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Authors: Louis Menand

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BOOK: American Studies
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Some necessity that there is no escaping, compels a man from his early youth to be out of bed every morning at six o’clock. For weeks and months, and perhaps, years, the struggle and the suffering are acutely felt. Meanwhile, the hand of power is remorseless in the uniformity of its application. And now it is that there creeps a certain habitude of the system, modifying by imperceptible degrees the bitterness of that oft-repeated conflict. What the individual has had to act so many times in one way, brings on a current of nervous power, confirming the victorious, and sapping the vanquished, impulse. The force of determination that unites the decisive movement of jumping out of bed with the perception of the appointed hour, is invigorated slowly but surely. Iteration is softening down the harsh experience of the early riser, and bringing about, as time advances, an approach to the final condition of mechanical punctuality and entire indifference. Years may be wanted to arrive at this point, but sooner or later the plastic element in our constitution will succeed.
If getting out of bed early is a “moral habit,” pretty much anything can be a moral habit. Nothing in his diary requires us to assume that James was talking about masturbation.
The only evidence that remains is the passage about the epileptic patient. But the crucial thing to notice about that passage is that the epileptic is epileptic. He is a person with an organic disorder, not a person who has made himself idiotic by “unhealthy habits.” “Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him,” says the Frenchman. The fear being expressed is the fear of unforeseen catastrophe. It is precisely not the fear of self-destruction.
The story of the epileptic is a story about what used to be called “the problem of evil”; that is why it appears in a book on religious experience. The epileptic patient represents the classic challenge to faith: innocent suffering. The realization that people can suffer as a result of their own actions does not cause a religious crisis. What causes a religious crisis is the realization that people can lead exemplary lives and suffer anyway. The Frenchman has been insulated by the assumption that in a rational universe, bad things cannot happen to good people. The blow to his ego, when the image of the patient is suddenly before him, comes from his recognition that moral worth does not immunize us against disaster. “The eternal God is my refuge” is the lesson of the vision: there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves against undeserved suffering. The only salvation is faith. Evil, in James’s time, was a motiveless malignancy. We think of evils as
by something—by greed, or genes, or sexual abuse—and miss the point of James’s story.
The biggest impediment to getting a coherent crisis-and-recovery narrative out of the materials of William James’s life between 1867 and 1873 is that large portions of the record are simply missing. James was never a daily diarist, but the entries in the notebook he used for a diary are fairly regular from April 1868, when it begins, to February 1869. Then twenty-one pages (as much as forty-two pages of writing) have been cut out, apparently with scissors. The next dated entry is for December 21, 1869. Most of James’s diary for 1869, in other words, has disappeared.
Those pages were probably destroyed either by James himself or by his widow, Alice, who winnowed her husband’s papers with meticulous care, sitting in front of a fireplace, and who had (like her brother-in-law Henry) small tolerance for the embarrassing detail. It is, of course, stimulating to imagine the sort of revelation that might have led James, or his heirs, to consign these pages to the flames. And people who want to place the vision of the epileptic or the McLean hospitalization in 1869 will naturally look upon the missing pages as the dog that does not bark.
The reason letters and diaries are usually destroyed, though, is that they contain references to other people. And there is one tiny clue that points in this direction. James graduated from medical school in June 1869 and spent the summer—the period the missing pages presumably cover—in Pomfret, Connecticut, on vacation with his family. He was, by his mother’s account in her letters to her son Henry, in fairly miserable shape. Two sheets of notepaper are preserved among his papers in an envelope labeled “Pomfret 1869.” James seems to have been trying to work out, on these pages, some sort of philosophy of conduct, and is weighing the alternative postures of sympathy (an “expansive embracing tendency”) and defensiveness, or what he calls “self-sufficingness”—and in the course of this he writes: “My feeling towards B.W (e.g.) comes from too partial a sympathy; so does the optimist’s each sympathizing with opposite sides of her being.” And later on: “sympathy gives pain (B.W.) Shd. sympathy go so far as to dictate suicide?”
The wording is cryptic, but James seems to be referring to his feelings for a woman.
Certain identification of
la belle B.W. sans merci
is impossible. One candidate is Bessie Ward, the sister of Tom Ward, one of James’s best friends. Her father was the James family banker; her mother, the former Anna Hazard Barker, was a famous beauty. “The adorable Miss Bessy,” Henry later called the daughter after running into her in Rome; “ …—pretty, intelligent, gracious and elegant—a most noble and delightful maiden.”
“Sympathy gives pain” suggests that if William had a crush on Bessie Ward (and she certainly sounds like a person compatible with crushes), it was not reciprocated. (William seems to have nursed a number of fruitless passions
in his youth. He appears to have gotten involved, while he was in Germany, with an American woman, Catherine Havens, who was even more neurotic than he was; he was smitten by Fanny Dixwell, who married Oliver Wendell Holmes, and by Clover Hooper, who married Henry Adams. Bessie Ward, much to the amusement of William’s sister, Alice, eventually married a Saxon baron named Schönberg.) If William had committed his feelings about her (or some other B.W.) to paper, this might later have constituted a reason for destroying that portion of his diary. In any case, there is no hint of the asylum here.
And the excised pages from 1869 form the
gap in the record. After the extant diary resumes on December 21, 1869, there are regular entries up to the Renouvier episode, on April 30, 1870. But the next page is dated February 10, 1873—more than three and a half years later. There is one more entry, for April 10, 1873, and the diary ends. The silence of the diary would matter less if we had enough letters. But we don’t. Though James was ordinarily a prolific correspondent, between the July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson James, already quoted, and a letter dated May 30, 1872—a period of nearly two years—only four letters survive. If James wrote other letters besides these four, they were presumably destroyed along with the diary pages. Between August 1871 and May 1872, ten months, nothing remains at all.
And third-person information about William’s activities during this period—for example, in letters written by other family members—is sparse. All kinds of things may have happened to James between 1869 and 1872. We know only a few.
Was the period for which there are neither letters nor diaries the period in which James was a patient at the McLean Asylum? Apparently not. Although Linda Simon was, of course, denied access to James’s medical records at McLean, she did arrange to examine the patient logs from 1866 through 1872 with the names blacked out. She found nothing in the remaining information about age, sex, occupation, and time of stay that matches up with William James. Given the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of James’s life in the early 1870s, it seems fair to conclude that the story of the epileptic
patient is biographical flotsam. It is unmoored to any known event in James’s life. It can be interpreted as a precipitating crisis, as a psychological breakthrough, as simply one among many crises, most of which are now unrecoverable—or as a partial invention, a little work of faction.
Even considered as a discrete event, unembedded in some larger structure of negation and transcendence, the story of the epileptic is not exactly raw data. Simon registers some skepticism about the verisimilitude of the account in
The Varieties of Religious Experience,
and she is right to do so. The passage feels mildly precooked; the coda, in particular, about clinging to “scripture texts” in order to avoid insanity does not sound very much like William James (or, for that matter, like a Frenchman). The passage is designed, after all, to mimic a medical case history and to fit into a book about religious experiences. The Frenchman’s testimony is cross-referenced to Bunyan’s
Pilgrim’s Progress
and to a well-known story James’s father wrote about his own spiritual crisis, which led to his conversion to Swedenborgianism, and remarkable similarities are pointed out by James. As Oscar Wilde once said of Wordsworth: He found under the stones the sermons he had already placed there. One reason for disguising the source must have been to license some opportunistic revisions of the original experience—whatever it was.
The literary self-consciousness of the passage, in particular the way in which it resembles Henry Sr.’s account of
crisis—which involved the apparition of “some damned shape squatting invisible to me … and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life”
—has been remarked on by a number of commentators. But even the perception that the boundary separating the epileptic from the “normal” person is paper-thin was probably not as spontaneous as the passage makes it appear. Charles Brown-Séquard, the man who diagnosed poor William Alger in Paris in 1871, had been William James’s teacher at the Harvard Medical School five years earlier. Diseases of the brain were his specialty, and he taught, according to William’s own lecture notes, that there is “a not[able] tendency in every man to some of the features of epilepsy.” He mentioned coitus and the involuntary jerking of muscles when being
tickled or in sleep: “Thus degree by degree we are led to look on epilepsy as an incr
. degree of the normal reflex excitability of
certain parts
of nervous centres.”
This notion, much amplified, grew to occupy a central place in James’s own psychology. “His thought was that there is no sharp line to be drawn between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ minds, that all have something of both,” James’s former student Dickinson Miller recalled. “Once when we were returning from visits to two insane asylums at one of which we had seen a dangerous, almost naked maniac, I remember his saying, ‘President Eliot [Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard] would not like to admit that no sharp line could be drawn between himself and the men we have just seen, but it is true.’”
The epileptic patient had performed his heuristic role before.
Without suggesting that anything that might significantly transform our understanding of William James has been suppressed, we are entitled to note that the version of his early breakdown in his son Henry’s 1920 edition of the
and his protégé Perry’s 1935 biography is very much the authorized version. Two pieces of evidence—the story of the epileptic patient and the response to Renouvier—were plucked from a fragmentary record and erected into the narrative emblems of a breakdown and recovery. For the story of a philosophical-spiritual crisis overcome by “the will to believe” is conveniently symmetrical with James’s writings in
The Will to Believe
(1897) and
(1907), books that exhort us to act “as if” in the face of uncertainty—to believe that if we take a risk, the universe will meet us halfway. The biography is made to lend authenticity to the philosophy: James, too, knew pessimism and despair, and this is how he willed himself to overcome them.
Except that he never overcame them. Simon’s biography emphasizes, more fully than any earlier one, the persistence of James’s ill health. For James was depressive
all his life
. And this may be the diagnosis
that explains the insufficiency of all other diagnoses. Commentators prefer to assume that James was despondent in the years after his graduation from medical school because of some problem—a family problem, a sexual problem, a career problem, an identity problem, a philosophical problem. But depression is not a problem; it’s a weather pattern. Under its cloud,
everything else
is a problem. When the weather changes, these problems disappear, or become “opportunities,” or “challenges”—until dark skies return.
Throughout James’s life, evidence in letters or diaries that he has recovered his health and spirits is always followed, sooner or later, by evidence that he has had a relapse. The letter from James’s father in the spring of 1873 announcing William’s new robustness is followed by a letter in the summer from his mother (never the tenderest analyst of her oldest child’s troubles) to Henry Jr. (her favorite), complaining that William “has such a morbid sympathy with every form of trouble and privation … . He is very despondent about himself.” In March 1874, she complains, again to Henry, that “the trouble with [William] is that he
must express
every fluctuation of feeling, and especially every unfavorable symptom.” And the following July: “His temperament is a morbidly hopeless one.” In the summer of 1880, Henry, after seeing his brother in London, confides to his mother that “I can’t get rid of the feeling that he takes himself, and his nerves, and his physical condition too hard and too consciously.”
William did take those things rather consciously. “If you knew my life,” he wrote to Renouvier in 1882, when he was forty, “you would confess that my little stream of work runs on under great disadvantages.”
He was not referring to external pressures. He seems to have undergone what he called an “annual collapse” every February. He agonized for two years about his courtship of Alice Gibbens until their marriage in 1878—a period when he behaved, as he confessed to her later, like “a man morally utterly diseased.”
He complained of depression in 1893 (“I … know now a new kind of melancholy”).
In 1899, when he was supposed to be writing
The Varieties of Religious Experience,
a heart ailment brought on a depression that lasted nearly two years. He was incapacitated again by
severe depression in 1909, the year before his heart disease finally killed him. “The fact is,” he wrote in 1901 to his brother Henry (who, despite his wish that William would display a little more fortitude, was subject to serious depressions himself), “that my nervous system is utter trash, and always was so. It has been a hard burden to bear all these years, the more so as I have seemed to others perfectly well; and now it is on top and ‘I’ am under.”
William experimented with pretty much every cure available for his various psychosomatic symptoms: chloroform, electric shock (intended to stimulate the nerves), weight-lifting, diet, hypnotism, drugs, travel, Christian Science, “mind cure” treatments (during which the practitioner “disentangled” his mind while he slept), and the “talking cure” (a primitive form of psychotherapy). So it would hardly be surprising if he had also checked himself into the McLean Hospital. Some of the rumors that have been reported indicate that he was being treated there for depression later in life. This seems plausible. It is worth noting that McLean did not accept voluntary admissions until 1881.
Still, the events used to frame the standard biographical narrative—the Renouvier diary entry and the story of the epileptic patient—are plainly relevant to our understanding of James’s thought. The question is, How? The texts themselves are a good deal less clear on this point than has generally been assumed. In the story of the epileptic patient, the Frenchman’s sudden perception that he might end up in the same condition induces a fear of going out in the dark and of being left alone, which is allayed by recalling tags from the Bible. In the Renouvier episode, a feeling of inanition caused by excessive philosophical speculation is addressed by a decision to assume a more active role in life. In the first case the problem is fear of catastrophe, and the remedy is religious consolation. In the second, the problem is intellectual paralysis, and the remedy is a belief in the efficacy of self-assertion. The two episodes do not seem to be related as crisis and recovery, or negation and transcendence, or down and up. They seem to be experiences of different kinds of distress alleviated by different kinds of self-therapy. The mistake has not been singling these passages out as emblematic of
Jamesian insights. The mistake has been stringing them together as the endpoints of a single crisis.
In fact, for James the two experiences represented eternally opposed responses to life. He made himself clear on the matter in an odd corner of his work—in the introduction he wrote to his father’s
Literary Remains,
a memorial anthology which was published in 1884 and promptly sank without a trace. Most people who believe in God, William says there, are really pluralists. God for them is just one force in the universe, “a concrete being whom it does not take a scholar to love and make sacrifices and die for.” It is hard to feel affection for an omnipotent God, a God defined as Universal Substance, or as First Principle. And pluralism, says James, is anyway “a view to which we all practically incline when in the full and successful exercise of our moral energy.” For when we feel healthy, our will seems a match for the forces we confront; life, as James put it elsewhere, “feels like a real fight,” whose outcome is still in doubt.
But, he continues, there are also times when life feels like a mechanical and predetermined process whose outcome we are powerless to change; and at these times, trying to buck ourselves up with the thought that we, too, can make a difference, that we get a vote, is futile. In his description of this fatalistic state of mind, he evokes the epileptic:
To suggest personal will and effort to one “all sicklied o’er” with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel that the Powers of the Universe recognize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is. Well, we are all
such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison-inmates. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity of our voluntary career comes over us, that all our morality appears but a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-
that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not. This well-being is the object of the
demand,—a demand so penetrating and unassuageable that no consciousness of such occasional
and outward well-doing as befalls the human lot can ever give it satisfaction. On the other hand, to satisfy the religious demand is to deny the demands of the moralist … . So that of religion and moralism, the morbid and the healthy view, it may be said that what is meat to the one is the other’s poison. Any absolute moralism is a pluralism; any absolute religion is a monism … . The accord of moralism and religion is superficial, their discord radical. Only the deepest thinkers on both sides see that one must go.
James was a moralist who gave a great deal of his time and intellectual energy to the business of trying to understand religion. But although he believed in the legitimacy of the religious response to the universe, he was never able to attain its consolation for himself. All his efforts to make contact with God, or to enter into what he could regard as a spiritual state of mind, were unsuccessful. “My personal position is simple,” he wrote two years after the publication of
The Varieties of Religious Experience
to one of the book’s critics. “I have no living sense of commerce with God.” And then, in an understatement: “I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly.”
This is why treating the Renouvier episode as a response to a spiritual crisis is a disservice to James. James thought that philosophy could never be an adequate response to despair, because he thought that philosophy begins and ends with the recognition of its own inadequacy. Philosophy is a moralism: it is for people who feel strong enough to face the universe on its own terms, knowing that there is, in the end, nothing to back them up, nothing to
that their vote will be counted. “A philosopher has publicly renounced the privilege of trusting
which every simple man owns as a right,” James wrote in 1873, in the final entry in his diary, “—and my sight is not always clear enough for such constant duty.”
He went on, of course, to write a great deal of philosophy, but he could do it only when he felt healthy enough to face the abyss, and he always expressed pleasure when he could take a break from it. Gertrude Stein’s anecdote about the final exam she took in James’s course when she was his student at Harvard is well known.
“Dear Professor James,” she claims she wrote on the exam, “I am so sorry but I really do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day” The next day, she says, she received a note from James. “Dear Miss Stein,” he wrote, “I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself,” and he gave her the highest mark in the course.
Gertrude Stein was not above autobiographical embellishment, but this story is probably truer than it seems. She had understood the lesson. James knew that philosophy was not enough. But it was all he had.
James was a beloved figure—not just a man whose writings other people found inspiring, but someone more personally affecting than that. He was adored even by people, such as Bertrand Russell, who detested his philosophical views. After James’s death, many of these people, both the inspired and the uninspired, struggled to explain what it was about James that had made him such a genuine and irresistible character. For there was a side of James that is not captured in his writing, as colloquial and highly inflected with personality as it is.
In his work, James can sometimes seem to be expounding, with too much bravado, a kind of can-do, self-help attitude toward life, to be suggesting that the answer to most of our problems is just to drop our philosophical worry-bones and get on with the business of making and doing. Many readers since James’s time have complained that the pragmatism and pluralism he promoted are not enough, that life confronts us with some situations that call for a different sort of response. But no one knew this better than James. It is the poignancy of his life that he never found, for himself, that other sort of response. He created a philosophy of hope expressly premised on the understanding that there is, finally, no
for hope. This is why reading Renouvier was not a cure, and it is why the experience with the epileptic patient is attributed to someone else. James was too wise to believe that true melancholy can ever be overcome by a theory, and he was too honest to pretend to a spiritual satisfaction he was never able to feel.
John Jay Chapman was one of the readers whom James’s writings failed to inspire, but he loved James anyway, and in his memoir
he put into words the quality others searched for: “There was, in spite of his playfulness, a deep sadness about James. You felt that he had just stepped out of this sadness in order to meet you, and was to go back in the moment you left him.”
What lends authenticity to his philosophy is not its triumph over the unhappiness in his own life, but its failure.
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