restricted access Modernism’s Anti-Advice
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Modernism’s Anti-Advice

For a fortnight I was confined to my room, and I surrounded myself with the books of the day (sixteen or seventeen years ago); I mean those volumes which treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours . . . I was in a state of mind bordering on intoxication or stupidity.

—Charles Baudelaire, “Let us Flay the Poor” (1865)1

A reader of Suze Orman or Tony Robbins might well have written this passage, but it actually expresses the frustrations of the proto-modernist poet Charles Baudelaire in 1865. Baudelaire’s eulogy for self-help as “the books of the day (sixteen or seventeen years ago)” was somewhat premature. At the same time, his prose poem indicates that the parameters of the self-help industry are more capacious than most would think. Self-help’s origins extend much further back than Dale Carnegie’s American handbook, and, contrary to what Baudelaire optimistically implies, its influence has only escalated.

Baudelaire’s fascination with “those volumes which treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours” was hardly anomalous among his contemporaries. “On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed . . . they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books,” complained British essayist G. K. Chesterton in 1909.2 The annus mirabilis of modernism—1922—also marked the international tour of Emile Coué, the French pioneer of positive thinking, and the founding of guru George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau. Gurdjieff and Coué were causes célèbres of the day, boasting modernist disciples such as Jean Toomer, [End Page 117] Katherine Mansfield and Roger Fry, and detractors including John Dewey and Ezra Pound. References to Coué’s famous affirmation, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” made their way into novels by John Galsworthy (1924), Dorothy Sayers (1930), and Graham Greene (1945) (fig. 1).3 During modernism’s heyday, books by Lytton Strachey and H. G. Wells vied for space on the bestseller list beside Coué’s Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion (1922), Josephine Jackson’s Outwitting Our Nerves (1921), and Lulu Hunt Peters’s Diet and Health (1918).4 Modernism has long been defined by its rejection of Victorian moral imperatives. However, the concomitant rise of the self-help industry uniquely illuminates the stakes and objectives of modernism’s own genre of anti-advice. Despite their significant oppositions, modernism and self-help developed as overlapping discursive communities, united by a shared investment in the problem of how to live.

Though the modernist period witnessed the commercialization of counsel at an unprecedented pace, self-help has an ancient history. Some date it back to the ancient Egyptian genre of life-instruction called “Sebayt” (“teaching”), others to the spiritual insights of the Bhagavad Gita, the injunctions of the Hebrew Bible, or the aphorisms of the ancient Greeks.5 Every culture has its wisdom tradition, but the first glimmers of a textual industry in America premised on practical counsel can be traced to Protestant New England, where the Puritans’ anxiety over salvation created a market for guides to the devout life such as Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good (1710), which provided instructions on how to assure God’s grace through diligence, thrift, and industriousness. Benjamin Franklin adapted the religious manuals of Mather and others to fit his more secular program of social mobility in works such as Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757), which sociologist Max Weber has influentially argued inaugurated a shift from the Protestant to the capitalist work ethic, and which later found a narrative counterpart in Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches morality tales.6

In Europe, a parallel tradition of practical advice had developed in the form of the conduct book, which began in Medieval courtesy literature, had its golden age in courtly Renaissance counsel, and remained popular well into the eighteenth century, when it shifted its focus from politics to etiquette and tackled subjects germane to the rise of the bourgeois middle class such as household management...


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