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Christopher Lasch: A Fellow Traveler with Christianity?

The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times

By Christopher Lasch

Publisher: Norton

Pages: 317

Price: $16.95

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville writer and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Two hundred years ago St. John de Crevecoeur asked: “What is an American?” Today one more likely inquires: “What ails this American?” He lives in the wealthiest, freest, and most enlight­ened society on earth, yet is he not happy. Pathol­ogists of American society have coined terms to de­scribe him: Riesman’s Other-Directed Man, Whyte’s Organization Man, Packard’s Status Seek­er, Wolfe’s Me Person. In The Minimal Self Christo­pher Lasch, a historian at the University of Roch­ester, dubs this ailing American “the Survival Art­ist.” Threatened by crime, environmental pollu­tion, a capricious economy, stultifying bureaucra­cy, chaotic world conditions, and the Damoclean sword of nuclear destruction, he survives through a relentless concentration on his own needs and wishes. He shuns emotional commitments that would ensnare him in the web of binding human relationships. Taking carpe diem as his motto, he severs himself from the chain of existence that stretches back to remote ancestors and forward to distant posterity. Exalting the private realm at the expense of the public, he scorns endeavors to ad­dress the social and political crises of our time. The Survival Artist cuts his losses, withdraws within his psychic fortress, lowers the drawbridge, and shores his walls against the howling wilderness of the world. He is, says Lasch, the quintessential Ameri­can of the 1980s.

One is tempted at first glance to dismiss The Minimal Self with an immense yawn. Have we not heard it all (or variations on the same theme) be­fore? Jeremiah is alive and well in America, and his plaintive lament has grown tiresome. Do we need yet another self-chosen prophet to tot up our in­firmities and upbraid us for our sins? Haven’t we heard enough from frustrated left-wing cranks who transmogrify their thwarted urge for utopia into high-toned carping? But Christopher Lasch will not be so easily dismissed, for in recent years he has emerged as a social analyst of uncommon discern­ment and perspicacity.

Back in the 1960s Lasch established himself as a penetrating interpreter of the waxing and wan­ing fortunes of the 20th-century American Left; beginning in 1962 with a study of American liber­als’ response to the Russian Revolution, he follow­ed with The New Radicalism in America and two collections of essays that probed the nature of radi­cal thought and action. By the early 1970s he had won recognition as one of America’s most incisive socialist thinkers, worthy of mention in the same breath with such luminaries as Michael Harrington and Irving Howe. In 1977 he published Haven in a Heartless World, a book that perplexed many of his fellow leftists: its defense of the family struck rad­icals as quixotic, if not downright reactionary. Not uncommon was the judgment of a Marxist acquain­tance of mine: “Christopher Lasch is a snake.” It was his next work, however — The Culture of Nar­cissism, published two years later — that irritated ideologues of Left and Right alike and propelled him to the forefront of social critics.

In The Minimal Self, Lasch responds to criti­cism provoked by The Culture of Narcissism, traces the survival mentality to the influence of the nar­cissistic personality type, and adumbrates his vision of a cultural revolution that will produce “a re­alignment of political forces, an abandonment of the old political ideologies, and a reorientation of values.” A call for cultural revolution rightly makes the orthodox Christian bristle, for in the 20th cen­tury such talk has usually evidenced a desire to de­stroy Christianity. Not without reason, Lasch’s analysis of America’s problems and possibilities re­quires close scrutiny from those who hew to the doctrines and traditions of the historic faith.

One must reckon first of all with Lasch’s de­votion to Freudianism. Freud himself was an athe­ist who considered Christians self-deluded, and he especially hated the Catholic Church, once calling it “my true enemy.” Moreover, as continuing reas­sessments of Freud’s theories have shown, many aspects of his thought are suspect, if not flat-out erroneous. Lasch, by contrast, assumes the veracity of such concepts as the Oedipal Complex and Freud’s tripartite division of the psyche into id, ego, and superego.

Does Lasch’s Freudianism, then, vitiate his analysis? I think not. Handled deftly and gracefully — as Lasch does — Freud’s ideas can illuminate the recesses of the psyche and provide insight into the human condition. One can argue as well — as does the German psychoanalyst and convert to Catholi­cism, Karl Stern — that Freud’s insights are not ineluctably hostile to Christianity. Lasch eschews the procrusteanism that leads so many of Freud’s less adept disciples astray. He also avoids the tempta­tions of “vulgar” Freudianism — that mode of anal­ysis that smugly responds “phallic symbol” when confronted with everything from a toothpick to a telephone pole. The shapers of 20th-century thought — Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein — will not vanish with the wave of a Christian wand, and it behooves Christians to grapple with the ideas unleashed upon the modern world by these men.

Christopher Lasch is not a Christian, a fact that will discredit him irretrievably in the eyes of most defenders of the faith. One supposes that the Reverend Falwell would condemn him as a “secu­lar humanist.” In the late 20th century the siege mentality has its appeal: circle the wagons for the forces of Satan are legion. Confronted by secular thought, however, the Christian has another choice: to examine with reason and confidence the ideas of non-Christians.

A careful reading of The Minimal Self shows that Lasch admires much of the Judeo-Christian tradition; its loss of vigor, he suggests, accounts in part for the malaise that grips so many Americans. His view of man’s divided nature — “the painful awareness of the gulf between human aspirations and human limitations” — cuts close to the Chris­tian doctrine of original sin. At the risk of offend­ing Lasch, one might suggest that he is something of a fellow traveler with Christianity.

Those who view socialism as a monolithic ide­ology unyieldingly inimical to Christianity will find Lasch’s politics and economics sufficient cause to reject him. Well, folks, there are socialists and there are socialists, and Christopher Lasch is one of the good guys. Like Daniel Bell, he recognizes the “cul­tural contradictions of capitalism,” the way in which it subverts the traditional values of home and family. Lasch’s animadversions on consumer­ism and Madison Avenue should hearten Christians who inveigh against the deleterious effects of materialism on American life. As Pope John Paul II re­minds us, to identify Christianity exclusively with capitalism is to betray the faith into the hands of those who would indeed trade their own souls to gain the whole world.

When Lasch announces as part of his cultural revolution that he “believes in the goals” of femi­nism, environmentalism, and the peace movement he waves the proverbial red cape in the faces of many orthodox Christians. Lasch, however, sup­ports these movements with significant qualifica­tions. Feminists will find him a dubious ally, for he affirms the importance of the family, opposes sex education in the schools, and remarks on the “shopworn slogans and platitudes” that pass for the coin of the realm among feminists. His advoca­cy of nuclear disarmament cuts a neat path be­tween the Scylla of “Better Red Than Dead” and the Charybdis of “Better Dead Than Red.” In his commitment to the preservation of the natural en­vironment, Lasch repudiates the pseudo-mystical balderdash spouted by those who prattle about “oneness with nature.” His attacks on Promethean technology and the ravaging of the environment show his kinship with the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s, a kinship that he might be loath to ad­mit, but one nonetheless that places him on the side of a commonsensical approach to the relationship between man and the natural world. Lasch’s views on these topics illustrate his expressed inten­tion to transcend the regnant political ideologies of both Left and Right. For those who seek to escape from ideological cages, Lasch is a kindred spirit.

Orthodox Christians will sometimes discover allies in the strangest places, if they will only look. It requires no sacrifice of Christian principle to ad­mit that Christopher Lasch is a subtle and tren­chant critic of American society. Christians who believe that we should do more than to gird our­selves for the looming Apocalypse would do well to ponder what Lasch has to say in The Minimal Self, as well as in his earlier books, especially Ha­ven in a Heartless World and The Culture of Narcis­sism. We may have here the opportunity for a bit of bridge-building.

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