ANOTHER DECEMBER, and we're still here - no slight accomplishment, what with one thing and another; some years, in fact, it seems a trick worth cheering about, which is why the angel is blowing our horn. As the Christmas season approaches, we become compulsive about cheer and there is nothing - besides the sound of trumpets - that fill us with as much gladness as a Christmas cookie or three or four. Food, when you get right down to it, is extremely comforting, even more so when washed down with a bit of grog. (As the poet said, malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man.) We firmly intend to be here next December, too, and for that we need help. It's here on this page: enough cookbooks for a year of good eating, and because we've resolved to be better in 1978 and stop biting our nails, help of another kind at the bottom. So cheers, and pass the cookies . . . THERE WAS A TIME when people actually regarded unhappiness as a part of life, taking comfort in the biblical wisdom that "Man is born to suffering as the sparks fly upward." Working people assumed that the economic necessities of their lives entailed a certain amount of sorrow; religious people assumed that happiness was a scarce commodity in a fallen world; and the average citizen was content to endure a little boredom or discomfort in exchange for stability.
All that changed with the sequential advent of three cultural trends. First, the arrival of psychiatry (and its gradual displacement of religion as the header of the soul) was bound to put an emphasis, as medicine does, on the relief of pain. But the unexpected byproduct of Dr. Freud's discipline was to reveal, to our surprise, that the hang-ups and unhappinesses of the rich and leisured classes were exactly the same as those of the working stiff - and susceptible to the same remedies. It was no longer possible to blame suffering entirely on the sin of Adam or the surplus value of labor or the concomitants of bourgeois success: it was all in your head. So far a time, everyone who was anyone was having his neuroses removed like warts by his analyst, and everything went swimmingly for a few bucks an hour.
But during the 1960s, as the culture buckled and warped, the focus of attention was diverted from individual neurosis to vast societal sickness. Your unhappiness, it turned out, was less related to kissing your sister or seeing mommy in the bathtub than to the psychopathology of American culture; you were part of the collective unhappiness. And if your culture was making you sick, you could become part of a counter culture as an antidote to all that.
It soon became apparent of course, that your average middle-class unhappy person was not about to buy a goat and live on some dirt in Colorado. The middle class wanted an enlightened and fulfilling philosophy, to be sure after all, they had gone to college, but one which was consistent with their power lawn mowers and toaster ovens. Moreover, by the middle '60s, it was no longer possible to trust any system which did not embody technology in one form or another. The individuality of baseball had already given way to the more technologically satisfying game of football, in which specialized moving parts functioned mechanically together. And so firm had our faith in technology become that even our movies had ceased to portray a single cowboy working our his problems (John Wayne acting alone), but instead a technologically matched team of cowboys-specialists like The Magnificent Seven, or The Dirty Dozen, which was the military equivalent, or 2001 : A Space Odyssey , which was technology naked and unashamed. In the personal sphere, sex had given way to sex mechanics, as represented in dozens of "marriage manuals" which were as explicit and aesthetic as a Buick shop manual; exercise had given way to isometrics, fat-destroying harnesses, cellutile rituals and a score of fad diets; and everything was by the numbers.
So it remaned for the self-help movement to combine psychology and technology into a counterculture which was a sort of Woodstock without tears, compatible with the the world of Shake & Bake, mixmasters and frozen egg rolls. From Esalen to est to your erroneous zones, the current spate of self-help books is the nearly inevitable result.
So similar are these books so unusually homogenous in both their format and their advice, that they reveal in their simple redundancy what must be our worst social problems. It is hard not to conlude that Americans are terribly regimented, painfully afraid to be different, and nearly paralyzed by guilt. The authors of almost all of these books have suffered from those specific personal problems, apparently solved them, and then written up the results, buttressing their advice with interviews of a hundred people in the same boat. The ultimate self-help titled is thus something like I'm OK. You're a Turkey , and its message of salvation is "Go thou and do likewise." Obviously, hundreds of thousands do - and the social historians of the 21st century will have to decidewhether we helped ourselves or not.