The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, by Christopher Lasch. New York: W. W. Norton. 317 pp. $16.95. In ``The Minimal Self,'' Christopher Lasch states that he wants to set straight the critics of his previous book, ``The Culture of Narcissism.'' Resuming his diagnosis of the psychic ills of contemporary America, Lasch argues that paperback therapists have helped to dangerously undermine the necessary distinctions between the self, the world of man-made objects, and nature. In his view, identity -- that conjunction of the self in relation to a world maintained over time -- is imperiled. To paraphrase Yeats, the world of things is literally falling apart and so is our sense of a psychic center.
But all is not lost, Lasch feels -- not yet, at least. Rather than go back to nature or into space (inner or outer), Lasch suggests the solution lies in rereading Freud.
Lasch criticizes watered-down Freudians as well as life-as-game theorists and psycho-cyberneticists of all shades for their failure to face up to Freud's own unrelished conclusion: Psychoanalysis was not meant to be a panacea or placebo. Lasch finds the rational everyday unhappiness Freud promised analysis could deliver preferable to the varieties of neuroses proliferating in these voraciously consumptive United States.
Lasch derides the consequences of high-tech consumption: the predominance of image over substance, technique over practice, and the momentary over recollection and reflection. He also lays into the ``survivor mentality,'' criticizing the glib gurus of many persuasions who feed off crisis-mongering media, which, in turn, give us not information, insight, or interpretation, but simply headline-grabbing histrionics.
In the last chapter of this provocative book, Lasch lays down a typology of contemporary social critics in Freudian terms. The superegoists (authority figures), he says, are obsessed with law and order and thrive on instilling fear -- without thinking about the nasty consequences of loathing. The id-ites (impulsives) are those liberal right-thinking sorts who, in the 1960s, wanted to ``go back to nature'' but who now advocate outer-space exploration. The ego trippers, with whom Lasch aligns himself, are on precarious roads of reason.
Lasch's own banner bears an odd word: ``phronesis.'' He writes, ``The antidote to instrumental reason [read high-tech peripatetics] is practical reason, not mysticism . . . or the power of `personhood.' In the Aristotelian tradition of political theory phronesis or practical reason describes the development of character, the moral perfection of life, and the virtues specific to various forms of practical activity.''
Readers may feel they've seen bits and pieces of Lasch's critique and homily before, but I, for one, enjoyed and benefited from his lucid, intelligent arguments.
Lasch reminds us that ``the older tradition [of practical reason], now almost forgotten, holds that the choice of means appropriate to a given end has to be considered, as it contributes to internal goods as well. In other words, the choice of means has to be governed by their conformity to standards of excellence designed to extend human capacities for self-understanding and self-mastery.''
Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside campus.