Robert Louis Stevenson, James’s favorite author, dies as this week’s installment begins. Stevenson is only 44. And, it so happens, today is Stevenson’s birthday.
It’s the mid-’90s, James is lending financial and moral support to the brilliant but erratic philosopher “Charley” Peirce, who would later bite the hand that fed him by refusing James’s noblesse in crediting him with inventing pragmatism.
He’s also reflecting on the allegedly-false happiness of alcoholic intoxication, which ravaged his brother. Better to “replace the ideal of drinking with the ideal of having a constitution in perfect health,” an example of Spinozistic positive psychology. Stick to the nitrous, when you want to experiment with an expanded yea-saying consciousness.
“Alcoholics Anonymous” makes extensive practical use of Jamesian aids to learning and personal reform. “When AA invokes a ‘higher power,’ it does not mean Jehovah; it means a power higher than oneself. A small community of two or three will do nicely.” No need to bring in supernatural forces. We’ll all get by with a little help from our friends.
The naturalistic bent of James’s curiosity is reflected in his slight shift, around this time, away from studies of abnormal psych and the paranormal and towards varieties of religious experience. Richardson makes more of this, though, than he should. Religious experiences may be natural for human beings, but some of the case studies of conversion and “sick souls” James presents in Varieties are as “abnormal” as anything he’d encountered as a student of clinical psychology, and are not prime examples of what Spinoza must have meant when he advised us to re-frame our aversions in terms of positive goods.
James still insists that we not ignore the negative side of life. We must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, “Hurrah for the Universe!—God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view…
For himself, though, life is good. “As William James turned fifty-three, in January 1895, his life was rich and full… He was happily, solidly married– though he contracted a mad crush on every other woman he met.” Mid-life can be treacherous. “I have been happy, happy HAPPY!” he wrote Mrs. James, after meeting one of his crushes.
In April ’95 James delivered a talk to the Harvard YMCA called “Is Life Worth Living?” It included this distinctively-Jamesian statement about personal subjectivity:
The deepest thing in our nature in this binnenleben, this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears. As through the cracks and crannies of subterranean caverns the earth’s bosom exudes its waters, which then form the fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.
Another noteworthy publication from this period: “The Gospel of Relaxation
,” in which James issues the best pedagogical advice I’ve ever received: The advice I should give to most teachers would be in the words of one who is herself an admirable teacher. Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.
And there’s good advice here for students, too: If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.
“Will to Believe,” maybe James’s most famous essay, comes in 1896. Here he tackles that delicious enfant terrible [William Kingdon] Clifford, who wrote: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
James: Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.
No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.
“William James at fifty-five seemed a man of unlimited energy.” But, he wrote a friend, there’s just too much for an academic to read. “One lives on an inclined plane of hopes as regards reading, on which like the snail of mental arithmetic one slips back more in 24 hours than one gains.” Tell me about it.
James finally has an experience of the sort he’d always hungered for, one that he would characterize as vaguely mystical though not entirely instructive. He called it his Walpurgisnacht
, an extraordinary experience of “spiritual alertness” on a magnificent starry night after days of strenuous hiking. Of course it was an experience that, by the very terms of its mystical ineffability, he literally could not speak of in any detail. But, he cryptically said, “I now know what a poet is.”
“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings
” (discussed in last week
‘s post) is published in 1898. “The truth is too great for any one actual mind… The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.”
Democracy, as we know, does not always evince so great a respect for the individuality of other peoples and nations. The Phillippines crisis of 1899 provoked James’s ire. he saw American policy as naked imperialism, “crushing out the sacredest thing in this great human world– the attempt of a people long enslaved to attain to the possession of itself… to be free.” He complains bitterly: “The stars and stripes are now a lying rag.” Sound familiar?
As the fin de siecle
approaches there are troubling signs of health challenges ahead. Ever since his Walpurgisnacht
he’s noticed “queer cardiac symptoms,” a “valvular insufficiency”… the sort of thing Daniel Dennett recently had occasion to “thank goodness
” for rescuing him from. But James was born too soon to enjoy the opportunity of that particular form of rescue.