BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : No Punch Line to Cleese's Take on Life : LIFE And How to Survive It by Robin Skynner and John Cleese ; Norton $25, 424 pages


John Cleese? The man who wigged out in Monty Python's "Cheese Shoppe" after politely requesting Gruyere, Edam, Gouda and three dozen other cheeses, only to be eventually told that there was in fact no cheese at all ? The skittish hotel manager, Basil Fawlty, who had a knack for opening the wrong door just as the wrong person was entering?

John Cleese has the gall to tell us about "life and how to survive it"?

Indeed! Surprisingly, there is no punch line to this earnest self-help guide. But the premise isn't as absurd as it first sounds, for Cleese, whose characters are too brilliantly batty not to be inspired by some mad inner muse, never pretends to have all the answers.

Rather, he sees himself as a popularizer for the ideas of British psychiatrist Robin Skynner. Cleese met Skynner in 1974, when he joined group therapy in an effort to mitigate the malaise he felt after divorcing his first wife. Skynner and Cleese later became friends and in 1983 published a book in England, "Families and How to Survive Them."

Early in these pages, the authors review a central insight from that book: Cleese had sunk into depression largely because he bought into the myth that "true love" requires "deep emotional need." It is a myth that is pervasive in our culture, the authors argue, and it encourages neurotic patterns of dependence not only in relationships, but in families, companies and cultures. As Cleese illustrates:

"Just take the great love stories--Romeo and Juliet, La Traviata, Anna Karenina, Carmen . . . mention them to people and a dreamy radiance passes across their face and they say: 'Oh, they're wonderful aren't they--so romantic.' Well, they're not wonderful. They are tales of almost unmitigated misery. There's not 10 minutes of good, everyday happiness and fun in any of them. The lovers usually get one dollop of over-the-top ecstasy and apart from that it's wall-to-wall suffering. They get stabbed, walled up in tombs, they throw themselves under trains, or commit suicide with asps."

This romantic ideal, the authors explain, all but obviates mental health because it cuts us off from our internal sources of joy and sorrow. Thus, our boundaries with other people become muddled and we end up "projecting" or transferring blame onto others.

There is, of course, nothing novel about this insight: James Hillman, Thomas Moore and other members of the "archetypal psychology" movement have been popularizing it since the early '80s. But while many in that movement have been preaching self-realization from pine-forest retreats, Skynner and Cleese refreshingly illustrate their ideas with examples drawn from more familiar, workaday settings. (Cleese, for instance, frequently draws on lessons he learned over his longtime shadow career as a producer, host and writer of corporate training films.)

In particular, Skynner and Cleese criticize American and British companies for keeping communications channels closed, thus virtually ensuring that their workers will become neurotically dependent. Authority has its place, they argue, so long as managers solicit employee input, "circulate information widely" and explain the rationale behind their decisions.

Unfortunately, the chapters on company psychology are the only closely argued ones in the book; most chapters throw out the kind of bromides you might hear at a cocktail party or on Capitol Hill: e.g., "particularly healthy families are unusually positive in their attitude to life and other people."

The authors' aim is certainly laudable: to study the nature of mental health with the same vigor psychiatrists reserve for researching mental illness. "I mean," Cleese quips in exasperation at such research, "you wouldn't exactly expect heavy sales of a book called 'Play Championship Golf by Learning the Secrets of the Worst 20 Players in the World.' "

But the painfully obvious mechanics of failure are much easier to chart than the all-too-elusive art of success, which perhaps explains why the authors ultimately are unable to offer any vivid, real-life illustrations of "mental health." Rather, they refer abstractly to such pseudo-scientific concepts as "exceptionally well-adjusted people," "very healthies," "unhealthies" and "mid-range families."

In the kind of British humor that Cleese has mastered arguably better than any of his compatriots, we guffaw when ordinary blokes fail in their desperate attempts to be--or at least appear to be--normal. What's funny is their compulsive need to be something that most of us know is unattainable.

In these pages, though, Cleese and Skynner seem to have forgotten the joke.

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