In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Modern DiscontentBernard Williams
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Culture of Narcissism 
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton, 288 pp., £6.95, February 1980, 0 393 01177 1
Show More
Nihilism and Culture 
by Johan Goudsblom.
Blackwell, 213 pp., £15, May 1980, 9780631195702
Show More
Show More

All around him in American society Lasch sees intellectual and moral feebleness, cultural decay, despair and inner rage. There is no personal love, only a snatching at gratification, or domestic skirmishes in the war of all against all. There is no politics, only manipulation; no radical protest, only street theatre; no education, only organised illiteracy. The ‘elitism’ of earlier educational functions has been purged – by robbing the educational process of content. Sport is corrupted into mass entertainment. Therapy has replaced genuine moral reflection, and superstition has replaced genuine therapy.

This jeremiad is illustrated with many well-chosen and sometimes amazing examples of what Lasch detests. He treats some subjects with insight and an effectively energetic indignation; sport is especially well handled, perhaps because it is a rather less familiar theme for articulate cultural critics. But this is an unrelenting and repetitious harangue, with very little effective claim to explain anything, and its considerable success in the United States must surely owe something to its resemblance to the traditional minatory sermon, where the orator’s words furnished the Calvinistic thrill of seeming to reach into one’s own social and moral condition. In this case, however, they do not reach very far. In its attempt to give instant enlightenment about the deepest ills of American society, the book is – to a degree of which Lasch seems surprisingly unaware – an example of its own subject. At the same time, it is a replay of what is, in fact, a very old theme.

Since America has been a modern state, its decay has exercised its moralists. This nostalgia has by no means always had the 18th-century condition of America as its object, but almost always, like so much else in American culture, it has been an expression of 18th-century ideas. This has been particularly true when the resources of primitivism have been deployed, when the idea has been expressed that in some less sophisticated or less complex state of affairs things were – as perhaps they might be again – less dreadful than they are now. Among views of this kind historians of ideas have distinguished in the 18th century a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ primitivism, two different celebrations of the Noble Savage. The first, and more familiar, stands for rugged independence, simplicity of taste, loyalty, family virtue, and hardness of body and temper. Soft primitivism, a more socially threatening ideology, was encouraged by early reports from Tahiti, and pictured the uncorrupted state of things in terms of relaxation, gentle plenty, and an entirely amiable promiscuity.

These images have confronted one another in America within the last fifteen years: largely unchanged, except that the hard image has been brought nearer home, to the supposed history of America itself, while the soft image, in the fantasies of flower children and various religionists of pleasure, has been to some degree detached from falsehoods about the South Seas and projected into an accessible alternative culture: one in which, as Lasch points out in his discussion of such faiths, religious discovery and liberation are seen in terms of a technology.

Lasch is assuredly no soft primitivist – and he is not, strictly speaking, a hard one either, since what he sees as lost in contemporary America is a sophisticated urban style of culture, and not the qualities displayed within the ring of ox-waggons. Yet I suspect there is a lot of what he says which speaks to the same sense of loss as that touched by those who pine for a tougher past. Images of hardness, strength, and resistance to elementary oral gratification, run through his book: they are, in fact, largely what holds it together. What is supposed to hold it together is Lasch’s use of the concept of narcissism. There is a certain amount of psychoanalytical discussion which describes in theoretical terms a special kind of character: insecure, dependent on others for self-respect, subject to grandiose images of the self, and filled with anger. This character Lasch explores to some effect: bringing out, for instance, the fact that its baseless self-glorification is quite different from a proper fostering of self, and deftly eliciting its ‘secondary characteristics’: ‘pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous self-deprecating humour’. The total embodiment of modern narcissistic America is, Lasch suggests, Woody Allen.

This account of a kind of character, with its psychoanalytical formulation, offers a good number of suggestions. But it really does little to sustain Lasch’s cultural critique. For this critique to be sustained, a link would be needed between the psychological description and some significant feature of present American society; and since the basic contrast is between the way things are and the way things used to be, some historical understanding is needed of relevant changes in American society. So far as I can discover, there is just one attempt at such an explanation, on page 176: ‘The psychological patterns associated with pathological narcissism, which in less exaggerated form manifest themselves in so many patterns of American culture ... originate in the peculiar structure of the American family, which in turn originates in changing modes of production.’ (The radically – or merely historically – disposed reader brightens up.) ‘Industrial production takes the father out of the home and diminishes the role that he plays in the conscious life of the child.’ That is all. The account then goes on to explain how the mother cannot compensate for this, because of various weaknesses which are themselves part of what has to be explained.

Besides that hopeful reference to changing modes of production, there are various other signals in the book to indicate that Lasch is not merely – what he seems a good deal of the time – a disgruntled, though bright conservative. His lament over the decline of the work ethic also includes sneers at the work ethic, and his celebration, as against narcissism, of what are plainly bourgeois virtues tends to steer clear of their association with the bourgeoisie. In the last section of the book. Lasch admits that ‘the conservative critique of bureaucracy superficially resembles the radical critique outlined in the present study.’ He says that this resemblance is only superficial, on the ground, clearly correct in itself, that conservatives have a mythological view of the role of individualism in capitalist business. The content of his own radicalism, however, fizzles out in a sentence or two of almost Bennite vacuity about citizens having to create their own ‘communities of competence’.

Lasch’s complaints suggest no genuine explanation; more generally, for all his admirable concern about preserving a sense of the past, they lack any sense of historical structure. It is no good his just saying that his critique is ‘radical’: unless his account gives some historical meaning to present discontents, it is neither radical nor reactionary, but merely a complaint about present discontents.

This absence of any historical theory, which makes Lasch difficult to distinguish from any nostalgic malcontent of any period, leaves an obscurity over a question which must be central for any critique of modern culture: whether modernity is to be seen as a special category, and modern discontent as unprecedented. Of course, any set of discontents is going to be unprecedented if taken concretely enough: the question is whether the modern world is seen as presenting a crisis – it may also be an opportunity – radically different from anything in past history. Hegel and Marx, of course, took this to be so, and both associated the promise, as well as the distinctive character, of modern culture with its unparalleled degree of self-consciousness. It is a line of thought which lies behind Lasch’s discussion, but it is one which he does not confront. If he had confronted it, he would also have faced the very real question whether, if one accepts that idea, one agrees with the ultimately optimistic interpretations of the phenomenon that Marx and Hegel gave, or sees it as bringing the destruction of European (and American) culture – a return to darkness, or a move to some state of society for which reflective self-consciousness will not be the value that it has been for us.

And here again I touch on my problem, on our problem, my unknown friends (for as yet I know of no friend): what meaning would our whole being possess if it were not this, that in us the will to truth becomes conscious of itself as a problem?

As the will to truth acquires self-consciousness – there can be no doubt of that – morality will gradually perish now: this is the great spectacle in a hundred acts reserved for the next two centuries in Europe – the most terrible, the most questionable, and perhaps also the most helpful of all spectacles.

This, needless to say, is Nietzsche, quoted in Johan Goudsblom’s clear, learned and useful book, which was published in Holland in 1960 and has only now, with revisions, been translated into English. It charts the development of nihilism, defined in the sense which Nietzsche gave to the word, and in terms of which he invented, in effect, the contemporary problem of nihilism: ‘A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of “in vain” is the nihilists’ pathos – at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.’ The problem lies in the fact that our culture is importantly devoted to the Socratic demand of the ‘truth imperative’ with regard to both ‘being and well being’, as the translators handily put it, and refuses to base action or a way of life on anything less than some absolute truth: at the same time, we acknowledge both that there are no such truths to be had, and that the very consciousness which makes that clear can make it at the same time harder to do without them. Nietzsche again: ‘However, the tragedy is that one cannot believe these dogmas of religion and metaphysics if one has the strict method of truth in one’s heart and in one’s head, whilst on the other hand one has become so tender, so sensitive and so agonised through the development of mankind that one needs remedies and consolations of the most supreme type; this gives rise to the danger of man’s bleeding to death from acknowledged truth ...’

Not all of Goudsblom’s book is about Nietzsche. The parts that are stand up better than much writing about Nietzsche to the danger of having the rest of one’s text discredited by the power of the quotations, and they provide a persuasive account of centrally important aspects of his thought. There is some rather pedestrian history of philosophy in the book – the truth imperative through the centuries – but, in general, under a modest and steady manner, Goudsblom skilfully shapes substantive and illuminating information about nihilism, and makes it clear that both the ‘truth imperative’ itself and scepticism about our ability to satisfy it are cultural and not merely theoretical forces.

At the extremes of his prophetic disgust, Nietzsche did not foresee the precise deformations of social and personal life that Lasch holds up for castigation. But it may be that he understood a great deal about their structure. Was he right in his basic reaction – that the fault must lie with the Socratic aspiration towards moral truth and reflexive understanding? And if so, is there any way of overcoming that drive to ever greater self-consciousness without invoking a catastrophe? These questions are more pressing than ever.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.