Christopher Lasch’s 'The Culture of Narcissism': Written about Baby Boomers, Perpetuated by Millennials

Yes, I am reading 'The Culture of Narcissism' on my phone.

Ten months ago, I encountered this uncharacteristically long post in my Facebook feed:

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This passage resonated with me, as do many decontextualized quotations on social media. Wasn’t it Carly Simon who sang, “You’re so vain, you probably think this post is about you”?

The comments that followed revealed this kind of attribution confusion. Luckily, my friend was able to redirect us to the source, a book he was reading by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch, titled The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.

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After following the Wikipedia link he provided, I was surprised to see that the book was published in 1979, and not aimed at myself as a Millennial, but at my parents, the Baby Boomers. Is it possible that I wasn’t always the center of attention?

I quickly purchased the e--book version of The Culture of Narcissism, which I began reading with the tenacity of a twenty-something hoping to vindicate her entire generation by blaming her parents, like the Millennials in the video below.

I read damning passages aloud to my loving parents, who infuriatingly nodded their heads and agreed, for the most part. “That sounds about right,” they would say, encouragingly, as I made futile attempts to lambast their generation.

But as I continued reading, it became harder and harder to believe that Lasch died just three years after I was born. How could a man write, “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity,” and not have been exposed to #YOLO?

When I visited my brother in Los Angeles and noticed he had The Culture of Narcissism in his bathroom, I started to sense a larger trend. He found his copy at a yard sale in Hollywood and picked it up at a time when he was questioning his own narcissism as a musician.

When Lasch writes, “Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience,” he could be describing a Hollywood star just as easily as he could anyone who uses social media.

Although his copy is clearly dated by its beat-up cover, my brother recognizes that “the word 'narcissism' is more loaded than ever,” and that people may be picking up the book again for that reason. He has been surprised by what a conversation-starter it's been amongst his houseguests.

When I went on a mission to buy a hard copy of my own, I found it was not as easy to procure as I'd thought. I asked for The Culture of Narcissism at the Literary Guillotine in Santa Cruz, and the older man helping me referred to it as “that old chestnut." Perhaps it hadn’t been cracked as recently as I assumed it had been? He offered to order a copy for me, but I was still hoping to find a Lasch in the wild.

At City Lights in North Beach, my search turned up empty again. But I was told they had sold nine copies in the first few weeks of January alone, which got me thinking again. In the Haight, I asked around the Booksmith, and though a young clerk had read it, he couldn't find it in stock.

In my search to prove the book was making a resurgence, I found Lee Siegel’s 2010 essay about The Culture of Narcissism for the New York Times. In it, he writes, “The next time you close a book frustrated by the author’s 'pseudo self-insight' or are taken in by someone’s ‘nervous, self-deprecatory humor,’ the next time you find yourself repelled by the general collapse of ‘impulse control’ and by the type of person who ‘sees the world as a mirror of himself,’ you might want to seek solace in Lasch’s illuminations. The personality of his time, it seems, is even more the personality of ours.”

A screenshot from Kelly Williams Brown's TEDx Salem lecture on Millennials, 2014
A screenshot from Kelly Williams Brown's TEDx Salem lecture on Millennials, 2014

While the Baby Boomers were the “Me Generation,” Millennials have been dubbed the “Me Me Me Generation.” This kind of exponential narcissism suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

In the video below, Kelly Williams Brown, the author of Adulting: How to Become A Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, defends Millennials as just another generation grappling with adulthood as it matures. She points out that criticisms of young people remain fairly consistent across generations.

“Gosh, it’s almost just enough to make you feel that hand-wringing trend pieces about the awfulness of the young people are less of a valid cultural or sociological critique and more of an easy trend piece that moves magazine covers,” says Williams Brown. Lasch's well-researched tome falls on the side of valid critique, although it could still be considered inflammatory.

Perhaps the true narcissists are those who refuse “to accept the fact that a younger generation now possesses many of the previously cherished gratifications of beauty, wealth, power and, particularly, creativity,” according to the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, quoted by Lasch. “To be able to enjoy life in a process involving a growing identification with other people’s happiness and achievements is tragically beyond the capacity of narcissistic personalities,” Kernberg continues.

With a definition like that, it's hard to say Baby Boomer parents who continue to support their boomerang children, financially and emotionally, could truly be considered clinical narcissists. Nor could their millennial children who still look to their parents for guidance.

The sociologist Richard Sennett “reminds us that narcissism has more in common with self-hatred than with self-admiration,” writes Lasch. If Millennials are supposedly so much like their parents, maybe it’s time we embrace the narcissist in each of us so that we can coexist.

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If nothing else, we can all agree that Generation Z is going to be the worst.

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