Let Your Mind Alone
by James Thurber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a sequence included in —
Let Your Mind Alone
Harper & Brothers: New York, 1937

Writings and Drawings

August 2001

Streamline, wake, & worry

Let Your Mind Alone! (a set of ten New Yorker essays, 1936-1937) is a survey of a variety of then-popular psychology, self-help, and inspirational books, some of them bestsellers. Thurber has considerable fun taking a few of life's problems and situations that the experts analyze for our benefit, and re-analyzing them.

For instance: Dr. James L. Mursell, author of Streamline Your Mind, posits a professor who needs to buy roofing material for his house; he doesn't have a ladder, so has no way to measure what he needs. Solution: the professor uses geometry. We do not learn how he expects actually to apply the new roofing material without a ladder; perhaps that is not a psychological problem, but a philosophical one.

Another Mursell problem is that of a young man needing to learn how to conduct a lady to a table in a restaurant. Turns out, he's supposed to ask his sister to rehearse this with him. Thurber constructs an amusing brother-sister scenario of such a request.

Dorothea Brande, author of Wake Up and Live!, suggests exercises such as "Talk for fifteen minutes without using the first person."

Thurber ripostes, "No can do. No going to try to do, either. You can't teach an old egoist new persons."

David Seabury, author of How to Worry Successfully, suggests that you write a "Worry Play", an actual play in acts and scenes about your anxieties, and that you imagine this on stage. Thurber's attempt at this "ran almost as long as Mourning Becomes Electra"; his thinking and dreaming about this Worry Play itself added anxieties — naturally.

Marxist dialogue

Now, one of my favorites, from the kind of mind that (before Kepler) used to apply rationality to understanding planetary orbits, and stuck in circular reasoning, deduced epicycles as busily spinning cogs in the celestial machinery. David Seabury's formula for breaking out of circular worrying is: First, quit circling anywhere — stop. Second, throw into your thinking some fact entirely different and opposite from whatever fact you were thinking of when you stopped circling. Mix that contrast into your situation; and repeat until you solve your problem.

Thurber says to this:

It is the formula by which the Marx brothers construct their dialogue. Let us take their justly famous scene [in Animal Crackers, 1930] in which Groucho says to Chico, "It is my belief that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door." Here Groucho has ceased whirling, or circling, and has stopped at a fact, that fact being his belief that the picture is hidden in the house next door. Now Chico, in accordance with Mr. Seabury's instructions, thinks of something as different from that fact as he possibly can. He says, "There isn't any house next door." Thereupon Groucho "mixes that contrast into his situation." He says, "Then we'll build one!"

Mr. Seabury says, "If you persist you will soon solve any ordinary problem." He underestimates the power of his formula. If you persist, you will soon solve anything at all, no matter how impossible. That way, of course, lies madness, but I would be the last person to say that madness is not a solution.

It will come as no surprise to you, I am sure, that throughout the Mentality Books with which we have been concerned there runs a thin, wavy line of this particular kind of Marxist philosophy.

Thurber then analyzes an example for successful organization given by Dorothea Brande, of a "famous man" who continually sends himself postcards, at his office or to his home, reminding himself to do things: for instance, to take his raincoat if it's raining. As a system, this is a Rube Goldberg contraption:

To intimate that all this shows a rational disciplining of the mind, a development of the power of the human intellect, an approach to the Masterful Adjustment of which our Success Writers are so enamored, is to intimate that when Groucho gets the house built next door, the missing picture will be found in it.
O brave new rationality —

If this is rationality, James Thurber will take something else. Contrary to these experts, he assembles an engaging case showing the resilience of a non-streamlined, undisciplined mind versus their supposedly straight-ahead and disciplined mind:

... the undisciplined mind runs far less chance of having its purposes thwarted, its plans distorted, its whole scheme and system wrenched out of line. The undisciplined mind, in short, is far better adapted to the confused world in which we live today than the streamlined mind.

We need not agree with Thurber. We may prefer to go along with the popular experts: one brings joy to correcting a waitress who should have brought French fried potatoes (Dale Carnegie); another shows how a fellow's wife serving burnt French fries contributed to a compulsive mental sing-song about mashed potatoes (Dr. Louis E. Bisch); another gets entirely confused over the sentence "A pound of feathers is lighter than a pound of lead" in her own intelligence test (Dr. Sadie Myers Shellow).

This goes to show that the mind, conscious or subconscious, has more twists and turns than even experts are aware of; and that the French fried potatoes, examined or unexamined, may have been burnt. All becomes clearer as we reflect upon the subconscious nature, as well as the psychic efficiency, of our pounds of feathers, lead, and French fries.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

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