“The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever proposed by one man to another.”
It has become a commonplace to remark about the preoccupation with self that defines our current culture. We know all about the “me generation” and have come to learn that Gen-X, in whom we placed so much hope for the future, is even more preoccupied with themselves than their parents. Christopher Lasch is one of the few thinkers to attempt to understand why this has come about, and he is one of the best minds I have encountered to think with about our cultural condition. He likens our present outlook on our world to that of a POW, especially the inmates of Auschwitz, during the Second World War. As Lasch notes regarding our current malaise, in his remarkable book The Minimal Self:
“People have lost confidence in the future. Faced with an escalating arms race, an increase in crime and terrorism, environmental deterioration, and the prospect of long-term economic decline, they have begun to prepare for the worst, sometimes by building fallout shelters and laying in provisions, more commonly by executing a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world. . . . Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live only one day at a time — these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in a more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of total control.”
According to Lasch, this has given rise to a siege mentality as we embrace a survival ethic — not unlike those in the camps such as Auschwitz who struggled to remain human while they gradually retreated within themselves.
“In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second-hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims — they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. [In contrast, we exhibit] a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending [our own experience], which alone can give meaning [to our lives].”
This is heavy stuff, indeed. As the quote from William James at the top of this page suggests, mere survival for its own sake is hardly a lofty human ideal. What truly matters is what survives — what sort of person or culture. It’s about character and moral fiber, not about breathing in and out for as long as possible. We don’t talk much about character any more, and at present it is certainly the case that the moral high ground seems to have flattened after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr leaving the landscape rather barren, which is something to be deeply regretted. And there are many signs around us that point to our ignorance of the past and loss of hope in the future in our preoccupation with our own present experience. As the ads tell us, “Do It Now!” This attests to the very malaise Lasch describes; his analysis seems to me to be quite plausible.
But he does not despair. He does not see the various movements to save the planet, stop the nuclear arms race, show concern about our shared world, together with the “growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competition” as complete answers, but they do “hold out the best hope for the future.” Though Lasch would not have us abandon hope for radical changes in the political landscape, at present politics does not seem to provide a way out, given the stranglehold those “profoundly undemocratic” corporations have on the political process. None the less, there are things each one of us can do within the limits of our own capacities to mitigate corporate greed and the destruction of the planet, while we seek to restore the moral high ground, reaching out to others and turning our attention toward a world filled with beauty and finding joy in the things and people that surround us — and certainly not abandoning hope in the future altogether. This would allow us to avoid the “survival mentality” of which Lasch speaks and which threatens to suffocate the human spirit.