Love in a Hopeless Place: In Memory of Christopher Lasch

By James Jiang



This Valentine’s Day marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the death of the American historian and cultural critic, Christopher Lasch. Best known for The Culture of Narcissism (1979), a trenchant critique of the therapeutic sensibility that had supplanted religious conscience and political conviction as the cornerstone of American social thought, Lasch would seem an odd figure to invoke on this particular saint day. But by the mid-eighties, Lasch had begun conceiving of a project tentatively titled The Domestication of Eros, which he described as an attempt “to trace the interconnections between the modern ideology of intimacy, the new domestic ideal of the nineteenth century, and feminism”. This project was still incomplete when Lasch died of cancer at the age of sixty-one (in the months leading up to his death, he had been busy finalizing the manuscript for his final book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy). The closest thing we have to The Domestication of Eros is a posthumous collection of essays entitled Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism (1997), edited by his daughter and historian in her own right, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn.

Lasch was that most paradoxical of creatures: a populist intellectual. If anything, his writings, which had as a constant theme la trahison des clercs, tended to exacerbate the tension between populism and intellectualism. The son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a professor of psychology and philosophy, Lasch kept one foot within the academy as an historian and one foot without by publishing most of his work in non-specialist venues such as The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Commonweal, and The Partisan Review. He had a tendency to criticize academic historians for being insufficiently engaged or “activist”. As Robert Westbrook observed in his American Historical Association obituary for his University of Rochester colleague:

Lasch rarely attended annual meetings. And when he did so, it was to say such things as “The political culture of modern societies consists largely of an implicit argument about the past, and it is the job of historical criticism to make that argument explicit and to point out the political consequences that follow … For a variety of reasons—professional caution, political indifference or despair, doubts about their ability to make themselves understood by a broader public, the embarrassment of taking ideas seriously—historians have retreated from their role as social critics”.

But Lasch was just as critical of the “action intellectuals”, a term coined by the journalist Theodore H. White in 1967 to denote the academics and intellectuals (so-called “the best and the brightest”) who acted as advisors to the Kennedy administration (not much seems to have changed on this front: where JKF had his Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Obama had his Larry Summers). Yet in the kind of irony that became increasingly characteristic of his own career as a public intellectual, Lasch was invited to dine at the White House with Jimmy Carter after the unexpected success of The Culture of Narcissism, a meeting which gave rise to the infamous “crisis of confidence” (also known as the “malaise”) speech Carter delivered to the nation on July 15 and which Reagan used to great effect in winning the presidential election the following year. (The Culture of Narcissism could thus be said to have not only prefigured neoliberalism, but also been partially responsible for its political triumph.)



The part of Lasch’s legacy that gets most readily overlooked—his work on love, marriage, feminism, and the family—is also its most contentious. As Lasch-Quinn writes in her introduction to Women and the Common Life, Lasch was “writing about women well before the field of women’s history came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s” and did so not “as a sideline to the rest of history” but as an enterprise that was “inseparable from cultural history as a whole”. This historiographical point (as well as Lasch’s pioneering work on Jane Addams, for example) may be hard to keep in focus when one comes across statements like this in Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Beseiged (1977):

The trouble with the feminist program is not that economic self-sufficiency for women is an unworthy goal but that its realization under existing economic conditions would undermine equally important values associated with the family.

His target in that book, it should be said, was not feminism per se, but what he called “the socialization of reproduction”, that is, the outsourcing of the “complex and delicate task” of “mak[ing] the individual want to do what he has to do” from parents to professionals and experts.  He had “trouble with the feminist program” to the degree that it left this process at the mercy of the “helping professions” (educators, psychiatrists, social workers, and penologists), whom he saw as the long therapeutic arm of the modern liberal-capitalist state. Patriarchy was bad, but the paternalism of the managerial and professional elite (“paternalism without father”) was, according to Lasch, much worse.

The tutelary spirit in Haven was not Coventry Patmore then, but Max Weber, the great theorist of disenchantment and bureaucratic rationalism. Weber’s influence is also there in Lasch’s title for his unfinished project, The Domestication of Eros, in which “domestication” was intended to mean both a bringing into the home and a bringing to heel. His work from Haven to Women and the Common Life evinces a steadfast interest in the history of marriage and its relationship to romantic love (an interest that gives some substance to what he meant by “equally important values associated with the family”). Here’s a typically incisive passage from Haven:

The fashionable talk of marriage as an art conveyed a conception of marriage and the family that derived not so much from aesthetics as from science and technology—in particular, from the science of healing. When marriage experts said that marriage represented the art of personal “interaction,” they meant that marriage, like everything else, rested on proper technique: the technique of stage-managing quarrels, the technique of mutual agreement on how much adultery the marriage could tolerate, the technique of what to do in bed and how to do it. The new sex manuals, which began to proliferate in the twenties and thirties, provided merely the most obvious example of the rationalization of the emotional life in the interest of psychic health. Marriage experts saw “illusion,” fantasy, inner life as threats to stability and equilibrium. They proposed to save marriage at the expense of private life, which they simultaneously expected marriage to foster. Their program eroded the distinction between private life and the marketplace, turning all forms of play, even sex, into work. Thus “achievement” of orgasm … required not only proper technique, but effort, determination, and emotional control.

For counsellors to refer to “the art of marriage”, then, was a kind of double-speak, a way of mystifying the demystificatory regimes of scientific self-adjustment by which the erotic life was being routinized.

Toward the end of his life, Lasch increasingly turned towards art, and literature in particular, as he tried to trace the steps back from the twentieth century’s “revulsion against romantic love”. The essays collected in Women and the Common Life show Lasch in the act of attending to the medieval chivalric poem, Le Roman de la Rose, in an attempt to reconstruct the historical origins of the debate over “the woman question” (querelle des femmes) and to Boccaccio’s Decameron in an appreciate review of Jean H. Hagstrum’s Esteem Enlivened by Desire: The Couple from Homer to Shakespeare (1993). Hagstrum’s work in excavating “a countertradition, already present in Homer’s account of the homecoming that concludes the Odyssey,” in which esteem and desire were unified in an “erotic ideal,” offered Lasch a valuable counterpoint to the “ideology of ‘nonbinding commitments’” as well as the demoralizing psychological rubric that pathologized spontaneous romantic impulses in favour of attachments of a distinctly lower emotional temperature (those based on prudence and psychic stability). One of the greatest victims of “an age of diminishing expectations” was the idea that eros could, after all, prove a civilizing passion.

In a perceptive review of Women and the Common Life for the New York Times, Andrew Delbanco observed:

In defending this “union of desire and esteem” [that he finds in Hagstrum’s “countertradition”], Lasch reveals himself as a true puritan—not in the pejorative sense of being prudish, but in the sense of believing that good societies (on the small scale of families and the large scale of political communities) can be sustained only if desire is sanctified by respect. This is why the New England Puritans (to whom Lasch grew increasingly sympathetic as he grew older) thought of marriage as a “miniature commonwealth,” a model for human relations in which appetite and obligations are held in delicate balance.

As I had cause to discover over the course of a summer in which I attended three weddings, anyone who doubts the rich vein of Puritan literature on love and marriage need look no further than John Milton. Milton, of course, was the author of the divorce tracts in which he argued that spiritual incompatibility furnished a more compelling reason to grant divorce than adultery. But he was also the poet of “conjugal attraction unreproved,” capable of imagining Adam and Eve “imparadised in one another’s arms/ The happier Eden … enjoy[ing] their fill/ Of bliss on bliss.” These lines come from Book IV of Paradise Lost (1667), a multi-book epic which doesn’t often come up when you type “wedding poem” into a search engine. Yet its every rift is loaded with quotable ore.

These lines, I think, offer fitting tribute to Lasch’s work on modern and pre-modern conceptions of erotic and marital intimacy. Milton has put these words into the mouth of Satan who feels his fallen state all the more acutely in view of this blissed out couple. Let me quote the passage in full:

“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines …”

Read in light of Lasch’s oeuvre, Satan here seems to express with almost prophetic force the crisis of the narcissistic personality in the face of a romantic ideal no longer in his reach.