Christopher Lasch was a confused and confusing cultural and political thinker, and The True and Only Heaven (1978) is not a good book, full of misappropriated intellectual ideas used in service of a fairly reductive and conservative attack on progressive thinking and cultural politics. (Albert Hirschman’s three reactionary tropes of perversity, futility, and jeopardy are on display throughout.) Lasch’s wide intellectual canvas, which incorporates Blumenberg and Löwith as well as Carlyle and Sorel, makes his simplistic agenda all the more regrettable.
But the introduction, which gives the personal background for how he came to such grouchy views, is rather touching and worth reading.
Like so many of those born in the Depression, my wife and I married early, with the intention of raising a large family. We were part of the postwar “retreat to domesticity,” as it is so glibly referred to today. No doubt we hoped to find some kind of shelter in the midst of general insecurity, but this formulation hardly does justice to our hopes and expectations, which included much more than refuge from the never-ending international emergency.
In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with families and friends. My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which could no longer be found in politics or the workplace.
We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing children and adults— that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education.
We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by—joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship—they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.
Our failure to educate them for success was the one way in which we did not fail them—our one unambiguous success. Not that this was deliberate either; it was only gradually that it became clear to me that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success.
The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, than devoted service to a calling—an old story, perhaps, except that now it was complicated by the further consideration that most of the available jobs and careers did not inspire devoted service in the first place.
Diplomacy, really? That makes me smile.
And yet from this he drew the wrong lesson, blaming the failure of his children to integrate themselves into the world successfully (he says as much) on changing social mores, rather than on the “old story” he even cites above. He dismissively says:
Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights; denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression; denunciation of “patriarchy”; denunciation of “working-class authoritarianism.”
Well, as someone who believes in some of the above, I can say that the sort of “extended family” he cites is not incompatible with them. But perhaps he saw his children rebelling and couldn’t distinguish the youthful urge to reject everything from the necessary push for social justice at the same time. It was probably something that was difficult to assess while it was going on. But it’s been 50 years and I think we can separate out what is and is not compatible with his happy vision above.