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.

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