Buy Bath Beads Go To Heaven

Self solves the spiritality problem -- in time for Xmas! Plus: TV Guide's dubious achievement.


James Poniewozik
December 18, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

It is a telling expression of the American character that we dedicate roughly the same time of year to evaluating the condition of both our souls and our asses. So, on the eve of the holidays, who better than Self magazine to publish a guide to the spiritual life?

Self's "Special Inspirational Issue" (December) is just one demonstration that spirituality isn't just for Yoga Journal anymore. Eclectic, flexibly defined -- and readily tied in to products -- the spiritual vogue is being packaged and repurposed by magazines across the newsstand.

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It's tempting to say that a Condi Nast fitness magazine has no business offering itself up as our spiritual Sherpa. But, from the laws of kashrut to the Vedic traditions, bodily health has long been tied to spiritual fitness. (Also, given religion's predilection for list features -- the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Noble Truths -- the Supreme Being wouldn't make a bad consumer magazine editor.) And in fact Self has put together a fairly respectable package of articles here -- how-to features on restorative yoga and various meditative traditions; an accessible but critical assessment of New Age programs by sociologist William Martin; even a set of essays on the Ten Commandments, including standout pieces from David Sedaris and Kirsten Bakis.

Still, the issue ultimately proves less about the folly of Cartesian dualism than it does about spirituality's blessed adaptability to almost any readership, a flexibility that has angels, miracles and mantras appearing on the newsstand universally and across genres.

Well, half universally. As Self demonstrates, the face of magazine spirituality is decidedly female, at least judging by a roundup of current covers: Washingtonian's luminous praying blond, Mother Jones' teenage girls at a Billy Graham revival and People's Donna Terody, who testifies to being saved from drowning by an angel and is watched over in her shot by a female seraph. (Life's holiday "What is the Soul?" feature is pushed aside by a plug for its exclusive profile of new dad Michael Jackson, but even he appears with his baby in an inspired Madonna and Child pose -- further evidence that Life may be the most unacknowledgedly subversive magazine on the American newsstand.) Likewise, Heart and Soul, a fitness magazine for African-American women -- which incidentally earns points for giving an advice column to Joycelyn Elders -- offers women seven tips on finding a mate through spiritual loving. Spirituality is big distaff business, but it may be a while before we see Men's Fitness promising the fellas abs like Vishnu's.

"Spirituality" is the key word. For any but the most high-minded magazines, religion remains poison. (As Max Frankel pointed out in a recent New York Times Magazine, some of the most timid reporting in all of journalism is on issues of faith, precisely because writers are spooked by their own reputation as godless cynics -- take People's feature, which all but straightfacedly declares that angels walk among us.) But "spirituality," by virtue of its sheer haziness, is pure manna. The popular jambalaya of numerous sacred traditions -- a santo here, a mandala there -- is not so much religion lite (another easy jab) as religion defanged, delivered of its ancient enmities, exclusivity and commitment to particular codes and regimens. It is a religion, in other words, that will piss off few readers or advertisers. Almost everyone can define themselves as "spiritual," as do 97 percent of surveyed Self readers (what's the alternative, after all? "Soulless"? "Damned"?) without having to bite any particular wafer.

But don't take my word for it: ask Minnie Driver. Queried, "Is spirituality something you've explored in your life?" the Self cover star answers, "I don't know if you can be alive and not be doing that." Read one way, that's practically a monastic creed: One can make one's mundane life holy by doing everything with a higher purpose and a sense of belonging to a system greater than one's self. Read another way, it's a cosmic cop-out: I am, therefore I am spiritual, no matter what I'm doing.

Buying bath beads, for instance. The issue is filled with ads that tout various shampoos and fragrances as somehow spiritually salutary: There's "Nokomis: the fragrance that speaks to a woman's soul" -- proving that the Native-American-mojo gambit still has appeal among the pilgrims -- and Ghost Myst by Coty: "Always believe in spirits, especially yours." Most outrageously, perhaps, a fashion spread, "You Look Divine," features a Gandhi-print top and leggings for a mere $365 (over a week till Christmas and I've already found Bill McKibben's present!). In other words, it's the same sort of vague body-oil-as-spiritual-salve doctrine that has made a mint for the Body Shop.

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Still and all, isn't it a waste of perfectly good stones to cast them at targets this frivolous? If washing with lavender soap and calling it "aromatherapy" makes a person feel good -- and more important, feel Good -- who can that possibly hurt?

I have an answer, my child, but to unburden myself of it, I must speak in a parable.

I take my reading from Page 114 of the book of Self. Money & Job columnist Suze Orman tells how her longtime commitment to meditation helped her in 1987, when an apparently disgruntled assistant sabotaged her financial services company, trashing Orman's Rolodex and computer files and essentially shutting down her office:

"The best day of my life came almost three years later, when my former assistant and I confronted each other in court. To my surprise, the presiding judge asked whether she and I wanted to settle the case ... She said no ... Instead of expressing anger, I surprised myself by telling her: 'I don't know what I did to you that made you behave the way you did to me, but I just want to say that I am so sorry.' Then I turned and left the courtroom, with a new sense of lightness and a renewed determination to make my way all over again. Later I learned the judge had ruled in my favor."

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Orman conspicuously omits such temporal details as who was suing whom, why and for what, as well as the assistant's possible motivation (save for "I sometimes sensed (she) resented me") -- we can only assume that this bodhisattva of personal finance was blindsided by the pointlessly destructive act of a crazy woman.

Whatever: Orman is free to flatteringly render her personal history like any other columnist. But here's the thing. There was a time when, if you sabotaged your boss's office, she might well have gone ballistic. She might have hauled your ass into court, or you hers. And she might have had the law on her side -- or at least the better lawyers. But she would not have capped off your quashing with a benediction -- then recounted it in a national magazine as if it were the teaching of the Buddha.

This image -- a businesswoman floating out of a courtroom on a cloud of satori, leaving the lawyers to sully their hands with earthly matters -- is boomer indulgence encapsulated: The notion that one can be oppressed by one's assistant; the insistence on being an eternal innocent no matter how much power and wealth one acquires or how one acquires it. And it is an attitude that this spirituality ` la carte approach encourages.

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Grown-up people once accepted not only that responsibility carried risks but also that worldly success came fraught with moral trade-offs; that message runs clear from the beatitudes eastward to the eightfold path. No wonder, therefore, that instead of submitting to the ancient faiths we today prefer to put them on blocks and strip them for parts. The danger of this kind of easily compartmentalized spirituality is that it caters to the fantasy of sainthood with fringe benefits, that if you shop around assiduously enough, somebody will gladly sell you a needle with an eye large enough to accommodate a full-sized sport-utility camel, nicely loaded.

Next Week -- Updike considers "Singled Out": David Hirshey, erstwhile compiler of Esquire's annual Dubious Achievement Awards, was picked up by TV Guide, of all publications, earlier this year to reprise that sarcastic roundup of the year's events. The resulting feature, "The Year in Jeers" (Dec. 13), is funny in the same competent, hit-and-miss way, but funnier yet are the contortions that TVG goes through to explain its bizarre aspiration to upscale drollery.

Somewhere along the line, someone in editorial must have realized that the various in-media wisecracks that slayed them on West 55th Street would not necessarily fly on doily-covered coffee tables from Ketchikan to Kennebunk, and thus the magazine surrounds the feature with nervous disclaimers and qualifiers -- "True, this is a departure for us"; "Yes, some of the content is outrageous" -- and repeatedly assures readers (and, presumably, the stars, agents and networks on whom it relies for copy) that, lest it be accused of not being able to say anything nice, its "Year in Cheers" episode is forthcoming next week. Editor in chief Steven Reddicliffe goes so far as to include instructions on reading the entries ("Here's a tip: An item's headline is its punchline"), conjuring up the sad image of a furrowed-browed grandma hunched over TVG next to her eternally full dish of buttermints, trying to figure out why she should be laughing over a mass poisoning in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

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If something could possibly make me ashamed of being a snide ass-jockey media-critic parasite, it is this. What a cesspool we have made of the world. When TV Guide is compelled to hire a team of consultants to snarkify itself, can it be long before Bob Hope starts telling cunnilingus jokes to keep up with Martin Lawrence? But the natural order may yet be restored: Toward the end of his jittery column, Reddicliffe gives the feature the resounding endorsement "we'd like to make (it) an annual event." Translation: Mr. Hirshey is ready for your call, Entertainment Weekly.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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