Sunday, March 13, 2011

Positive thinking

Whenever I think back to the pompous emptiness of the Anglican church environment in my native town of Grafton, a sad anecdote jumps into my mind. I've already alluded in this blog to a ridiculous book I was offered when I was about 13 years old: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

The man who gave me this book was a prominent Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Arthur Edward Warr, dean of the Anglican cathedral of Christ Church.

I can hear parishioners saying: "Well, that was nice of him, wasn't it!" My contention, retrospectively, is that it wasn't nice of him at all. In suggesting that I should read a best seller penned by an American snake-oil evangelist, published in 1952, Dean Warr (who knew me well, since I was a server in his church) was deliberately shirking his spiritual responsibilities as our pastor. He was acting lazily, saying to me (as it were): "I don't know what to say about Christianity to a local boy who appears to be more interested in science than in other pursuits. So, why don't you take a look at this."

The gist of the Peale book might be summed up tersely as follows: Ideally, Christian believers should be happy individuals, with an optimistic outlook on their personal existence. [Recall that, timewise, we were just a decade after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.] Now, the best way to become a contented and optimistic individual is to force yourself, through personal discipline, into "thinking positively" about every aspect of your life and your expectations. To put it bluntly, you should delude yourself by deliberately avoiding to recollect or cogitate upon anything of a harsh (negative) nature.

You don't have to be a profound thinker to realize that advice of that kind does not really belong to the traditional domains of science, philosophy or religion. It's what you might categorize as popular psychology, on a par with self-hypnosis. These days, many young people might even interpret this advice as a justification for the consumption of various kinds of "instant happiness drugs", from music, alcohol and hedonistic sex through to hard chemicals. Others, of a more introspective nature, might see it as an incitation to adopt Buddhism. Peale himself probably intended his "theology" as a good reason for dropping in on, and maybe donating cash to, the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

Since settling down in France, I'm annoyed most of all about this Yankee preacher and pop psychologist named Peale [May his soul rest in peace!] because I now know that he stole all his clunky theories from a notorious Frenchman: the pharmacist and quack therapist Émile Coué, generally considered today as the founder of a school of so-called autosuggestion. Everybody in France is accustomed to hearing of the celebrated "Coué method" of solving problems: Abracadabra! Simply force yourself to imagine that the problem no longer exists!

Must we therefore imagine that a worldly and cultivated American named Norman Vincent Peale, in the course of his peregrinations in the Old World, would have met up with the ideas of Coué, in French, and set about translating and expounding them into English? Don't be silly. A Yankee bumpkin like Peale wouldn't have known enough about Europe to protect his ass. It was Coué who got invited to the USA, where he was received personally by the president Calvin Coolidge. He presented his theories to enthusiastic crowds in New York and elsewhere… and it's quite possible that Peale heard summarily about his future spiritual guide, not in a lecture theater, but on radio or through newspaper cuttings.

In any case, today, I've lost interest (if ever I had any) in mesmerizing myself into believing in the remedies of the original inventor Coué, and certainly not in the Christian snake-oil variations of his Yankee imitator Peale. As for the clergyman Warr of my youth: Dear Dean, you might have been a little bit more inspired, as a spiritual mentor, back in Grafton in the '50s.

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