Saturday, December 06, 2008

BOOKS | Robertson Davies, On Self Help Books and More

This post is written with the help of my reading notes from 20th November, 2007. I was in Hanoi that night, reading Robertson Davies’ A Voice From the Attic. I was on the chapter where Davies discussed Self-Help books, and I enjoyed myself so much that I took notes fervently.

First, let us remind everyone that A Voice From the Attic was written in 1960, and Davies could only have known about the books published before then. It tells us that the Self-Help phenomena has been around a long time, and it is not just our generation that finds itself fodder for Self-Help publishing. In his essay, Davies mentioned a bestseller, Self-Help, With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, by author Samuel Smiles (really!) that was first published in 1859. Mr Smiles’ book sold 258,000 copies within the writer’s lifetime, which is an impressive figure. It also goes to illustrate something of the public reading taste back in the nineteenth century. (By the way, Mr Smiles’ book is available from the new range of Oxford World Classics. Why would OUP think it is a title worth keeping in print? I have no idea.)

Davies also targets health books – and diet books. I was unaware that they have diet books back then, before the 1960s. I am suitably impressed that they had fat people back in those days.

On diet books, Davies had this to say:

A theologian, or merely a literary critic, reading many of these books quickly discovers their secret, which is an evangelistic one; they first of all bring about a powerful conviction of Sin, and then they offer Salvation

Sin is fat. Perhaps it is Original Sin, to which you are born.

Okay, I laughed when I read this. Davies is just being bitchy. But Davies has a point to make when he associates self-help (and diet books are a form of self-help in a manner) literature with religion. He seems to acknowledge that the reason people read self-help books is because of a “hungriness of heart”. The desire for self-help books springs from the same impulse that leads one to a spiritual path, but alas:

We must pity the hungriness of heart which clamors for reassurance and wisdom, but which shrinks from religion and philosophy, either of which might, in different ways, fill their need and soothe their sorrow. Our age has robbed millions of the simplicity of ignorance, and has so far failed to lift them to the simplicity of wisdom.

Davies lashes out against the vulgarity of many of these books. In many of them, he finds the vocabulary, whether religious or secular, is about getting something – the means to an end.

It is astonishing to read again and again in these books by parsons phrases which suggests that religious faith is a type of investment. They insist that it “pays dividends.”

(A tangential thought: the Knight Templars were the world’s first bankers, and they claimed they fought for God. I tend to disagree.)

The hypocrisy of these books is obvious, at least to Davies:

The secular books say the same things, and not in a strikingly different way. Great emphasis is laid on getting people to like you, and this is not mentioned as a possible consequence of good conduct, but as an end in itself. Being liked is important because it is a way of achieving success.

But one wonders – how many, who reads and applies the teachings of these self-help gurus are self-aware enough to see this?

Is success measured by prosperity and good fortune? Can one compel charisma and fortune? Of course, the attraction of these self-help books is that they convince us that we can will success into our lives. They mislead the readers by packaging their message in spiritual terms that to be rich and success is the same as being worthy in God’s eyes. On this point, Davies has much to say of the Reverend Dr Norman Vincent Peale. (Just an observation: Most of Peale’s books are still in print in various translations, while A Voice From the Attic is not. Make of this what you will)

According to Davies, Peale claims the word “pastor” derives from a word meaning “a cure of souls” – Davies thought it derived from the Latin for a shepherd. (I vaguely recall Terry Pratchett writing that sheep are stupid and can be herded, while goats are intelligent and must be led. I think it was from Small Gods – can somebody help me?)

Can God or Fate be bribed? That seems to be one of Davies’ many questions. Certainly many people seem to believe that. Remember, Peale is available in many, many languages around the world. A lot of people out there do buy his message.

I do not believe Davies is totally against self-help books. Davies himself quoted Dr Johnson that books were trash unless they could help the readers “better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus wrote canonical texts on self-improvement. What Robertson Davies find reprehensible is the debauching of philosophy, religion and things sacred and precious, to what at its core, is nothing more than a self-serving mission. Many self-help books offer little more than cheap, easy solutions, especially books which offer success founded on religious jargon. The grace of God is not a prescriptive thing: Do this, and riches and success will befall you.

We cannot suppose that Smiles would approve of the self-help books which offer success founded on religion, for he would instantly spot them for what they are – delusive offerers of success founded on craft. Get God on your side and success is yours. God is not the rewarder of virtue, but the Genie in the Bottle, who comes when you utter the magic formula. We must deny that this is religion in any high sense.

I agree: God is not our Sugar-Daddy. One should not be looking to religion for what God can offer you. I believe faith is about offering ourselves to something greater.

I also believe what is truly asked of us in a spiritual practice is to do good, not for the sake of reward – but to do good for its own sake. Sometimes, it might even mean we have to suffer for the sake of doing what is right and good. Maybe this is why so many of us stumble on our spiritual journey.



Anonymous said...

Hi: drifted through your Excellent blog on a random search for 'electric orpheus'. I love your style, I'm going to come back and delve some.
Yes, it is Small Gods, Om's backstory. He misses out on being first prayed to by a goatherd by a narrow margin, instead getting sheep.

Anonymous said...

I adore Robertson Davies' fiction, but this sounds excellent also. (Have you read the Deptford Trilogy? I think you'd like it a lot.)

Melwyk said...

I liked this part of Voices from the Attic as much as you did! I think that his comments are still fully applicable to the self-help world, sadly enough.

Ana S. said...

Yep, Small Gods. I need to re-read that book.

"I also believe what is truly asked of us in a spiritual practice is to do good, not for the sake of reward – but to do good for its own sake. Sometimes, it might even mean we have to suffer for the sake of doing what is right and good. Maybe this is why so many of us stumble on our spiritual journey."

I fully agree, and this is why I have so much trouble with the (unfortunately widespread) idea that people who lack faith also lack ethics. Why would it not be possible that someone would want to be decent and compassionate and kind just for its own sake? Just for the sake of treating others like they'd like to be treated themselves? So much of what I believe in comes down to that.

darkorpheus said...

AMH - Hey, thanks for swinging by and leaving this nice message. :)

Ella - Oh, I started with Deptford and fell in love. I read the Cornish Trilogy last year and I love The Rebel Angels.

Melanie - I agree. And what is sadder is that Voice from the Attic is out of print and all these self-help titles are still in print. Including Mr SMiles' book.

Nymeth - "this is why I have so much trouble with the (unfortunately widespread) idea that people who lack faith also lack ethics." --I agree with you. Firstly, I think it is arrogant for people to assume just because someone doesn't share the same religion or the same philosophy as them, that they have "no faith".

To believe in being kind, to believe in compassion, and human decency in the face of all the evil in this world takes true faith - not necessarily of the institutional/religious sort.

The Dalai Lama himself said: "My religion is compassion." And that is the kind of faith I believe in.