Getting home early on New Year’s Eve exposed me to a few rads of daytime TV—some Tyra, the Princess of the Ridiculous, and Oprah, the imperious and consequential Queen. Oprah replays every night, so her show is really not a novelty to me. I’ve seen a few segments recently, as she whips the Femisphere into a froth over her final season, her final Favorite Things giveaways (a spectacle which raises stuff-worship to Beatle-screaming, near-gladiatorial fervor), her burgeoning cable (cabal) network, and of course, her weird cult of self/everywoman which somehow roots in autoerotic materialism while waving lustrous foliage of new-age spiritual humanism.
While every episode of Oprah is clearly of historic import, this was the ultra-historic interview with J. K. Rowling— a guest so special that Oprah WENT TO VISIT HER, in Scotland. The locale is part of what held my attention, as it’s a pretty spectacular land full of fairy-tale vistas and haunted-looking architecture. I’ve also recently built a mental tally of Scottish creative talent like Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Mark Millar and Alan Grant. Needless to say, add J. K. Rowling to the list and Scotland begins to seem like something of a spawning ground for the fantastic.
Queen Oprah was in rare form, but before I split hairs, let me point out that I don’t really have a beef with Oprah or her special guest, at least not specifically. Place either woman on the Great Scales and I think she comes out on the positive side (no fat joke intended). By that I mean they both make the world a better place, especially in the realm of reading. That said, I did feel a glow of grad-school schadenfreude when Jonathan Franzen snubbed Oprah several years back over The Corrections, and a corresponding deflation of my snottiness when Franzen recently reconciled with the Queen this year over Freedom. I suppose I’m just a Grinch.
And like any healthy Grinch, I perk up at any hint of grandiosity, hubris, or just (to my wife’s eternal disgust) unqualified statements that don’t hold up under real analysis and beg to be peeled apart, dissected, nitpicked to death, and finally eulogized ironically. Rowling seemed a fine blend of British stateliness, womanly care, translucent respect and intelligent mortality. Her statements were sober with honesty and portrayed a lovely, helpful disposition. In sum, I liked her. The woman apparent in this interview is the best reason I’ve yet seen to actually read her books, which I’ve never done. I have several reasons for not reading them, but it’s safe to lump them all together into one statement: I’m confident they are not the best way to spend my limited reading time. Snotty sounding again, I know, but it’s not like they need my endorsement.
As if overstimulated by such fine companionship, Oprah spilled over into one of her rather dopey, overcooked statements with too much sugar on top: “The gift that (the Harry Potter series) gave to the world is… it gave us all the freedom to use our imaginations.” I like to think J. K. Rowling—chummily being called “Jo” all the while by the Queen—stifled a grimace or a guffaw at this point, but the camera stayed mostly on O’s gonzo face. A knowing nod was all Rowling offered, diplomatically agreeable. I suppose you could defend such bombastic cheerleading by saying that Harry Potter was just so big that it eclipsed everything else, and in the process dragged fantasy so firmly into the mainstream that people not only became conscious of unrealistic/fantastic/“imaginative” literature, but that fans of such—formerly ghettoized as Dungeons & Dragons nerds—were suddenly legitimized, or at least armored by their massive numbers. In a cultural tsunami that soon united fourth graders, teachers, college students, and basically everyone but fundamentalist Christians, Oprah became correct, if by giving us “freedom to use our imaginations,” she meant that Harry Potter made it popular, profitable and even hip to read magical adventure fiction.*
As the interview continued, O fished for a “prophecy” answer from Rowling about her future success. Did you know, at the outset, that your books would conquer the universe? was essentially the question. There was a quote from the first Potter book—pertaining to the title character in the story’s context—saying that “every child on Earth would someday know his name.” Rowling, to my relief, did not look back upon this as any sort of prophecy or harbinger of fortune. She said she hadn’t the wildest dream of such popularity, and counted herself lucky. The Queen did not argue, but I think she was a little disappointed, because there’s one common thread she always tries to stitch into celebrity interviews: How winners win by believing in themselves. How destiny can be broken down into positive attitude, confidence, big thinking, and seeking one’s “true calling.” Basically, it’s The Secret.
This gets at my perennial problem with Oprah. She’s all about the self-determined destiny. This comes from hanging out constantly with celebrities, the cultural lottery winners of the world, and asking them about their origins and beliefs. Sure, some of them say they were lucky in some way, but what Oprah really digs for is that little gold nugget of ego in everyone that says, “I did it my way, and I always knew I would!” But success woven from big dreams is an easy pattern to discern if you’re only interviewing winners. It’s kind of like those athletes who think God wanted their team to win the game, because, look, they won! The pattern really begins to fray when Oprah’s guest is someone who, for instance, had her face blown completely off by a gun, or lost his legs to an Iraqi IED. These are the guests that hold my attention better, because, sensationalism aside, they are not celebrities, they are not promoting their new movie or children’s book, they have unique perspectives, and Oprah tends not to ask them, “Don’t you think you knew, as a child, that you would someday grow up and become a disfigured tragedy? That this was always your true calling, and it just took one critical event to reveal your inner self?”
The problem is compounded by Oprah being the Queen. She’s the most powerful piece on the chessboard, with the ability to turn pawns into kings (kind of a checkers/chess mixed metaphor, sorry). By definition, everything that comes to her attention is kinged, or at least ascendant. Any book chosen for her book club goes straight to the top. She’s the cultural quantum effect that breathes life into any Schrodinger’s cat she peeps at. Hence, The Secret works for Oprah, and Oprah works for The Secret. As pulled from Wikipedia, to which I just donated five bucks because it asked nicely:
The tenet of the book is that focused positive thinking can have life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, and happiness. After being featured in two episodes of Oprah, the book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Obviously, Oprah’s belief system is difficult to argue actively against, because her notions are more helpful and healthy than their opposites; no one will go around prescribing self-doubt, malaise, lack of goals, and no guiding vision as a formula for success. In fact, I’m rather fond of some of the witchy, spellcasting principles conveyed by some occult-minded writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. I’m not sure how literally I believe in things like idea space, chaos magic, supersigils, and viral ideas, but as concepts they’re entertaining as hell. I doubt Oprah will be interviewing Grant Morrison any time soon, but it would be grand to televise him presenting his alternative to The Secret: You construct a sigil by condensing a written statement of desire down into a single character or glyph, much like a Chinese kanji or more aptly, an internationally recognized brand logo. Then you focus on it while masturbating, “charging” it with psychic energy that is released upon climax. Hell, I’d settle for seeing it in O Magazine (hopefully with helpful diagrams). Oprah could not safely endorse this without risking ethos damage of the same kind suffered by Tom Cruise when he spazzed out on her couch, and yet it may be the exact mechanism at work in Harpo Studios** when you watch the camera panning through the audiences, estrogen-rich phalanxes worked into a psychosexual mob-frenzy, almost orgasmic as Oprah presents that day’s object of worship.
Morrison also equates graphic novels and presumably other creative works with “supersigils,” complex symbolic matrices that operate as reality-influencing magic spells—delivery systems for viral ideas. Clearly, that’s approximately the theory Oprah was offering when she wanted to lift the “Harry Potter will be known to every child” prophecy up out of idea space and make it function in objective reality. Maybe it’s only natural that the Information Age would give rise to multiple mechanisms for navigating the increasingly shared imaginative landscape: zeitgeist, idea space, Google… while also giving birth to increasingly gargantuan mytho-intellectual properties and media empires: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, Fox News, The Oprahverse.
Next, the argument against positivity. The Anti-Secret. “You can’t always get what you want.”
Again, a qualifier: It’s easy to be a cynic. Negativity can be just as dumb as positivity. I’m just trying to navigate sensibly between the two poles. Somewhere between Teletubbies and suicide, there must be truth.
The truth is, none of us want to be small. But sometimes it’s healthy to recognize the harsh, predatory undernature of the world—aging, disease, death… all those things we face during Oscar season, but which the rest of the year’s movies gloss over. Oprah is no Pollyanna exactly, but her focus on making “empowering” television forces millions to avert their gaze from the essential dukkha of life: the world is suffering. It cannot be avoided, at least not for long.
I do believe Oprah would save us all if she could, but it doesn’t work that way. Her wish for Inclusion, to hug us all into herself, distorts into Occlusion, a kind of blindness, filed under the O of her ego. After watching a “behind the scenes” special about producing her final season, where I saw abundant scared-shitlessness in some of her loyal footsoldiers, I recalled Galadriel’s ring-lust speech from The Lord of the Rings (movie version): “Instead of a dark lord, you would have a queen!” I think it’s a good characterization of the power Oprah has, and the inherent danger of the Queen succumbing to power mania.
There’s an ecology to everything; just as in nature, we all have our niche. The whale (again, not a fat joke) is majestic and seems gentle, but into every whale float a billion plankton. Nature teaches honesty—some ecological niches have room for very few individuals. Much to Tyra’s dismay, there’s really only room for one Oprah, though Martha Stewart came close.
In my own life, I have few complaints, but I don’t live far from Shitsville. So, I have a good view of life down among the plankton, the human mop-strings of the world. In the past few years I’ve watched three real financial tragedies bloom at my workplace—a commercial development—and at least two of them started off with that feel of a daytime-TV-inspired glory run. One of those tragedies, code named “Big Dreams Dan,” started off with the world by the tail—ads on six local billboards, 17 grand worth of “pimp my office,” and plans to buy the building from my boss—but ended up divorced, evicted, taken to court, and who knows how deep in debt. Before his fall from grace, he had this bedazzled look, like a stage actor in a spotlight. I think he was driven a bit crazy, like many, by the constantly scrolling fake Hanna-Barbera background churning constantly past our heads with images of Running with the Big Dogs, of No Fear, of No Payments for Six Months, of Don’t Miss This Once in a Lifetime Opportunity, and of You Gotta Spend Money To Make Money. Maybe if he’d started a few years earlier, long before the bubble burst, he would have struck it rich. But that’s a story for Oprah to tell.
Zooming out, some have even written articles about the positivity movement being instrumental in wrecking the economy. The housing bust, at the root of the economic crash, was fueled in part by an optimism-fed credit frenzy, a satanic greed orgy on Wall Street, the “Flip this House” craze, and even a prosperity movement in evangelical Christian churches. In other words, if you were consuming media of any kind or going to church, someone was telling you that America, God and the universe wanted you to have a bigger house even if you were already behind on your utility bills.***
Queen O sort of needs The Secret (a title I’m beginning to use more loosely here, associatively, as more of a philosophical generality than the book itself, which I sense has fallen out of favor despite having lodged its stinger successfully in our neural core) to ease her conscience—not because she’s done anything wrong, but because it lubricates her worldview, where prosperity is the direct reward, instant-karma-fashion, for focusing one’s lifestyle chi. That’s the story she wants to tell of herself, to rewrite the universe into a place of benevolence: an Oprahverse. Remember the creepy intro sequence for Tales from the Darkside? How reality flips like a playing card to reveal a sinister lower level? Well, flip the card the opposite way, and you get something like the Oprahverse. Maybe it’s like the high-energy, low-entropy universes postulated in some Grant Morrison comics, where superheroics are made possible because the very laws of physics are jacked up on subatomic crystal meth.
Maybe it’s like having a billion bucks. Maybe it’s like California.
Guess where Oprah is moving….