‘There’s no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon — and you can see why. Most self-help books are written by Americans of the most sentimental and unctuous sort.”
Alain de Botton set out to change this.
The faculty of his presumptuously titled “School of Life”, located in a small shop in central London, aims to teach its “students” across the globe how to live well and wisely. The general principle is that its website, seminars, “Sunday sermons” and publications offer a version of applied philosophy. As with De Botton’s 10 bestsellers, he aims to make arcane insights accessible; to make abstract notions of ethics, aesthetics and politics relevant to daily life.
The School of Life has published six books describing how we might stay sane, thrive in the digital age, change the world, find fulfilling work, worry less about money and think more about sex. Authored by six scholars and public intellectuals, they are pitched as the thinking person’s self-help.
De Botton authored How to Think More about Sex. Needless to say, it was the first I read.
It’s a clever title. The premise is that sex remains bound by repressive conventions that lead us to assume too much that is stultifying, if not crippling. De Botton argues for a more open discourse about the link between sexual practice and selfhood. That is, we need to register that everyone thinks some of their (or their partners’) desires are aberrant and that thinking (and speaking) more about our vulnerabilities might liberate us from the torsions of guilt.
Two moments in the book are revealing. De Botton describes as inevitable the moment when your partner asks you to pull her hair hard and rhythmically. Pain and humiliation, he says, enters the space of intimacy in ways that should be safe, endearing and even profound.
Later, in a tirade against pornography, he argues — with side-splitting sincerity — that Botticelli’s paintings of the Virgin Mary should be the contemplative person’s pornography. Dildos, genitals, semen, suspenders, mucus and domination are abhorrent. We live in a world of stereotyped gratification and our desires, he argues, have become commodified and clichéd, and hence utterly diminished.
How to Think More about Sex not only reveals, rather glaringly, de Botton’s own proclivities, it is unstintingly normative.
In addition to defining acceptable behaviour, it also tells us what is usual. Glancing references to Aristotle here and there don’t help matters. The book never countenances difference nor explores anything approximating transgression.
It is mundane in its celebration of a neoconservative, heterosexual world in which talking to one another helps us have better sex. It is Oprah, with a bit of hair-pulling.
Perhaps, in presenting such an unyielding position, De Botton intends to provoke more thought and more talk about sex. I fear this would be a generous reading.
The combination of self-help and philosophy is wrong-headed to begin with. De Botton claims — with characteristic imprecision — that Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius and Thomas à Kempis all wrote self-help books. But none of these writers presumes a settled sense of self or that happiness is a 12-step programme.
Philosophy — as an activity, rather than a canon — is a process of thinking about who we are and how the world reflects or contradicts our identity. It asks questions about the ways in which we contrive ourselves and our worlds, and what assumptions underpin knowledge.
It is, for all the dogmatism of certain philosophers, about asking questions and proposing possible answers. Philosophy does not simply endorse prevailing ideologies — of emotional and financial well-being, political change and sanity. At its best, it is never doctrinal. This is what distinguishes it from religion.
This is also the constitutive difference between “helping” and “contemplating” the self. As soon as someone dictates the nature of “the self” that one should help, or prescribes one cure for everyone, you are in the presence of an evangelist, not a philosopher.
Five of the six School of Life titles present entirely orthodox advice. Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane is prosaic and platitudinous; John-Paul Flintoff’s How to Change the World could be the manifesto of the makers of Kony 2012; How to Worry Less about Money is replete with solid bourgeois suggestions; and How to Find Fulfilling Work would be useful for high-school guidance counsellors.
The only rewarding read in the series is Tom Chatfield’s How to Thrive in the Digital Age. It has an impressive range of reference and presents significant insights into the rate and nature of change we are experiencing.
A veneer of intellectualism
I may be accused of being supercilious in dismissing the other five titles. First, let me defend myself against the argument that readers benefit from self-help books and that any intellectual comment on their banality and normativity is elitist. These six titles stage themselves as recuperating the genre. They make claims to philosophical cogency. Yet they are, with the exception of Chatfield’s essay, routine self-help books disguised with a veneer of intellectualism.
Second, it could be argued that the books democratise philosophy by making it accessible. This would be both fallacious (the books are not works of philosophy at all) and patronising. Many important contemporary reflections on selfhood, society and the preservation or reformation of both are far more readable, engaging, resonant and rewarding.
Let me suggest six such books. Each examines aspects of being a thinking, loving, politically informed person in the late 20th century.
They are: A Common Humanity by the Australian philosopher Raymond Gaita; Godless Morality by Richard Holloway, one-time Bishop of Edinburgh; Terrors and Experts by the exceptional psychoanalytic essayist Adam Phillips; The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, after reading which the economic order of experience looks quite different; Pascal Bruckner’s The Paradox of Love, after which you will never feel quite the same way again; and, the definitive work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray.
Each of these presents us to ourselves in ways that question our idea of who we are and how our world operates. Each also presents alternatives to the worn currency pushed about by unctuous gurus.
Michael Titlestad teaches literature at the University of the Witwatersrand