The poverty of the contemporary aesthetic
For Lasch, the retreat of ritual is a causal factor in the new cultural narcissism. In his assessment of the state of modern sport and leisure, he argues that games have lost their illusional qualities: ‘Uneasy in the presence of fantasy and illusion, our age seems to have resolved on the destruction of the harmless substitute gratifications that formerly provided charm and consolation’ (109). Lasch cites ‘repeated transgressions’ – pitch invasions, the rising of violent crowds, the failure to resolve competitions in accordance with the expectations of good sportsmanship – that signal a collapse of the boundaries of the field of play. The illusion of the game is thus undermined once ‘[t]he merging of players and spectators, here as in the theatre, prevents the suspension of disbelief and thus destroys the representational value of organised athletics’ (110). What Lasch is effectively describing is the mob’s exclusion from, and consequent interruption of, the aesthetic sphere. Whereas for Sennett, this sphere was characterised by the actorly virtues of the eighteenth-century aristocracy, for Lasch it is the gentlemanly virtues of the sportsman which are given their due: the sports-field is Lasch’s theatre. But if fantasies and illusions of sportsmanship break down, as Lasch insists they have done, is it because society has broken down, or because Lasch’s conception of sportsmanship – and the aesthetic more broadly – is not robust enough to sustain itself meaningfully in the modern world? In keeping with the rubric of this book, we might ask whether Lasch has sufficiently recognised his own narcissistic dependency on an environment of care? For example, we might suggest that with his disdain for mob-like transgressions of the sporting arena, Lasch fails to diagnose the interlocking narcissisms at work in any such scene: there is the boundary confusion of those who wilfully interrupt the field of play and the boundary confusion of those who indulge the illusion of sport with the expectation that it won’t be interrupted. By envisaging mass culture as it explodes onto the field of play with all of its vulgar and a-political literal-mindedness, Lasch infers the return of repressed material with the power to disrupt consciously upheld values. There is, I venture, a reductive understanding of the unconscious implicit in this return, reminiscent of the Victorian’s paranoid conviction that her ‘involuntary emotion’ would betray her social presentation. To be sure, it is not difficult to take a spectator’s delight in witnessing Lasch diagnose modern society as a Victorian gentleman might detect the bad-breeding of a social acquaintance by reading the coarseness of his body language, the embroidery of his cuff, and the shine on his shoe. But neither is it difficult to recognise that his diagnosis is afflicted by a contradiction: Lasch denies the aesthetic to modern culture, and thereafter laments its loss.
We can see this Laschian structure at work in his writing on the literary practices of the 1960s and 1970s which he characterises as broadly confessional in nature, and egregious in their conflation of different genres (political reportage, fiction, journalism and autobiography). Pointing to such era-defining texts as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Norman Mailer’s
Advertisements for Myself, Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Lasch complains that ‘[e]ven the best of the confessional writers walk a fine line between self-analysis and selfindulgence’ (18). The quality of their writing will not save these authors from succumbing to a narcissistic culture in which the category distinction between life and art has been dissolved. Although many of the new writing practices that Lasch criticises are ostensibly playful, he argues that ironic posturing only compounds the waning of belief in the reality of the external world – which is, for Lasch, shorthand for narcissism:
Novelists and playwrights call attention to the artificiality of their own creations and discourage the reader from identifying with the characters. By means of irony and eclecticism, the writer withdraws from his subject but at the same time becomes so conscious of these distancing techniques that he finds it more and more difficult to write about anything except the difficulty of writing. Writing about writing then becomes in itself an object of parody [… ] (96-97)
If the writing subject in the course of his reflexive fictionalising seeks to problematise the idea of an external referent, then he calls into question the very existence of an objective reality. It seems that Lasch cannot tolerate this prospective loss of the object and therefore reads it as the result of an excessive subjectivity. Echoing from Chapter 1 the myth that ‘in the beginning was the harmonious relation’, we might imagine Lasch ready to protest that ‘reality used to exist’. Crucially for Lasch, when the writer neglects his duty to interpret experience he aggravates a cultural climate already marked by the abdication of authority. The writer thus stands as a representative of the contemporary cultural malaise in as much as his narcissistic symptoms – including ironic or cynical detachment, manipulative self-consciousness, his confessional tenor, and the tension between his solipsism and selfelimination – permeate beyond the sphere of artistic production, and typify the inauthenticity and paralysing anxiety of his everyday social relations.