Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christopher and Mark

As a food writer, I felt compelled to go to the film, "Julie and Julia." I was not crazy about it, but it did give me a certain idea, which was to do what Julie did, only with a masterpiece of political theory, The True and Only Heaven, by Christopher Lasch. There are some interesting parallels. This is the last book Lasch published in his lifetime, and one of few that was written as a whole book rather than a collection of articles. At the time he published it, he was almost the age that I am now (58 vs. 60). It is a really long and difficult book that I have started and dropped a lot of times, so doing it in a year would be a the kind of project Julie did. Like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, this book took the author quite a long time -- most of the Reagan and Bush I years -- to finish it. In addition, it is a very challenging book, apt to make both leftists and rightists uncomfortable. Lasch was a man of the left who tended to cross lines in the culture wars and honor the family values of paleo-conservatives. Thus while Mastering the Art... is a very influential book whose time has come and gone; True and Only Heaven is a very respected book whose time of influence has yet to arrive.

Since this is my first entry, let me start with the introduction. It states some of the main themes of the book, in particular a critique of progress. Lasch states that he began his thinking questioning why theorists of the both the left and right were so unwilling to accept limits on economic expansion or other kinds of progress, indeed the limits of the human lifespan itself, in the face of a century in which progress had lead to such disastrous results. The first chapter is about the failure of right and left, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Perhaps the most astonishing statement in the introduction is that Lasch has set his compass toward "petty bourgeois morality." The much-derided views of the lower-middle-class, in the opinion of a man who had spent a lot of his life with Marx and Freud (Lasch's continuing use of Freud, whose reputation today is perhaps even lower than that of petty-bourgeois morality, is a subject of real fascination for me.) provides a historical thread to his examinations -- and Lasch was first and always a historian -- and situates a consciousness of civic responsibility that is neither elitist nor fully egalitarian, skeptical of progressive optimism, yet hopeful of moral improvement.