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Authors: Louis Menand

American Studies

BOOK: American Studies
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To Lev and Joseph
with love and awe
The only reliable lesson the past teaches us is how locked we are in the present. People ask, Where are the great Hollywood movies, the great pop songs, the great television newsmen, the great Democratic presidents, the great public intellectuals, the Great Books?, as though these were all eternally available types. They are not. Their availability is a myth.
I wrote most of the essays contained in this book in an office that overlooked a block of Times Square during a period of frenetic redevelopment. Every day, I watched tall buildings being demolished so that even taller ones could be constructed on their sites. Everyone has had the experience of driving past work crews on the highway. You see five guys sipping coffee and watching one man with a pick while he hacks halfheartedly at some gravel. You suspect that in five minutes the man with the pick will also be on a coffee break. Six months later, there is a new road. Building demolition is like that. You can watch for hours while workers move a few planks on a temporary scaffolding. Maybe a man with a blowtorch is laboring with apparent futility on a huge steel beam. Nothing else is going on. Two days later, a floor has disappeared. At the end of three years, the derelict structure has been obliterated and a new tower, whose erection was similarly mysterious, shimmers in its place. I was a witness to this transformation several times, but somehow I never
History is the same. The critical massing of conditions that enables
a particular way of life to come into being is almost impossible to detect while it is happening, and so is its deterioration. The world just rolls over, without anyone noticing exactly when, and a new set of circumstances is put in place. But the impulse to hold on to the past is very strong, and it is often hard to understand why things that worked once can’t continue to work. A lot of energy and imagination are consumed trying to fit old systems to new settings, though the pegs keep getting squarer and the holes keep getting rounder. In the end, the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it, which means, strictly speaking, to lose it.
Not every culture is like this, but American culture has been like this since the late nineteenth century. It is the culture of modernity, where the highest praise one can receive after death is to be declared to have been “ahead of one’s time”—which, in life, is pretty much the definition of unhappiness. Happiness is being in one’s time, and the essays in this book are all, in one way or another, about efforts to cope with that fact under the conditions of modern life. The book begins with a story about a man who was the first American to invent a full-scale philosophy for modernity, William James; it ends with the story of a woman determined not to be put in the position of having to repeat her first success, Maya Lin.
The essays are exercises in historical criticism. Historical criticism is the business of putting things back into their contexts to see whether that makes a difference to the way we understand them. Beyond the commitment to historicizing, there is really no method to it. The hardest part (besides knowing that you are fated always to get the past wrong on its own terms) is suppressing the element of wishful thinking that infects all critical writing. “Cast a cold eye” is possibly too stern a directive, but a cool eye is desirable.
Still, the intention is to make sense, not to discredit. It’s true that things aren’t always what they seem, but what they seem is always part of what they are. The man on the subway platform looking at the woman with her nose in a book is a critic: he is trying to figure out whether she is really reading, and hasn’t noticed him, or is just pretending to be reading, and, if she is just pretending to be reading, whether that is because she hopes he won’t approach her or because
she calculates that he will. If he does approach her, though, on the theory that she is just pretending to be reading, the first thing he will say is, “What are you reading?” Appearance, mystique, aura, reputation: these are all aspects of the things that interest us, and they are as real as anything else. It is good not to be fooled, but there is a difference between being disenthralled and being disillusioned. Criticism that denies the subject its surface appeal is unsuccessful criticism, and if something doesn’t seem more interesting after it has been taken apart, then it wasn’t worth taking apart. The last word—though only the last word—should be one of appreciation.
My own capacity for adjusting to change is no better than anyone else’s. Probably it is worse, which could explain my need constantly to write about it. We look backward for clues because, the future being the other side of a closed door, we have no place else to look. But even in America, where people are supposed to have no sense of history, there is a persistent reluctance to play with the cards that are on the table. We want to play with yesterday’s cards, but yesterday has already unraveled past reconstructing. Today is the only day we have.
n 1901, when he was fifty-nine, William James delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. James was an international academic celebrity.
The Principles of Psychology
, which appeared in 1890 and which had taken him twelve years to write, had been quickly recognized as the leading summation of developments in a field transformed by the introduction of laboratory methods and by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. An abridged edition for students,
Psychology: Briefer Course,
popularly known as “Jimmy,” appeared in 1892; by the time of the Gifford Lectures, it had sold nearly fifty thousand copies.
The Gifford lectureship was a two-year appointment. James returned to Edinburgh for the second set of lectures in 1902, and that year the lectures were published as
The Varieties of Religious Experience.
has probably been, over the years, James’s most popular book, read even when his functionalist psychology had been superseded by Freudianism and behaviorism, and his pragmatist philosophy was in eclipse. It is composed primarily of case
histories, collected from all around the world and organized by category—“Conversion,” “Saintliness,” “Mysticism,” and so on. It looks, in other words, like a psychology textbook, and that is because it is a psychology textbook. The
is not a study of religion; it is, as the subtitle states, “a study in human nature.”
James regarded the investigation of religious experience as a branch of abnormal psychology. He did not think that by treating the subject in this manner he was debunking religion; he thought that by treating it in this manner he was taking religion seriously. His approach reflected the holistic empiricism of which he was possibly the greatest nineteenth-century exponent: people have religious experiences, just as people have the experience of seeing tables or feeling cold. We assume that having the experience of seeing tables has something to do with there being tables in the world, and that feeling cold has something to do with a change in the temperature. Not everyone has visions or receives mystical revelations; but some human beings do. Those experiences are as psychologically real as any other state of consciousness, and since consciousness has evolved for the purpose of helping us to cope with our environment—since consciousness is not epiphenomenal, but is an active player in life—there must be something in the universe to which the religious feeling “belongs.” “God is real,” as James put it, summing up what he took to be the common-sense intuition about religion, “since he produces real effects.”
When he published the lectures, James put the sixth and seventh together in a chapter called “The Sick Soul.” “The Sick Soul” is an examination of morbidity—pessimism, disillusionment, anhedonia, and various types of melancholy, one of which James calls “panic fear,” and as an illustration of which he offers the following case:
Here is an excellent example, for permission to print which I have to thank the sufferer. The original is in French, and though the subject was evidently in a bad nervous condition at the time of which he writes, his case has otherwise the merit of extreme simplicity. I translate freely.
“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely nonhuman. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other.
That shape am I
, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.
“In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”
On asking this correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words, the answer he wrote was this:
“I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”
As everyone now knows, the business about this being translated from the French was a pretense. In 1904, the
was itself translated into French, and the translator, a man named Frank Abauzit, wrote to James requesting, understandably, the original text for this passage. “The document,” James wrote back, “ … is my own case—acute neurasthenic attack with phobia. I naturally disguised the
! So you may translate freely.”
Abauzit was a friend of the Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy, who was a friend of James’s: they shared an interest in psychic phenomena—spiritualism, mediums, trances, and so on. James died in 1910; a year later, Flournoy published a little book called
La Philosophie de William James,
in which he quoted the passage in the
about the vision of the epileptic and cited James’s letter to Abauzit confessing the deception. And that is how it became known that the story is autobiographical.
Edwin Holt, who had published
The Principles of Psychology,
and William James, Jr., James’s son, put out an English edition of Flournoy’s book in 1917, but they removed the material about the vision of the epileptic patient: neither the quotation from the
nor the reference to James’s letter appears in it. In 1920, though, the story was quoted and identified as James’s own in
The Letters of William James,
edited by his oldest son, Henry, and it has turned up in virtually every account of James’s life ever since. It has been the cause of endless biographical mischief; for although the vision of the epileptic has an important place in the story of James’s thought, it does not have an important place in the story of James’s life.
This may seem counterintuitive. James called the story, in his letter to Abauzit, “my own case,” after all, and there is no reason to believe that he made
up. It is the story of a kind of crisis, and
biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives, in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a “breakthrough” or arrives at a “turning point” (or, in the case of religious figures, undergoes a conversion experience) before going on to achieve distinction. The vision of the epileptic is an obvious candidate for such a crisis in James’s life, and most biographers have elected it to the office. But that is the wrong place to put it.
In the standard narrative of James’s life, the vision of the epileptic is paired with a second experience, which is made to represent James’s recovery or breakthrough. This is what can be called the Renouvier episode. Information about it also first surfaced in the 1920 edition of James’s
. In this case the source is a diary James kept from 1868, when he was twenty-six and studying in Germany, until 1873, when he accepted an offer to join the Harvard faculty. The entry for April 30, 1870, reads as follows. (The reference in the second sentence is to the second of the
Essais de critique générale,
[1859], by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier; “Bain,” later on, is Alexander Bain, a British psychologist who was a friend and follower of John Stuart Mill.)
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—“the sustaining of a thought
because I choose to
when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and contemplative
[in this context, “grubbing among subtleties”] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little for speculation; much for the form of my action; recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and
consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number.
Principiis obsta
[“Resist beginnings”]—Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits. I will see to the sequel. Not in maxims, not in
[“contemplations”], but in accumulated
of thought lies salvation.
Passer outre
[“To go on”]. Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure,
be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing
of the ego to the world. Life shall [consist in? the page is torn here] doing and suffering and creating.
The obvious temptation is to make the vision of the epileptic the crisis for which the reading of Renouvier was the cure. And this is just what James’s son Henry did in his edition of the
he suggested that the vision of the epileptic must have occurred in the winter of 1869-70, and that the diary entry for April 30, 1870, therefore marks the moment his father’s “resolution and self-confidence appear to be reasserting themselves.”
Ralph Barton Perry, James’s former colleague in the Harvard philosophy department and his official biographer, linked them in the same way in his two-volume life,
The Thought and Character of William James
(1935): he called the Renouvier episode the “turning point” in James’s “spiritual crisis,” and dated the vision of the epileptic “probably in 1870, just prior to his conversion to Renouvier.”
Most biographers have followed their practice.
Gay Wilson Allen, in
William James: A Biography
(1967), had it that James told his son Henry when the vision of the epileptic had occurred, but this assumption seems to have no basis. Henry apparently learned about the episode the same way everyone else did, from Flournoy’s book, after his father’s death. And this means that
we have no idea when the original experience actually took place. Assuming—no small assumption—that the autobiographical details in the phony Frenchman’s account are James’s own, it can be inferred that it happened after James had visited an asylum, during a period of uncertainty about his career, and while he was living at home. This narrows the possibilities down to some date before 1878, which is the year that, at the age of thirty-six, James finally got married. James was continually changing his mind about his career (as, nearly until the wedding, he continually changed his mind about his marriage). And he was often inside asylums. Insanity was a particular interest of his, and he knew people who were patients in asylums, notably his cousin Kitty James (who married her psychiatrist, Morton Prince). James was a student at the Harvard Medical School from 1866 to 1869, and probably visited asylums as part of his training. Although the diary in which the Renouvier entry appears is complete from December 1869 through April 1870, there is no mention in it of a vision of an epileptic, or even of a visit to an asylum. Yet commentators can be remarkably certain about the timing. Jacques Barzun, in
A Stroll with William James,
informs us that the episode of the epileptic occurred “within the week before or after” March 8, 1870—that is, the month before the Renouvier episode.
He does not explain how he arrived at this determination.
BOOK: American Studies
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