Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose was a runaway bestseller earlier this year, due in large part to the enthusiastic embrace Oprah Winfrey gave it on her show and in the ten-week internet classes she conducted with Tolle beginning in March, 2008. The book sold 3.5 million copies in the first month, and millions more watched the online video class through Oprah.com.
A New Earth is not a memoir, although the author drops personal fragments into the narrative from time to time. Hence, I will not review the book, but I want to reflect on the implications of some of Tolle’s theories about the ego for the telling of personal stories.
The memoir is all about “me, myself, and I, ” a fact that can only be avoided by adopting the third person, something Henry Adams did in The Education of Henry Adams, a classic memoir, and one of my favorites. A few other writers have followed his example, describing themselves as though they are outside watching a life unfold instead of inside experiencing it. In the hands of writers less graceful than Adams, this device can easily seem contrived, and while it avoids the arrogance of the “I,” it may also evade the intimacy of the deepest self-revelation.
Eckhart Tolle, like many other spiritual writers, talks about the ego as a false self. Applying his ideas to the process of writing memoir, one might decide not to write a memoir at all for fear of retarding the process of spiritual growth from the nonessential into the essential self. For Tolle, the ego is an illusion: “What you usually refer to when you say ‘I’ is not who you are” (45). The ego identifies itself through what Tolle calls form–external roles, titles, things.
Celebrity memoirs, almost by definition, focus on the external world and the rise from humble origins to fame. They may be full of obstacles overcome and may reveal weaknesses such as addictions, but unless they are unusually reflective, they remain focused on the self that disappears when the footlights fade.
The book that taught me most about the essential self was not a memoir but a novel, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. This story, published in 1918, chronicles the rare narrative of the artist as a young woman. The first half of the book is all about the dim beginnings of the birth of the essential self–the hints from childhood, the passion for life itself, the strong pulsing rhythm in the veins. As her desire to be an artist emerges, the young protagonist, Thea Kronberg, knows she needs to leave her home, find a teacher, and test her talent in the great wide world.
She eventually becomes a famous opera singer through this route, but she only becomes a great one after travelling to the cliff dwellings of the Anazazi, the Ancient Ones of the Southwest. There, amid another culture’s ruins, she senses her connection to all other artists and to the essence of her own self. Cather tells us, “Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea now, but she herself seemed older. She had never been alone for so long before, or thought so much. Nothing had ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation of that line of pale-yellow houses tucked into the wrinkle of the cliff. Moonstone and Chicago had become vague. Here everything was simple and definite, as things had been in childhood. Her mind was like a ragbag into which she had been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab. And here she must throw this lumber away. The things that were really hers separated themselves from the rest. Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong.”
This passage, these words of epiphany among the cliff dwellings, have lived in my heart for over thirty years since I first read them. Eckhart Tolle may explain what the ego is and why it needs to die. But Willa Cather made me feel it. Her words, almost a century old now, echo with the ring of truth. This is the kind of truth I seek in memoir. This is the kind of wisdom I crave for my life and writing.