A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles.”
by Marianne Williamson.
HarperCollins. 260 pp. $20.00.
Despite the national clamor over rising illiteracy and the allegedly hypnotic allure of the idiot box, Americans read more today than at any other point in our history. The problem is not with our failure to read; the problem may be with what we do read. Consider A Return to Love, the best-selling book in America these past months. It is another in the seemingly endless series of tomes that promise to change your life—not quite in the way that reading the Bible, or Middlemarch, might do, but rather by telling you explicitly what is wrong with you and giving advice on how to fix it.
The audience for such books ranges from recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, together with their families and other “co-dependents,” to the lonely, the fat, the sick in body and the sick at heart. Far and away the largest proportion of readers also happens to be female, and it is they in particular who account for the success of books like Smart Women, Foolish Choices; Women Who Love Too Much; The T-Factor Diet; and Toxic Parents. The stuff of such books is food, fitness, beauty, career, and coping with men, men, men—men who cannot love, men who suffer from “commitmentphobia,” men plagued by every known spiritual disease but whose troth you can nevertheless plight, if you dare, by following the counsel of How to Marry the Man of Your Choice.
It is easy enough to make fun of all this. As a literary genre self-help is perfectly formulaic—short chapters divided into bite-size chunks with cutesy subheadings, generously interspersed with case histories of men who won’t do this and women who can’t do the other. As for the advice these books give, in complexity it runs the gamut from “if you want to be successful in business, dress well and show up at the office earlier than your boss” to “if you want to marry someone, don’t sleep with him until the tenth date or he might think you’re cheap.”
Nevertheless, people say that self-help books do change their lives for the better—and in truth it is no wonder, because the wisdom they peddle, though obvious and even trite, also happens to be sound. Marianne Williamson’s veritable bible of self-help, A Return to Love, is no exception.
Actually, A Return to Love is more talmud than bible, since it serves as a series of commentaries on a 1965 work, A Course in Miracles, whose anonymous author was then (according to Publisher’s Weekly) on the staff of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. “The Course,” as it is referred to in A Return to Love, changed Williamson’s own life in 1978 when she happened upon it in a time of crisis. “It used traditional Christian terms, but in decidedly nontraditional, nonreligious ways,” she writes. A Jew whose grandfather brought her to synagogue on Saturday mornings (and whose father took her to Saigon in 1965 so that she could see what war was like), Williamson has been dedicating herself to spreading the Course’s gospel for the last ten years in lectures and classes. Apparently her work as a popularizer is much-needed, because the Course itself takes up several volumes, including a workbook—a fact that makes Williamson’s 260-page book the first religious exegesis to outsell its own bible.
A Return to Love is almost unspeakably tasteless. As Williamson blithely explains, the Course appropriates terminology from other religions in order to add spice to its own. “Words like Christ, Holy Spirit, salvation, Jesus, etc. are used for their psychological rather than religious significance,” she writes. And she continues, seemingly unaware that wars have been fought over less:
The Christian religion has no monopoly on the Christ, or on Jesus himself. Jesus reached total actualization of the Christ mind, and was then given by God the power to help the rest of us reach that place within ourselves.
Nor does Williamson confine her offensiveness to Christianity; she uses a Jewish term like “Atonement” as a way of describing how we should forgive ourselves rather than take responsibility for the wrongs we have done to others. In this respect, as in others, Williamson is merely peddling a brand of Religiosity Lite, in which the customer gets to keep all the fun parts without any obligations and without true faith. Like Werner Erhard, whose est was one of the founding self-help groups, the Course invites us to accept our own innate perfection. There is no free-floating evil, no original sin; if only we give ourselves permission, we can each of us be infinitely loving and infinitely giving, we can all be “the Christ.”
But if A Return to Love is a work of surpassing vulgarity in a surpassingly vulgar field, it too, like its self-help peers, offers both sound and surprisingly moving advice. Its main message is that meaning in life comes from surrendering to something larger than ourselves, seeking relief from inner turmoil by asking “God” for a miracle. Of course, by “miracle” Williamson does not mean a supernatural manifestation, but rather a shift in perception away from the “negative” to the “positive.” Thus, says Williamson, the key to success in business is to love your customers. Similarly with romance: the trick is to accept that in a romantic relationship the only person you can change is yourself.
Above all, the key to a successful life is to give yourself over to the present:
The past is over. It doesn’t matter who we are, what Mommy said, what Daddy did, what mistakes we made, what diseases we have, or how depressed we feel. The future can be reprogrammed in this moment. We don’t need another seminar, another degree, another lifetime, or anyone’s approval in order for this to happen.
Again, obvious enough. But simple truisms like these, borrowed (like much of the book) from the precepts of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, can indeed save a great deal of heartache for someone who has never run into anything like them.
Once upon a time you would have heard such wisdom from your grandmother, expressed in sugar-coated clichés: “Always look on the bright side.” “If God gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But these days your grandmother is probably too busy watching Sally Jessy Raphael and trying to get in touch with her inner child to bother. If the job has fallen, by default, to the likes of Marianne Williamson, that may not be such a bad thing for the national psyche, however appalling an assault it constitutes on the national aesthetic.