"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 17, 2017

Smashing the Money Changers in the Church of Introverts or: Where is Christopher Lasch When You Need Him?

In high school, my friends and I got hold of a cheap, free personality inventory from some book or other which we all took with great interest, discovering how heavily some of us, myself included, tipped the scaled towards "introversion." It was amusing and interesting, and nothing more.

Since then, it seems we are bombarded more and more with articles and now books about introverts, including a recent one from a publisher I thought somewhat more serious than this: Introverts in the Church by A.S. McHugh, a revised and expanded version of which is apparently coming out in August of this year from Intervarsity Academic Press.

In seeing this listing in IVP's most recent catalogue, I was put in mind of this article which merely confirmed my cynicism that there is nothing that cannot be commodified by the economics of neoliberal capitalism. The author, having delivered herself of an apparently profitable book about introversion, has now set up a "nascent for-profit company, Quiet Revolution (stated mission: 'To unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all')."

That, as Bernard Wooley might say, is one of those irregular verbs:

I unlock the power of introverts
We make an obscene profit exploiting psychological theories of dubious weight
They engage in the "banality of pseudo-self-awareness."

This latter is the memorable phrase of one of the most interesting cultural critics and historians of the late 20th century, who died too early, but not before leaving us a number of important works: Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. I slogged through that book as an undergraduate in psychology in Canada in the early 1990s. I didn't understand half of it, but what a thrilling book that demanded so much of the reader--psychoanalytic theory not uncritically applied, mixed in with heavy doses of Marxist socioeconomic criticism as well, none of it issuing in what one might expect. Lasch defied categories in many ways, not least the one that attempted to portray him as simply indulging in some cheap armchair analysis. He was far too deep and wide-ranging a thinker merely to sprinkle a few psychiatric labels about--but neither, unlike some Marxist critics, was he willing entirely to jettison what psychoanalysis and psychiatry might have to offer. 

Perhaps even more important and prescient than his landmark book on narcissism is a book published precisely two decades before last November's election, the ongoing relevance of which is indicated by the title alone: The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. That book was published posthumously in 1996, Lasch having died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 61.

I think, though, that his most penetrating critical analysis of modern American culture, with its endless eschatological foolishness, remains The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, originally published in 1991. In any and all of these books, Lasch remains, at least for me, the kind of thinker whose ideas regularly pull one back and have considerable staying power. 

In 2010, I was glad at last that Lasch was finally the subject of a serious scholarly biography, which I read with great interest: Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch by Eric Miller.

To be sure, these otherwise repellent profit-makers exploiting "introversion" for their own gain may have an important point to make, but once again Christianity got in first: the necessity of silence and contemplation, of withdrawing from the noisy mob, of untethering ourselves from all the ways we are distracted and fill our heads with endless, and usually very banal, thoughts, of refusing to go along uncritically with the boosterism and faux optimism of businesses and other organizations prone to group think.

In this regard, I await with interest the forthcoming publication next month of Robert Cardinal Sarah's The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (Ignatius, 2017), 248pp.

An earlier history of silence may also be found in Diarmaid MacCulloch's book.

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