Is the Idea of an Intelligent Self-Help Book a Paradox?
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Is the very idea of an intelligent self-help book a paradox? It is certainly trying to serve two demanding masters: philosophical speculation and practical action. After all, readers don’t pick up self-help books just to ruminate on life’s dilemmas, but to be guided to solutions. The new series of self-help books published by the London-based School of Life, co-founded by the Swiss-born popular philosopher Alain de Botton, echoes the school’s lofty approach to problems, claiming to be “intelligent, rigorous, well-written new guides to everyday living.” Yet to peruse the School of Life’s calendar of classes is to fall into a vortex of jargon pitched somewhere between the banal banter of daytime talk shows and the schedule for a nightmarish New Age retreat: “How to Have Better Conversations,” “How to Realise Your Potential,” “Developing a Compassionate Mind: One Day Intensive,” “Philosophy Slam,” “Learning How to Say No,” “Getting Better at Online Dating,” “Resilience: One Day Workshop.” Before long, I was ready to sign up for “How to Stay Calm.”
De Botton himself is a divisive, if not easily dismissed, public intellectual. The author of bestselling books about many of the broad topics the School of Life curriculum covers — love, work, religion, happiness, and philosophy itself — de Botton is often accused of being a purveyor of Philosophy Lite (see, for example, Victoria Beale’s January 3, 2013, attack on him in The New Republic, “How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual”). His works are securely aimed at the insecure middlebrow reader, the kind of person who knows that Proust can change her life but maybe would rather read about how Proust can change her life than slog through seven life-changing volumes. Indeed, there is something ersatz, if not quite fraudulent, about de Botton’s entire intellectual enterprise: he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own. He is constantly quoting and alluding to great figures — Jane Austen, John Stuart Mill, Stendhal, and Freud, among others, all get name-dropped in his self-help book, How To Think More About Sex (about which more below) — but he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward.
De Botton has, however, up until recently, been a great champion of philosophy as a way to work through life’s conundrums. His The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) is a charming and, in its own way, useful book that dissects the lives and ideas of major philosophers like Socrates and Nietzsche and applies them to everyday problems like “unpopularity” and “difficulties.” De Botton claims in Consolations that it is possible to “take on a task at once both profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy.” In this he has positioned himself in a long line of thinkers about the care and maintenance of the self, such that the editing and writing of “intelligent self-help books” would not seem like such a stretch.
Yet the real issue with de Botton’s new book, and the others in the How To series, is not simply a lack of depth but one of purpose: they are certainly shallow in their philosophy, but they are not particularly useful either. The books are combination platters of soft science, anecdotal case studies (some real, some fictional), and exercises or suggestions about steps the reader could take to further his or her goal. Along with de Botton’s volume purporting to inspire more (but not deeper, note) thought about sex, the School of Life series includes How to Stay Sane, by Philippa Perry; How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff; and How to Find Fulfilling Work, by Roman Krznaric. Krznaric’s volume is by far the most successful, perhaps because he is the only one of the authors who does not seem embarrassed by either his topic or the means of treating it. Perry, a psychotherapist, and Flintoff, a journalist, retain a tone like they should be doing their work by more highfalutin means. And de Botton’s book makes an enraging little study (all the books clock in at around 200 pages) of contemporary assumptions about sex, marriage, and relationships, regarded strictly from the point of view of a bored, married, middle-aged man who maybe dabbles in philosophy and fancies himself an intellectual. It’s like being hit on by a paunchy, balding European guy at an office party who tries to seduce you with, well, quotes from Jane Austen and Stendhal, and empty proclamations about the place of sex, marriage, and relationships in contemporary society.
The title of de Botton’s book, How to Think More About Sex, is actually a misnomer, or at least misleading, for he in fact advocates against thinking more about sex, at least if “more” here means “differently” or “better.” He certainly does not want anyone to interrogate the assumptions mainstream society currently holds about courtship and marriage (what a queer theorist might designate as “heteronormative practices”). He never explores any type of relationship outside of monogamous heterosexuality; even the idea of a marriage without children or with, say, a stay-at-home father and working mother seems to be outside of his imaginative purview.
So he’s not exactly Michel Foucault, but there is a historical dimension to de Botton’s thinking about sex. Sometime around the advent of space shuttles and bikinis, he states, “[s]ex came to be perceived as a […] pastime, a little like tennis — something that everyone should have as often as possible in order to relieve the stresses of modern life.” To do this, he cautions, is to take sex much too lightly, as
sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch.
It is an “inherently weird […] anarchic and reckless power,” with which the best we can hope for is “a respectful accommodation.” Given how frightened de Botton seems to be of sex, is it any wonder that his book utterly lacks imagination and a sense of curiosity?
This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex. In his (fictional) case studies, de Botton presents us with several boring couples in compromising positions: there is, for example, the “couple in a cafe on a Saturday night at eleven o’clock in a large city, eating ice cream after seeing a film together.” De Botton narrates their entire sexual encounter, with odd asides about their personal histories interrupting the action: “Soon enough he was dreaming of orgies and anal sex, obsessing about obtaining hardcore pornography and fantasizing about tying up and defiling his maths teacher. How could he still be a nice person?” As for the intercourse, it is utterly unerotic: “In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife […] the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.” Even the couple’s fetishes are dull: his is for “black, sensible loafers (of the sort often associated with librarians and schoolgirls, and in this instance manufactured by the Italian company Marni)”; hers is for men’s watches, like her father’s.
When de Botton finally gets the couple off, so to speak, he provides a profoundly unsexy definition of sexiness: “The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” There are, of course, other kinds of eroticism, other ways to reach orgasm, not dreamt of in de Botton’s philosophy, but he confidently brands these “empty.” Thus, everything from masturbation (since it is performed alone) to bestiality (since it is nonconsensual) is considered a “betrayal of what sex should really be about”: a procreative couple in love sharing their values and their sense of the meaning of existence.
The only two real positions (no pun intended) that de Botton takes are an anti-pornography stance and a pro-adultery one. Neither, however, are at all radical, and both have a whiff of an acutely masculine frustration. How To Think More About Sex uses another fictional couple, the long-married and long-suffering Daisy and Jim, to illustrate these arguments. The story is timeworn: between work (though it is unclear whether Daisy works outside of the house), children, aging, and dwindling desire, Daisy and Jim’s sex life has all but disappeared. So Jim turns to the evils lurking in the family computer, which de Botton writes about with appalled strenuousness:
[P]erhaps as many as two hundred million man-hours annually that might have otherwise been devoted to starting companies, raising children, curing cancer, writing masterpieces or sorting out the attic, are instead spent ogling the mesmerizing pages of sites such as www.hotincest.comand www.spanksgalore.com.
In the name of productivity, then, de Botton advocates censorship of the internet, as “the entire internet is […] pornographic, a deliverer of constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs.” In the absence of government intervention, though, how can we resist the evils of the internet? Pray. Yes, really: de Botton suggests that religion, not philosophy, might provide guidelines to help individuals keep themselves in line. “A portion of our libido,” de Botton writes, “has to be forced underground for our own good; repression is not just for Catholics, Muslims and the Victorians, but for all of us and for eternity.” He urges readers to fall into line: “We cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; left to run free, they destroy us.” This interest in religion is not new: de Botton’s last book was Religion for Atheists. But the idea that it can solve problems instead of philosophy is a betrayal of de Botton’s earlier work. Apparently, rigorous thought is powerless against the seductions of the internet.
To proceed straight from this pious suggestion to one that long-term fidelity to a single partner might not work out after all would be galling in a writer who cared less about being provocative and more about being consistent, but coherency is not de Botton’s bag. He returns to poor frustrated Jim, sending him on a business trip where he runs into a comely young graphic designer, Rachel, who has done some freelance work for him. A glass of wine, a room at the Holiday Inn, and Jim and Rachel are off to the races.
There is, according to de Botton, nothing the matter with a little extramarital sex, as long as everyone is agreed that the bond between the partners is primary. “That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses,” he writes, “is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis.” The “cage of marriage”? Eek. If you want to kill your libido and quash a budding relationship in one fell swoop, I have the perfect how-to book for you.
The School of Life books by de Botton’s epigones are also pretty dreadful. Substituting Philippa Perry’s How To Stay Sane for the rigors of psychotherapy is like insisting that running for the bus rather than going to the gym is sufficient exercise. “Exercise,” indeed, is a loaded word in Perry’s book, as she provides “exercises” for the reader to do in order to put her ideas into practice; these mostly involve lots of making lists and charts. The exercises are designed to increase self-awareness, help deepen relationships, and relieve stress, all elements in keeping life in perspective and thus remaining sane. Yet the most striking element of Perry’s text is her reluctance to be writing it at all: “This is a ‘how-to’ book and at this point I wish it was not, because as soon as we start to legislate relationships, we are already in danger of getting it wrong.” This is, hands down, the most honest moment in the book. Perry is the most hamstrung of these writers by the self-help form; her frustration bleeds through every page. After de Botton, it is a relief to read someone less pedantic and more pragmatic, but Perry’s reluctance to take a position on anything other than breathing and journaling makes her book utterly useless.
Equally maddening is John-Paul Flintoff’s How To Change the World, which offers a great deal of commonsensical advice about what could vaguely be called “making a difference.” Offering such pearls as “the personal is political” and “do what feels good,” the only engaging part of Flintoff’s book are the case studies he offers. Yet many of those have a familiar ring: all the usual world-changing suspects appear, from Gandhi to Rosa Parks to Mother Theresa to Martin Luther King Jr. Flintoff does cite a few lesser known figures, such as Richard Reynolds, who started a “guerrilla gardening” movement in London, and lawyer and environmentalist Polly Higgens, who is working to make “ecocide” (the destruction of ecosystems) a crime. Flintoff provides advice on how to change the world in small ways like reaching out to neighbors, volunteering, giving to charity, or just helping a friend. Overall, though, there is little here that a person with average intelligence could not figure out on her own with good intentions and a couple of Google searches.
After all of these failures, it’s a minor miracle that Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work works as well as it does. Krznaric accomplishes what the other books do not by harmonizing a philosophical point of view with practical advice. The basic elements here are the same as in the other School of Life books: exercises, case studies, a pinch of philosophy. Yet Krznaric combines them in such a way that the reader is likely to actually feel both challenged and helped by his advice, perhaps because work is a topic you can be both philosophical and practical about without being overwrought. He focuses the book around two questions: first, what are the central elements of a rewarding career; and second, “how do we go about changing career and making the best possible decisions along the way?” It is in answering the second question that Krznaric’s book is most impressive. He notes that most people get bogged down in thinking about what kind of career might suit them, while the best way to figure out what job might be best for you is to try out as many things as possible. Most of his exercises are centered around figuring out how to take this approach which he calls “job dating”: whether it is confronting your fears about job change or writing a “personal job advertisement” which lists your skills and interests but does not mention any particular job you might be suited for. Krznaric then suggests emailing your advertisement to 10 friends in disparate jobs and asking them what you might try to do next. This is a book which is both clever and prescriptive without being preachy: it makes you think about work in a new way, as well as offering real exercises and solutions for people who are looking for more fulfilling work.
In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton writes, “It would scarcely be acceptable […] to ask in the course of an ordinary conversation what our society holds to be the purpose of work.” This is one of his throwaway lines, but a telling one: why couldn’t you ask such a question? What is so potentially frightening or offensive about where such a conversation might lead? In thinking back to the ludicrous list of School of Life classes, one could argue that the school — a word which, etymologically, refers to leisure time — is turning what are fundamentally leisure activities into work. Conversation, dating, thinking, feeling, and, alas, philosophy, which is supposed to be the pure love of wisdom, are all made into chores under the school’s rubric. The books the school has produced also turn philosophy into work, without much reward for our efforts: de Botton’s book on sex is too prudish and pedantic; Perry’s on sanity, too soft; and Flintoff’s on changing the world, too pedestrian. Given some of the most interesting topics there are, these writers flinch rather than engage.