My Strange Romance with the Self-Help Movement
Shamefully often, while working on a piece, I’ve stopped myself mid-way, and erased a couple hours worth of polished paragraphs, to welcome, once again, the empty page and the few days of erratic wandering through family libraries that the desire to write something really ambitious brings along. These brisk interruptions and discardings tend to come as the only reasonable consequence of a flash of lucidity, an understanding of the “true” character of what I’m writing. I’ve suffered episodes of this strain several times, realizing that I was writing a pamphlet, that I was warping my arguments around a questionable idea… and, most recently, a new type of realization became common. 1000 words in, I’ve found out that what had begun as some contextual commentary on some personal struggle, or as a gonzo political chronicle, had turned into a self-help article. This might be due to a certain habit I’ve very recently formed. Let’s call it a guilty pleasure, defining guilty pleasure as the sincere enjoyment of something one knows to be deeply deficient or detrimental. I loathe self-help. I loathe it as a billion-dollar industry. I loathe how its pseudo-literary products crowd the shelves where polemic, stark works of artistic genius should be. I loathe its pseudo-scientific simplifications, its truisms, its capitalist realism. Yet, disgustingly often, and, specially, at the tail of a depressive episode, I’ve inflicted upon myself a video about the disappointing nature of love and how to be happy about it regardless, “ Key tips for a more organized week [ + FREE E-BOOK]” or a motivational speech by some union-trumping billionaire who spent his tender years sleeping under desks, neglecting his emotional well-being to build a pagan empire.
Its pseudoscientific simplificationsUnder the term “self-help” one can find an obscene variety of formats and approaches. Some “self-help” books disguise themselves as intellectually rigorous recommendations (Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life), some others take an almost “slice of life” approach (The work of Mel Robbins) , and others (such as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist) are fiction pieces that aim to function as self-help, and suffer the many flaws common in the genre. The quality of the advice varies greatly: Some of it is reasonable, scientifically-validated, and, in some cases, almost self-evident (Yes, organizing your tasks realistically and taking breaks improves productivity). Some of it is rather dubious. One of the most recent examples of dangerous, non-validated self-help is, as of this writing, greasing the palms of Mikhaila Peterson (Professor Lobster’s daughter). Mikhaila claims that a minimalist diet of salty meat and water cured her depression. Her father, whose self-help business generates a monthly income of U$S100,000 from Patreon donations alone, claims that the diet, besides curing him, made him “sharper”, and lowered his appetite and his need for sleep. The promise to cure depression and become a more productive self through an absurd dietary restriction is just a single example among many. Like youtuber Unnatural Vegan said, in a video explaining Mikhaila’s “carnivore diet”: While maintaining a healthy diet involves limiting “high-reward”, sugary, fat-loaded foods, it relies more on meeting nutritional needs, than on consuming specific meals. A carnivore diet is dangerous, because it leaves most sources of certain vitamins out of scope. On the other hand, there’s no property in meat that makes it an irreplaceable source of anything. Self-help borrows from psychology, medicine and sociology, but also appropriates places where the insight of psychologists, biologists and sociologists should be.
Its truisms“Fictionalized self-help” is, roughly, didactic fiction: Didactic fiction that is meant to teach the reader something about their own, unappreciated, almost secret greatness. Of course, some might say that I’m butterfly swimming the salty waters of subjective taste when I propose that the only difference between fictionalized self-help and plain, old fiction is that it lacks emotional depth and complexity in favor of presenting explicit motivational lessons. The worst and most famous example of this sort of oeuvre is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Like Gregory Cowles wrote for The New York Times, in 2009, The Alchemist is “more self-help than literature”. A book designed to change lives through empty, stock phrases, a supermarket book with no soul. There is no profound frankness, there is no feeling, there is no intensity, the writer doesn’t bleed. The Alchemist features lines like “ One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving” and “ There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” Everything is obvious and/or has been said before, and, therefore, presenting it as new and profound is disrespecting the reader. The only characteristic trait of Coelho’s nuggets of pure truth is how awfully generic and unrecognizable they are. I propose an imaginary “match the phrase to the author” game. It would consist of a single challenge: A single player (the point is not competing but making an argument) would be presented with a pencil and a sheet of paper, on which author names and quotes would be, segregated in columns. The player would try to match authors and fragments. They’d possible begin by discarding the obvious: Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Nin, Austen, Borges, Foster Wallace, Shakespeare, et al. Eventually, the fog of ignorance would set upon the player, who would then have to discern between quotes they have never read before, in styles they know very little to be able to recognize. Let’s say that this player has been tricked. All of these writers but Coelho are nonexistent. All of these quotes are stock phrases robbed from motivational Instagram accounts. The player must trace their paths in a clean list of unknowns from which only Coelho’s name stands out. These are the quotes and names in questions: “Friendship should not be measured in the number of things friends can discuss, but in the number of things they need no longer mention.” “ It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” “ All things have a hidden meaning that can transform us with unparalleled abstract beauty.” “ When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself. ” ESTEBAN TORY HELEN WIENER ALLEN STEVENS PAULO COELHO Without googling, make your guess.
Its capitalist realismThis is, perhaps, the double core of the problem. In a lecture recorded in February of 2018, titled “Self-Help, Oprah, and Capitalism”, Dr. Andrew D. Chapman, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, traces a relationship between capitalist rhetoric and “Oprah’s brand of self-help”, whose message he synthesizes as:
“If you can succeed with the backdrop of a crappy world, then that was because the only thing holding you back was you. (…) You are the thing that is in the way of your own success.”This makes “the crappy world” seem unchangable, either because “that’s how things are”, because it’s somehow just, or, merely, because changing it is out of our reach. The problem is us, the problem is that we’ve got to grow a pair and struggle against the world, to get what we want from it. The backdrop grows blurry, it doesn’t matter, it’s fixed, we only need to know that it’s atrocious: It’s not the territory for change, the territory for change is the individual. We’ve got to fix ourselves first, or, as Jordan Peterson would say, we’ve got to clean our rooms before we go out and try to change the world. By individualizing collective problems, this breed of self-help promotes the idea of conservatism as a virtue, as knowing what’s going on; and erodes empathy (“the poor are poor because they’re weak, they allowed the world to defeat them”). On the other hand, self-help flattens one’s emotional life. It doesn’t invite us to dwell on our feelings, to try to inspect and understand them. Self-help replaces the observations that would arise spontaneously during reflective times, or in talk therapy, with standard, easy answers. All self-help writers are bad psychologists: They pretend the reader is a standard person whose suffering can be decoded through a more or less strict framework, so to be an expert on the framework is to know more about someone’s feelings than themselves. Reading self-help is not an act of self-discovery, it’s an act of self-rewriting. Self-help provides a narrative in which the self can find itself reflected. Within the narrative, the self is standardized, its goals are assumed like its character is, and a standard recipe for success is provided- A recipe that can be synthesized in a punchy, profitable headline.
The refuge of art
“…if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing — flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc. — is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it…” — David Foster Wallace, discussing Bret Easton Ellis’ PSYCHO, in an interview.I haven’t formally assembled a playlist of songs that comfort me when times are rough. Regardless, I always play the same tracks, along the day/s, while I work (there is this tired John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans…”). My preferred songs, like the books I return to, or the poems I read, don’t provide advice, useful ways to get going, get ahead, get your shit together, raise above your peers- They don’t carry the “shake it off, don’t think about it” attitude predominating among entrepreneurs. This attitude rests on the goal of increasing productivity. You need to “create self-care strategies to cope” and “always go that extra mile”. A search for the rhyming term “motivation compilation” on YouTube, produces a string of two-hour speeches about tenacity understood as a sort of voracity. This string of “go-go-go”, “get up” self-improvement might include ridiculously useful tools to assess one’s current state of neurotic decadence, but it’s poor as a discourse. It’s poor because it reduces one to a thing that does tasks. Sometimes, the machine malfunctions. Self-commanding, the machine feeds itself instructions to modify its internal processes. The machine returns to work as intended. The tasks are being completed. Success. It offers to ignite our life with the flame of capitalist hunger. And, while I work with capitalists, I enjoy my work with them, and I am (as of October 2018), succeeding under capitalism, there should be more to life. The art I consume when in pain doesn’t aim to negate it, but to embrace it with frankness and hope . In “Miss Misery”, Elliott Smith spends far more verses referring to his alcoholic wandering through New York, sitcom stars from the 70s that faded into oblivion, and other saddening etceteras. But, throughout the song, there’s a single-lined refrain: “But it’s alright, ‘cause some enchanted night I’m gonna be with you.” That’s hope, that’s Smith holding onto the future in a world that is dark and stupid. Recently, Leonard Cohen’s YouTube channel posted a video titled “Leonard Cohen on Finding His Voice.” This video is part of a campaign to promote The Flame, a posthumous compilation of lyrics, letters, etc. Here, we hear an aged Cohen, whose voice slightly trembles and who develops his sentence with a patient certainty — slowly, but surely, state:
“I studied the English poets, and I knew their work well, and I copied their styles.But I could not find a voice. It was only when, when I read (even in translation), the works of Lorca, that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice.I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice. That is, to locate a self: A self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence. And, as I grew older, I learned that instructions came with this voice.What were these instructions? These instructions were never to lament casually, and if one is to express the great, inevitable defeat that awaits us all. It must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” — Leonard CohenSelf-help prohibits lamentation: You shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself, keep pushing! Stop complaining and get yourself sorted! Lift yourself up from your bootstraps! By doing so, it denies ourselves of our voice. Art, if we can attribute it a monolithic message, redeems us by redeeming our lamentations. It admits that we’re right, but invites us to turn away from our pain and from the instant demands of our context, and to recognize that there is inherent beauty and hope, that our existence is a lucky ocurrence, even in pain. When I need better ways of organizing my schedule, or strategies to avoid financial stress, I draw upon self-help material. Why not? That is strictly practical stuff. But it shouldn’t be the go-to balsam for any ache. – Side note: 22nd of October of 2018 It’s half past eight in the evening. I’ve just lift my eyes from the screen and found the house had filled with shadows. To my left, against the window, where the corridor and the kitchen meet, there’s a curtain of leaves swaying in the dark. It might rain tomorrow morning. I’ll go off to school at four, then to work. A promising red herring fell on me today. I was about to undress and take a siesta on the daybed. I got a call, and I thought I would have to go out. I got dressed, I put my shoes on. When the plan fell- a few minutes after, it wasn’t much — I found myself sporting a camel corduroy Canadian tuxedo and the temper of a person who has cancelled the day in favor of something better. I remembered certain message Jenny Holzer had tied to the back of a plane, “You live the consequence of old plans”. I stood under their shadow for a while, and fixed myself some gin a Chinese cup. I’m writing in the dusk now. It’s warm, it’s springtime. The studio is filled with the odor of roses.