Thursday, January 21, 2010

Joel Goldsmith

Joel Goldsmith is an enigmatic figure in the history of self-help. While never a real superstar of the movement, his books always had a cult following, and many of them remain in print to this day. His great classic was a slender book called The Infinite Way, which layed out his basic philosophy. Its brevity does not denote ease of reading, however, because it's a dense little volume. After its publication groups emerged all over the US and the world (up until the late 1990s there were still groups meeting here in Sydney) devoted to the study of the book and Goldsmith's philosophy.
He is often characterised as the great modern reformer of Christian Science, and he seemed to have attracted many followers from that camp. My favourite Christian Scientist, Doris Day, was a fan of Goldsmith's work, and claimed to go to sleep every night listening to his tapes.
Certainly Goldsmith's books present a more overtly religious - and by that I mean Christian - aspect than most of the other modern New Thought books. I suspect this is what stopped him from becoming a genuinely popular literary figure. The Jesus talk was simply too unpalatable for the general reader.
That said, once you begin to examine the books' underlying theology you quickly realise that we are not in the realm of mainstream Christianity here. Beside the fact that he was a great advocate of meditation, Goldsmith's own religious life was quite fascinating. he was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, and was educated in a Hebrew School. Quite when he began healing in the name of Jesus no-one knows, but Goldsmith described his emergence as a spiritual leader as a slow process, something that happened in stages until one day he realised that no-one came to see him any longer for business purposes - 100% of his days had been taken up by healing work. Taking this as a sign from God, he allowed his business to go broke and instead set himself up as a fulltime Christian Science practitioner. Later, of course, he was to reject the dogmas of that church, as so many had before him, and instead he established his own school based on similar principles, but allowing its students more intellectual and spiritual freedom.
Much of The Infinite Way seems to be pretty standard Christian Science minus the dogma and the insistence on exclusive truth. Goldsmith was at heart a Universalist, and recognised the name of Jesus as a concept and spiritual symbol more than a defining point of religious difference. He said that we need to develop an exclusively spiritual mindset, and once we did that the world will fall in line with the perfection that is the law of spirit.
To my mind Goldsmith's most readable book was Practising the Presence. Indeed, it is quite beautifully written, an extended meditation on the necessity to be always at prayer, always "showing forth the health, harmony, and wealth, which are our spiritual birthright..." (55).
There is a fascinating (and quite rare) biography written by one of his closest assistants which describes Goldsmith as a "Modern Mystic," and he certainly is entitled to that description.
As an example of mid-20th century self-help, The Infinite Way stands out as being among the most overtly religious in its vocabulary and concepts, but it was a religious view so unorthodox that it separates Goldsmith from those other great populist clergymen Norman Vincent Peale and Fulton J. Sheen.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reviling The Secret

I find it interesting that, six years after its release, The Secret still has the power to excite the emotions of people, especially journalists and commentators. Just a couple of weeks ago the Sydney Morning Herald contained not one but two mentions of The Secret in its weekend edition, both, naturally, condemnatory.
This is fascinating because it proves the immense reach and impact that The Secret has had on our culture - one of the central premises of my thesis, as it happens. The hostility toward it as cultural artefact and popular-religious text also speaks to my other premise, which is that many writers, theorists and commentators have an extremely limited knowledge of the history of religion and of popular literature. If they did even the slightest amount of research in the area they would find much to intrigue them, and they also wouldn't slip so easily into foolish, uniniformed and paternalistic cliches when talking about the genre.
The Secret is, for the most part, a collection of much older texts and ideas re-packaged for a 21st Century audience - interestingly, it largely strips the overt references to theism and Christianity from the writings and and instead re-casts the central tenets of New Thought in a manner much more palatable to a secular readership.
As we know, New Thought, the philosophy that informs The Secret, is not new - it's about 150 years old now, and is loosely based in any case on much older mystical notions that can be found, without much trouble, in the literature of most of the older religions.
Because The Secret has been immensely popular, and because it is targeted so bluntly at a post-literate, short-attention-span kind of audience, it is easy to make fun of it. But to my mind it is a cheap kind of joke, and speaks more of the writer's underlying elitism and lack of knowledge than their rapier-like wit.
In her piece ostensibly slamming the soft-liberal, ecological subtext of the film Avatar, Miranda Devine makes a doozy of an error in equating this kind of philosophy with the ideas that inform The Secret. Even a cursory amount of research would have shown Ms. Devine that New Thought is more closely associated with the rhetoric of libertarianism, individualism and utilitarianism, and explicitly rejects the kind of millenarian ecological rhetoric that underlies Avatar. Most people of Mr. Cameron's political stance find the ideas of The Secret repugnant, re-inforcing as they do the primacy of personal choice and responsibility, independent of identity politics and other broader social movements. If anything, the philosophy of The Secret is almost entirely in line with the liberal neo-conservative values espoused by Ms. Devine herself.
Later on in the paper Tim Dick provides a ho-hum kind of opinion piece in which he offers us his not-very-interesting take on The Secret. In a particularly vitriolic (yet vapid) passage he says:

The only thing Byrne proves is how idiotic our mindless aspirations can make us, and that it is possible for human society to regress. The success of the ''book'' is surely one of the great bafflements of recorded time; that this ''positive'' mumbo-jumbo can top bestseller charts while great works of fiction struggle, even though most fiction is closer to reality despite being entirely made up.

Putting aside the fact that the comparison he makes is pointless, this passage points to his complete dis-connect, not just from the history of religion, but from the history of literature itself. It is no "bafflement" that a book espousing most of the central ideas of modern Western culture should strike a chord with readers, particularly since the dawn of printing such books of popular advice, exhortation and hope have always sold extraordinarily well, and outstripped fiction in both sales and cultural influence.
I am heartened by the fact that self-help attracts critics from all sides of the political spectrum, often for wildly contradictory reasons.
But let's ease up on making cheap observations based on a book you probably haven't read, and a historical cultural movement you've made no effort to research or understand. It's just not funny.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Martha Beck

Martha Beck is a truly fascinating figure in the world of self-help.
I first became aware of her years ago when she wrote an absolutely inspirational book called Expecting Adam, in which she detailed the birth of her beautiful son who happened to have Down's Syndrome. It was a sensitively written, intelligent book, and I became very interested in its author - obviously a woman who could deal with complexities and who had a very delicately honed moral sense.
Soon after Beck re-invented herself as a self-help author, producing a series of books based on her work as a business lecturer and executive coach. I also learned something of her extraordinary background. She was the daughter of a revered Mormon scholar and historian who had grown up in Salt Lake City and had herself been a devout Mormon. The Mormon impulse toward self-help is not, of course, unusual (cf Stephen Covey), and I simply put her down as another Mormon inspirational writer, that sect having taken the Protestant work ethic to its ultimate extreme.
But I always enjoyed her work. As well as being sensible and quite psychologically sound, it expresses a self-deprecating humour and a willing acknowledgement of the real world that is noticeably absent from most American self-help writing. Her brick of a book, Finding Your Own North Star, is these days considered a classic, and groups have been established around the world to study it and to put its exercises and reccomendations in place (there's even a virtual one on Facebook).
A couple of years ago Beck shocked everyone by releasing a book called Leaving the Saints, a searing expose of Mormon paranoia and insularity, and the hypocritical approach to childhood sexual abuse that seems to exist among Mormon communities in Utah. This book was something light years away from her usual stuff (with titles like The Joy Diet), and I wonder how many readers were scarred by unwittingly reading it, expecting some cheery, no-nonsense self-help. In many ways it is a book I felt deeply uncomfortable about while reading, and I do think there are some ethical problems in making such serious allegations in print, particularly when you are a famous, Oprah-appearing author who patently holds the balance of cultural power. That said, it's a darkly fascinating book, and Beck's talent as a writer makes it well worth reading.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Prometheus really should be the God of self-help, being the ultimate creator of humankind, and therefore representative of the creative instinct within each and everyone of us. Our desire to work on ourselves and to re-create our own identities is easily comparable to Prometheus' legend, though there are elements as well of a self-directed Pygmalion impulse - but I don't want to mix my classical references.
So it should be no surprise that self-help should be such a divisive idea, because it would seem that the Promethean idea has always inspired different, and quite opposite reactions in people. There are those who think that Prometheus was a wonderfully inventive rebel, a god determined to stick it to the other gods and create a name for himself. In this pro-Promethean camp I would place all the writers, readers and exponents of self-help. In a book I've just been reading called The Divided Self of William James, author Richard M. Gale describes the fascinating Mr. James as possessing a "Promethean pragmatism."
But others (and Mary Shelley springs to mind here) take the view that Prometheus was an overly-optimistic, monstrously self-obsessed meddler in nature. He had no right to attempt to create a new destiny, all of his attempts being foolish and misguided and ultimately disastrous.