- Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology
- Ivan R. Dee, 262 pp.
You Will Be Happy
Imagine, for a second, that instead of claiming the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence promised happiness itself, whatever that might be, as a guaranteed right. In a sense, that subtle shift in language would be a promise of utopia—you will be happy—where the burdens and difficulties of life simply melt away. This, according to Stewart Justman, author of Fool’s Paradise : The Unreal World of Pop Psychology, is the ultimate promise of books in the new self-help genre: complete, unfettered happiness, just by following the cookbook-type instructions of Dr. Phil McGraw or John Gray.
In particular, Justman convincingly shows that self-help literature borrows heavily from centuries of utopian novels, beginning with Thomas More’s Utopia, even as self-help authors themselves eschew their debt. More immediately, Justman claims, this burgeoning genre of “literature” has grown from the 1960s social movements that became personal, transformative movements with the publication of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, leading to the misappropriation of “the rhetoric of civil rights.” For example, he notes that pop psychology emphasizes immediacy and struggle, and in the process, has turned Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “we shall overcome” to “you must prevail” and find happiness.
And while Justman does succeed at demonstrating this misuse, as well as a variety of other questionable aspects of self-help morality, his exclusive focus on the self-help genre—independent of the cultural movement it has helped spawn—as well as his absolute disgust with pop psychology itself ultimately leaves Fool’s Paradise both flat and unsatisfying, despite its variety of intriguing arguments.
After tracing pop psychology’s narrative roots, Justman examines the way in which self-help authors reconstruct the concepts of blame, guilt, and morality, among others. In particular, he argues that to pop psychology purveyors, “no act of negligence can possibly compare with our neglect of our happiness,” thereby ignoring genuinely important neglect.
This singular focus on the self, Justman argues, subverts inter-personal relationships and obligation. Ironically, he notes, “the explicit message of Phil McGraw is that you have no true bond with anyone whomsoever except your counselor and deliverer, Phil McGraw, amazingly the only other person on this earth with your interests at heart.”
This theme—the author/reader relationship—pops up everywhere, as Justman moves from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to The Canterbury Tales, and virtually everything in between, but somehow it never occurs to Justman to leave the office, drop the Dickens, and talk to some self-help literature readers.
Both Justman and Dr. Phil would likely agree that the self-help genre does not seek to create high art on the order of Anna Karenina; its aim, at least as Dr. Phil would see it, is to guide the reader to his or her “authentic self” so that he or she can find happiness. At some point then—perhaps 100 pages into Fool’s Paradise—it becomes an exercise in academic posturing to completely ignore the purpose, from the authors’ perspectives, of pop psychology. It would be more reasonable, and more instructive, to at least consider some of the cultural implications of pop psychology, along with its literary merits. How do self-help consumers really view Dr. Phil? Are they really seeking their “authentic selves,” or are they looking for something else?
At this point, I should pause to say, I wanted to like Fool’s Paradise. I would generally agree with Justman’s premise that the pop psychology phenomenon is more harmful than not, that it over-promises the world to its readers and delivers very little.
But even beat generation scholars analyze those imminently talented authors Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac within their literary—as well as social—context. Only the absurdly narrow scholar would imagine reading On the Road as a book deracinated from the free-love drug culture the beats helped found.
Fool’s Paradise is indeed a learned book. It takes a wide-ranging and deep intellect to clearly link The Road Less Traveled with Oscar Wilde and John Stuart Mill. And in this sense, Justman accomplishes most, if not all of what he intends to accomplish.
But assessing the cultural relevance of pop psychology through Fool’s Paradise would be like trying to understand how the computer has changed the business world by examining a series of Intel schematics. Sure, in a limited sense, it helps. But in many ways, Fool’s Paradise is simply too limited.