The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum, 344 pp., Columbia University Press
How do we relate to the books, artwork, music, theater and other art we absorb? In moments of difficulty like the present, we turn to art sometimes for intellectual provocation, certainly, but also for a sense of comfort, new ways of seeing and being in the world: essentially, for self help. Two recent books—“The Self Help Compulsion” by Beth Blum and “The Longing for Less” by Kyle Chayka—examine affective states of relating to art, a “longing” or “compulsion” to find ways of living in the world through art. Blum looks carefully at the parallel development of self-help and modernist literature. Chayka considers minimalism, both as lifestyle and fine art movement. Far from academic abstractions on museum walls and bookshelves, artwork and literature are found imbricated in the very texture of our lives and how we move through them. What Chayka and Blum give space to reflect on, in addition to the works discussed, is the intimate and complex ways we read and look.
In “The Self Help Compulsion,” Blum examines the interdependent relationship of self-help to modernist and contemporary literature. Blum’s book is somewhat unusual in academic writing on self-help in not simply describing the negative results of this literature “as a tool of neoliberal governance.” She finds one origin point of self help literature, for example, when the Englishman Samuel Smiles spoke in 1845 at a workman’s educational society held at an abandoned cholera hospital, with inexpensive rent. Smiles described this society idealistically as a shared teaching with working people “improving themselves while they improved others.” Several years later, he published his book Self-Help (1859). Blum finds “two strains of self help—as a tool of depoliticization and a collective, self directed coping strategy—continue to compete and coexist.” Blum describes as well the complex global circulation of Smiles’ book, finding a “nonsynchronous, cross-cultural community of practical readers,” from the Middle East to Nigeria to Japan, at “critical historical junctures when traditional social and economic histories are upended.” Already, the focus is on the agency of various readers and how they might be willfully using what Blum terms “the self-help hermeneutic” for their own ends.
From this international view of self-help literature and its possibilities, Blum turns to Modernist literature’s dialogue with self-help literature. From this idealistic working person’s history of self-help, Blum shifts to focus closely on Gustauve Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, a satire of the bourgeois appropriation of DIY culture which shows self-help as what Blum terms “an addiction” as Flaubert’s protagonists ineptly attempt to enact various self improvement projects. Blum takes us as well through a wide variety of modernist writers, from Flann O’Brian to Virginia Woolf, and their textual engagements, often in opposition, to popular self help literature, finding a “counter-counsel” rather than disinterest. These modernist writers, Blum finds, can be seen to craft a “negative visualization” prefiguring more “catastrophizing” contemporary self help. The rest of the book describes the many ways self-help then engaged with modernist literature. Blum writes,
Is there a reader of Joyce who has never once wondered, upon sitting down to Finnegans Wake, “what is it all for?” What makes modernism unique is that every engagement with it is like encountering the foreignness and artificiality of all literature for the first time. Every self help reading of modernism is a very intimate, subjective replaying of this question of literature’s right to exist.
This urgent and questioning way of reading is what makes Blum’s book so illuminating to read. In a similar way, Chayka brings forward an unexpectedly complex view of Minimalism from Marie Kondo to John Cage to Agnes Martin. Minimalism has become widely viewed as a lifestyle brand, catering to and only available to the rich. Chayka is unsparing in offering this critique, noting, for instance, that Kondo “might seem vaguely anti-capitalist, but them there’s the fact that you have to buy a suite of Kondo books to practice it.” In another section, Chayka looks at Steve Jobs’s early use of minimalism as “marketing strategy,” “cloak[ing] artifice or even unsustainable excess.” Yet, in a similar dialectic to Bloom’s engagement with self-help, Chayka seeks a “bypass around the superficial minimalism” to find “a deeper minimalism.”
What is somewhat particular to Chayka’s book is his commitment to looking at minimalism as something which can be experienced and even a type of experience. He writes of looking at Agnes Martin paintings after the 2016 election as “medicine for a difficult time.” He turns to Donald Judd and his incorporation of his artworks into his own lived spaces in New York and Marfa. At one point, on a sweaty day, Chayka visits Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete in Marfa, finding a need to “interact with the concrete boxes with your body.” He writes that “minimalism requires a new definition of beauty, one that centers on the fundamental miracle of our moment-to-moment encounter with reality, our sense of being itself.”
Far from the capitalist estrangement offered by Jobs and Kondo, Chayka’s deeper minimalism proposes a way of being able to experience things more fully. What makes Chayka’s book so interesting to read is his commitment to carefully describe different experiences of this deeper minimalism. In a later chapter, Chayka goes to the Maverick Concert Hall, in the middle of the woods of Woodstock, NY, where John Cage premiered his famous 4'33”, where the pianist sat and didn’t play. He sets a timer on his phone for the length of the time and becomes attuned to the sound of a stream finding “as the water fell and splashed it made a sound like a natural xylophone, an orchestra of tiny percussion instruments—tingles, cymbals, timpani—in concert…I felt like I had discovered something hidden, a treasure that I never would have noticed otherwise.” The final and most striking part of the book describes Chayka’s trip to Japan and engagement with another cultural history of minimalism, again offering new forms of ambiguity and fullness of experience.
Reading both of these books offered many useful ideas about the various artistic movements they engage, the international travel of ideas and the obscured political roots of both self-help and minimalism. Most of all, both books gave space to think about how we sometimes read literature and look at art for something like self help. As Blum notes at the end of her book, “we are all potential self-help readers in the making.” There are many reasons we turn to art, but one is to more fully experience life and cope with difficult times like the ones we are in now. The aim is not simply avoidance, but facing challenge more thoughtfully.
Additional Reading: How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell also offers a thoughtful engagement with self help.
New Writing: For more thinking on art and crisis, I reviewed Square Haunting by Francesca Wade on Cleaver Magazine.