Modern Discontent

Bernard Williams

  • The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch
    Norton, 288 pp, £6.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 393 01177 1
  • Nihilism and Culture by Johan Goudsblom
    Blackwell, 213 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 631 19570 X

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.