Soul Man : Thomas Moore's...

Michael S. Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the author of the forthcoming "Manhood: The American Quest" (HarperCollins)

Thomas Moore rides the crest of the New Age's second wave. There's nothing glamorous or seductive in his books, no channelers with crystals counting up past lives, no mythopoeic male drummers off bonding in the woods, no Birkenstock-footed purveyors of herbal elixirs as conduits to cosmic consciousness.

Moore promises less--much less. His books may tap into that same hunger for meaning, but his table is set with much simpler fare. His recipe for soul food offers contemporary seekers a turn inward, a groping toward something deeper and more authentic, a way to ground experience in ways less tangible and material, and yet deeply fulfilling and satisfying.

And he has certainly struck a chord with the American book-buying public. "Care of the Soul," which dispensed such everyday wisdom, has spent half a year on the bestseller list, and sold a quarter-million hardcover copies; the just-published "Soul Mates" offers a steadier focus on relationships. If, as Hillary Rodham Clinton observed, America "suffers from sleeping sickness of the soul," Moore wants to be our national wake-up call.

A scholar, therapist and theologian--he spent several years in a Catholic monastery, leaving just before taking vows--Moore answers a difficult call, to minister to the loss of soul in contemporary life (he calls this "the greatest malady of the 20th Century") and to do it in a style that is immediately accessible for mass readers, and instantly usable in everyday life.

But then the soul isn't all that complicated. It "has a strong desire and need for intimacy, and it loves vernacular life--the particular place, family, friends, and neighborhood that are part of our daily lives," he writes. "The soul doesn't thrive on grand schemes of salvation or on smooth, uncluttered principles." And soul doesn't need elaborate choreography. It's the "small things," the "ordinary things," those quotidian moments of intimacy and of deep, nurturing solitude that feed a hunger Wolfgang Puck can never satisfy.

What the soul does thrive on is connection. Drawing on Jungian archetypes, ancient mythologies and folksy philosophy, Moore's books are prose-poems of compassion and tenderness. His soothingly graceful prose is a balm for egos battered by hostile takeovers, anguished divorces and do-it-to-them-before-they-do-it-to-you public philosophy.

So forget those Reaganomic adages about looking out for No. 1 and having the most toys when you die. Soul needs other people. Deeply. Self versus others is a false polarity to the soul, Moore wisely insists. To Moore, the only form of self-help is the self-acceptance that comes from engaging more deeply in the details of everyday life.

There is a kindness in Moore's books that is sorely lacking in public policy and interpersonal relations. Who could be so callously critical of books that speak to our deeply human needs to belong, to feel heard, to be loved, to love? It's something like being in favor of child abuse.

And yet there is something facile about Moore's revitalization of the soul, something about this search for depth that only skims the surface. Moore offers neither the promise nor the peril of psychoanalysis, confronting the darkest and murkiest parts of the unconscious. Instead, his is a practical guide to a subcutaneous layer of experience, the realm of self-acceptance and self-esteem without the hard work that some of us believe is necessary to clear away the layers of defensive armor.

Moore shares this problem with the entire genre (especially Robert Fulghum and M. Scott Peck). Practical spirituality almost invariably sounds trivial, especially when the search for the cosmic is scaled back to paying attention to everyday detail. Want to make contact with the soul, you might ask? Take a walk, listen to music, keep a diary. Write a letter. "Letters offer the opportunity to express our feelings," Moore offers in "Soul Mates." (How about E-mail?) Talk with a friend. "To the soul, there is hardly anything more healing than friendship." Remember birthdays and anniversaries.

At times, caring for the soul sounds a lot like having good manners, especially when it comes to the family, that seat of soul, its literal and symbolic home base. Moore enumerates ways to "honor and celebrate" the family--"parties, conversations, cards and letters, visits to grave sites, journeys to see family members, honoring family homesteads and possessions, handing furniture and clothing down from generation to generation." This is soul work for the "Little House on the Prairie" crowd. I wonder if my younger sister will be moved to read that wearing my outgrown overalls was an index of soulful connection.

The retreat to homespun virtues of the hearth indicates the deeply conservative nature of works like Moore's. Though he accepts a liberal's embrace of diversity and celebration of difference--he treats women and men with equal dignity and believes that other family forms besides the nuclear can be equally nurturing of soul--he also is deeply suspicious of change. Soul expresses itself, in fact, through "resistance to change," he writes. "A particularly soulful person might turn down a good job offer, for example, because he doesn't want to move from his home town."

The life of the mind is equally suspect here. "There is some wisdom in retreat from intellectual conquest," Moore writes. Soul work "doesn't require grand revelations, superior interpretations, or ultimate conclusions"--as if that's what intellectual engagement promises. Excessive reading may even take us away from soul work. "The soul is not meant to be understood," is his sage advice. "The heart has its own reasons."

Make no mistake. Moore's counsel to return to homespun verities does not mean having to go without. Moore's soul floats weightlessly on a sea of consumerism. "The products of our work are like the image in the pond--a means of loving ourselves," he writes in "Care of the Soul." No hair shirts or Spartan undecorated rooms for these post-modern soul cultivators.

But no Trump Towers either. Moore's is a philosophy for a scaled back 1990s, a decade of recovery from the excesses of Reaganism. Here's a set of moral tenets for the downwardly mobile, who seek solace and reassurance in home and family, in part because the rewards of wealth and power are no longer available, and in part because they didn't work. Why would all those yuppie fast-trackers wear power ties and eat power lunches if they truly felt powerful? (When the going gets tough, accessorize.) But power isn't something you consume, Moore might say, it's something you feel from being grounded in time and place. And he has a point.

Underneath such reassuring platitudes, though, lies a more profoundly conservative impulse. Like other works that employ Jungian archetypes, Moore offers a definition of soul that can look only backward. He taps a nostalgic yearning for Rousseauian innocence that was possible only in a mythic past, when people felt both rooted in place and connected to one another. History-as-myth filters the history of real people through the rosiest of lenses. Oh, for the simple, soulful life of the medieval peasant!

I confess to being occasionally swept away by such nostalgic longings myself, but surely no one in his or her right mind would make out of it a philosophy of relationships--or "relationship" as Moore calls it portentously (and gratingly) in "Soul Mates." Our medieval peasant, so connected to kith and kin, was also the bottom link of an intractable hierarchy, with no moral, political or emotional choices. Quotidian violence and brutality was hardly nourishing of the soul. Only in such a world could a philosophic tenet like the Great Chain of Being feel soothing.

When he's not raiding pre-Enlightenment manors for meaning, Moore borrows liberally from other cultures' mythic warehouses. Or, at least he borrows those myths he likes, conveniently ignoring the less soulful ones. It's as if one could glide effortlessly down the aisles of a giant cosmic cultural shopping mall, where the world's cultures and archetypes were neatly arrayed by category. To take myths out of their cultural contexts, though, because those contexts might not be so conducive to soul work, is, in my view, an act of appropriation, a cultural imperialism far more insidious than the Tomahawk Chop. No wonder Native Americans are wary of New Age interlopers.

To make this mythologized, fictional past the guidebook for future relationships is to depoliticize everyday life. I don't mean the politics of the electoral college, but a vision of politics as the promise of collective action to transform the world. Moore wants us to feel well, not to do good. "Getting to know and love yourself means accepting who you are, complete with your inadequacies and irrationalities."

Why strive toward virtue when you experience the pleasure of self-acceptance? Why earn self-respect when you can have self-esteem? Why try to move when you're already there? Why struggle to create new possibilities when, in the end, there's no place like home? Right, Dorothy?

Thomas Moore's books are available on audiocassette from HarperAudio. "Care of the Soul" is read by Peter Thomas (3 hrs., abridged, $16); "Soul Mates" is read by the author (3 hrs. abridged, $17).

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