Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Emma Curtis Hopkins

Probably the most famous obscurity in the history of self-help literature, Emma Curtis Hopkins (1849-1925) is known as "the teacher of teachers" and was responsible for the training of many of the stellar figures in the New Thought movement.

A quiet, reclusive wopman, Hopkins had for a time been Mary Baker Eddy's right-hand woman. Eddy banished her, however, when Hopkins made it clear that she would not become a mindless devotee. Never one to brook opposition, Mrs. Eddy became furious when she learned that Hopkins was devising some of her own ideas, and so caused the division which would help shape a whole new movement (New Thought) and probably, ulitimately, guaranteed the eventual obscurity and decline of Christian Science.

While she always propagated the general ideas of Christian Science, Emma Curtis Hopkins was much more committed to ideas of personal choice and individual free will, and lacked Eddy's famously dogmatic personality. Travelling from city to city, Hopkins would set up shop in a genteel hotel and set about teaching lessons in 'Christian Healing' to select groups of students. In this quiet way she lived out her life, earning a living from teaching her lessons and spending much of her time alone and in prayer.

Painfully shy, Hopkins (who had left her husband years ago in order to follow Mary Baker Eddy) spent most of her time her room, occasionally releasing a book. These books were extraordinarily dense and difficult to read (inspired, most probably, by the style of her great mentor), but their subject matter continues to influence the content and ideas of self-help, though most authors are completely unaware of it. Though gentle and retiring, she must have been possessed of a great charisma, because she taught and inspired people like Charles & Myrtle Fillmore, Nona Brooks and, right at the end of her life, Ernest Holmes.

Her own books are really exercises in theology, and barely fit the mould of self-help at all. They explore biblical stories and the sayings of Jesus in-depth, in a manner obviously inspired by Eddy. Because of the radical nature of her views and the popular manner of their propagation, she is yet to be recognised as a theologian, though I would suggest she is, perhaps one of the greatest and most influential biblical scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her continued obscurity is testament to the shameful gap in knowledge about New Thought and its importance on the behalf of most historians and scholars of religion. This obscurity was, however, addressed brilliantly by Gail M. Harley in her scholarly 2002 biography of "The Forgotten Founder of New Thought."

Hopkins was as well a committed 'womanist', a proto-feminist whose inspiration and ideas helped shape the New Thought movement into the female-dominated domain it was and is.

Norman Vincent Peale

One of the giants of self-help writing is Norman Vincent Peale. He almost single-handedly defined the genre in the 1950s and 60s, starting off with his monumental bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, and he established for decades a particular style of self-help writing, a style which is still being emulated today.

I have written before of the overt religiosity of Peale's writing, and his radical re-casting of Christianity as a positive aid to lifestyle and success both captured the zeitgeist of mid-20th century America and helped, in part, to shape it. The stolid Protestant friendliness of Peale's utterances, coupled as they were with just the right degree of acknowledgement of science and medicine, set the minds of a generation at ease. His great genius of expression inspired other writers, most notably the Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who sought to do with Catholicism what Peale had done with mainline Protestantism. In Australia Peale's style was copied by the Presbyterian clergyman Gordon Powell.

Peale sought to reconcile Christianity with psychiatry, something M. Scott Peck managed so successfully a generation later with The Road Less Travelled. Peale established the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry right next door to his church, and from here he attempted a kind of Christian psychotherapy, employing professionals from both camps. It would seem that counselling was his great passion, and his books are filled with case studies of people he had counselled. He seemed inordinately proud of the new hybrid he had created. Of course, this movement seems these days to have come to nothing and at the very most Christian-tinged counselling and psychology has acquired a dubious name, associated as it has become with the extreme right-wing fringe of Christianity, and the mental and spiritual abuse of young women and gay people.

Peale, I think, would have been shocked by the state of things now. He was most certainly not a fundamentalist, and saw himself as a part of the great tradition of American liberal Protestantism. Though the language of his books is almost shocking to a contemporary secular audience, it's worth keeping in mind that his reading of the Bible and his theological understanding was distinctly progressive. Though he claimed all his life to be a conventional Protestant clergyman, and was lionised by people like Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan, he was deeply influenced by the ideas of New Thought, and was for a time a student of Ernest Holmes.
Like most successful self-help writers, he diversified into other forms of media, and was particularly successful on radio, where his program 'The Art of Living' ran for 54 years. He was also one of the first to produce audio versions of his books, and you can still buy recordings of him reading The Power of Positive Thinking.

These days Peale is deeply unfashionable, though his books remain in print. It is hard to imagine that his worldview, as unashamedly religious as it was, will ever again be mainstream. Self-help critic Wendy Kaminer, in her book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, accuses Peale of being a magical thinker and "oblivious to social injustice."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Law of Attraction

Probably one of the most vilified tenets of self-help philosophy is the concept of The Law of Attraction. This "Law" has achieved a significant amount of cultural currency in recent years due to The Secret - basically, the Law of Attraction WAS The Secret (sorry if that's a bit of a plot spoiler!), and many millions of people encountered the idea for the first time there.
But it is a mistake to think it is a recent invention. Rhonda Byrne herself freely admits that she came across the idea of LOA while reading the works of Wallace Wattles, books published around the turn of the 20th century. The idea in its recognisable form can probably be dated back to Charles and Myrtle Fillmore and the Unity School of Christianity in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
What is the Law of Attraction? Simply put, it is the idea that whatever you think about, you attract. As the Buddha used to say in the opening credits of Monkey, "With our thoughts, we create the world."
This idea goes well beyond the pioneers of New Thought, of course. This kind of "mind only" philosophy has a long history in Buddhism and, before that, Advaita Vedanta schools of Hinduism. I think the real difference between these Eastern and Western forms is where the emphasis lies. For the most part, this realisation in Hinduism and Buddhism is meant to lead the seeker to try and transcend this world, realising that ultimately nothing is real, and all is meaningless, a creation of our desire. Law of Attraction as it has manifested in popular American thought has been directed in a thoroughly more worldly manner: since we're creating our world, how about we create a really nice one.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Indeed, many of the spiritual practices of Mahayana Buddhism involve just this process, visualising the jewelled Buddha lands and the extraordinary treasures of various divine realms. The Law of Attraction enthusiasts are, if anything, a shade more honest than most of their consumerist counterparts, by recognising that they want nice things in their world, and seeking to create these things at a metaphysical level. Whether or not you believe this is possible is a whole other question, and one in which I do not engage.
What I do find interesting is the vehemence with which such beliefs are denounced by those who don't share them. As religious beliefs go, I consider the Law of Attraction a pretty benign one. It certainly beats a whole lot of other worldviews, including those of most who pour such scorn on the LOA scene.
At its simplest I really just see LOA as a Western re-casting of the same ideas of karma and rebirth that are subscribed to by pretty much most of the Hindu and Buddhist world. As such, it attracts many of the same criticisms and is subject to all the same shaky logical and philosophical premises. It's just that, being an idea seen (incorrectly) as the product of modern consumer culture, it is subjected to the kind of paternalistic scorn that people would never dare direct toward a Hindu or a Buddhist.
The fact that it is always described as a "Law" is also significant. The new religious movements that emerged in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were all, to some extent, responding to modernity. One of the ways they did that was by casting their new ideas not as religious revelations, but as much more scientific-sounding "Laws", "Principles" and "Sciences."
Apart from The Secret, the great proponents these days of the Law of Attraction are a cuddly pair of middle-American trance channelers called Esther and Jerry Hicks. Esther channels the voice of a disembodied entity called "Abraham" and this material sells wildly throughout the world, making the Law of Attraction more and more one of the strongest contemporary popular religious beliefs.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Yes You Can! - Behind the hype and hustle of the motivation biz

From where I sit here in Australia, one of the most esoteric and quintessentialy American occupations must be that of professional speaker. It almost seems unbelievable that someone can earn their living from talking to rooms full of people. It seems to hark back to an earlier age, to the times when Dickens, Wilde and Twain travelled the US lecturing to vast audiences.
In Yes You Can! ex-Playboy editor Jonathan Black examines this amazing industry, and is drawn into its high-energy milieu to the point of seeking to become a motivational speaker himself.
Refreshingly, he never sets out to "expose" the industry, or to tear it apart. As he points out, he simply never met anyone who was manipulative, hypocritical or unusually avaricious. The motivational speaking industry is like any other, and Black does a brilliant job in explaining just how mundane - and often corny - its particular machinations are.
The speakers, both obscure and struggling and stellarly successful and wealthy, are shown here to be a wonderful crowd of eccentrics, each constantly working an angle and trying to stand out in a monstrously competitive field. His descriptions of their schtick are somethimes hilarious, and Black retains a cynic's eye throughout. But along with him you can't help but admire the incredible drive of these people to be successful.
Conceding that it is the type of career that normally attracts a bad rap, he speaks about the efforts being made to quantify the impacts of motivational speakers on company morale and - ultimately - profit. Unsurprisingly, this still looks like being almost impossible.
I was conscious throughout of the ways in which the self-help industry employ a wide range of media and technology to spread its message and, of course, to make money. The presence of so many celebrity speakers reminds us that this whole philosophy was born on the pulpit something which Black himself ultimately realises, in a moment of great personal significance. The speakers promote their audio material and their books, and vice versa, ad infinitum. This multiplicity of media marks motivation and self-help as distinctly modern phenomena, born in the age of modernity and in reaction to the changes it forced upon society.
Yes You Can! is a great book - well written, well researched and sensitively rendered. Jonathan Black has approached the subject in a uniquely thoughtful way and offers, for a change, some genuine insight into the business of self-help, instead of the usual blanket condemnation.