Saturday, June 9, 2012

the character of William James -- initial notes

William James


1. Impressionability


            The key to William James is his impressionability. His style of writing is less a serious of ideas than a serious of impressions, and long extended quotes characterize all his writing. He was a man with a demon, and that demon drove him to great heights and earned him his high heaven: the struggle of his intellectual conscience against his desperate need for love made the dynamo that drove his life and work forward.

            He is least honest with himself, and also most interesting, when he speaks of moral matters. The Gospel of Relax, for instance, which is based on his being impressed by, but of course never willing to follow, a moral tract about how we should give up our worries, relax. He exhibits a series of American vices as if they were virtues, and damns a few American virtues as if they were vices.

            Expanding on his thesis that acting is feeling, he admonishes us to "Act to be." The outer makes the inner, and if you just go along with being a Christian, you will really be one. James was not a Christian but always wished he could. He intellectual conscience would not permit it, yet his love and need for love ever desired it.

            In this essay we see some Americanisms arising early: science fiction as social commentary (his friend imagines a future we we've devolved into helpless infants), the high praise of exercise (a distant echo from the Greek gymnasium), and the American preoccupation with what would later be called "Stress." The essay is more or less an expression of anxiety about anxiety, and nowhere does he come across as a man who actually has achieved what he recommends. The source of the irritation -- and James is an oyster, his essays are pearls that come from years of irritation -- was hearing a distinguished European psychologist complain about American nervousness in the face. Here New England becoming the new Polestar for the next two centuries, and James takes some foreigners criticism about our nervous eyes at face value.

            But James is superficial, a genius of superficiality, and even recommends it in this essay. He sees self-reflection as the source of mental constipation, freezing free-associations, and recommends that we just take life easy, not reflecting on our happiness or sadness, but just breezily doing our activities -- for that is the try way to be happy. Such advice James reports from impressions of other people: he never describes himself in matters of advice. That certain geniuses were in fact highly self-reflective he doesn't seem to admit, although such a condition completely characterized himself.

            Characteristically, he ends his essay on the Gospel of Relax quoting some French neurotic who, after suffering years of panic attacks and paroxysms about his doom in hell, suddenly found peace that he was fully serving God in ever aspect of his life. Again, taking such reports at face value -- the only way James knows how -- he sees this ease in life as having cured the man's anxiety, when in fact, the persistent anxiety of hell is exactly what holds his comfort in place.

            "Know thyself just gets in the way," James might have said. In this, James is different than most Americans, in that, he wishes he could be as superficial as them, but can't.

            But his appreciation for the common man is almost Whitmanian: "One of the most philosophical remarks I ever heard made as by an unlettered workman who was doing some repairs at my house many years ago. "There is very little difference between one man and another," he said, "when you go tot he bottom of it. But what little there is, is very important." James is an equal opportunity impressionist, and like Teddy Roosevelt is willing to greet servants as equals.

            Allergic to the word "we," James is by nature. He is somewhat akin to his brother's ideal of a good novelist: "Somebody on whom nothing is lost," but he only intuitively senses the deeper meanings in things. He doesn't have a strong stomach: things come out in the same form as they went in.

            It is no easy matter to speak intelligently upon matters of which one has no experience. Thoreau, in "Life Without Principle," makes it cardinal not that a speaker be interesting or popular, but only that he speaks from his intimate experience. And yet James is able to speak convincingly of Mystical experiences in his chapter of Varieties of Religious Experience. Surely enough, he makes mistakes which a genuine mystic would make. For one thing, he is too credulous to believe mystic's accounts of their own experience, which, unfortunately, are usually more pious than accurate. Josephs Smith, for instance, modified his vision of the Father and Son many times over the years. And a good Catholic, if he were given some mystical insight that was heterodox would naturally tweak it to fall in line with what the church already decided was the truth long ago. The meanings different mystics give to their experiences are akin to the meanings people give to their dreams the next day. One gets the impression that most of the related content of the dream was invented while groping for the original experience.

            His case that mystical experiences are ineffable is surely negated by successful examples of religious art, and getting those experiences in the first place comes from knowing that they are possible and following a set of behaviors that make them more likely. Like deep romance, these experiences are possible only because we have heard stories and believe them. His statement, for instance, "No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists," is surely negated by the novels of his brother, which stage and incite certain feelings a person would likely never encounter unless they were so artfully evoked. "Ineffable" is just an exaggerated term of strong praise. No artist believes in it, and no psychologist should be so quick to credit it.

            His worse error is to associate mysticism with passivity, which is merely an ascetic prejudice: the mystical states of the great artist and musicians have always been active. As a man who has felt them both, I know they are not different in kind. Further, the prejudice that the ego cannot sustain, let alone create religious or mystical experiences, has been a flat out falsehood so strongly affirmed in the East that it seems unthinkable at this point it could be otherwise.

            He would do better to say that mystical states are highly personal and subjectively of great importance. We could not, therefore, dismiss as neatly and completely the possibility that groups experience a mystic union when they worship together. For instance, the living experience of the Shakers who regularly experienced ecstasies and epiphanies in groups is never referenced.

            Thus the uses and limits of his approach and style become apparent to anybody who already knows what he reports. His lack of critical faculty, or the ability to doubt and undermine the reports he hears, is probably his biggest weakness, as well has his unwillingness to affirm himself and take his own experience, realistically and not ideally, as of center importance, are what make a man like Emerson a revelator, and a man like James a repeater. If Whitman was Narcissus, James was Echo, repeating back the important things of what he hears.




\~ @M@ ~/

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