ESCAPING THE SELF

ALCOHOLISM, SPIRITUALITY, MASOCHISM, AND OTHER FLIGHTS FROM THE BURDEN OF SELFHOOD

A perceptive study of modern culture's overriding fascination with the self and identity. Baumeister (Psychology/Case Western Reserve Univ.) states that the history of the self in Western culture began by equating it simply with the physical body; the self has now grown to be regarded as vast, unique, important—containing personality traits, the wellsprings of creativity, the keys to personal fulfillment, and the solution to life's dilemmas (all of which is absurd to cultures that don't share our zealous faith in the inner self). The more inflated this self, Baumeister argues, the more burdensome it becomes: In the wake of calamity, or to escape its demands, people flee from it. For example, says Baumeister, bulimics, painfully preoccupied with themselves and the way they look to others, go on binges to escape their tyrannical self- images. During a binge, meaningful thought is abandoned for a narrow focus on immediate sensations; the troubled self disappears from awareness by becoming preoccupied with one cookie after another. In masochism—most common among successful, individualistic people at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy- -the competent, virtuous, energetic, and decisive selves these people maintain are gratefully relinquished by submission to the master. And, through pain, the self is reduced to the body, and the world is shrunk to one's immediate surroundings. Baumeister notes that the cult of self-esteem—which has so raised people's expectations and obligations (looking better, making love better, success at work, play, dieting and saying clever things)—will be dangerous in the long run as they try, through aberrant behaviors, to escape this self-imposed despotism. And perhaps self-esteem in itself is not always desirable. ``Weren't self- importance and overconfidence two of the factors that embroiled the US in Vietnam?'' Baumeister asks. Well written in nontechnical language; unique and persuasive.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 1991

ISBN: 0-465-02053-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1991

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...

MASTERY

Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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