I had glancing, and wounding, encounters with Christopher Lasch in the early 'eighties. He was a close friend of an old boyfriend of mine, and when I moved to Rochester, New York, I went with an introduction to Lasch from the boyfriend. "I've told Kit you're there," he'd said to me. "Give him a call. He's expecting it."
Yet although I taught part-time at Lasch's university - the University of Rochester - I didn't call. Lasch seemed a pretty cold fish, and I didn't want to be on the receiving end of that. Rochester, a city I was eager to leave within weeks of settling there, was chilly enough.
But we were both members of a faculty discussion group (I can't recall the subject of our discussions; they took place at various faculty homes, including the beautiful farmhouse of Perez Zagorin), so we eventually met.
During our first social exchange, I mentioned to Lasch that I also taught part-time at a rather parochial local college whose students weren't very impressive, but that the experience was "good for me."
"Well," Lasch hit back, eyes cold, "that's one way of looking at it."
Meaning Talk about the culture of narcissism! Why not think about whether it's good for your students, instead of thinking about yourself all the time?
But I didn't mean good for me in that way at all.
Maybe I didn't phrase it as well as I might have. I didn't mean Who cares about the students; I'm getting some teaching experience out of it for my resume.I meant nothing like that at all.
Young and nervous, I let stand his cruel comeback. But it rankled that he'd done nothing to sense what I might have meant. That he'd tackled me with a Calvinist something or other within minutes of my opening my mouth. Narcissist, get thee hence!
Hence I got. I watched and listened to Lasch during those faculty discussions from a safe distance.
What I saw in him made me realize that while I might have been nervous, Lasch was really, really nervous. The highest among the high-strung academics I'd encountered, he pulled on one cigarette after another, twisted his body about, kept his attractive features tight and grim, and said very smart things.
The very smart things didn't surprise me. Hadn't I just read and reread, with great excitement, The Culture of Narcissism? In my dog-eared, scrawled on, hardback copy, I'd underlined cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations.... the standards that would condemn crime or cruelty derive from religion, compassion, or the kind of reason that rejects purely instrumental applications; and none of these outmoded forms of thought or feeling has any logical place in a society based on commodity production.... [the narcissist] would willingly exchange his self-consciousness for oblivion and his freedom to create new roles for some form of external dictation, the more arbitrary the better... (Looking at this last underlined passage, I can see the connection between my interest then in Lasch and in Don DeLillo now.)
I adored reading what Dale Vree calls "Kit's underlying opposition to self-indulgent individualism." But here I was, in Lasch's personal space, and it turned out it wasn't underlying - it was right at you. And it wasn't opposition. It was disgust.
What if I'd said, in that first encounter with Christopher Lasch, not that teaching at the parochial college was good for me, but that my teaching there, I hoped, was good for the students?
Equally coldly, I suppose, he'd have slapped me down with progressivism, sentimentality, therapeutic thinking....
There was, in other words, nowhere to go with Lasch. Or for Lasch. He was the quintessential intellectual neurotic, stuck always between a rock and hard place. In a nasty review of one of Lasch's books, Arthur Schlesinger (who Lasch attacked in the book) wrote:
With imperturbable skill, [Lasch] draws from the evidence whatever conclusion his thesis needs. An intellectual who rejects society has surrendered to one form of neurosis, one who takes part, another.
As Lasch's biographer, Eric Miller, writes, "Had he dared to move closer, to place himself eye to eye with his subjects, he might have seen more ambiguity and been more forgiving of error. But instead of particular humans he found only containers of 'consciousness' and banal compromise." Andrew Delbanco goes farther. Lasch "not only understood himself to be living in a time of darkness [but] seemed to take a shady delight in describing it."
Humans were, to be precise, frightened, unworthy consciousness-containers, in flight from fundamental human realities: "The battle between nature and culture inheres in the very fact of culture and is irreconcilable," he wrote. "... The human mind [is] the product of an unrelenting struggle between instinct and culture, [making] the miseries of existence [unavoidable]." Liberal progressivism founds itself on a consoling lie about how the battle might be won and miseries overcome; it fails to maintain a "painful awareness of the tension between our unlimited aspirations and our limited understanding, between our original intimations of immortality and our fallen state, between oneness and separation..."
Liberalism's exhortation toward greater individualism, personal experimentation, and autonomy is a trap: "Hedonism, self-expression, doing your own thing, dancing in the streets, drugs, and sex are a formula for political impotence and a new despotism, in which a highly educated elite through its mastery of the technological secrets of a modern society rule over an indolent population which has traded self-government for self-expression." When we lose the deep ground of our being, when we give up that dark interminable struggle, we become trivial, easily dominated.
Well, I took a shady delight in reading all of this. I was excited by the Culture of Narcissism, and by other beautifully, angrily written Lasch works. I was excited by Christopher Lasch for the same reason my sister Frances is excited by the songs of Morrissey. Aesthetically pleasing negativism - nihilism? - is sexy, clarifying. It seems to be getting at buried truths, or getting at the essentially twisted nature of existence, and it is a stirring thing to feel that you too are getting at some of that, or to feel that a literary or musical or intellectual artist has been able to unearth and express and shape dark material you've felt in a subliminal, inchoate way. All great artists of the underworld give you warrant for thinking more deeply, and against the grain; they legitimate your wilder speculations, and encourage you in them.
Lasch, says Dale Vree in a memoir, "was a manly man." I know what he means in my own way, which is to say that I found Lasch sexually attractive because what a woman - this woman, at least - saw, in his brusque dismissals, his physical intensity, his scowl, his eyes' harsh appraisal, his existentialist's cigarettes, was of course the dark Romantic hero of fiction and life: Heathcliff, Ted Hughes... Lasch could sermonize all he wanted against sex, but any woman with eyes in her head could see what a sexual man he was. How unsurprising that the visceral struggle between instinct and repression would form the basis of his philosophy, and that, as he wrote to one of his doctors at the end of his life, "I ... have tried to live with intensity, passion..."