“Our Tragic Universe” & the Fiction of Perfection – The Self-Help Industry Exposed

In Scarlett Thomas’ new novel, Our Tragic Universe, heroine Meg concludes that self-help books succeed by first making us feel bad about ourselves and then giving us the perfect fix.   It’s rather like Humpty Dumpty being pushed off a wall and broken so someone can make a fast buck putting him back together again.  According to Meg, the arenas in which we need help are endless:

“You could learn, from a book, how to snare someone with an ‘exclusive smile’, how to set the agenda for any conversation you wanted to have, how to be the ‘chooser’ rather than the ‘choosee’, how to become ‘magnetic’ and attract the people and objects you want, how to harness the power of ‘Screw you!”, how to read other people’s minds via their body language and also use your own body to communicate, and how to use ancient secrets of creativity to give your PowerPoint presentations more ‘zing’.”

Apparently this approach works because we’re all so eager to be ‘perfect’.   Just like a character’s situation at the end of a novel, we insist on our lives being as emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically neat and tidy as a ball of virgin yarn.

“The whole of Western society seemed to be turning itself into a reality TV show in which everyone was supposed to want to be the most popular, the most talented, the biggest celebrity.”

But what if this wasn’t what you really wanted?

What if instead of being a cultural King Midas, you wanted to be an anti-hero?  What if you did not desire riches, success, and syrupy romance straight from a fairy tale?   What if you just wanted to be a nice person – a good friend?  What if instead of spending your time making zingy PowerPoint presentations, you took up bird watching or knitting?

“…people who wanted to reject these ideas of perfection and individualistic heroism should get a pile of books that help them learn a new skill, or perhaps another language, not in order to become successful or fit or better, but just for the hell of it.”

If you did this, undoubtedly societal movers and shakers would write you off as hopeless – just not ‘with the program.’

But might some want more from  life than to be ‘programmed”?

I suggest that underneath our glossy exteriors a good many of us do.  Indeed fiction writers know their heroes and heroines can’t be too ‘perfect’.  Some flaw or weakness is mandatory for them to be lovable – to be someone with whom readers wish to relate.

So why do we want  fictional heroes to be imperfect while at the same time insisting on perfection for ourselves?

I suggest we give this paradox serious consideration or as Meg suggests, we run the serious risk of becoming little more than a fictional character for the entertainment – and profit –  of someone else.

The Secret Book of John

Anger and The Secret Book of John

Short fiction by Debra Moolenaar

© 2010

“Tomorrow I shall have to tell them.”    Glancing down at my hands, I wince and stuff my wedding ring in my jean’s pocket.  After shuffling across the room, I practice silent arpeggios before the well-stoked fire.  A week before Christmas and even Marseilles is cold and damp as a grave.   With increased circulation comes unexpected hope.  “What shall I tell them in London, Mother?   What shall I tell them when I go home?”

“The truth, child.”   Mother Superior hands me a cup of strong china tea.  “Understand that your anger is that of all the wronged women since the beginning of time.   There’s no disgrace in that.”

“I am not angry.”

“I’ve something that may help.”  With polished confidence, the nun glides across the crimson carpet to her ebony bookcase.  She selects a thin volume.  “This is one of my alternative Christian texts, some of which have come down from ancient Mesopotamia.”

The Secret Book of John?”  I flip  gold embossed, parchment pages and wonder what in hell kind of sacred treasure I’m holding in my unclean hands.

“The bishop believes it heresy.”  She flashes a seductive wink.  “I prefer to think of it as wisdom from the time when man had direct discourse with his gods.”

I nod.   Best I understood, heresy was wisdom, just in disguise.

“I prefer a humanist god to one who dishes out hell and damnation for every mistake,” continues the mother with the hint of a smile.

The Mother is progressive.  That’s why I chose The Sisters of Saint Joseph for my little er, um, retreat.   But as I prepare to leave France, I’m now thinking she’s too progressive, too focused on sweetness and light.  Maybe her sheltered life is like that.  Mine isn’t.

“Like me, Hannah, you search for truth.”  The mother bows her head.   “Yet when you fail to find it, like most of us you will accept the lies.  In this case anger is justified.  It signals something deep within you is wrong.   This Gnostic text explains much about what I believe it means to be a woman and why we all share the same anger.  What would you say if I told you that it was man, and not woman, who was responsible for original sin?”

“I’d be extremely pleased.”  I sip hot tea and find it satisfying as my favourite Belgian crème chocolate.  Finally, this nun is saying something that makes sense.

“According to the story, original sin resulted not from Eve’s encounter with the snake, but from God’s arrogance.  The Old Testament god was very selfish.  He didn’t hesitate to steal light from the Mother Sophia to give life to his human creations, Adam and Eve.   Understandably, Eve thought this unjust and it was while trying to return the light to the Mother, that she first tasted the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.”

I flip pages again.

“Let’s suppose it were true,” she continues.  “Can you imagine how Eve must have felt to be eternally damned for doing something so noble?”

“She’d be angry.”

“Yes.”  Although near my own mother’s age, Mother Superior suppresses a girlish giggle.  “Might it be possible that if, as the Church teaches women are burdened with Eve’s original sin, we might also be burdened with her anger?”

“I’m confused.”  Sometimes the mother talks in circles like my psychoanalyst in Golders Green.

“Confusion comes when you’re unable to see things for what they are. “  The mother glances at my blossoming belly.  Her mood slips.  “But anger, Hannah, anger comes when you refuse to accept things as you know they are.  Eve couldn’t change her situation but imagine how miserable she’d have been if she’d not accepted it.  Each of us must embrace her reality.”

“Not everyone…”  I stop horrified at my accusatory tone.  “I didn’t mean to say that.”

“But you did say it, Hannah.”  She watches a pair of jet-black starlings scrounge for berries, their yellow beaks bobbing against an abundance of pine green.   “And you had every right to do so.  If I’m not honest with you, how can you be so with me?”

“That’s not all that happened to Eve, is it?”  The softness in my voice frightens me. Without anger, I feel naked.  Without pain, I’m alone.

“Eve was raped.”  Her blue eyes go rheumy.

Mine glued to the floor I nod my understanding.   The mother’s life hasn’t been sweetness and light.  She’s just like me.

“John reminds us wrong lurks around every corner, even when we think ourselves safe.”  She squeezes my hand.  “But while John believed deliverance comes from outside, Eve demonstrated it comes from within.”

“Tomorrow I shall tell them the truth,” say I.  Rubbing my tummy, I shrug away tears.  “Although I was betrayed by a man I trusted, me and his child will be OK.”