Everything old is new again
When doing research for my recent post on Wilhelm Reich and his "Orgone generator" – yes, despite my laziness I do occasionally venture off the Internet for my research – I pulled an old book off my shelf, Fads, Follies and Delusions of The American People, by the late great journalist Paul Sann. Sann was sometimes known as the "king of tabloid journalism," but if that calls to mind scintillating articles about Elvis or Bigfoot sightings, or Lindsay Lohan’s latest drunken escapades, you’ve got Sann pegged wrong. Following the link to the Paul Sann web site will give you an idea of what he was about, as will opening the pages of Fads, Follies, etc. if you can find a copy. Unfortunately it is out of print, but used copies are available from several sources.
Published in 1967, the book is, it goes without saying, a bit dated. "Beatle haircuts" and mini-skirts were the most notable disruptions in the high schools of the day (school shootings had not yet come into vogue), while San Francisco hippies and the Mothers of Invention were the most cutting-edge phenomena Sann could find to target with his poison pen (I’m sure he came off as a hopeless square to any flower children who may have picked up his book). Even his information about older fads and follies is, of necessity, incomplete. In his chapter on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, which was such a raging fad for a brief shining moment in 1950, he concluded with the tale of how Hubbard’s bubble burst in October 1950 when he and his Dianetics shtick were discredited by some insiders in his organization. Before the year was out, Dianetics was replaced by the next folly du jour. At the time Sann wrote his piece, he had no way of foreseeing the explosive growth of Scientology and its widespread acceptance in Hollyweird; in 1967, after all, John Travolta was still in junior high, and Tom Cruise was a kindergartener.
Still, Sann’s book is invaluable for its wryly intelligent look at American culture, and besides, the older fads he writes about are what I find particularly intriguing. Consider, for example, 1920s pharmacist-turned-psychologist/philosopher, Émile Coué, sometimes called the father of autosuggestion, which has nothing to do with manifesting a new car. (Back in the 1920s, people weren’t sophisticated enough to understand that wishful thinking can manifest new luxury sports cars.) Before there was manifesting a la The Secret, before there were affirmations, before, even, there was "positive thinking," there was Couéism, aka the Coué Method.
Coué was a big believer in the power of thoughts and words. His most famous creation, which hit the US circa 1923, was one you’ve no doubt heard: "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Twelve magic words, these were. Actually, in the original French the message came to fourteen words: Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux – proving once again that English is a much more efficient language than some of those other tongues. Take that, you snooty French people! We Americans may be the undisputed champions of gullibility these days, but at least we have a streamlined language, even if we do often misuse it to make up stupid new words and even stupider concepts.
Once Couéism hit America it took on a life of its own, as things so often do on these shores. His twelve-word magic formula was all the rage for a while, with Coué advocates claiming that the formula could cure all sorts of ailments, including varicose veins, and could even grow hair on bald heads. We can’t blame Coué himself for some of the more outrageous claims, though he did take credit for more modest achievements, such as helping a man who was suffering from unceasing yawning; he didn’t actually cure the man, but he did cut the frequency of the yawns. He also supposedly helped a couple of young boys who stuttered. His biggest public triumph was allegedly getting an eighty-year-old trolley accident victim to walk with a cane for the first time in two years. The victim’s doctor, however, said there wasn’t anything wrong with the old man’s legs in the first place. (In all fairness, I don't know the whole story here. If the man really wasn’t walking at all before that, there had to be some reason, if only psychological or emotional, so I suppose it could be argued that perhaps Coué was able to motivate him somehow.)
Although Coué managed to impress quite a few prominent folks and organizations in the U.S., including the Daughters Of The American Revolution, the medical establishment was not pleased. The American Medical Association called him "a purveyor of cloudy fluff." He ran into some real opposition when he announced that autosuggestion could not only determine in advance a baby’s sex but could also predetermine its career. He wrote:
If a mother wants a boy baby, she must bend her will to that effect, repeating with absolute confidence thirty or forty times a day, "My child will be a boy." If she intends him to be a great painter, she will insist on this to herself. She will visit art galleries and surround herself with beauty, and above all she will think beautiful things.
Hmm…does any of this sound familiar?
There’s no telling how many pregnant women followed Coué’s advice, but once again the medical establishment became a burr in Coué’s side. And in this case that’s more than a figure of speech, for it was Dr. Charles Burr, a brain specialist on the University of Pennsylvania faculty, who submitted that Coué’s claim was "scientifically out of bounds" – a nice way of saying that the Frenchman was out of his tree. As noted above, most of the rest of the medical community concurred, though a few, such as Dr. George Draper of Presbyterian Hospital in New York, came out in Coué’s corner. Dr. Draper suggested that Coué had robbed disease of its power by getting people to believe in their own regenerative powers, and said it was wrong to ridicule anyone who had that ability.
Amazingly enough, despite the appeal of that magic twelve-word formula, Couéism did not really take hold in America, and was a short-lived fad. While today the man would probably be elevated to cult-hero status in the U.S. – and his ideas certainly live on in many forms – Americans weren’t quite so enamored of magical thinking in the early 1920s. Of course we've always been gullible in plenty of other ways; had this not been the case, Paul Sann would not have been able to fill up a large book documenting our follies (360-plus pages, oversized (85/8 x 111/8), set in double columns in 10-point Baskerville type).
But Coué, with his sophisticated notions of autosuggestion, faced much the same problem that Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, encountered in Back To The Future, when he launched into a cacophonous guitar riff at a 1955 sock hop. When Michael-as-Marty’s musical efforts were met by stunned silence, he conceded, "I guess you guys aren’t quite ready for that. But your kids are gonna LOVE it." Similarly, Americans in the early ’20s weren’t quite ready to embrace the true power of thought. Give them another thirty years, though, and they were more than ready for Norman Vincent Peale. Give them another fifty years after ol' Norm came out with his classic, and they were perfectly primed for The Secret. Coué would have probably been one of the top "stars" on Rhonda’s infomercial.
Alas, poor Coué did not have the advantage of Marty McFly’s time-traveling perspective, and in due time he went back to the Continent, where, despite any autosuggestion or other techniques he may have tried, he died in 1926 of heart failure (some sources say pneumonia was the culprit). As Paul Sann noted, "One of the obituary writers summed up the story of Couéism in fifteen words: ‘It was conquered less by the scientists than by the demand for a new fad.’"
And that is as true today as it always has been. When The Secret eventually falls out of favor – which I’m sure will eventually happen despite the increasingly absurd Secret spinoffs that continue to be churned out – it will be due less to the efforts of scientists, skeptics and random critics than to the public’s short attention span, and their hunger for ever newer and more exciting "breakthroughs." The big difference is that today there are a heck of a lot more exciting breakthroughs to choose from. And the bar has definitely been raised, miracle-wise (Paul Sann would have a field day, don’t you think?) – although even today, some folks are still recommending some variation of Coué's "magic words."
Day by day, in every way, the New-Wage world keeps getting sillier and sillier. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
PS added on Monday afternoon ~ Regarding one of the latest Secret-related gimmicks that allows you to actually "install" The Secret, my buddy Blair Warren wrote, "Soon they'll make it so easy for us that we'll be able to inject it, inhale it, add it to drinking water like a fiber supplement, etc. I'm sure someone...will offer to install it in people remotely, over the phone or via an e-mail request."
Recognizing, however, that some folks may have swallowed a bit too much Secret, and they might be feeling a bit clogged-up as a result, Blair added, "Maybe we should come out with our own Secret enema? I think there are a lot of people who could use one right about now."
"Fine, Blair," I wrote back. "You create the graphic for that one."
And he did (though fortunately, he chose not to depict the product actually being put to use. Good thing, too, since this is not that kind of blog.).