Gratification Now Is the Slogan of the '70s, Laments a Historian

updated 07/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Narcissism, named for the Greek god Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection in a pool—and pined away—is the hallmark of the '70s, says historian Christopher Lasch. He has traced the shift from rugged individualism to the so-called "Me Generation" in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, $11.95). A scholarly work that surprisingly made the best-seller list for seven weeks (it will be issued as a Warner paperback in December), Narcissism is Lasch's sixth book; he previously wrote about radicalism in the '60s and the plight of the family. A professor of history at the University of Rochester, Lasch, 47, was born in Omaha; his father was an editorial writer for the Omaha World Herald, and his mother a social worker turned philosophy professor. Lasch graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where his roommate was writer John Updike ("We haven't exchanged letters for several years"), and earned his Ph.D. at Columbia, where he met and married the daughter of historian Henry Steele Commager. Now summering with Nell, 44, and their four children, 14 to 21, in Pittsford, N.Y., Lasch is still bewildered by his bestsellerdom ("I thought the book was difficult, even somewhat forbidding"). While planning his next project (a book about love and the family), he talked with Barbara Rowes for PEOPLE.

Why is the '70s the "Me Decade"?

After the political turmoil of the '60s, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. They seem to wish to forget the riots, the New Left, Vietnam, Watergate and the Nixon Presidency. Now they seem most concerned with their own selves, with psychic self-improvement.

What are the signs of this new attitude?

The values associated with the work ethic—delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, thrift and industry—no longer enjoy wide play. The stress is now on the legitimacy of immediate gratification. People want to get in touch with their feelings, eat health food, take lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immerse themselves in the Wisdom of the East, jog, learn how to relate, overcome "the fear of pleasure." The new value system has shifted from Horatio Alger to the Happy Hooker.

How would you summarize the value system now?

Permissive society is in; guilt and punishment are out. Self-help is in; authority is out. Leisure is in; working is out. Spending is in; saving is out. Selling yourself and role playing are in; craftsmanship is out. Therapy is in; religion is out. Superficiality is in; depth is out. Nonbinding relationships are in; commitments are out. The values of the rock world and Hollywood epitomize the narcissistic culture.

Why did you label this preoccupation with self as narcissism?

Because, as I point out, the concept of narcissism provides us with a tolerably accurate portrait of the "liberated" personality of our time, with his charm, his pseudo-awareness of his own condition, his promiscuous pansexuality, his fascination with oral sex, his fear of a castrating mother like Mrs. Portnoy, his hypochondria, his protective shallowness, his avoidance of dependence, his inability to mourn, his dread of old age and death.

When did this emerge as a significant personality trait?

Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure. In the late 1940s and early '50s, psychoanalysts were confronted more and more with patients who did not have the obsessions and hysteria of Freud's classic neurotic personality. They didn't seem to feel guilty; they functioned pretty well. Their complaints were ill-defined, a sense that life had no meaning. If anything, they suffered from diffused dissatisfaction, boredom, restlessness, anxiety—symptoms of a new character disorder, present in varying degrees in everyone, called narcissism.

How does the narcissist operate?

He wants to grab all the gusto he can before it's too late. Having no confidence in the future, he lives for the moment. He needs others, but sees them as mirrors of himself. At bottom, the narcissist doesn't trust anybody. He regards the world as a dangerous, unreliable place—even his own desires as dangerous and disturbing. That is why he can never be satisfied. Essentially, narcissism is a defense against aggressive impulses rather than self-love.

You say "he," but aren't women equally affected?

Yes, and a society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation. Narcissist parents are very hesitant to push any set of values on their children. They're not even sure what their values are. The immature, narcissistic mother is so barren of spontaneous maternal feelings that she redoubles her dependence on outside advice. She wants to give the child the best, but she doesn't know what the child needs, because she sees the child exclusively as an extension of herself. While being indulged, the child experiences a coolness caused by the parents' self-involvement. The child gets two different, opposing messages.

In the narcissistic culture, what social and economic forces are at play?

A new attitude has undermined the Protestant work ethic. With mass production, labor no longer carries with it the pride of workmanship. Inflation erodes investments and savings. Advertising undermines the horror of indebtedness—buy now and pay later. As the future becomes menacing and uncertain, only fools put off until tomorrow the fun they can have today. Self-preservation replaces self-improvement as the goal of earthly existence.

Why do you call the narcissist the "quintessential consumer"?

The notion that you could become anything really caught on in the '60s—that you could make yourself over: a whole new look, a new personality, even a new face and body. All of this represents consumption, and by his very nature, the narcissist has an insatiable craving for consumption. Without inner resources, he takes on the characteristics of the things he buys. In a real sense, the narcissist Is what he buys.

What determines success today?

Most Americans would still define success as riches, fame and power. But today success has to be ratified by publicity. The narcissist cannot live without an admiring audience. Those who have "made it" crave not fame but the glamor and excitement of celebrity. In our time, when success is largely a function of youth, glamor and novelty, glory is more fleeting than ever; those who win the public's attention worry incessantly about losing it.

In such a world, is the narcissist more likely to succeed?

He has many traits that make for success in bureaucratic institutions which put a premium on manipulating personal relationships—in other words, on charming people. That's really his stock-in-trade. The latest success manuals frankly accept the need to exploit and intimidate others and candidly insist that a "winning image" counts for more than performance. As the "organization man" gives way to the bureaucratic "gamesman," the narcissist comes into his own.

How is his love life?

He feels consumed by his own appetites, which lead him to make inordinate demands on his friends and his sexual partners. Yet in the same breath he repudiates those demands and asks only a casual connection without promise of permanence on either side. He longs for the indifference to human relationships, and to life itself, that would allow him to acknowledge their passing in Kurt Vonnegut's laconic phrase, "So it goes."

Then he would tend to enjoy a brief fling or a one-night stand?

Sure. Moreover, this is encouraged by prevailing cultural values that legitimize these relationships—for example, open marriage. The narcissist has all the natural qualities of a successful playboy. He's witty, charming, vivacious. Any longtime relationship, like a marriage, has periods which require a lot of emotional drudgery and subordination of one's own needs—all of which a narcissist finds very difficult to tolerate.

Did the ferment of the '60s offer an antidote?

On the contrary, it seems clear that the counterculture celebrated many of the values of narcissism—living for the moment, immediate gratification, opposition to the work ethic. What is remarkable is the ease with which society co-opted the counterculture. What yesterday were gestures of rebellion and protest are today the stock-in-trade of advertising.

Might things take a turn for the better?

In America, you're supposed to come up with the answers, like a diet formula. But I have no easy solutions. The will to build a better society, however, survives, along with the traditions of localism, self-help and community action. These traditions only need the vision of a new and decent society to give them new vigor.

How are you coping?

I guess I agree with Freud. The only things worth living for are love and work. I have a family I like to live with and work I enjoy. Every day I make compromises, but I don't know how else to live. Maybe I have a stable life and family because we live here in the provinces. Or maybe I just got lucky.


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