Awaken the Neurotic Within

A lively writer suggests we clear all the self-help books off our shelves

It is hard to think of two genres that have less in common than contemporary theory and self-help. While The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living is certainly not a typical self-help book, and Mari Ruti is explicitly critical of the genre, she also positions her work as a psycho­analytic alternative to those cheery, list-filled manuals that purport to teach us how to live.

A professor of contemporary theory at the University of Toronto, and the author of academic work on the notoriously hard-to-read French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Ruti has lately been engaged in an interesting battle with self-help books, wresting some of life’s big questions from the sweaty grip of simplistic and saccharine gurus. In The Case for Falling in Love: Why We Can’t Master the Madness of Love—and Why That’s the Best Part, published in 2011, she put the boots to the tired Mars-and-Venus gender clichés and the calculating, managerial approach to romance plenty of relationship guides endorse. Perhaps, Ruti suggests, the best thing about love is that it is unruly.

In a similar vein, The Call of Character lauds lack as a driving force and argues that our longing for easy solutions may well divert us from creating vibrant, meaningful lives. Ruti encourages us to honour and ponder those feelings, such as anxiety and uncertainty, that many self-help programs endeavour to master or quash. She contends that “there is something suspicious about the idea that a balanced life is automatically better than one that is a little lopsided and anxiety ridden but also genuinely passionate.”

Ruti exhorts us to pursue our singular desires, as opposed to the sanitized or socially acceptable ones that tend to muffle or eclipse them. This demands deliberation and bravery, self-scrutiny and guts. While she concedes that following our idiosyncratic desires can indeed be deeply unnerving or destabilizing, it is nevertheless preferable to following the path of least resistance all the way to a cul de sac of complacency.

Positive thinking, the doggedly optimistic ethos of most self-help books, strikes Ruti as absurd and callous. “I balk at the idea that thinking positive thoughts can change the objective circumstances of our lives, so that we can, say, think ourselves out of poverty or attain some cherished goal by tirelessly visualizing our triumph.” Such thinking—which is really just wishing—fails to recognize the fundamentally relational, volatile and vulnerable nature of human life, which Ruti underlines and emphasizes throughout her text. Moreover, some of the strenuously can-do rhetoric of pop psychology can be cruelly indifferent to the way differences in our circumstances limit who we think we can be. Ruti’s background in women’s studies and contemporary theory makes her attentive to the ways that gender, race and class, or enduring trauma, can influence our capacity for self-fashioning.

She sees this kind of wilful optimism as a symptom of our culture, which overrates the well-adjusted, and seems to believe that the most harmonious or stable life is the worthiest or best one. But a number of high-achieving weirdos and sad sacks in the arts and sciences—Beethoven, Einstein, Sylvia Plath, for example—suggest otherwise. And even those of us who are not tortured geniuses may find that our messy, erratic or miserable moments are far more revealing than the routines they disrupt. Character, like people, often calls when it is most inconvenient.

Where many self-help books are adamant that we ought to “live in the now,” Ruti argues that it is necessary for us to engage with the past, so we will not be imprisoned by our familiar patterns. In a chapter called “The Blueprints of Behavior,” Ruti elucidates Freud’s notion of repetition compulsion, or our tendency to repeat painful situations in the hope that someday, we will finally get them right. Ruti insists that who we are frequently depends on the ways we have been hurt, and “even the most intolerable components of the past can become valuable constituents of the present.”

Ruti’s main influence is Lacan, the most prominent and difficult French Freudian, but she incorporates ideas from other major figures in contemporary theory, ranging from 19th-century thinkers such as Nietzsche to current ones such as Alain Badiou. Ruti is to be commended for making some of their ideas relatively accessible to the average reader. Translating theoryese into English is part of her project. As she notes in her preface, “one might say that my deliberately lucid prose is my little act of defiance, my way of heeding the call of my character, for I never feel as connected with my writing as when I adopt this style.”

Ruti acknowledges that the opaque and arcane diction of her discipline is occasionally necessary to express new or complicated thoughts. But it is also clear that she thinks some of these philosophical insights are too valuable to be hoarded by professors and graduate students hopped up on jargon, as evidenced by her blog posts on the Psychology Today website and books like this one. Still, the cognoscenti might find Ruti’s takes on thinkers from Arendt to Žižek too summary or glancing, in the same way that those souls searching for self-esteem puffery or reassuring, feel-good bromides might find Ruti’s advice a bit too bracing or brusque.

Ruti does not divulge much about her life or wax anecdotal, but the tone of the text, which is at once empathetic and uncompromising, suggests that her experience, as well as her scholarly research, informs her advice. Ruti worked her way from a difficult childhood in a three-shack fishing town in Finland to the Ivy League, attending Brown and Harvard, and studying with the renowned French critic Julia Kristeva. Her prolific publication record—this is her sixth book in seven years—means she is a success in a highly competitive field, and thus adept at the Freudian art of sublimation.

While Ruti is an ardent advocate for self-­fashioning, and even self-surrender—submitting to “the swerve of passion”—we must also take responsibility for our selves and others. Denying the call of our character can lead to sterility or nihilism, but denying that our choices affect others can lead to selfishness or narcissism. Our solutions to this existential problem will always be precarious and provisional, but Ruti assures us that this is what makes them precious and particular to us. Or, as she writes, “the crafting of character is not a matter of perfecting the self, but rather of perfecting the self’s ability to revere its less than perfect incarnations.”