closing on the center with sinuous extravagances that flower into a thorny garden of doodling. he works very hard at it. For one thing, he has to fill his pauses that extend for upwards of whole minutes. Even while smoking an entire pack of True cigarettes in two hours and 15 minutes, he needs something to keep his hands busy.
"Jonestown is a perfect example," he says at last. "You have this mix of religious authoritarianism and progressive ideology. In a society where someone's legitimate need for structure is not met, there will be an attraction."
Granted. But certainly the 19th century as well was famous for its cults, the area around Rochester itself being known as the "burnt-over" district after a few too many charismatic types had come through preaching the wearing of bedsheets and standing on hilltops waiting for The End, among other things.
Lasch mulls that one over.
"No doubt," he says. "But cults then were more likely to be mixed up with schemes for social amelioration."
But didn't he just say that Jonestown preached a "progressive ideology"?
A speculative wince flashes across Lasch's face.
"I'm puzzled by your demands for evidence," Lasch sighs. "The evidence is written in the entire history of the West in the 20th century." He adds, with some pungency: "I have the impression that a lot of people haven't heard the bad news and don't want to hear it: there's a fund of common sense impressions that say that the fabric of society is weakening."
"The decline in loyalties to institutions."
"Vandalism, for instance."
Well, surely some of this is rooted in Lasch's personal experience, a sad heart at the supermarket, sidewalk tidbits, reading the newspapers (he never watches TV)... After all, and the question keeps coming up, how does he know?
"Yes," Lasch says. "All of those things."
Pressed for a specific, then, Lasch shakes his head and cites as his sign of narcissistic decay, "a parking lot here. The gates have to be replaced every week until the university claims they can't afford to replace them anymore."
"Not that I can think of offhand."
And while "I've tried to put the argument in terms that don't break with the canons of scholarship," Lasch says, "hardly any research is necessary to uncover the patterns discussed here. It's very familiar."
And Lasch uses his right hand to set another True in the left side of his mouth, then fire it up.
Tenured professors, with graduate school years of nuance-haggling behind them, and with names celebrated in both the scholarly and the popular press, are no doubt unaccustomed to being questioned on the facts. Pointing Out the Woods
Nobody ever went broke, in the litcrit-shrink-think world, writing that things fall apart, our zeitgeist is out of tune, out weltanschauung needs points and plugs. Or that we're all narcissists.
On that last count, "this is hardly original stuff," as Newsweek pointed out. Tom Wolfe called the 1970s the "Me Decade" in 1976, but none of the hermeneutic heavies hanging out at the corner of Freud and Trilling gave him more than a shrug. People who take their taking-things-seriously seriously don't pay attention to Tom Wolfe. (He gets passing mentions from Lasch.)
They hadn't paid any more attention the year before when Harper's ran Peter Marin's "The New Narcissism," and Jim Hougan published "Decadence: Radical, Nostalgia, Narcissism and Decline in the '70s."
But now, just as we're running out of decade, Lasch has sprinted out in front of a large crowd whose shared intution is that our era is narcissistic. Right or wrong, he has preached back to us precisely what we already believed, rather like Time magazine in 1962 with its landmark pop-think cover story on "The Age of Anxiety." After all, somebody has to point out the woods to the rest of us trees.
"My first book was my PhD dissertation at Columbia called "The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution,'" Lasch says. "It involved a lot of work in manuscript collections -- historians had no interest then in published materials."
He used some of the same materials to write "The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963," which became "my best selling book, about 35,000 copies I think."
Four years later, in 1969, Lasch wrote "The Agony of the American Left," his first launch into the heady world of the present, and a book in which he began using phrases with the ring of "the ideology of non-binding commitments," and "psychoanalysis as theory of family dynamics."
After tours at Williams College, University of Iowa, and Northwestern, Lasch, the son of a liberal midwestern editorial writer, arrived at the University of Rochester in 1970. Remission of a Fever
For all his fascination with American mores, he's taken part in none of the mass movements that have characterized the upheavals of recent decades. No drugs, no radical causes, no meditation or Eastern religion, not even a passion for cross-country skiing, organic food or jogging. He has "no hobbies." He has a wife who is a potter and four children.
He has acquired the favor of the editors of The New York Review and Partisan Review, and grown easy with epochs-in-a-phrase, as in his tidy summing-up of the women's movement: "What began as a tactical realization that women have to win their rights without waiting for men to grant them has degenerated into the fantasy of a world without men."
Sometimes facility becomes cliches. He writes: "The zonked-out lovefest of the 'Woodstock Nation' deteriorated into the murderous chaos of Altamont." He fails to note that one stabbing constituted that "murderous chaos," and, further, that the person charged with murder at Altamont was acquitted.
And: "The happy hooker stands in place of Horatio Alger as the prototype of personal success." (Never mind that it's not Alger but his fictional heroes he's really referring to.)
As a self-defined (leftist," Lasch finds it "embarrassing" and surprising that he's becoming a favorite of the right. "The only people who uncritically liked my last book ('Haven in a Heartless World') were on the far right," he says, listing Kevin Phillips and George Gilder.
His defense of the work ethic, upper-class traditionalism, "localism, self help, and community action" and the family would not jar any reader of The National Review, however.
These virtues "only need the vision of a new socicty, a decent society to give them new vigor... The will to build a better society survives."
Extremists of any persuasion could warm their hands at the fires of Lasch's pessimism: "In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody -- in the guies of personal 'growth' and 'awareness' -- the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The custodians of culture hope, at bottom, merely to survive its collapse."
Sitting here in the faculty club, torturing a paper napkin, Lasch says no, he sees no solutions, not capitalism, not socialism. "It's difficult to suggest a remedy that isn't worse than a disease."
So it's not so much like a ray of sun on a cloudy day as a remission in a long, debilitating fever when Lasch smiles a rare, albeit private, smile. He winces thoughtfully, twitchs analytically, this hero of the book reviews, definer of a generation.
"Actually, this isn't such a bad time to be alive," he says. He has worked the doodle down to the lower left corner of the placemat now. "I don't feel so out of joint to think that I would have been much happier at an earlier point."