Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Wizard of Oz as a New Thought Text

The Wizard of Oz is one of those books so rich in symbolic possibility that it has been claimed for many a cause. For years it was read as a kind of political/economic commentary, based on a very clever and convinving essay by Henry Littlefield in 1964. Though this essay evinces a rich imagination and a nice grasp of symbolic possibility (hence the popularity and longevity of its proposals), most agree that it is a bit wide of the mark. There is no evidence to suggest that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was in any way interested in politics or economics. What he was interested in was the new religious movements that were becoming quite popular and influential at the time he was writing. Specifically, Baum was deeply influenced by Theosophy and New Thought, and it was these ideas that were being represented in his wonderful books for children.

I have been reading the book (for the first time) with New Thought philosophy in mind, and the parallels seem obvious, though of course I could be accused of reading meaning into a simple story. But to me The Wizard of Oz is an obvious parable about human potential, the realisation of innate perfection, and persistence in the journey towards success.

The harmless munchkins are, in fact, the ultimate negative thinkers. Their small stature is illustrative of their small minds. They see danger all around them, and have hemmed themselves into a world dominated by a wicked witch. When Dorothy arrives to save them they are grateful, but they still attempt to dissuade her from pursuing her own dreams - they find it impossible to conceive of personal transcendence. In the north, south, east and west they see nothing but danger, and the idea of ever reaching the Emerald City is almost an impossibility. The munchkins represent the great bulk of the population who, according to New Thought philosophy, choose to restrict themselves to a cramped existence and live constantly in fear.

The Emerald City is, of course, the great possibility. In fact, the City is really God. It is all goodness and all perfection, and looms distant in our horizons. There is a clear path to this City, but most choose not to travel it. In fact, they trust the care of this City to the Wizard, who is ultimately exposed as a simple mortal like all of us. He lives within the City, but so can we all. The great City is Emerald, and this is just one example of the great deal of description of colour in the book, which points towards Baum's interest in colour and its symbolic meanings. This kind of thing was very popular in Theosophical circles, and someone better versed in this lore would be able to read much more into Baum's use of colour than I can.

Each of Dorothy's travelling companions is missing an important quality, but of course we soon realise that these limitations are all in their heads. The Tin Woodman who has no heart is emotional, gentle and compassionate, the Scarecrow with no brain is resourceful and clever and is the one to come up with all of the solutions, and the Cowardly Lion is brave and self-sacrificing, constantly coming to the aid of others. These creatures illustrate the self-imposed negative beliefs we all carry about ourselves. Our limitations are self-imposed, and often we are the exemplars of the very qualities we crave. All we need to do is realise it - but of course, we don't, and we imagine that any gains can only be made by difficult journeys to mythical lands and consultation with people we imagine to be much greater and wiser than ourselves. This is all basic New Thought philosophy rendered beautifully and simply in Baum's fable.

The Yellow Brick Road obviously represents the path toward our ultimate goal: that of goodness, perfection; of God. This journey toward the Emerald City is not an easy one - we travel through dark forests and are swept away by wild rivers. But Baum's message is that we must never despair at these diversions - they are to be enjoyed and cherished as part of our story. Not too much, though, as the field of dangerously seductive poppies proves - the path of sensuality is an easy and terrible trap, and we must keep our focus on getting back to the Yellow Brick Road.

Each of the characters represents an element of the human struggle - even Toto who is, according to the Theosophists, representative of a more primitive instinctual knowledge. Baum's characters were representative of the great human spirit and the will to progress. Dorothy's longing to return home is representative of a universal human longing to be united with God, to return to our spiritual birthplace. Our quest to find the City is ultimately a desire to return to ourselves.

It's a beautiful, lyrical little book, and with its great potential for deeper understandings it's no wonder it has become one of the great classics of children's literature, and its imagery entered into the popular imagination. I encourage you to read it for yourself (it is only a short book, and there are some really beautiful versions of it around) and see if you can arrive at some of your own meanings.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eric Butterworth - Discover the Power Within You

Eric Butterworth was one of the most influential New Thought preachers of the mid-twentieth century, as well as being a prolific author. His influence on the Unity movement was enormous, and continues to the present day. Unity FM has just started a whole radio show devoted entirely to the teachings of Butterworth, and recently the 'Hooked on Classics' book club on that same station studied his 1968 classic Discover the Power Within You.
It is actually quite an impressive work, a carefully laid-out view of New Thought spirituality, especially the central notion that "You ask for success by getting into the consciousness of success" (p.114). Butterworth was obviously a great scholar, and his writing is based on an easy grasp of literature and religion. Despite its corny title, this is actually quite an erudite work, and its argument quite compelling.
Butterworth excels at putting some pretty difficult New Thought notions into plain language, evincing a grasp of aphorism and folksy philosophy that is a very old part of American literary culture. The book is intended as a practical guide, and so encourages people to apply their spiritual views to their daily lives. Reading the book one is constantly discovering areas in which the author seems to be speaking directly to us. I am also conscious that he is enunciating New Thought philosophies that date back to Mary Baker Eddy, though with far more accessible language. For example:

"When we realize that evil is simply the concealment of good, then any person who is unloving, vicious, or unjust is actually a person who is good but doesn't know it. In a very real way, we can change him - at least as far as we are concerned. We can see him with the "single eye" that relates only to the good and the true" (p. 124).

This is basic Christian Science thinking - that there is only goodness in God's creation, and that all of us, being a part of this creation, must at heart be good. The error is in the seeing; we choose to see bad. It is a challenging philosophy, and one difficult to apply, but I think Butterworth describes quite a noble effort in this passage.

One of the constant criticisms I hear about self-help books is that they pander to the selfish side of humanity, that they encourage materialism and tacky consumerist desires. This frustrates me because any careful reading of almost any self-help book exposes a constant injunction to develop the spiritual above all other attributes, and to see growth in metaphysical rather than materialist terms. It is a point that Butterworth himself drives home over and over again: "Success cannot be measured by what you have amassed" (p.131). This is, above all, a devotional work, a book that is about the development of a complete spiritual worldview, the growth of a soul. As such it illustrates perfectly one of the central points of my thesis, that self-help books are in fact quasi-religious texts that offer practical moral teachings and metaphysical worldviews.

The author has sought with this book to describe a practical, progressive and positively-focused Christianity. There is a surprising amount of theology in the book, much of it of a decidedly Girardian flavour. I know that would shock my academic friends, but I stand by my assessment. Butterworth's book is a lyrical, complex and deeply thoughtful text which challenges the authority of mainstream Christianity, as well as the easy laziness of reflexive individualism and the unexamined life.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

40 Day Mind Fast Soul Feast

The almanac and the devotional day-book are key ancestors of self-help books, and their continued existence in the 21st century interests me greatly.
Since the birth of printing people have been able to get religious day-books intended to help with prayer and contemplation. A quote from scripture was provided for each day of the year, and the book served as a spiritual companion for the literate person who may not have had access to a full version of the Bible.
Almanacs had evolved in China, where they were (and still are) cheaply printed and produced daily guidebooks showing the phases of the moon, the astrological significance of the day (including what is and isn't lucky for that day) and snatches of poetry and philosophy.
At some point in the West the two types of book combined, and almanacs became filled with pious injuctions and pieces of folk-wisdom, along with recommendations for farming and housekeeping. Almanacs became popular in Elizabethan times, and they really took off later in America, the most famous being produced, of course, by one Mr. Benjamin Franklin.
My own grandmother was a great fan of day-books, and throughout my childhood she used Francis Gay's Friendship Book. I was always fascinated by the quote of the day, and many of them have stayed with me. I fancied myself a deep thinker as a child.
In recent years the devotional/inspirational/self-development day-book has experienced something of a resurgence, thanks in part to the output of Hay House, Louise Hay's new-age publishing company. They have breathed new life into this quaint form by producing colourful and attractive (and eminently saleable) hardcover day-books featuring the words of their most popular authors.
I have recently completed Michael Bernard Beckwith's perpetual day-book 40 Day Mind Fast Soul Feast. As the title would suggest, the book covers a 40-day period. Naturally the siginificance of the 40 days is obvious to anyone from a Christian background, and the book was obviously concieved as a kind of lenten guide, though Beckwith is not coming from any kind of conventional Christian perspective.

The book is posited as a practical guide to spiritual living, a guide to "how to arrive at profound inner fulfillment." This is quite a claim, but it is exactly the sort of claim that most self-help books make. The claim promises to turn reading from an act of education, enjoyment or distraction into something altogether more metaphysical: reading as enlightenment.
Michael Bernard Beckwith would be familiar to many as one of the most popular faces in Rhonda Byrne's film The Secret. He is the head of the hugely popular Agape church in California, and is one of the superstars of 21st Century New Thought Christianity. He teaches a supremeley palatable philosophy of positive thinking, easy-going spirituality and inclusive, progressive Christianity. His worship style draws on the great traditions of African-American church worship, with high-energy oratory and incredible music (provided by his equally brilliant wife, Rickie Byars Beckwith). And while his preaching style is steeped in the traditions of African-American oratory, the Agape community itself is multi-racial, creating quite a new vibe in American worship.
Each day this book provides a central idea to contemplate, followed by a brief exegesis by the Rev. Beckwith. Themes include: "Service, Not Servitude", "Birthless, Deathless Eternality" and "Spiritual Loyalty." Each day is opened with a quote gleaned from spiritual classics East and West, and closes with a brief affirmation to work with that day. Beckwith's texts are strongly and conventionally New Thought in content and expression, and some of it would be bewildering to a reader not familiar with the tradition and its philosophy. The intent of the book is clearly to fire the reader up to do good each day, and to excel at personal development. Its purpose is strongly motivational, and as such it serves as an interesting example of book as spiritual technology. This is a book not simply meant to be read - it is meant to be used as inspiration for a life better lived. It prescribes techniques, thoughts and concepts to help the reader live each day in a more spiritual (and more happy) state of mind.
Beautifully packaged as a small, sturdy hardcover, it is interestingly free of the floral flourishes that distinguish the Hay House efforts in this same genre. In fact, the brown wash of the cover design would indicate to me that the book is intentionally aimed at a male as well as a female readership - a reasonable rarity when it comes to modern self-help books.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Etiquette Books

The second chapter of my thesis is on etiquette books.
I've long been obsessed with etiquette books. As a child I would regularly borrow an enormous pink edition of Miss Manners from my local library, fascinated by the almost mythical moral quandaries it discussed. It was as removed from my world as any science fiction book, and I became lost in its social possibilities. Later I discovered the Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, and was instantly absorbed in its extraordinarily demanding universe of correct stationery and forms of address. The only stationery we had in our house was a large ruled writing pad from Woolworth's, but that didn't stop me dreaming of engraved calling cards!
So where do etiquette books fit in to my thesis? Well, chronologically they are a good fit with New Thought books - though in reality etiquette and conduct manuals were being printed long before New Thought was even imagined. My suggestion is that etiquette books describe a sense of longing, and also a kind of narrative about class and aspiration. The thrust of the books is every bit as metaphysical as the much more overtly religious New Thought texts.
Etiquette books claim to provide a kind of blueprint to a better life through a minutely codified way of being, and a stark insistence on the improving benefits of a carefully lived civility. Manners and courtesies are the things we cling to in an effort to convince ourselves that there is some kind of superior state of being in this world - they prove (we hope) that we are more than animals. In a settler society like Australia's, etiquette manuals take on an extra element of urgency, describing poignantly a barely-possible world of balls and suppers and lawn parties. The Australian was struggling with an identity crisis as early as the 1850s, and etiquette books were already emerging in this period telling the anxcious social climber exactly how she (and it was invariably a "she" being addressed) should be behaving.
I am mainly relying on a massive 1950s tome called Woman's World, because it is a reliably camp extoller of cliched ideas of refinement. I am contrasting it with Marion Von Adlerstein's infinitely more sophisticated (and more subtly anxious) Penguin Book of Etiquette, published in Australia in 2002.
The chapter is meant to be finished with already, but I am still struggling along with it - I have promised myself it will be done by Wednesday.
Until then, I spend all day every day lost in a fantasy world of perfect manners and the adequate terms of address for a Governer-General's soiree.