Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year Resolutions and Vintage Self-Help/inspirational/motivational Literature and Ephemera

They say (or used to say) that a picture is worth a thousand words. This peculiar post promises to be heavy on pictures to look at and light on words to read.

As 2014 arrived I had thought it would be an excellent idea to write an essay on trends in self help or self improvement. I had also wanted to write a philosophic critique of what I call moralist exhibitionism (which is not the same as narcissism), a long-term trend only increased by the internet and social media. This trend and now way of life is one in which large masses of people flaunt their virtue and personal life-changing stories, their moral political activism, their fights and struggles against The Man, their dietary and nutritional (newfound) discipline, beliefs and practices, their success at having overcome vices and privations against great hardships and obstacles, their battle against Patriarchy and, if they are a right-winger of some stripe, what the secrets are to becoming that prosperous CEO or entrepreneur or how to take down that pesky activist government that conspires to take your prosperity away. But that longish piece will wait for another day. All of these exhortations and pronouncements are commonplace these days and are simply  so many effects of a culture of teams and group identities, rather than individuals, and "oversharing", rather than reserve,  in short a culture that values "intimacy" (I leave aside the question of whether it is in fact a genuine intimacy or not), at the expense of older values like distance and privacy.

Partly as a side effect of being a lay 1970s scholar, I have amassed quite a collection of ephemera and literature documenting the emergence of various popular psychologies, religious sects and self-help movements. In this all too brief and rushed post I will display but a few of these. Hopefully more will follow at a later date.
As you can see a lot of the presumptions and beliefs contained within these have now become mainstreamed and common sense (or nonsense),  ideas about individual agency and power, for example, or how even the universe itself works.  The first example is a classic and foundational text of the genre, Harris' I'm O.K.-You're O.K. Note the heavy, sometimes turgid jargon. One of the curious things about the language is its mixture of vernacular slang and scientific sounding technical jargon. They even use graphs. Graphs give the aura of being more realistic and authoritative, making you feel as if you were back in school, albeit probably a private, alternative school.

The Handbook To higher Consciousness appears to be associated with a particular religious/spiritual sect, having been published in 1975 by The Living Love Center. I have not yet done research on this particular group but I surely will and get back to you dear reader.

Even Born-Again Christians got in on the act, borrowing the tone and style of secular self-help as in this curious example:


Presumably it was now not enough to love or Praise Jesus, one must now "hang loose" with Him. Had this book been written a few years later it might have even spoken of "getting down with Jesus". This was published in 1973 and, though a thin volume, the author rambles on about how so many Christians are too uptight, serious and "heavy" about their faith and should simply relax and let Jesus do His thing, in short, to hang loose. In other words, with the emphasis on easing up and letting go, this is very much a Christianity for the 70s. The tone and even the content at times resembles a Women's Liberation tract, not in the sense of moral critique of existing or traditional society but in the intimate, candid and relational nature of the approach. The subject of women's self help or inspirational writing merits volumes of study and appraisal.

Hunter writes: "As a new Christian, I was so afraid that everybody would think I was religious that even thought the thirst had begun in my life for the living water, I still didn't want people to know about my avid reading of The Bible. So each Saturday morning I carefully covered my Bible with Playboy magazine because i wanted everyone to think I was a real 'swinger'."

At the opposite extreme from this nice and friendly, almost innocuously banal Christian example is one of my more dated and outrageous finds: an example of a pro-drug, indeed pro-Cocaine book! The illustrations alone are worth the price of the $1.50 I spent on this. I hasten to add that one theme in this book is how the authorities are all wrong about drugs, how safe cocaine is when used responsibly. Literature like this is truly captive to its time.

 This page tells you how to snort cocaine, complete with an illustration.
I can't imagine anything being produced or published like this today. Doubtless much of what we currently regard as truthful, or appropriate, or timeless is as much captive to current transient fashion. I wonder what current mores will be found as dubious by future generations. One thing I'll bet though is that, whatever is in today that dies out, it won't appear as embarrassing or even shameful, as extreme as The Pleasures Of Cocaine.

There were satirists and critics of all of this while it was going on. My personal favorite is the masterful novel of Marin County called Serial, by Cyra McFadden. I feature here the back cover of my first edition if only because it mixes together all of the buzzwords, catch-phrases, jargon, neologisms  period. Some of this has lasted to now, some of it is undeniably dated, all of it evidence of the American, or perhaps human quest for inner development tied to group identities of various kinds.
I love the phrase "Martha who cannot Get Behind ironing boards". Note the capitalization here and throughout. One of the brilliant stylistic and rhetorical strategies of McFadden is to have an omniscient voice speak in the insular language of this world, written totally straight and without any explanation as in this sample. Indeed, this book was originally serialized in the Pacific Sun.

This book was made into an interesting but now forgotten film starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld. It has always irritated me that Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City got such love and acclaim rather than The Serial. Part of the reason could be Maupin's commercial instinct to flatter the reader. McFadden flatters nobody. In my view it is as great  a work of social satire as other more well known works: on a par with the current George Saunders or even the late Stanley Elkin.
And here is one comic author's answer to the "I'm o.k., you're o.k" mantra.
I don't want to go into a long analysis of all of this. I don't want to condemn it and I don't want to praise it. None of the things I have excerpted here are trivial detritus from a bygone age. All of it is interesting. It ought to be important to students of American Studies and History to be sure. But it also should be of continuing interest artistically and aesthetically. Part of the reason is that so much of what we now take to be common sense or take for granted has roots in the period represented here. Another reason is that just as much of what I have excerpted here has been rejected. That is, we should reflect on why we have rejected what we have. Were they right and we wrong? Were they wrong and we, if not right, then, more evolved? How can we tell or know? To me all of it is all one great example of an American form of emergent, evolving Romanticism; the breaking free of the old strictures of traditional society, an expansion of the individual, the expression of a Democratic sensibility. Detractors of these things, those of an older bent, will call it individualism or narcissism, but they are perhaps revealing more about themselves than about the objects of their diagnosis. That is, they do not want the hazards of  this Democratic Romanticism. They fear the bad taste, the outlier Cult, the chaos that may result. I have some sympathy for their fears, but I would never want to live in a society that doesn't at least partly allow such a wild flowering of what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls the "inner tropical luxuriance" of human beings. Interestingly, we now have the technological means for such creative output but the net result is less interesting, more conformist people. It is as if the flattening and abundance of all those voices renders all of it so much white noise and none of it very conspicuous.

To me, any kind of dogma is problematic, no matter how virtuous the intention. A lot of the stuff here has a cult-like feeling about it. Some of it does sound like common sense. Some of it is sentimental in the worst sense. But all of it was actually produced and made and eventually consumed. That fact alone should be a marvel to us. One thing is sure: the human comedy is never boring and, hopefully, will continue, so long as we have some modicum of a so-called civilization.

Happy New Year

5 comments:

  1. Hello, I just came across your blog after doing a random Google search for 1970s Self Help New Age books...! Thanks a lot for this post, as it was exactly what I was looking for. But most of all thanks for the mention of "The Serial," by Cyra McFadden, as I'd never heard of that novel...crazy, because it sounds like everything I've ever looked for in a trashy '70s novel. Of course it sounds more like satire/literature than trash, but all of those '70s fads in one book, it just sounds too good to be true. I've already ordered a copy of the mass market paperback from Abebooks.com.

    Speaking of trash, I have a blog called Glorious Trash where I review trash literature, most of it from the '70s (the more obscure the better). Since I also review a lot of men's adventure novels from the era, here is a direct link to the trash fiction reviews: http://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/search/label/Trash%20Fiction

    Anyway thanks again for this post, I really enjoyed it!

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  2. Also, just wanted to follow up with a second reply -- here's hoping you do another of these posts focusing on '70s self help. I'm fascinated by these books and am always trying to find more, hence how I landed on your blog. I've picked up a few of these books myself over the years, but have failed so far to actually read them. Two of them at the top of the to-read list are "Biofeedback" by Walter Karlins (the mass market paperback edition of which features THE '70s New Age frazzled post-hippie photo cover, as far as I'm concerned) and "Between Heaven and Earth," by Laura Huxley, widow of Aldous. If you have any others to recommend, I'd love to hear them!

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    1. Thanks for your thorough and interested response. I have many more books like these. Thus there will be a part 2 eventually. I enjoyed your blog very much by the way.

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  3. Obviously, or so it seems to me, there is fair amount to comment on in this essay. Speaking of which, would you describe what you've written as an essay, or would you apply some other literary taxonomy to your musings on this particular phenomenon of Americana? Also, where do you locate the divide between moral exhibitionism and narcissism. It seems to me that there isn't a clear cut demarcation between the two. They would appear to me to be inextricable since any form of exhibitionism, regardless of the aegis it purports to operate under, is, by definition, a narcissistic display. In fact, sporting the patina of social utility/virtuousness strikes me as at least having the potential to be a strategy, perhaps a semi-conscious one, perhaps not, designed to obfuscate the fundamental narcissistic drive behind the public display.

    The difficulty, if indeed it is a difficulty, is that just because an offering of ( as you describe it, moral exhibitionism) may be generated in part, if not, perhaps, entirely by narcissism, doesn't, by any means, dictate that there can not be transcendent value embedded in the attention seeking display. After all, were that the case, we would have no art.

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  4. One line of demarcation is that moral exhibitionism is not merely a psychological trait, and there is, I believe a great deal of sincerity and earnestness in it. I have deep problems with the whole notion of narcissism. Sorry but that is one problem. I consider it incoherent and unstable and one of the vestiges of problems with psychoanalysis. I know contemporary scientific psychology accepts it as a stable and coherent category but I think it is not like, say, alcoholism. Also many of its features might be positive as well as negative. If you read Jean Twenge's account, it includes being charming and dressing up (and not necessarily being manipulative either). My blog is called contrarian after all. There is not enough time to get into all of this but I don't subscribe to the reality of a central and unitary self upon which most psychology depends. Indeed a great deal of the horror and confusion that arises when otherwise notable people or even noble and accomplished people that are highly skilled are caught doing something in another corner of their life that is ignoble or even evil (not to mention names) is a prior belief in such unity. I think character is much less defined than that and is certainly not holistic in any systematic way. I think moral exhibitionists genuinely want others to become political activists like them and are in a rush to solve the pressing problem that they want to solve, and making an exhibition of the cause is one way. I do not believe it is only to deed their ego. Having said that, I don't have to like it.

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