Elevate Difference

Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help

From Freud’s creation of psychoanalysis for curing psychopathology by means of talk therapy, to spilling one’s guts on Oprah’s couch or skyping into her soul series webcast, we all just really want to know (dammit!): who am I and why am I here? Saving the Modern Soul examines the language and practice of psychology, essentially, from an American cultural perspective. The author, Eva Illouz, a Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, provides a feast of ideas concerning therapeutic values as she tackles the myriad contemporary methods we employ to figure ourselves out, feel better, and find higher meaning.

The demand is huge, considering an ever-surging market of self help books, workshops, advice columns, motivational experts, family life coaches, misery memoirs, corporate programs, and righteous gurus galore. Illouz even discusses our voyeuristic fascination with Tony Soprano’s sessions with Dr. Melfi and the ensuing lessons on narcissism and borderline personality issues. Illouz sharpens her focus on our collective American obsession with navel-gazing to posit that we may too actively romanticize our angst, and this actually serves to complicate our lives with an unbalanced and devotional focus on our pain.

Eva Illouz is a great scholar, and her book has been hailed by many as an important contribution to the field of therapeutic discourse. It is, of course, an inescapable fact that our self-help culture has transformed contemporary emotional life. Reading her book and trying to absorb it all at once is overwhelming The great gusto with which Americans are consuming therapy, pop psychology, new age theories, and every new book that comes down the pike to reveal the “secrets” of the soul is mind-boggling — if not a little bit cringe-inducing.

So I decide to get up and go take a look at my own library to see what a psychology book junky I have personally become. I see books on cult dynamics, narcissism, and sociopaths (the dark side is so scary, so intriguing!), past lives, grieving the loss of a pet, the I Ching, positive thinking, the workings of the creative mind, feelings and how they happen... even, OMG, I see I have The Secret! It’s nestled between Ship of Fools and Conversations of Goethe!

I am pretty much over hearing one more wrenching rehab tale of woe, especially coming from a celebrity, but delving into the twists and turns of what makes humans tick is ever fascinating. It’s like going on a fabulous archeological dig. The great inner journey. Illouz is fascinated, too, and that’s why her books on various facets of the subject keep coming (this is her fifth book).

All in all, I loved the subject matter, but, technically, I found the author’s prose tough-going. Her style is such a series of circuitous sentences jammed with densely clinical words that I frequently needed to take off my glasses and blink my eyes back to clear vision. The other issue I had was point of view. The majority of people seeking help, I believe, are not glamorizing their pain. The pain is real and begs for relief. Any other curiosity one has about the world of psychology - even if it is not one’s own particular problem - what’s so wrong with a little healthy intellectual curiosity? Hmmm?

Written by: Cheryl Reeves, June 16th 2008

Being in therapy is great. I spend an hour just talking about myself. It's kinda like being the guy on a date.