Christopher Lasch and David Foster Wallace

I’m glad someone else has put those two names together. Margaret Soltan, over at Inside Higher Ed, quotes Julian Hough’s piece, in which Hough suggested that Wallace’s psyche was ill-equipped for survival in academia, and mentions Lasch’s criticism of academic culture.

I don’t know enough about academic life to say whether it really is such an “enervating, disconnected form of life” (it looks pretty boffo to me), but I thought of Lasch when I read Wallace’s much-linked Kenyon commencement address:

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. [my bold]

Reading the address, with its soothing familiarity, felt like an evening drive through familiar countryside. Until that phrase, which felt like the transmission dropping out. While I agree with Wallace that a good liberal education can help one escape the “default setting” and the rat race, the alienation he mentions in that final phrase is not part of the underexamined life — it’s part of the human condition.

Now, over to the new incarnation of Postmodern Conservative, where Ivan Kenneally brings up Lasch in a very different context:

By time he got to his much later work, in particular The Revolt of the Elites (1995), Lasch saw that the modern project of rational mastery was a rejection of the pemanent human experience of alienation, or of the permanent need for human beings to experience some measure of melancholy and pain in an environs we only find partially hospitable to our being.