June/July/Aug 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

Christopher Lasch came to embrace hope against hope

Chris Lehmann


Christopher Lasch was arguably the last, and almost certainly the best, practitioner of a vanished tradition in American letters—an influential social critic who'd been recruited as an informal adviser to presidents; a university pedagogue whose work was addressed to a general, politically engaged readership; and, most of all, a restless intellect, in the best senses of both words, unafraid to call out stultifying orthodoxies or to scandalize their adherents. It speaks volumes about his vocation and the desiccated American intellectual scene that he spent the last years of his life "afflicted with a sense of ideological homelessness," as Eric Miller writes in his supple and observant intellectual biography, Hope in a Scattering Time. After beginning his career as a historian of liberal diplomacy, Lasch ended it by plumbing the neglected American traditions of populism, civic republicanism, and politically minded theology before a smug, liberal intelligentsia that proudly and shrilly disowned his work while revealing they had no idea what he was really talking about.

I can't be counted as an impartial judge of Lasch's life or legacy: Prior to his death in 1994, Lasch was my graduate school adviser. The very traits that rendered him a pariah among bien-pensant liberals made him critical to my own political and intellectual awakening. I can still recall the outraged invective from a feminist coworker in San Francisco on hearing the name of my adviser, and how difficult it was explaining to my father, a career mental-health professional, that Lasch's critique of the debilitating impact of the "helping professions" on the modern family wasn't really about him, or us.

As Miller makes clear, this was nothing compared with Lasch's own political odyssey. Beginning with his Columbia University dissertation on the American intellectual response to the Russian Revolution, Lasch gravitated to sharply critical vantages on the liberal worldview shared by his parents, who had come of age in the provinces of postpopulist Nebraska. Robert Lasch was a civic-minded son of a bookkeeper; the father of his wife, Zora, had helped form a rural cooperative. She was a pre-second-wave feminist and a philosophy student, who taught awhile at an experimental "progressive" school run by Bertrand Russell and his wife; like so many of the women who crossed Russell's path, Zora had to fend off the philosopher's sexual advances.

Psychologically glib observers might argue that Lasch's career was contained microcosmically in the formative experiences of his parents—an attraction to agrarian radicalism and the hard-won virtues of small proprietorship, combined with a suspicion of the amoral and predatory cast of what gets passed off as cultural progressivism. But that would miss the mark. For someone deeply influenced by Freudian thought, Lasch was notably untraumatized by his own family life, keeping up a warm and spirited political correspondence with his father, who went on to be a Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and cherishing the nurturing yet antinomian character of his mother, in spite of his largely undeserved reputation as a scourge of latter-day feminism.

Not long after completing his dissertation Lasch made his mark with his 1965 study, The New Radicalism in America. Interpreting the careers of a wide range of modern intellectuals, from West Village bohemian figures such as Randolph Bourne to Mabel Dodge Luhan to Woodrow Wilson's adviser Colonel Edward M. House, Lasch built a portrait of them as a "social type"—bourgeois and seeking after authentic "experience" in order to shed class-bound allegiances to outmoded social conventions. But his subjects turned this therapeutic regimen outward into the public world—and here, Lasch argued, these radical thinkers fatally elided cultural means and political ends. He claimed, for example, that they misapprehended the material conflict between labor and capital as a psychological one, which should focus, in their detached and entirely condescending outlook, on "'educating' capitalists and laborers to a more altruistic and social point of view—in other words, by improving the quality of men's private lives."

Lasch built out his quarrel with liberal uplift in the essay collections The Agony of the American Left (1969) and The World of Nations (1973), but under the pressures of mid-1970s drift in the left and American culture at large, he began to seek out a more searching and ramifying diagnosis of the nation's ills. His glum ruminations bore fruit in Haven in a Heartless World, the 1975 work on the family that provoked the ire of my erstwhile colleague. Lasch was fond of describing that book as the moment when he discovered "how fun it was to scandalize people," but the dense, theoretical text struck few notes of delight. After reviewing the logic by which social-scientific progressives casually annexed the family to their own campaigns of social hygiene, Lasch pronounced that "today the state controls not merely the individual's body but as much of his spirit as it can preempt." But most feminist and New Left critics bypassed the book's discomfiting argument in favor of callow sloganeering about how the volume exemplified "male backlash," "conservative backlash," and the like.

Lasch's next book, The Culture of Narcissism (1978), was perhaps the unlikeliest best seller in American history. It combined Frankfurt School–inspired ruminations on the psychic destruction wrought by consumer capitalism with meditations on the self-insulating ethos of "metafiction" and the degradation of sports and play. Lasch was profiled in People and invited to the White House for a brain-trust-style meeting with Jimmy Carter and thinkers including Daniel Bell. The world seemed not so much heartless as turned upside down.

Ever restless and disenchanted, Lasch moved away from the broadly Marxist and Freudian framework of these reputation-making books—a shift that culminated in his magnum opus, The True and Only Heaven (1991), an ambitious, passionate reinterpretation of the populist-republican tradition in American life and, indeed, a heroic reenvisioning of the spiritual plight of the Western self. I was a research assistant on this book, so my reviewerly detachment is at its weakest here. But Miller's judgment strikes me as exactly right: Lasch was reclaiming his own allegiance as "a radical" but, in a more profound ontological sense, insisting, against the fashionable truisms of the age, on "the fundamental conviction that goodness inheres, not in a program, or in human willing, but in reality itself at its most basic level." He developed this case not via sweeping theoretical judgments, but rather via a chorus of "voice[s] . . . ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Orestes Brownson to Ralph Waldo Emerson to William James to Reinhold Niebuhr."

Miller's account of Lasch's late career astutely captures the remarkably self-questioning and open-hearted character of a thinker routinely dismissed as a dogmatist, a knee-jerk cultural conservative, even an authoritarian. And while Miller—himself an evangelical Christian—rightly surmises that Lasch was coming to an intellectual appreciation of faith in teasing out this alternate, quasi-populist tradition of American thought, Hope in a Scattering Time appropriately stops short of characterizing the later Lasch as a committed Christian in any formal sense. "Lasch himself had no church but the nation," Miller writes. "He imagined a spiritually charged individuality nestled within the broader national fellowship, the one and the many held together in a bond that would make the common life potentially rich, if at the same time alertly combative."

I found that Miller's biography suffers in spots from omissions and misplaced points of emphasis—as it inevitably would in discussing someone who exerted such an outsize influence on my own past. But apart from such quibbles, he has delivered a truly impressive work of careful narration and historical reclamation, one of the sort that his subject, perhaps most of all, would appreciate. In chronicling Lasch's uniquely American odyssey, Miller helps to restore the indispensable cultural resonance of a voice whose absence I've felt nearly every day for the past sixteen years.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum.

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March 25, 2013
6:40 am

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