At last I had begun writing my long-planned book about Captain Ahab’s doomed enterprise in Moby-Dick—about Robur’s doomed enterprise in Verne’s Maître du Monde—about the doomed enterprise of Doctor Hans Reinhardt from the 1979 science-fiction film The Black Hole.
Eleven thousand words in, and may God grant that I learn it sooner next time or else not at all, I understood with blinding clarity that my book itself was another doomed enterprise.
As Don Quixote said: y yo hasta agora no sé lo que conquisto a fuerza de mis trabajos—I do not even know what I am conquering.
“Master of the world”! Robur-le-Conquérant!—what a delusion! what a farce! The quintessence of megalomania: Richard Wagner named his dog Robur.
You know you are in trouble when you turn to the business best-seller section of The New York Times looking for help.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Admired: 21 Ways to Double Your Value
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
And how about The Power of Concentration by Theron Q. Dumont, aka William Walker Atkinson, aka Theodore Sheldon, aka Swami Panchadasi, aka Baba Bharata, aka Magus Incognito, aka Yogi Ramacharaka, aka Swami Bhakta Vishita—
These are self-help books, no matter how many case studies they may present, no matter how much neuroscience they may seem to include. It is not cheap to keep reading them: not in terms of literal money, not in terms of time that could be spent in other pursuits, and not with regard to the temporary deformation of your working vocabulary. No one wants to hear about your emergent strategy any more than you want to hear them talk about their chakras.
Self-help books are, in my extensive experience, self-replicating, self-perpetuating, as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on. Like newspapers, like televised election coverage, they have an incentive to contribute to the extension of the problem they claim to resolve: tune in tomorrow, don’t miss the next exciting episode. Attend another seminar. Have another drink.
The best self-help book I ever read was by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I read its first paragraph.
Krishnamurti in 1955: “We want these problems to be solved, and we look to others to solve them—to religious teachers, to analysts, to leaders—or else we rely on tradition, or we turn to various books, philosophies. And I presume that is why you are here—to be told what to do.”
School for Scoundrels in 2006: “Show of hands. How many of you retards own a self-help book? That’s your first problem. You can’t help yourself, because your self sucks. Helping yourself? That means you’re being helped by a complete asshole. So ignore yourself. Do what I say instead.”
I saw that film on an airplane several years ago, flying home after having spent a week in Brazil getting my head kicked in. It used to be my hobby: getting my head kicked in by Brazilians.
Simenon in 1971: “I haven’t read a novel since 1928. I swear it to you.”
Daniels in 2012: I read Unamuno on Cervantes, and Girard on Dostoevsky, and Gombrowicz’s diary (“Is it an assignment,” Roman Szporluk asked, “or do you read it solely for your own confusion?”), and Patrick White’s letters from 1912–1976, and Mann’s letters from 1889–1955, and the Burroughs letters from 1959–1974, and Erikson’s Young Man Luther, so interesting that a third of the way through I wiped the sweat out of my eyebrows and began again at page one.
And I read a lot of self-help books. It appears to be my new hobby. Sometimes I miss getting my head kicked in.
Is Ortega y Gasset’s “Man Has No Nature” self-help? Is Schopenhauer’s “On Thinking for Yourself”? Is Twilight of the Idols? Are Goethe’s Proverbs in Rhyme? Are Augustine’s Confessions? Is The Revelation of John self-help? Did it help? Who did it help?
You began with the intention to address a given problem. You have not addressed it, you have deferred it; you have not even replaced it, you have forestalled it, overlaying it with another. Another self-help book is just more information, and more information will not help you solve the problem, not if the problem is too much information.
Malcolm Bowie in 1988: “Freud speaks in the closing pages of his ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’ (1909) of the neurotic patient’s need for uncertainty and doubt and of the elaborate manoeuvres that he is often compelled to adopt in order to remain uncertain in a world where accurate measuring devices and reliable sources of information exist.… the cult of self-preservation by uncertainty may be taken to a self-destructive extreme.” This is self-help as self-harm, or kicking your own head in.
Howard Nemerov in 1965, from his Journal of the Fictive Life:
If Stendhal could shrink from the thought of autobiography because it would be obligatory to say je and moi such a number of times (he shrank; but he wrote the autobiography), consider how that kind of objection has grown in force in our day, when to write in the first person will give you the somewhat limited option of sounding like castoff Proust or Mike Hammer. There is, in fact, so much Literature that even the simplest and most natural expressions might have to be condemned because they have a faint flavor of Style: “I opened the door.” The fear of being ridiculous from want of knowledge.
But it is not clear that “sounding like castoff Proust or Mike Hammer” is such an utterly detestable fate.
The Welsh novelist Russell Celyn-Jones took pity on me. We went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to look at something more attractive than our various personal problems: he to continue his study of Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and I to stand dumbstruck before Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin, swimming in the blue of her shroud. Celyn-Jones suggested Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. I bought the serious, impressive book and set it aside to read later—perhaps after finishing Reinhold Niebuhr’s serious, impressive two-volume The Nature and Destiny of Man. My God, what have I been playing at for all these years? Did I think I would one day put down Volume II: Human Destiny after I had made an end of turning its many pages, with my wrists aching, and say, “Good. Now that’s settled”?
I didn’t grow up reading Hegel; I grew up watching ThunderCats, with its “ageless devil-priest of First Earth, Mumm-Ra”—it is more comfortable for me to view the Medusa of art as she is reflected in a burnished shield of trash.
And so we turn to Taschen’s Men’s Adventure Magazines in Postwar America, and to Adam Parfrey’s It’s a Man’s World. I adore Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin, but I cannot bear it; I am afraid her splendor will incinerate me, as Semele was incinerated before the unmasked Zeus. How much less exacting, then, to gaze upon the disordered men’s-magazine “solution” to the mysteries of virginity and suffering:
I Saw Them Sacrifice Virgins to the Giant Condors
Deep Freeze Virgins of the White Hell
Helpless Virgins in the Land of Torture
The Wanton Blood Sacrifice of the Lusty Virgins
Virgin Brides for Satan’s Orgies
Virgins of Agony in the House of 1,000 Ecstasies
To recite these formulas is something like the Vishnu sahasranama from the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, the Thousand Names of God—but this god is a trash-god, like the garbage-eating robot from the animated science-fiction cartoon who lived on his garbage-planet and could speak only using the slogans from TV transmissions he had overheard—or perhaps only by quoting Cervantes, Krishnamurti, Simenon, Nemerov, etc.
I Watched Myself Die
The Man Who Wouldn’t Drop Dead
Satan’s Pigs Ate Us Alive
Death Orgy of the Leopard Women
The Flames of Hell Are Frying my Flesh
I Heard the Sacred Statue Scream
Spider Monkeys Tore Me Apart
I Watched Them Eat My Flesh
The Day I Was Roasted Alive
Showdown on Cannibal River
I Was Doomed by the Monkey Gods
Don’t Skin Me Alive
Death and immortality; freedom and constraint; oral violence and cannibalism, even unto autocannibalism; and the consoling secret of the popular possession-themed horror film—which is that the assumed reality of a devil tends, at bottom, to imply the reality of a god.
I Fought With Sadists on the Cliff of Death, I Was Slashed by Devil Hooves, I Fought the Borneo Water Devils—I projected my disowned weaknesses and baffling desires into another, whom I then destroyed, earning a temporary victory over fear by doing so. That’s the emergent strategy, then: melodrama.
Trapped in a Blizzard of Mink Clad Nymphos, The Man Who Ate Himself—just to read the titles makes me so happy, like a pig eating tomatoes. It seems to help.
J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts.