Still Relevant, Sadly

Posted By on January 24, 2010

.: From page 238 of my current leisure read:

Though to the commonplace and unspeculative eye Mrs. Evans Riddle was but a female blacksmith, yet Mrs. Riddle and her followers knew, in a bland smirking way, that she was instituting an era in which sickness, poverty, and folly would be ended forever.

She was the proprietor of the Victory Thought-power Headquarters, New York, and not even in Los Angeles was there a more important center of predigested philosophy and pansy-painted ethics. She maintained a magazine filled with such starry thoughts as “All the world’s a road whereon we are but fellow wayfarers.” She held morning and vesper services on Sunday at Euterpean Hall, on Eighty-seventh Street, and between moments of Silent Thought she boxed with the inexplicable. She taught, or farmed out, classes on Concentration, Prosperity, Love, Metaphysics, Oriental Mysticism, and the Fourth Dimension.

She instructed small Select Circles how to keep one’s husband, how to understand Sanskrit philosophy without understanding either Sanskrit or philosophy, and how to become slim without giving up pastry. She healed all the diseases in the medical dictionary, and some which were not; and in personal consultations, at ten dollars the half hour, she explained to unappetizing elderly ladies how they might rouse passion in a football hero.

She had a staff, including a real Hindu swami — anyway, he was a real Hindu — but she was looking for an assistant.

.: A few paragraphs down we find the newly hired assistant giving a lecture to his class:

How agreeable on bright winter afternoons, in the gilt and velvet elegance of the lecture hall, to look at smart women, and moan, “And, oh, my beloved, can you not see, do you not perceive, have not your earth-bound eyes in-gathered, the supremacy of the raja’s quality which each of us, by that inner contemplation which is the all however cloaked by the seeming, can consummate and build loftily to higher aspiring spheres?”

Almost any Hindu word was useful. It seems that the Hindus have Hidden Powers which enable them to do whatever they want to, except possibly to get rid of the Mohammedans, the plague, and the cobra. “Soul-breathing” was also a good thing to talk about whenever he had nothing to say; and you could always keep an audience of satin-bosomed ladies through the last quarter-hour of lecturing by coming down hard on “Concentration.”

.: That’s from Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. While reading this book, I keep flipping back to the copyright notice to make sure it was published in 1926 and not, as I increasingly suspect, sometime last year.

.: Really, how different is this character from someone like Teena, proprietor of I recognize the same type of outlandish claims, the same casual treatments of subjects they show no comprehension of (in Teena’s case, substitute “Sanskrit philosophy” with “chemistry”), the same appeal to oriental tradition and mysticism (Hindu => Tibetan), and the same steady line of customers willing to shill it out without asking questions. It’s cliché, but some things just don’t seem to change. At least we smell better in this century.

Note: this isn’t the first time that Mr. Lewis’s words have graced this blog.

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