Media Diet: Thomas Moore

Mind of a soul man

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Therapist-turned-writer Thomas Moore—whose first two books, Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, were breakaway best-sellers—has been characterized in the mainstream press as a Pollyanna self-helper—a critique the author himself finds laughable. “I know the dark side of life,” he says. “In fact, I wrote a book called Dark Eros in which I took the Marquis de Sade as one of the greatest psychologists of our time. One of the only understanding reviews it got was in Screw. My publisher would not want me to say that, because it suggests that I’m not one of these inspiring authors who tell people how to live a holier-than-thou life, but that’s not who I am.” Associate editor Joshua Glenn talked to Moore, who lives in rural New Hampshire with his wife and their two children, about his sources of inspiration during a tour for his latest best-seller, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, which surveys the wisdom of many cultures on topics such as marriage and intimacy, friendship and community, spirit and soul.  

What magazines do you read?
I really admire Resurgence. I like its focus on a certain kind of environmentalism that isn’t political, scientific, or New Age. Rather, it looks at the environment by looking at culture, the philosophy behind the way we live, spiritual issues, the arts. I also like Mother Jones because I like to read politically liberal magazines to offset everything I get in the media. It’s extremely well written and edited, and it’s always multicultural. It explores various cultures and, as an alternative to American culture, describes how they’re living. Although it’s a political magazine, it shows how people are living their values; it’s not just about people debating theories.

Finally, I’ve been reading Fine Woodworking for 15 years or so. Although I do very little actual woodworking myself, I value magazines in which people discuss the details of their craft. In my books I talk about finding concrete ways of remaining attached to the world, bringing beauty and craft back into life. Reading these craft magazines makes my own writing more concrete.

What books are you enjoying now?
I don’t read much nonfiction, but I recently finished Yasunari Kawabata’s novel, Beauty and Sadness. It’s a poignant story about simple, sensual beauty and the sadness that is generated by letting oneself experience beauty. The whole history of literature on the soul focuses on themes that are not very popular in our literature today—things like beauty, friendship, pleasure, melancholy. In the past people talked about “melancholy” or “sadness” or “loneliness,” but today we bracket it all into “depression”—and medicate it. So when I found a book with the title Beauty and Sadness, I couldn’t resist it.

Are there any authors who have influenced you?
Scores, but I’ll just mention a few who appear in my new book. Marsilia Ficino, a 15th-century priest, philosopher, translator, musician, and magician, has been very influential because he wrote about the central place of the soul as a philosophy—and then he spelled out innumerable ways in which we can create a culture that is focused on soul. Another 15th-century writer I admire is Nicholas of Cusa, who writes with a great deal of verve and imagination on how games and art convey some of the great theological mysteries. Although Cusa was a great intellectual and wit—he invented words very much like James Joyce did—he thought that the most important thing was to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge. Cultivating a certain kind of emptiness of mind is one of the fundamentals of creating a soul-focused life, which is different from the highly rational life that is the norm in modern society.

Do you watch television?
I’ve made quite a number of television programs and videos, but when I’m home I’m too busy being with my family, doing woodworking, playing the piano, and writing. Besides, most programs are so bad that whenever I’m tempted to look at television I’m disappointed. I don’t object to the medium; I still have hope for it, but not enough to actually watch it. Also, we have two little kids, and we have to be very careful not to let them unconsciously become part of what I think of as a disenchanted culture.

Which artists have influenced you?
Woody Allen springs immediately to mind. He’s humorous, both verbally and visually, but he also has intelligence and sophistication. My books are pretty heavy in some ways, but when I go out to talk about them, I’m doing stand-up comedy, not lecturing. I think that wit is a sign of soul; I like humor that isn’t cynical. Also, I like how Allen keeps working no matter what. Some of his stuff is not as interesting as the rest, and that’s just the way it is. You don’t have to make a masterpiece every time.

Is there a film you'd like everyone to see?
The Secret of Roan Inish by John Sayles. It’s full of fantasy and myth, but he uses simple images for the magical element. Another recent film I loved is Angels and Insects, by Philip Haas. It examines our humanity by exploring the meaning of winged figures, the natural and the supernatural. I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie so well imagined and executed.

Which current trends in the media most trouble you?
I am just about at my wit’s end with the mainstream media, a feeling that stems from my own bad experiences with it. I do lots of interviews, and it bothers me that the writers who interview me have an agenda, a certain cynical way of looking at things that is totally immersed in the values of the modern world. Whenever someone tries to step outside those values, the only way they can write about it is to make fun of it or translate it into what they know, which completely misrepresents it. I wish that journalists were a little more thoughtful and better educated and not so totally given over to the popular culture. That’s why the magazines I read, which aren’t willing to reproduce that culture, are a great gift.

What are the sources of your best and most original ideas?
Quiet time. Being a writer is not a matter of just walking around all day getting great ideas and then sitting down and writing. The success of my books has provided lots of wonderful opportunities, but I’m really lucky if I get two or three hours to myself each day. The moment I get away from all that busyness the ideas rush into my head. And if I ever feel that I don’t have enough to write, all I have to do is sit down and play the piano. If I play Bach, the ideas come right away.

What are your most creative spaces?
Country roads. We live in the country near farms, and there’s something inspiring about walking in the morning with my dog past all these fields. I also get a lot of my best ideas taking a shower. Earth and water inspire me. Air and fire don’t do much for me.

Where do you find the most trouble living up to the ideals set forth in your writing?
I don’t think that what I’m writing about is so idealistic; it’s actually quite down-to-earth. There aren’t just two options—being spiritual on the one hand, or a porno king on the other. If there’s any goal in my work it’s to recover our very ordinary humanity, which we’ve lost. We all want to be celebrities or icons of purity; that has no relationship to me. I make no bones about just going along and making a lot of mistakes. The spirituality that I talk about is quite commonplace. I advocate window-shopping as a form of contemplation! Living a mindful life isn’t my point; I just live.