Mary Eberstadt’s recent book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics offers important insights about identity politics. As Luma Simms’s review at Public Discourse noted, Eberstadt makes sense of the sheer emotionalism, a “chronic regression to preadolescent language and behavior,” that marks today’s identitarian struggles. Eberstadt argues that identity politics replaces the lost family, and those who take the identitarian path are wounded children seeking familial wholeness.
And yet, for all its insight, the book’s narrative is too truncated. If the sexual revolution causes identity politics, then we are talking about a story spanning the last sixty years or so, since the Pill was legalized in 1960. However, the modern concern with identity long predates this particular manifestation of identity politics.
Consider some of the following testimonies from before 1960. As I have treated elsewhere, the 1956 novel Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is an extended portrait of a “faceless” narcissist, who does not know who she is or is meant to be. In 1963, Betty Friedan criticized 1950s suburban culture as leading to a loss of “a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I’. . . .” Likewise, Roberto Calasso has proposed, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the insubstantiality of secular man becomes widespread “around 1950 in the United States.” Eberstadt draws on Christopher Lasch’s treatment of cultural narcissism, which he correctly understands to be the loss of identity. But Lasch himself used the work of psychoanalysts who were witnessing a move from neuroses to personality disorders (such as narcissism) already in the 1940s. Eberstadt’s thesis does not lend itself to explaining these earlier manifestations of the “primal scream” of identity loss.
Eberstadt on Eberstadt: Secularization
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In order to fill out Eberstadt’s lacunae, I turned to someone whose writing is equally crystalline but who provides more explanatory tools. I mean, of course, Mary Eberstadt.
In her 2013 book, How the West Really Lost God, Eberstadt introduces a rich, clarifying image: the “double helix” of faith and family. They are “two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.” This double helix gives the earlier Eberstadt a flexible yet powerful metaphor to explain the interrelationship of family and faith. It allows for the possibility that the causal influence can work both ways: that the loss of faith might lead to the loss of family, as well as the other way around.
The double-helix thesis also gives Eberstadt’s earlier argument a longer timeline, because she is explaining secularization, not only the quite recent phenomenon of virulent identity politics. She can thereby provide a more textured explanation that takes into account nineteenth-century industrialization and urbanization. She can provide a more historically accurate definition of “the sexual revolution” as well, noting that divorce was first liberalized by the Protestant reformers and that, based on declining birthrates, contraceptive use among some populations is evident in the nineteenth century.
But where is the double helix in Primal Screams? While How the West Really Lost God traces secularization from early modernity, Primal Screams sees identity loss as a purely recent phenomenon. By limiting the topic of identity to identity politics, Primal Screams is forced to reconfigure the causal dynamics not as a double helix but as a one-way street. Thus, while it allows in theory for multiple causes of identitarianism, it can in fact only point to the sexual revolution of 1960.
But surely a widespread loss of a sense of self also helps to explain the ready acceptance of the sexual revolution, to invent oneself through sexual activity. Mark Lilla’s response to Eberstadt calls out the causal rigidity. Lilla himself highlights Zygmunt Bauman’s postulate of a “liquid modernity,” evident since the 1940s. Here the causality seems to be reversed: liquid modernity privileges identity fluidity in the breakdown of “solids” such as class and family, leading to “liquid love.”
Secularization and Identity-Loss
How might the earlier Eberstadt correct her most recent account? By noting the causal arrow from the sexual revolution to identity politics, while seeing that relationship itself as part of the larger history of secularization, which is bound up with identity loss. In fact, it is in part this identity-loss that drives people to create an identity out of sexual behavior (as Friedan, of all people, recognized, at least in her first edition of The Feminine Mystique).
Pre-modern man had resources for answering the question “Who am I?”—most notably the family. The lack of economic and geographic mobility also gave a sense of belonging and an identity. Even more important, pre-modern man knew his relationship to the divine. This “solidity,” as Bauman calls it, endured somewhat into early modernity, but it began to be challenged in key ways.
In its rejection of classical metaphysics, modern thought dismissed the full metaphysical depth found within creation in favor of the instrumentalization of the exterior world. Francis Bacon reduces Aristotle’s four causes to two, material and efficient causes, a dismissal that is continued in Descartes’s quest for useful knowledge. The statue is made out of marble, and Michelangelo made it. What was lost was formal and final causality: reflection on the kind of thing the statue is (form) and to what it is ordered (its “end”).
At the risk of a possible flight to abstraction, formal and final causality had enabled Judeo-Christian believers to conceive the world as something that expressed the mind and will of a loving Creator and was ordered to him. With the loss of forms and ends, the world “out there” (the Cartesian res extensa) is reduced to something to be measured and managed, not understood and loved. It is chaotic and arational, in need of being controlled by the conscious subject (Descartes’s res cogitans). As Kenneth Schmitz puts it, “As the fundamental and unshakable basis and center of all meaning, value, and reality, the self [in modernity] assumed the role of issuing credit to reality. . . .”
This apotheosis is simply too much for the human self, which is not given such infinitely creative powers. It buckles under the weight. The dust of the collapse of the self took some time to settle; I would argue that the effects did not saturate society until the twentieth century. But the consequences can be discerned, here and there, and eventually everywhere.
As Leo Damrosch insightfully presents, the figure of James Boswell (1740–1795) gives us an early example of the modern identity crisis. The unfortunate Boswell, best known as the eager chronicler of Samuel Johnson’s every move, was also fascinated with himself, as his detailed diaries prove. These journals reveal a man who is adrift, loosed from previous social scripts but unable to create a self ex nihilo. “I have discovered,” he writes after arriving in London, “that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose.” He has delusions of grandeur; he wants to be wise and witty. Yet he compulsively visits prostitutes and has all the marks of a sex addict. (The first two listings in Damrosch’s index on Boswell are “afflicted with gonorrhea” and “alcohol as consumed by.”) He ricochets between the two extremes of identity loss identified by Walker Percy: “angelism” (a Gnostic otherworldliness) and “bestialism” (the indulgence of base appetites).
Modernity: The Social Self vs. the Authentic Self
Boswell is an early example of someone who has tasted the early breakdown of “solid modernity,” in which old class-based ways of answering the identity question are being replaced by newer approaches oriented toward authenticity. These alternatives are also captured by Rousseau’s distinction between amour-propre (the self-regard that flows out of concern for social relations and other’s opinions) and amour de soi (self-love beginning in self-preservation and perfected in authenticity).
Let’s take amour-propre first. By the eighteenth century, others’ opinions played a greater role in the formation of the self than they did previously. In modernity, others’ opinions are often all there is. What else could there be? As Lasch puts it poignantly, for the contemporary narcissist, “the self consists of little more than its ‘image’ reflected in others’ eyes.”
Is amour de soi the solution? Authenticity has been ascendant ever since Rousseau, although amour-propre is not going anywhere. But the authenticity answer only raises the question: How in the world can I find my authentic self?
In modernity, both authenticity and the social self are inherently this-worldly affairs. The formation of the self is no longer a transcendent project, one that begins and ends in God’s project for oneself and the world. It is instead something for which I alone am responsible. Or as Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s paean to individualism puts it, “It is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself.” This is the new dynamic of secular modernity.
Post-Modern Identity Loss
The paradoxical destruction of the self through its apotheosis accelerates in the nineteenth century, seen in Feuerbach’s insistence that man must find in himself all that he erroneously seeks in God. Those who soon follow after, in particular the “masters of suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—are inclined to inflate man by hollowing him out. So Nietzsche argues that the will to power constitutes the deep structure of the world, in place of “that little changeling, the ‘subject.’” Such moves lead in a direct line to the contemporary, academic version of the identity question: the “death of the subject” in twentieth-century postmodern thought.
A representative example is Louis Althusser (1918–1990). Althusser believed that Marx and Freud pulled the curtain away from human agency to show that the human “subject” is ensconced in a web of forces, and it is only these forces that exercise agency. Against the Cartesian conscious self, Freud portrays the self as riven with unconscious desires. Marx undercuts the socio-economic subject by unveiling the ideological and class structures that are formative and prior. According to Althusser, the idea of a unified human subject “is quite simply the philosophical form of the bourgeois ideology that has dominated history for five centuries. . . .” Bourgeois ideology requires the hallucination of unified subjects who function within that ideology. Althusser grasps the nettle of identity loss by embracing it as the necessary price for the demystification of ideological forces. He seems to be unaware that this is a program for cultural narcissism.
Identity as Received, Not Constructed
Hence, Mark Lilla’s own solution—more modernity—is simply more of the hair of the dog that bit you. In advocating more Enlightenment rationalism, he evinces a naïveté about how we got here in the first place. The best that secularism can offer is the self-construction of identity, using whatever you can find lying about, as seen in Rousseau’s two kinds of self-love. We don’t need to experiment for another few centuries to see if those options might suddenly start to work better.
Primal Screams elides this larger history, but Eberstadt’s work on secularization, in particular her double helix, provides the missing piece: the breakdown of the family as both the cause and effect of larger social breakdown. After the most recent sexual revolution, this leads to the acute identity loss that screams primally around and within us.
The modern problem of identity long predates identity politics. Its beginning is simultaneous with the beginning of secularism, because secularism takes away the only sure basis for personal identity—the will of God for me as his creature. We are witnesses to the deterioration of secular self-construction, right down to contemporary narcissism. Receiving my identity from a transcendent source, on the other hand, escapes such futility and anchors my reality in eternity.