Brianna Wiest: “101 Essays” – Culture

In the first episode of the British comedy series “Black Books”, Manny, one of the three main characters, swallows a self-help book. Admittedly, a very small self-help book – the “Little Book Of Calm”. Manny buys it because his job is stressful and accidentally swallows it. At first you think he’s going to die from it, but it dissolves in him and he turns into a Jesus-like figure of light who walks around and imposes his advice on people. To a woman screaming in pain as she goes into labour, he advises with profound serenity: “If you’re feeling pressure, do something else. Roll up your sleeves or eat an orange.” The woman is not happy. At the same time, since this article is written in German, she will at least use the formal address. The American author Brianna Wiest, born in 1992, is not so lucky.

Anyone who picks up their non-fiction super bestseller “101 essays that will change your life”, which has been at the top of the weekly bestseller lists in this country for almost half a year without interruption, in the hope of finding 101 particularly brilliant essays in it to find a wide variety of topics, you will be disappointed: it is a guide. Nothing against advice. But that Brianna Wiest describes her life support lists as “essays” is a bit cheeky. Brilliant or not, an essay would be expected to develop a few arguments. Or at least brings together a few interesting associative observations. Brianna Wiest actually just lists what she has read somewhere in the specialist literature. In simple language.

One thinks one immediately understands what she wants to say, but is it even true?

That doesn’t have to be bad, but the longer you read, the more you wonder how many of her allegedly life-changing insights are not just trivial, everyday wisdom, but simply wrong: “Your brain can only perceive what it knows. That’s why yours are based Wishes for the future are only based on past solutions or past ideals,” she writes. You think you can immediately understand what she wants to say, even if it’s not very original. But is it really true? Just like “The most successful people in history – those who many refer to as ‘geniuses,’ masters of their craft – had one thing in common besides talent: most of them adhered to strict (and precise) routines.” For real? Is that so? Doesn’t that depend on how you define “success” and “routines”?

A central tactic of popular guides is that they operate with vague terms, which, however, make sense as long as you don’t stop and reflect for a moment. In the case of the routine geniuses, however, there is also the objection: How does she even know that? Even if she has researched over 100 people who are considered geniuses or viewed corresponding studies, there can still be countless counterexamples.

Brianna Wiest: "101 essays": Brianna Wiest: 101 essays that will change your life.  Translated from the English by Ursula Pesch and Anja Lerz.  Piper Verlag, Munich 2022. 432 pages, 22 euros.

Brianna Wiest: 101 essays that will change your life. Translated from the English by Ursula Pesch and Anja Lerz. Piper Verlag, Munich 2022. 432 pages, 22 euros.

(Photo: Piper)

In it, self-help books that promise fundamental solutions are reminiscent of the communication strategies of clairvoyants. The author/the clairvoyant only formulates sentences that are general enough for everyone to relate to themselves. For example, “A belief is what you have learned to be true through experience. If you want to change your life, you must change your beliefs. If you want to change your beliefs, go out into the world and have experiences that support those beliefs make you real. Not the other way around.” huh

What beliefs does she mean in the end? The ones you already have? Or which one should change? How much sense does it make, anyway, for experiences to make a belief real if it starts by saying that we only perceive what we know? Brianna’s Wiest’s texts are so amorphous that sometimes you can’t make any connection between her sentences. Often enough, even the individual sentences remain nebulous because they are made up of nothing but general concepts that can mean anything or anything.

It’s not socially intelligent to be sympathetic to all mischief. Sometimes it’s just cowardly

It feels like a fluffy pink elephant is in front of you all the time, but when you try to touch it, it turns out to be a wisp of mist. After the third “essay” you no longer know what she actually said in the first one because the advice is all so vague and uniform: “Happiness doesn’t mean experiencing something different, but constantly using what you already have to experience new and different ways.” Is that more of an argument for or against rampant promiscuity?

Anything that comes in contact with Brianna’s “mind” dissolves. But not like worries in the Mediterranean sun, but like mafia corpses in hydrochloric acid. Chemical castration is sometimes used in the treatment of notorious sex offenders. Analogously, one could call the effect of the “Essays” literary lobotomy. Her specialty is hypocrisy. The chapter “16 characteristics of a socially intelligent person” shines in this discipline. Wiest writes: “The easiest way to sound unintelligent is to say: ‘This idea is wrong.’ (The idea may be wrong for you, but it exists because it is right for someone else.) Intelligent people say, ‘Personally, I don’t understand or agree with that idea.’ To make definitive statements about ideas or people is to be blind to the multitude of possible perspectives. This is the definition of narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness.”

But the idea that Covid doesn’t exist is wrong. As is the idea that Ukraine is ruled by fascists, so it is fair to wage aggressive war against them. It’s also not socially intelligent to be sympathetic to all mischief. Sometimes it’s just cowardly. And socially narrow-minded, because the horizon is missing that an open, reason-based, fact-oriented and thus discourse-capable reality requires conflicts with nonsense occasionally to be carried out in all sharpness. Otherwise all nonsense is equally relevant because someone cares, which would pretty much be the opposite of intelligence – whether social or logical or whatever.

Wiest also writes: “If you really rejected something, you would just free yourself from it.” Sure, because you can so easily free yourself from everything you reject. For example as a resident of Kharkiv from the war. Or as a cancer patient from cancer. It’s very easy. One may find the objections subtle, because Brianna Wiest’s intention is obviously only to set up approximate guidelines for normal everyday life. For that, however, she presents them a touch too energetically.

There is no openness to doubt or encouragement to reflection in the book

The question is also how much sense such general rules actually make when there are a thousand situations in everyday life in which they do not apply or only apply to a very limited extent. There is no openness to doubt or encouragement to reflection throughout the book. “You feel like the dreams you had for your life are shattering. You don’t realize in that moment that giving way to a reality that is better than you could have imagined. A reality that is stronger consistent with your real self as an imagined self.”

Okay, so I’ve wanted to be an actress all my life, so instead I work under surveillance for a pittance at Amazon’s distribution center. Eureka! Welcome, the real me! Advice of the above sort sounds horrifically ignorant in light of the war on our doorstep, the suffering of the pandemic, the myriad individual tragedies that can befall people even in rich countries. It’s not about wiping away the everyday fears of the happy residents of prosperous, reasonably stable countries with the “starving children in Africa” ​​argument. (Although, scandalously, these children do exist; it just doesn’t help them to be used as a moral cudgel.)

No, the problem with such passages is that they so naturally claim general validity. Brianna’s epiphanies don’t know how inappropriate they seem in many people’s eyes. She never tries to be precise, but painlessly fires off one clever piece of wisdom after the other like the eternal know-it-all from the regulars’ table.

Behind Wiest’s poetry album psychology is a tough self-optimization imperative

What does the success of this book say about the longings of our society? It is to be feared that it mainly says that many people are either unable to think for themselves – or simply do not show any particular interest in it because it is too exhausting for them. That’s why they use calendar sayings that promise life change to help them fall asleep.

It doesn’t matter that the book occasionally even sinks into nonsense due to editorial sloppiness: “Suffering only represents the refusal to accept what is. Nothing more. (…) Etymologically speaking, this word comes from Latin and means “endure, endure, numb”” No, suffering does not come from Latin and means endure and so on. Rather, suffering can be referred to a Germanic adjective with the meaning “deplorable, disgusting”, which would also aptly describe what one has to endure when reading this book without being able to effectively anesthetize oneself.

Behind Wiest’s poetry album psychology is above all a tough social Darwinist self-optimization imperative. Sure: cry, let your feelings out. But don’t get the idea that the world might actually be bad, YOU NEGATIVE HUMAN. ACCEPT YOUR REAL ME! If fame and fortune or even modest happiness are not destined for this self, but only misfortune and poverty, THEN GO BOTTLE COLLECTING AND SHUT UP.

In other words, some people may feel better after reading “101 Essays” because the book tells them on every page that there is a solution to almost everything that you can find within yourself. But that, unfortunately, is only proof of how far away the better can be from the good when in doubt.

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