Day By Day in Every Way I Am Getting Better and Better: Emile Coué and the Birth of American Positive Thinking (Unpublished 1972)

PREFACE/INTRODUCTION

In Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, published in 1956, Martin Gardner does a splendid job of describing several dozen of history’s most convincing “sciosophs” and their eccentric theories. Yet I miss any mention of Philip Emile Coué (1857-1926) and his program of induced conscious autosuggestion. For a brief but spectacular period during the early ’20s, this French apothecary’s marvelously simple system of mental healing and his word-a-day theory of human personality captured the imagination — if not the intellect — of countless millions both here and abroad. Overnight Coué’s formula for recovery, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” became the stock phrase of the country.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the genial, greathearted Coué in no way fits Gardner’s profile of the typical pseudo-scientist: he did not consider himself a genius, did not despise professional contemporaries, did not suffer from paranoid delusions, did not have “strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greater scientists and their theories,” or write in a complex, technical jargon. Quite the opposite was true: the pudgy chemist was extremely modest and self-deprecating, never claiming to have been an original thinker; he saw himself as an ally rather than a foe of the medical and scientific establishment; the jovial old man was anything but paranoid, and he could not have confused any literate person with his plain-worded theory. All of this, of course, only served to increase his appeal. Note also that Coué refused to charge for his service as autosuggestionist and lecturer; one hesitates to brand him a charlatan because of his unmistakable charity.

Couéism is actually a borderline case in intellectual history. The amazing reception he was according when he toured the Midwest in 1923 made it clear that his movement was not only a medical fad, but a religious fad as well, probably related to the phenomenal recrudescence of fundamentalism during the decade. To be sure, the stoop-shouldered Frenchman insisted that his personality was of no account in explaining his cures; he disavowed miraculous power insofar as it concerned the operation of his own mind on those of others. The real miracle was individual, the source of healing power resided within the individual’s spirit and imagination. Yet how slight was the difference between this doctrine and that of faith-healing — too slight for the public to discern, in fact. Ralph Mowry asserts in his anthology, The Twenties: Fords, Flappers and Fanatics (1963), that “the widespread appeal of this simple self-help doctrine indicated a mass dissatisfaction with the contemporary church and the old theology.”

Clergymen were alarmed by the popularity of autosuggestion, fearing that it would be used as a substitute for religion — as it was. Coué’s “method” disturbed them even more than did the other faith cures making inroads among their congregations, such as Christian Science and the Emmanuel Movement and New Thought, since it encouraged the heretical notion that man could attain spiritual well0beling without any help from God whatsoever. (Although Couéism disappeared from the American scene by 1924, the spiritual solipsism of which it was a manifestation remained, thereby explaining the continued growth of Christian Science.)

America was infatuated with psychology during the 1920s; it was “king” among the popular sciences according to Frederick L. Allen, author of that renowned informal history of the decade, Only Yesterday. Coué’s fame can at least partially be ascribed to the fact that conscious autosuggestion, like the controversial psychoanalytic method, was supposed to give one control over that mysterious force known as the sub-conscious (Coué, as will be seen, more commonly referred to it as the Will); but much more rapidly — and much less expensively. “I wish to be taken seriously by serious-minded people. I want everyone to be convinced that the theories I advance, reduced as they are to their simplest expression, are nevertheless built upon a groundwork of scientific fact.” Many were thus convinced. Autosuggestion was scientific — and it was easy, as easy as a twelve word lullaby.

In an article on “Nerves” written for that round-robin critique of American civilization, Civilization in the United States (edited and orchestrated by that notorious soon-to-be expatriate, Harold Stearns), published in 1922, the very same year during which Couéism was developing into a national obsession, Albert Kuttner suggested, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not:

…If Freud, instead of saying that the incestuous longing of the child for the parent of the opposite sex is a natural impulse, though normally sublimated during the period of adolescence, had put the same idea into the phraseology of so many popular songs which reiterate the theme about mother being her boy’s first and last truest love, he would have encountered little opposition….

An anonymous co-critic contributed a sardonic essay on “Medicine,” offering corroborating testimony to the gross humbugability of Americans:

…The average American can believe firmly and simultaneously in the therapeutic excellence of yeast, the salubrious cathartic effects of a famous mineral oil, the healing powers of chiropractors, and in the merits of the regimen of the Corrective Eating Society….

No wonder that Americans could also be seduced into believing in the efficacy of Induced Conscious Autosuggestion.

As Dean Inge of St. Paul’s noted at the time, “America… is the happy-hunting-ground for every kind of quack.” (He was specifically referring to autosuggestion and its “irrational” cousins. See pages 20-21.) If one can’t quite bring oneself to labeling the guileless, truthful, hyperphilanthropic, humble, buxom, friendly, grandfatherly apothecary a quack, one is easily convinced that Coué’s Pollyannaistic counsel was quackery nonetheless. The incident at Tooting Hospital in London (described in detail on page 19), offered dramatic evidence of the foolhardiness of introducing ideopathy into the field of psychiatry. Coué stopped short of claiming that his do-it-yourself suggestion therapy would be of use in treating every sort of illness and disability — but just barely. A cure was possible if it was “within the realm of material possibility,” but the chemist’s conception of “material possibility” was provocatively ambiguous (pages 8-10.) Reading his best-selling primer, Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion, even the victim of distemper or typhoid might be induced to begin using the Coué reads:

Every morning before getting up and every evening as soon as you are in bed, shut your eyes, and repeat twenty times in succession, moving your lips (this is indispensable), and counting mechanically on a long string with twenty knots, the following phrase: ‘Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ Make this autosuggestion with confidence, with faith, with the certainty of obtaining what you want. The greater the conviction, the greater and the more rapid will be the results obtained.

The following text basically assumes the form of a chronicle. Parts I and II are a brief treatment of Coué’s unspectacular pre-autosuggestion years and include a reference to the forgotton “Nancy School of Suggestive Therapeutics,” Coué’s incubator; Part III is a synopsis of the system, theory and applications of Induced Conscious Autosuggestion; Part IV describes the typical séance at Nancy; Part V recounts Coué’s journey to England and his impact there. Parts VI and VII provide semi-impressionistic documentation of the development of the Couéite craze here in America in 1922 and 1923 as well as an account of the autosuggestionist’s impressive first appearances. Part VII serves as a brief epitaph to the man and the movement.

Many thanks to those who somehow managed to suffer me without protest throughout the entire wacky affair. Christine, Bob, Gary and Professor Moore and particularly worthy of praise in this respect. – Ithaca, 1972

I.

Phillip Emile Coué of Troyes, France had been a practicing pharmacist for a little more than ten years when he decided that his purse was heavy enough to allow him and his wife to retire. That was in 1896. Coué was 39. An associate assumed the management of the well-stocked drugstore and an adjoining chemical laboratory. [1]

The young pudgy retiree spent many of his idle hours playing chess, billiards and bridge with his neighbors in his large, drab, comfortable residence, one of the finest in Troyes. [2]

He did not attend church. His parents had thoroughly immersed him in Catholicism as a child, but he had long since lapsed into non-practice. Coué later confided that he “had not ever had a faith.” [3] On another occasion he declared that he believed in the “religious of humanity.” [4]

He probably did not read many books. “Reading,” he told a puzzled interviewer, “does not let one think.” [5] (Coué, however, was a fairly well-educated man, having received his professional degree at the University of Paris.) Presumably the affable apothecary’s imagination was more excited among flowers; to be sure he chrished his large colorful garden and could often be found there, smilingly contemplating the eager blossoms. One feels sure that his garden included a sizable contingent of gladioli for Coué’s father-in-law was none other than Lemoine, the horticulturalist, famed as the inventor of the gladiolus. [6]

During a visit to his in-laws, who lived in ear-by Nancy, Lemoine prevailed upon her son-in-law to attend a demonstration of drugless healing at the local school of suggestive therapeutics.

Coué was — there is no other word for it — enchanted…

…To be sure, many Frenchmen were trying their hand at hypnosis at the turn of the century. Some were occultists, some just pranksters. Yet alongside these there were also students of medicine, psychology and philosophy with a very serious and practical interest in the workings of the subconscious.

A.A. Liebault, of Nancy, was probably the first physician to make extensive use of hypnotic suggestion in the battle with disease. [8] Beginning in 1860 Liebault offered his services free of charge to any and all who agreed to his special form of treatment. Fifteen thousand beat a track to this country doctor’s door, mostly from the peasant class. His fame spread throughout the provinces; he was the first “psychotherapist,” father of what would come to be known as “the Nancy School of Suggestive Therapeutics.” [9]

Inspired by Liebault’s progress a group of faculty at the University of Nancy began conducting their own research into suggestive and auto-suggestive (self-induced) phenomena; Hippolyte Bernheim, professor of medicine, was the most outstanding. Meanwhile, Charcot, renowned professor of psychology at the University of Paris, was engaged in similar investigations. His work is also of interest. [10]

Charcot ultimately concluded that hypnotic suggestibility was an indication of the subject’s insanity. Burnheim disagreed, contending that the psychology of both the sane and the insane contained the apparatus of suggestion, challenging the notion that the will was the agent of crime and evil and thus, once and for all eliminating the “persisting concern with demoniac possession.” (Although, unfortunately, his work does not allow of further treatment here, it should be noted that today various psychiatrists regard Bernheim to have been the first to have attempted “to evolve a general understanding of human behavior.”) [11]

In 1901 Monsieur Coué left retirement and returned to work, ostensibly to retrieve control of his business from his grossly incompetent subaltern. Yet given his growing interest in suggestive therapeutics — Coué was by now a regular visitor to Bernheim’s psychopathological laboratory in Nancy — it is probable that he also returned in order to experiment on his own. [12]

To be sure, the friendly neighborhood apothecary recruited increasing numbers of trusting customers willing to submit to his hypnosis over the next few years: soon he was dispensing more suggestions than he was drugs. [13]

But Coué’s enthusiasm for mesmerism would eventually wane. On close inspection the chemist discovered, to his disappointment, that he could not induce complete sleep in more than one tenth of his patients. [14]

Combining his familiarity with placebos (bread pills, etc.), a rather nebulous understanding of psychology derived from his jaunts to Nancy, a bit of Catholic ritual, perhaps some knowledge of the Christian Science movement, a set of autosuggestive exercises which he learned from a Rochester correspondence school — as well as a certain dosage of optimisticalness — the modest apothecary’s mental mortar and pestle furnished a universal medication:

Induced Conscious Autosuggestion. [14]

III.

Every morning before getting up and every evening as soon as you are in bed, shut your eyes, and repeat twenty times in succession, moving your lips (this is indispensable), and counting mechanically on a long string with twenty knots, the flowing phrase: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ Do not think of anything particular, as the words ‘in every way’ apply to everything.

Make this autosuggestion with confidence, with faith, with the certainty of obtaining what you want. The greater the conviction, the greater and the more rapid will be the results obtained.
Further, every time in the course of the day or night that you feel any distress physical or mental, immediately affirm to yourself that you will not consciously contribute to it, and that you are going to make it disappear; then isolate yourself as much as possible, shut your eyes, and passing your hand over your forehead, if it is something physical, repeat extremely quickly, moving your lips, the words: ‘It is going, it is going–,” etc., etc., as long as it may be necessary. With a little practice the physical or mental distress will have vanished in 20 or 25 seconds. Begin again whenever it is necessary. Avoid carefully any effort in practicing autosuggestion.15

Thus in 1922 Emile Coué explained how to practice conscious autosuggestion.

Aware of the remarkable simplicity of his technique, Coué underscored his desire to be taken seriously. “I want every one to be convinced that the theories I advance, reduced as they are to their simplest expression, are nevertheless built upon a groundwork of scientific fact.” [16] To be sure, his system made use of a number of psychological “laws.” (Ernest Jones would contemptuously characterize the same as “a repetition of the more elementary truisms enunciated by the Nancy School of forty or fifty years ago.” [17])

The most important of Coué’s axioms dealt with what he regarded as the incessant conflict between the “two absolutely distinct selves within us,” “the conscious and the unconscious,” a.k.a. “the imagination and the will.” To wit: “When the will and the imagination are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.” This was called “the law of reversed effort.”

To prove the superiority of the imagination the druggist suggested the following experiment:

Suppose that we place on the ground a plank 30 feet long by 1 foot wide. It is evident that everybody will be capable of going from one end to the other of this plank without stepping over the edge. But change the conditions of the experiment, and imagine this plank placed at the height of the towers of a cathedral. Who then will be capable of advancing even a few feet along this narrow path? Could you hear me speak? Probably not. Before you had taken two steops you would begin to tremble, and in spite of every effort tof your will you would be certain to fall to the ground… in the first case you imagine that it is easy to go to the end of this plank, while in the second case you cannot do so. [18]

If the will, frustrated by the imagination’s greater power, grew more combative, the result could only be exponentially more distressing. “In the conflict between the will and the imagination, the force of the imagination is in direct ratio to the square of the will.” [19]

Witness the miserable insomniac: the harder and harder the poor fellow tries to fall asleep, the more he tosses and turns. Or the slightly more amusing dilemma of the person quaking with laughter who finds that he becomes delirious whenever he tries to control himself. And can not everyone testify to the exasperating fruitlessness of trying to remember something on the tip of the tongue?

The Frenchman cited all these predicaments (and more) as revelations of the omnipotence of the imagination. If this was not enough proof for the doubting Thomas he was invited to attend one of Coué’s séances and participate in the “hand-clasping test of suggestibility.” Guests were asked to extend their arms in front of their bodies full-length and clasp their hands together very tightly. Then in quick repetition (so as to assure the purity of the message), “I cannot unclasp my hands, I cannot unclasp my hands,” etc., etc. As long as they said this their hands remained firmly clasped; the Will was powerless to intervene. If an individual attempted to free his digits from the clutch of the imagination the law of reversed effort would take effect: the grip would become tighter, even to the point of pain. [20]

However, once the subjects were directed to say, instead, “I can,” everyone’s hands would immediately spring apart! What had happened?

To be sure, according to the chemist-turned-psychologist, the imagination had sent the will, or the subconscious (recall that Coué used the two terms interchangeably) a counter0suggestion and, as always, the latter had obeyed. Sometimes, of course, the hand-clasping test of suggestibility would not work. The failing subject would then be gently admonished by the kind autosuggestionist to think more and try less. (“Avoid carefully any effort in practicing autosuggestion.”) [21]

Contrary to established rules and general opinion, the imagination, not the will, was man’s crucial property. People are always preaching the doctrine of effort, but this idea must be repudiated. Effort means will and will means the possible entrance of the imagination in opposition, and the bringing about of the exactly contrary result of the desired one. [22]

Therefore, insisted Coué, it was incumbent upon man to train and control his imagination if he sought to master himself, not the will. The technique: induced conscious autosuggestio. Thus equipped, he believed, humanity might draw closer indeed to the blissful millennium.

By inducing in oneself a general suggestion of well-being a person could get better and better and better, and so on, even when wracked by maladies which physicians considered incurable. Paralysis, tuberculosis, diabetes, endocarditis, clubfoot, Pott’s disease (curvature of the spine), fibroid tumors, glaucoma, asthma, anemia, enteritis, gout, dyspepsia, eczema, and neurasthenia in all its manifestations — these are but a few of the ailments which the cheerful Coué claimed he had yielded to medicated suggestions. The list increased every year as he received more and more letters of thanks and testimonial from his “cures.” [23]

Certain it is that cases declared to be incurable have been cured by autosuggestion. And not only diseased of a functional nature. Sores and wounds of long standing which had resisted all other treatment have been healed rapidly by suggestion. [24]

Why had these afflictions vanished? Because “good” autosuggestions had replaced “bad” autosuggestions in the subconscious, thus ending the senseless strive between the Imagination and the Will (I frequently capitalize the two terms since Coué was so intent on assigning them personality) — a condition better known as fear — which had caused them in the first place. The good literally drove out the bad. [25]

Coué did not quite tout autosuggestion as a panacea. At his Nancy “clinic,” he never rejected the possibility of self-cure, according to one observer; however, “with several patients suffering from organic disease in an advanced stage, he admitted its unlikelihood.” [26] Furthermore he cautioned his audiences not to expect anything “which is obviously outside the realm of material possibilities.” [27] “For instance, it would be absurd to ask for the growth of a new arm or a new leg — despite the fact that the lobster seems to know how to grow a new claw.” [28] In spite of occasional clarifications such as these, no one was ever quite sure what Coué considered “materially possible” — a fact which ballyhoo men would later exploit.

The Frenchman was extremely sensitive to allegations of quackery. Again and again he emphasized that his system was designed as an adjunct to medicine, not a substitute for it. He objected strenuously to being addressed as “Doctor” rather than “Mister” and evinced “the greatest desire to co-operate with the medical profession.” [29]

Nevertheless it is difficult to distinguish the role of the physician in the Couéite scheme of things other than as one who helps his patients “get better” by prescribing placebos.

Indeed the public was most interested in the great medical benefits to be derived form the proper use of induced conscious autosuggestion. Yet Coué claimed that the uses of his system need not be restricted to medicine. In fact the power of the imagination could be brought to bear upon countless other problems of society.

“Education,” for instance.

In one memorable passage from his best-selling manual, Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922), the optimistic Frenchman describes that the pregnant woman can make sure that her baby will come out just the way she wants it:

It may seem paradoxical, but nevertheless, the Education of a child ought to begin before its birth.

In sober truth, if a woman, a few weeks after conception, makes a mental picture of the sex of the child she is going to bring forth into the world, of the physical and moral qualities which she desires to see it endowed and if she will continue during the time of gestation to impress on herself the same mental image, the child will have the sex and qualities desired. [30]

As soon as the young child is able to speak, give him or her a rosary and instructions on how to use it. Just like his Mom and Dad, junior ought to practice conscious autosuggestion every morning and every evening — and whenever he hurts himself. Bad autosuggestion are to be avoided at all costs, lest the youngster grow up absurd: if junior’s progress in school was less than satisfactory he was not to be punished or reprimanded, but congratulated on a job well done. [31] Similarly Coué warned parents not to “make the child nervous by filling his mind with stories of hob-goblins and were-wolves–” [32]

Teachers were advised that they could arrest the spread of juvenile delinquency among their pupils by having them all close their eyes while they were reminded:

Children, I expect you always to be polite and kind to everyone, obedient to your parents and teachers, when they give you an order, or tell you anything; that you will always listen to the order given or the fact told without thinking it tiresome when you are reminded of anything, but now you understand very well that it is for your good that you are told things, and consequently, instead of being cross with those who speak to you, you will now be grateful to them…. [33]

Furthermore Monsieur Coe asserted that vice and crime could be eliminated by his “scientific” approach. The cinema, because of “the terrible effects of suggestion on illbalanced or unformed minds,” was nothing less than a “school of crime” and as such ought to be abolished, or at least censored. The autosuggestionalist also favored the confiscation of the popular Nick Carter novels which he alleged to have been responsible for the corruption and ruination of scores of his suggestible countrymen. Hope for the rehabilitation of these dissolutes lay in application of The Method, Coué solemnly affirmed.

Why, the buoyant autosuggestionalist even held out hope to those women who could not afford the services of a beautician:

…Yes, just train your imagination to visualize your face or body as you would like it to be, and you will have a very good chance of seeing them approach pretty near your ideal. Mind, I don’t tell you that you can change the color of your hair, or modify the shape or your chin or nose…. [35]

“The power of thought, of idea, is incommensurable, is immeasurable,” wrote Coué in My Method, Including American Impressions (1923). “The world is dominated by thought. The human being individually is also entirely governed by his own thoughts, good or bad–.” [36]

…Thus we are so proud of our will, who believe that we are free to act we like, are in reality nothing but wretched puppets of which our imagination holds all the strings. We only cease to be puppets when we have learned to guide our imagination…. [37]

Everyone of our thoughts, good or bad, becomes concrete, materializes, and becomes in short a reality. [38]

IV.

But what is extremely poignant is at the end of the séance to see the people who came in gloomy, bent, almost hostile (they were in pain), go away like everybody else; unconstrained, cheerful, sometimes radiant (they are no longer in pain!). With a strong and smiling goodness of which he has the secret, M. Coué, as it were, holds the hearts of those who consult him in his hand; he addresses himself in turn to the numerous persons who come to consult him, and speaks to them in these terms:

‘Well, Madame, and what is your trouble?….’

Oh, you are looking for two [sic] many whys and wherefores; what does the cause of your pain matter to you? You are in pain, that is enough… I will teach you to get rid of that…. [39]

In 1910, Coué sold his pharmacy in Troyes and moved with his wife to Nancy where he bought another large, drab, comfortable residence and established himself in his new profession, autosuggestion. (He may have moved in order to facilitate closer contact with Bernheim et al., also because Nancy was by then presumably quite tolerant of those of his ilk.) Like the venerated Liebault, he refused either to charge or accept any payment in return for his aid. The handsome exchequer which he had earned as an apothecary apparently served as the Coués’ sole means of financial support throughout his career as asutosuggestionalist. [40]

Indeed, his popularity quickly exceeded that of the renowned Liebault: by the first year of the Great World War, at least 40,000 had visited Coué. [41]

During the war Nancy was often subjected to merciless shelling from German artillery. Yet the intrepid benevolist remained and continued to hold his daily séances. He was indefatigable, always working fifteen or sixteen hours a day, never turning away the sick and infirm who desired his succor. [42]

Basically the autosuggestionalist set only one condition: that all who sought him attend the group séances; he would no receive individual for treatment. This of course was no whim. Coué knew (as does any amateur psychotherapist), that the human mind is usually more influencable in crows. The forthright Frenchman readily acknowledged that he practiced with groups

…in order that the more suggestible people who are most easily and quickly cured may infect by their example and convince by their cries of delight and astonishment the more phlegmatic individualists who scoff…. [43]

The jovial old man would begin the typical conference on a deliberately light note, cracking jokes, laughingly chiding a couple of the most downhearted not to worry so much about their health. Once satisfied that he had created the proper regenerative mood, Coué would show individuals how easy it was to “get better.” [44]

First perhaps he “fertilized the mind” of the sickling by telling him: “You have been sowing bad seed in your Unconscious; now you will soon sow good seed.” He would then soothingly instruct the subject to sit down in a chair, relax and cease thinking about his affliction at once. [45] Finally Coué and his patient would quickly recite together the “Ca passé” — “it is passing” — formula.

Sometimes the autosuggestionist would personally touch the affected area, but such intervention was optional. The short message of well-being, if delivered to the subconscious with adequate speed and self-confidence, was deemed sufficient in itself to effect an on-the-spot cure, or at least initiate the healing process. Sure enough, after a short period of chanting, the jubilant patient would report that “it” had passed, that he was — by jove! — able to use his once-paralyzed arms or legs, or that his painful headache was gone — that he was cured! If not completely recovered, the patient reassured the audience that, at any rate, he was feeling much better. In this case, Monsieur Coué promised him that with repeated use of The Method, he or she would continue to get better and better and better, etc. [46]

No doubt an occasional subject might confess in apologetic or even irritated tone of voice that he did not sense any improvement in his condition. But such failures were reportedly rare at Nancy. [47]

Furthermore, Coué was prepared for duds. The radiant autosuggestionalist never denied that among the general population there were two classes of persons in whom it would nearly always be difficult to arouse conscious autosuggestion: those unfortunates possessed of unsuggestible temperaments (usually as a result of over-education) and mental retards. [48]

Rarely was a celebrity so self-depreciating. The humble apothecary obviously believed that in induced conscious autosuggestion he had found something of earth-shaking import; nevertheless he conceded, practically broadcast, the unoriginality of his thought for fear that he would be accorded undeserved praise. Coué saw himself merely as one who was reminding humanity of the power of the Imagination — a humble bearer of a useful message.

The diminutive autosuggestionalist always objected to the suggestion that he employed either personal power or religious aid at his séances. He was not a divine agent; some of his cures might appear miraculous, but they weren’t really miracles. If he bore a striking resemblance to a faith-healer, it was only a resemblance. [49]

V.

The affable chemist became world-famous when in October of 1919 he held a series of lecture-demonstrations in Paris.

Gossip about autosuggestion and Monsieur Coué quickly crossed the English Channel.

One British physician journeyed to Nancy to investigate. He