Friday, October 30, 2009
One of the most legendary books in the history of the self-help genre is Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life. Originally self-published, it went on to become a mammoth bestseller and the source of Ms. Hay's business and publishing empire. And, in more recent years, it has broken new ground by becoming the first self-help book to be turned into a full-length motion picture.
The book is pretty much run-of-the-mill New Thought. At the time of its writing Louise Hay was a popular Science of Mind minister, and her book and career would probably have faded into obscurity under normal circumstances. But something extraordinary happened. The AIDS crisis began, and Louise Hay, with her slightly raunchy and matter-of-fact manner, her mysterious background and her frank acceptance of gay and lesbian people, became the spiritual inspiration to thousands of men who were dying from that terrible disease. Suddenly, Hay and her little book were an intrinsic part of a social and cultural moment that caught up some of the greatest and most creative minds of a generation. Leading her famous "Hay Ride" healing sessions which were packed to the rafters with gay men, Louise Hay became the first major religious figure who addressed the AIDS problem directly, and treated people with AIDS with dignity and compassion. Hers was a lone voice for some years, and her personal bravery and integrity have been, I feel, forgotten in recent years. In the early 80s very few people were saying it was alright to be gay, and this elderly lady-minister, with her old-fashioned New Thought ideas and quaint little book, was a lonely voice in the wilderness.
You Can Heal Your Life became mainstream, of course, and was for many years - and remains - a bestseller. Hay was one of the first to see the possibility of new forms of media, and released many cassettes of her meditations and other work.
The book is beautifully, if simply, written, and Hay has a great gift for getting her ideas across. She has been criticised and lampooned mercilessly over the years, but she has gone from strength to strength, becoming a powerful publishing industry tycoon with her own company Hay House, which has made the careers of many others in the self-help and metaphysical fields.
Indeed, Hay has never really written another book - her entire philosophy was so succinctly and so prefectly expressed in You Can Heal Your Life. Other books have been printed, but they are really just transcriptions of her talks and workshops, as any avid listener to her audio material can soon discover.
It makes for fun reading, and is frequently outrageous. She uses a male prostitute as an example of how to apply prosperity thinking, for example, and she suggests that people should masturbate when they feel a migraine coming on. The book consciously addresses itself to actors, artist, writers and other creative types, proving that Ms. Hay, writing from LA, knew who her core clientele would be.
But the fact remains that it is one of the most seminal and culturally influential self-help books ever to be written, and new generations of readers are constantly discovering it. Her simple prose and clear thinking make the book much more accessible than other New Thought classics, and her message of love and self-acceptance seems to continue to strike a chord in the public imagination.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
One of the most substantial studies of self-help books, and certainly the most recent, is Micki McGee's engaging Self-Help, Inc.
McGee is an academic, and takes a thoroughly academic approach to her analysis of self-help books. Her critique seems to be informed by Marxist theory, and he basic thesis is that self-help books mostly encourage workers to accept poor wages and working conditions, and to blame themselves for these material shortcomings.
While I don't necessarily agree with McGee's thesis (though she certainly argues it convincingly, and I think that many of her assertions are valid), I love her passion for the genre, and the degree to which it fascinates her.
The book is well-written, and superbly referenced and argued. As an academic resource it is faultless, and is certainly the main critical reference point for my own PhD.
McGee is most interesting when she talks about the different ways work is conceived in the literature of self-help. Along with Weber (who she seems to have a real understanding of), she says that the older Western notions of religious vocation and calling were transferred in the Protestant world to the areas of work and moneymaking. She sees mystical overtones in Nelson Bolles' What Colour is Your Parachute, and provides an interesting analysis of Julia Cameron and The Artist's Way (a book that interests me because of its overtly religious rhetoric).
McGee sees the growth in popularity of self-help as a negative thing, reflecting an increasingly solipsistic tendency in the Western mind. People who may once have committed themselves to social causes and societal change instead focus on transforming themselves, a work which is all-consuming and never-ending.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
In the course of organising my research I have put together a list of books that quite plainly constitute a canon of self-help literature. Any attempt to discuss the genre necessarily means that I must be familiar with all of the books on the list. I call it my "Classics List," and whenever I have a spare moment I am always working away at it, absorbing the thoughts of the most successful self-help authors of the past three centuries.
One of those classics is, of course, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. It was one of the books that defined the 90s, and I still remember going to the gym and seeing people with the book propped open at the treadmill while they did their obligatory kilometres. At that stage I was highly dismissive of self-help books (I was only 21), and I sneered at the sweating 30-somethings intent on their self improvement.
When I actually read it, I found it quite interesting and helpful. Of course, I have heard all the stories about the author, Stephen Covey, and his right wing political links and rank homophobia. Once a lesbian friend caught me reading it and she demanded to know what I was doing "reading that Mormon bigot?"
A little essay in the universality of self-help ideas is the example of how once I attended a talk by an Ananda Marga monk and he set forth the 7 Habits as enunciated by Covey as a perfect example of the practical application of Tantric philosophy.
Self-help academic and critic Micki McGee identifies Covey's brand of rhetoric as particularly masculinist, and points out the tortuous circles Covey ties himself in in order to disguise his peculiarly theistic - indeed, Mormonistic - worldview.
In a recent essay appearing in the Human Relations journal, John G. Cullen presents a fascinating analysis of Covey's success, identifying The 7 Habits... as a kind of secret religious propaganda, re-packaging quite distinct spiritual ideas in the language of management and success.
Probably Covey's most lasting contribution to popular culture is his introduction of the word "paradigm" into popular parlance. Where would pontificating CEOs and politicians, not to mention earnest undergrads, be without that particular well-worn buzzword?
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I've been reading a rather jaundiced critique of self-help called Self-Help Nation, by one Tom Tiede.
There is a whole sub-genre of books criticising self-help books, Steve Salerno's fascinating SHAM being the most recent example. I find it interesting that most of these critics seem to come from the right of the political spectrum, though in general those people vehemently opposed to self-help come from all sides of politics. It must just be the conservatives who can cultivate enough wrath to get it all down on paper.
Mr. Tiede's book is quite a good read, apart from the inexplicable inclusion of his poetry, which I naturally skip. Oh, the inordinate vanity of authors who imagine that its ok to slip some of their sup-par poetry into a work of non-fiction. He can be funny, though he can also drag the joke on for rather too long. And while I concede that self-help writing does indeed represent a rich mine of things to make fun of, I do think it is rather a soft target. Mr. Tiede's complete contempt for the books he is analysing is, to my mind, a rather too-easy pose, requiring the author not to think too seriously about the texts he is condemning.
His criticism is quite standard - that self-help books are unrealistic and cause a dangerously overblown set of expectations to rise up in the hearts of the readers. He says they are too simplistic, and is fascinated by the semi-magical numerology of self-help solutions: four steps to relationship success, seven days to true riches etc. He also includes a rather peculiar chapter in defence of addiction, which I quite enjoyed if only for its sheer audacity and lack of political correctness.
But occasionally he makes statements that are downright offensive and simply stupid - declaring, for example, that he'd rather be leading a poverty stricken existence in Burkina Faso than earning a living advocating self improvement. He also gives away rather more than I think he intended, providing a fascinating insight into his psyche, and the reasons why he finds the ideas of self-help so threatening that he had to write a whole book condemning them. In a particularly touching passage he writes about his own problematic relationship with his father, and ironically it is at this moment of tenderness, honesty and self-confession that he is at his literary best.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
One of the most popular forms of New Thought thinking, and one of the most controversial, is that of Prosperity Spirituality. The idea that cultivating a spiritual life can lead to material riches has always been a fundamental part of New Thought philosophy, and is what sets New Thought apart from standard Christian theology more than anything else.
The Prosperity Spirituality probably reached its apotheosis in the books of Catherine Ponder. Books like The Millionaire from Nazareth set out a new vision of Christianity that rejects the glorification of poverty and instead urges the reader to "give your attention to the science of acquiring wealth."
As much as the religious mainstream likes to make fun of these ideas, there is no denying that they are enormously attractive to the average reader/churchgoer, as is evidenced by the continued popularity of material espousing a Prosperity Spirituality. Certainly The Secret is a part of this tradition, containing as it does quote after quote from more contemporary writers and speakers advocating the power of thought to create good material circumstances.
True to her training in the New Thought tradition, Louise Hay has also always advocated the cultivation of prosperity, and defines prosperity according to health, happiness and spiritual contentment, along with the possession of objects. This is, of course, always the ultimate answer to those who might challenge the morality of Prosperity Spirituality - the greatest evidence of prosperity is a warmth and generosity of spirit, and who would seek to begrudge these?
The implication of the Prosperity Spirituality books seems to be that if we seek to be more spiritual and cultivate a truly spiritual existence, then prosperity can never be far behind. It is merely the outcome of correct living and positive states of mind. For in being spiritual, we simply release, as Catherine Ponder says, "the Divinity that is within you which is never poor."
Monday, October 5, 2009
I've been reading, and really enjoying, the new Wayne Dyer book Excuses Begone for a while now. I am quite impressed with it. It strikes me as quite a spiritually mature book, with real depth and insight, in spite of its whimsical title. One of my friends, when he saw me reading it, burst out laughing and said it should have been called Get Thee Behind Me, Excuses!
The fact is that it is nicely written and well set-out and argued. This alone sets it apart from many of the self-help books that are released with great haste and little quality control. I understand that Dyer is a committed and methodical writer with a strict discipline that includes meditation, spiritual reading and prayer along with his daily writing.
The book is really a very old-fashioned example of New Thought, and Dyer's interests and expressions become increasingly spiritual as he gets older. While reading through it to garner quotes for a seminar I was presenting I was actually quite struck by its overtly theistic emphasis, and wondered at how an average reader might take such references.
As I've mentioned in this blog before, Dyer is an exceedingly likeable man, and his humility and self-deprecation are a part of his style. I am surprised when I search the net and find so much vitriol directed at him, mostly on the part of sceptical anti-self-help journalists who have obviously never carefully read what the man is actually saying. A huge part of his message is the fact that he is a deeply flawed human being whose life has been filled with exactly the sorts of problems and setbacks that plague us all. I was particularly appalled by the criticisms of the poor man based on his failed marriages. In recent years his wife has left him, and many seem to see this as some sort of judgement on his books and their message. Go figure. If anything, such tribulations stand testament to his overarching message, which is that problems beset us all constantly, and we can only lead a happy and fulfilled life if we keep carrying on regardless of external circumstances.
In Excuses Begone he spends a lot of time discussing Thomas Troward, who is one of the venerable ancestors of the New Thought movement. I'm glad that Dyer has resurrected him, and hope that a whole new generation of readers will re-discover this charming writer, who was one of the bestselling authors of his day.
And, of course, the book is filled with practical tips for avoiding the inertia of an excuse-filled life, urging us to keep our dreams alive, keep journals, and follow websites that excite and encourage us in working toward our goals.
I have found it an inspiring, readable and useful book, and would recommend Excuses Begone! to even the most hard-headed cynic.