VACARE DEO — “to empty oneself for god” — is a central monastic tenet. In practice, it involves a daily routine of contemplation, say meditation or prayer, that clears space in one’s life to be infused by a higher power. The term begets mental pictures of a lone silhouette cross-legged under a tree, slippered feet rustling under long brown robes, fingertips drawing lightly across gilded pages. In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton uncovers a similar phenomenon. Or, rather, the simulation of such a phenomenon. In the contemplative world stamped by and seen through the ‘O’ of the ‘Oprah’ brand, one also finds someone sitting cross-legged, this time as part of a yoga practice recommended by Dr. Oz. Or feet power-walking in pumps plugged on Oprah’s last show. Or manicured fingers thumbing through the glossy pages of O Magazine.
The practices encircled by the Oprah ‘O’, Lofton suggests, are ersatz attempts at fulfilling the needs salved by monastic creeds. But are they? Yoga, or any exercise really, is meditative and generally good for one’s health. Pumps endorsed by the magnate of feel-good multi-media would be not only stylish, but surely comfortable. And within any given issue of O Magazine one can skim at least five easy tips on finding one’s true calling. ‘O’ is, indeed, more than a brand. ‘O’ is a monocle through which a New Earth can be viewed, one contorted to fit the dogma of Oprah, the edict to ‘Live Your Best Life!’
The ‘O’ brings to mind a mandala — the ritual or magic circle said to aid in contemplation. Think rose window, or Buddhist wheel of life. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung distinguished between mandalas used for ceremonial purposes in cathedrals or temples from the mental images that emerge, typically in dreams, from the imagination. Jung considered such mental images, which he deemed ‘true’ mandalas, to be symbolic representations of one’s ‘true’ inner self — in his words “the psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego.”
Jung was reticent about publicly discussing mandalas, disclosing in a late essay that he had refrained from writing or lecturing about the sacred symbols for 14 years. “One cannot be too cautious in these matters,” Jung wrote, “for what with the imitative urge […] far too many people are misled into snatching at such magical ideas and applying them externally, like an ointment.” The “true” mandala, for Jung, was the result of a free and individualized formation, not a “mere external representation” avidly procured to soothe a spiritual itch.
Lofton’s ultimate critique of ‘O’ mirrors Jung’s caution. Oprah’s ‘O’, she intimates, is neither a perfect circle encompassing all, nor an idiosyncratic manifestation suggesting the universal. The ‘O’, rather, occupies the overlap in a Venn Diagram made up of three other circles — religion, capitalism, and pop culture.
It’s true, as Lofton points out, that Oprah Winfrey, the person, eschews the rigidity of religion. Winfrey’s Christian roots notwithstanding, she has shied away from organized religion in favor of a non-denominational spirituality, in accordance with which “[w]e can choose whether to go to church or not, we can worship as we pl...read more