blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



A Talk by Robert D. Richardson

Thank you. I’m so pleased to be here in this beautiful, livable, attractive city. This is my first visit to Richmond and I’m just stunned.

I’ve been walking around all afternoon. I’ve been working for the last ten years on this biography on William James. And I should say right at the start, the more I learn about him, the more I like him. His great interest in life was trying to figure out how people can get to and use their own best energies. And his test for anything was to ask if it helped a person to reach and utilize the deepest energies that he or she possessed. His work for that reason is useful, actually useful. And his ideas are applicable all the time. And he had a nice sense of humor. For example, he was opposed to what he took to be the imperialistic move of the United States toward the Philippines in the early years of the century, the Spanish American war, and the part of it that involved the Philippines particularly, but he also found himself in England when the Boer War broke out.

And the Boer War, in the beginning, began to go against the English, and a group of English protestant clergymen, I believe, got together and declared a day of fasting and humiliation in order to implore the god of battles to intervene on the British side. James thought this was a poor idea. And he wrote a letter to the Times, saying that everyone would be better off if they could emulate the spirit of the old settler in Montana, who found himself one day face to face in the woods with the biggest grizzly bear he had ever seen. The old settler fell to his knees, and he said, “Lord, I ain’t prayed to you yet. And I ain’t going to pray to you now, Lord. But Lord,” he said, “don’t help the bear.” James thought that spirit would do better than the one he had witnessed. The Times declined to publish this.

Who exactly is William James, I get asked a lot. Born in 1842 he died in 1910,  and was a member of one of the most interesting American families. And no, he was not a brother to Frank and Jesse. And no, he was not a cowboy writer from Great Falls, Montana, Will James. And not the baseball statistician whose books are in the airport now. But he was the older brother of the great novelist Henry James and brother also to Alice, who wrote a great diary. There were two other brothers Wilky and Bob, both of whom were in the Civil War. The father of this wild clan of brilliant, talkative, adventurous sibs was Henry James, Sr., a monomaniacal, blocked, self-taught, Swedenborgian whirlwind of a man with one leg, the greatest talker in North America, thought some, and the author of many unwanted, unread, self-published books. The father wrote his books in the evening in the living room, with the whole family flowing in and out, doing their homework, coming and going, each one doing something different. One night, William, who was the oldest of the children, drew a frontispiece for his father’s next book. It showed a man beating a dead horse. This whole family lived in a sort of blizzard of lively conversation and pet names for one another. One, just to take one, Rob, Bobby, the youngest, was Bob, Bobbins, Rob, Robby, Bobby, or Hoppergrass Bob. This was a very high-spirited group of people.

The father was restless, and every time one of the kids found a good school, he would immediately take them out, and invent a dissatisfaction to go with this. So they moved from New York to Newport, Rhode Island, and back and forth to England, and they moved back and forth so many times, that when Henry James went to write his memoirs, he was embarrassed by the fact that they had gone back and forth, and back and forth, and he left out a whole trip, because he said it was a narrative impossibility. The family moved faster than you could tell a story. The children were yanked in and out of schools until the children were more or less grown, and the elder Jameses subsided from their frantic European travels and settled for good in Cambridge, Mass. They were however a New York family; they were not a Boston family, or even a New England family. They came from an Irish immigrant to this country, who made a great deal of money by buying a little town with salt under it that happened to be called Syracuse. So the grandfather of William and Henry and Alice owned Syracuse, New York, and was one of the wealthiest men in the country. All of the money got spent by the next two generations, and by the time Henry and William and Alice were growing up, it became clear that they were going to have to find a way to make a living because there wasn’t enough to support them.

There was enough to support Alice, but both Henry and William had jobs. And it’s not a widely known fact about Henry, who never talks about money, that he was a very good money manager, that he made a lot of money as a writer; he was very clever about selling his story first to the English market, then to the American market, then putting it in a volume and publishing it in England, then putting it in a volume, publishing it in America, so he could get paid four times for one piece of writing. And this is really before he had much copyright protection. But Henry James, though he won’t tell you so, was a very canny author-writer-businessman.

William, the oldest, after a few years as a science student—he wasn’t allowed to go to college because their father, the one-legged wild man, had gone to college in a way, in Union College where he spent a fortune on cigars and oysters and was thrown out over and over again for bad debts. And he had acquired the idea that all that happens at college is that you go to sea, so he wouldn’t let any of the kids go to college. He did allow William to go to what was then called the Laurent Scientific School, which was not Harvard College. It was on the same grounds as Harvard, but it was a whole separate outfit. It was a scientific school run on European principles in which you apprenticed yourself to a scientist—no general education, no classics, no entrance exams—and looked down on by real students over in the college. William went there for a few years, and then transferred to the medical school. And the medical school in those days was almost a joke by modern standards. It took a year to get through medical school, there were no entrance exams, there were no written exams, there were no requirements. You didn’t have to have graduated from high school, you didn’t have to have gone to college. Medical college was something you could sort of do, like signing up to learn to knit, or graft fruit trees. It was just considered a calling. I could tell you more stories about medical school, but I don’t want to get started on that.

William then started teaching anatomy, physiology, and hygiene to Harvard undergraduates. And he ended up as a world famous psychologist-philosopher and writer of a hugely influential book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ll talk about a little later on. He’s far and away the most challenging figure I’ve ever tried to write about. Many of his books, for example, were written after he died. Good, you’re awake! Not just published—written, after he died. He was engaged for a considerable part of his life in what’s called psychical research, in trying to find empirical evidence of mediumship, spirit writing, and other psychic phenomena. He went to a lot of séances. He spent an amazing amount of time listening to different sorts of mediums do their things. He neither believed nor disbelieved in psychic phenomena. He was interested in whether or not solid, scientific, empirical proof could be had, of such things as spirit writing, table raising, hauntings, ESP, these things that are still around. And of course, a great deal has happened in a hundred years. The odds against any of that stuff being possible have gotten longer and longer. In James’ time it was more or less still an open question, and a great many intelligent people were interested in this stuff.

In the standard bibliography of James’s work, however, there’s a section called James’s spirit writings. It lists six books, alleged to have been communicated through various mediums by James after his death. And I’ve read some of them. One of them is called Let Us In, by a woman named Jane Revere Burke. It’s actually a rather sweet book, and it has for its main notion that everybody who’s died is still here with us, around us, only in spirit form, not in the body, but that this room is simply jammed with the spirits of people who have been around here and departed, and they keep banging on us and saying, “Let us in, let us in!” But we won’t. This is a rather sweet notion. I mean this is a nice book written by somebody who’s clearly not at all crazy and just has a little notion about the persistence of spirits that’s not widely shared.

I found that to get very far with William James, I had to have an open mind about this stuff. And I was a little shocked at myself to discover that, in the beginning at least, I didn’t have an open mind; it was pretty well shut. I didn’t believe in any of that stuff. And I was a little shocked, as I say, to find that I was trying to write about a famously open mind, William James, and my own was shut. So I had to do a little adjustment in there. But I will say, that if William James wrote all these books after his death, his prose style kind of fell off after his death. They’re interesting, but they’re not very well written. And I don’t mean to make that quite as flip sounding as I guess it does. James once said, at the conclusion of a great piece, “We are in the universe the way our cats and dogs are in our libraries. They see the books, fair enough, but they don’t have any idea what’s behind those brightly colored things. So,” he said, “we are tangent to the universe ourselves and we are in it the same way the cats and dogs are in our libraries.” We see it, but do we really know what’s behind all that stuff? Now that I believe, that I believe. And I don’t think one has to go to ghost school for that.

On this side of the grave, however, where I feel a lot more comfortable, James had, and I think still has, at least three major reasons for us to remember him. First, he was a scientist, a medical doctor, and an empirical, laboratory-based, experimental physiologist who became the first major American psychologist. And I emphasize that scientific background deliberately, because this is a man who came to psychology not through philosophy and theology, but through what we would now call the hard sciences. And he was a major source at the turn of the century in developing the modern concept of consciousness at about the same time Freud was developing a modern concept of the unconscious. And Freud won the battle back then, but is losing it now. You can’t open a book on neuroscience or brain surgery now without finding a little nod to William James, who was one of the very first people to say there is no line to be drawn between the mind and the body. Mind is a function of body, of physiology. You get nowhere talking about the mind until and unless you can deal with its physiological level, as well as with all the other values that have evolved. James was interested in how the mind works, how it actually works, and I think in a way that’s the real key to his entire life because it moved him from psychology to philosophy to religious studies. And they all have to do with our minds. He believed mental states were always related to bodily states and that the connections could be shown.

Second, as a philosopher. And psychology in those days was a branch of philosophy and was taught in philosophy departments. There was no free standing psych department at Harvard until 1934, and I don’t know whether it’s earlier anywhere else or not. I don’t think it’s earlier, and if earlier, much earlier. But as a philosopher, apart from the psychology, or growing out of psychology, James is famous as one of the great figures of pragmatism, which is the belief that truth is something that happens to an idea, that truth is the sum of the results of something. Truth is a verb, if you will. It’s like a carpenter takes a rough plank and a plane and “trues” the board. That’s an old usage—makes it true, makes it level, makes it right angle, whatever. That’s what “true” is, truing is something that happens to an event or facts. Pragmatism is not, as some cynics claim, the mere belief that whatever works for you is fine, is true. That’s not it. It has to work for you but it can’t contravene any known facts for anybody else, either. So it’s not just what you prefer to believe, it is all the results of something. Foreign policy notoriously can be run on idealist principles or pragmatic principles. If run on pragmatic principles, you ask, what’s going to happen or what might happen, or what has happened and what will happen. And then you judge what you want to do by that measure. James believed in what he once called, beautifully, “stubborn irreducible fact.” He was not, in that sense, part of the idealist tradition.

Third, James is the author of a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is maybe the most influential book on religion of the last hundred years. Robert Stone, the novelist, says it’s the best piece of nonfiction prose in English in the 20th century. It’s not just the subject of endless learned comment from universities and seminaries either. It’s read by ordinary people. And I love the fact that it provided Bill W. with the fundamental process on which to build Alcoholics Anonymous. In a letter to the psychologist Carl Jung, Wilson wrote that he was trying with AA, founding Alcoholics Anonymous. He was trying to make William James’ conversion experience available on an almost wholesale basis. James’ main point in this book is that religious authority is to be found not in books, bibles, buildings, inherited creeds, historical prophets, not in authoritative figures, whether parish ministers, popes, or saints, but in the actual, religious experience of individual people. If this is true, then the power to change, that conversion experience or possibility, which the orthodoxies attribute to grace, lies also in the religious experience of each individual person. And I know a bunch of people in AA who actually reread The Varieties who say it’s better written than the Big Book, the AA book, which is a great thing, but, again, not as well-written as it might be.

Now the common idea, that’s shared by James the psychologist, James the philosopher, and James the writer on religion is the importance of human, personal, concrete, actual experience. His interest in psychology was in consciousness as we actually live it, experience it. In philosophy, he thought that something was true or not depending on how it played out in actual circumstance, actual experience. And in religion, he recognized real religious authority to be only in the experiences of individuals taken one by one, but all decant.

Now many of these beliefs arose as one might expect from his own experience, which included a good deal of illness, and especially long periods of terrible depression, particularly when he was young. Well, young—between twenty and thirty, and utterly unsure about what he was to do in life. He was one of these people that took a long time to grow up, a long time to figure out what he wanted to do. And later, he wrote about this period in his life, and I have written about this partly because that I think it’s encouraging to know that somebody who was as bad off as William James was as a young man could amount to something later on. I mean, this is nice, it’s like reading the earliest poetry of Walt Whitman, which is about as bad as verse gets. It’s very encouraging to know that you can go from the terrible doggerel of Whitman’s earliest poetry to what he was eventually able to write. Same with James. And this is a piece that he wrote about himself and he stuck it in the book, The Varieties, as an anonymous Frenchman. But his translator tripped him up on it and said, where’d you get this? And he confessed to the translator in a private letter that it was him. He doesn’t parade it in the book. But the experience goes like this:

In this state of philosophical pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects in life, I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly it 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 the mind the image of an epileptic patient that 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 walls, with his knees drawn up under 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 cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. 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 had 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 solid within my chest 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 had never known before. And for months I was unable even to go out into the dark alone.

Toward the end of the , and I’m not skipping or changing the subject, I’m just backing up a little bit.  He says that there are two things in which all religions seem to meet. And the first of these is a conviction that there is something wrong about us, as we naturally stand. It’s one of James’s great strengths, I think, that he doesn’t gloss over or underestimate what’s wrong. At the end of his discussion of the sick soul in the , he says the normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings, and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the slaughterhouse, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait ’til you arrive there yourself. To believe in the carnivorous reptiles of geologic time, it is hard for our imagination. They seem too much like mere museum specimens, yet there is no tooth in any of those museum skulls that did not daily through long years of the fore time hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim. Forms of horror just as dreadful to their victims, if on a smaller spatial scale, fill the world about us today. That was all written in 1901.

James’s own life was marked, as all lives are, by losses. But he had an astonishing ability to draw strength from depression to get the possibility of starting again when he was down. He had a kind of amazing resilience. It was Emerson who said that you watch your children fail at school or fall in the playground or get hurt by a playmate, he said, and you pray for their resilience. Because it’s not what happened to them, it’s what they then do, whether they can bounce back. James’s resilience was astonishing. Things that would have taken most people down somehow woke him up. His life was marked by losses, but he had this astonishing way of turning the losses to something. And it was by facing them, not trying to find a way around them. “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent,” he wrote, “the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all of life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.” I love that; I think it’s terrific. I’ve sent that to several people who’ve lost either a child or a parent or something; it’s a great, great statement.  It doesn’t matter whether life at bottom is immaterial or material. If it’s immaterial, if it’s material, it cooperates with life’s purposes. Here we are.

The second thing that James says about all religions that they agree about is a sense that we can be saved from the wrongness by making the proper connection with the higher powers. Now what exactly the higher powers may be is not specified: they may be gods; they may be a life force; they may be the powers of nature; they may be a community; they may be a very small community. The higher powers, at least one good friend told me, is just others, anybody—others— on that. What James is clear about is that his access to anything like a higher power is through our own mind’s experience, and nowhere else. So, one of the great turning points in his own life came after he had realized that there is evil in the world, or bad. In a flash of insight, he decided if he could accept that, he could accept his own will as real. So he read a treatise on free will by a French philosopher named (Charles) Renouvier, who nobody reads anymore, and he wrote this in the diary he kept for his frequent crises. “Hither to,” he said, “when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally without 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, and not only act with it, but believe in it as well, believe in my own individual reality and creative power. My belief can’t be optimistic, to be sure,” he said, “but,” he said, “I will posit life, the real, the good, as the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.” Eric Erickson jumped on that phrase, the “self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.And Erickson said, the whole psychoanalytic enterprise is right in that one phrase, which is trying to give the power of choice back to people who have lost it.

But this self-governing resistance of the inner self to the world was the point. And it’s in little places like this where James is so powerful, where he jumps from his time to ours with no translation necessary. In facing the bad along with the good, and in practical strategies for getting on with things, and I’ve always loved this next bit of James for making it possible, for me anyway, to believe again in heroism. “We measure ourself,” he said, “by many standards, our strength, our intelligence, our wealth, and even our good luck are things which warm our hearts and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice without them is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth. He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”

Sometimes, the effort to become heroic, or act, misfires, and one of the things that kept me going on James was not just all of the horrors that he plowed through as a young man, but the humor with which he managed to face it all. And he became a widely loved and much admired man: good family man, his children all adored him, always a good sign on that.

But the ability to laugh at himself and tell a story on himself is also winning. One day in 1885 when William James had three children under the age of six at home, do you remember those days, he was riding a Cambridge horse-car into Boston, meditating on the idea that his wife had picked up from Rudyard Kipling, that our whole social order and civil life had for their ultimate sanction, nothing but force, police, however we might disguise it, and meditating too on his brother Henry’s indignant protests about the outrageous pertness of the American child, Daisy Miller; all of these stories of Henry’s. William became aware of a little five-year old singing aloud in such a hoarse, nasal voice, “that I was on the point of getting out of the car twice,” he said. He summoned, as he told a friend, Logan Pearsall Smith, he summoned “all sorts of ethical, religious, and sociological principles to the aid of my trembling courage and spoke up politely. I think, Madame, that you can hardly be unaware that your child’s song is a cause of annoyance to the rest of us in the car. The mother answered that she couldn’t do anything about the child, whereupon a gallant American who had been following the exchange broke in indignantly. ‘How dare you, sir, address a lady in this ungentlemanly fashion!’ James, stirred up now by Kipling’s ideas about naked force, fired back, “Sir, if you repeat that remark, I shall slap your face.” The man repeated it, James slapped him, and the man then collected the cards of the rest of the passengers, all eager to serve as witnesses in my trial for assault and battery.”

Now, there are several versions of this story. Smith says James then told him that the passengers next all sat down, and as the car clattered along through the dust towards Boston, with the child still shrilly singing, the grave burden of the public disapproval, which William James had encountered became almost more, he said, than he could bear. He looked from hostile face to hostile face, longing for some sign of sympathy and comprehension. And fixed at last all his hopes on a lady who had taken no part in the uproar, and whose appearance suggested foreign travel, perhaps, or at least a wider point of view. And when the car reached Boston and they all got out, James addressed this lady: “You, Madame,” he said, addressing her, “You, I feel sure will understand. . . .” And the lady drew back from him and exclaimed, “You brute!”

I find it hard to resist a man like that. But I don’t want to leave it with just the tragic view of life, or the consolations of effort, or just humor. James was a warm-hearted and much-loved man. He had a very keen sense of the positive sides of life, which he usually tried to put as stories, rather than abstractions. And here’s one of his best. It occurs in a piece called “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and the “blindness is that with which we are all afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” James takes it for granted that we each see things from our own point of view. He extends the idea to suggest how hard it is to really see things, to see anything from another person’s point of view. And he consciously proposes that wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to the person living it, that that’s where life becomes significant. To understand others, you need to understand the hotspot in them, the habitual center of his or her personal energy.

So to illustrate, he then tells a story taken from Robert Louis Stevenson in which Stevenson describes a curious little game that he and his school friends used to play as the long summers ended and school was about to begin. “Toward the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally forth from our respective houses, each equipped with a tin bulls-eye lantern.” You know, a little, small kerosene lantern, with a bulls-eye of glass in front of it, an old 19th century style of portable lantern. “We wore them buckled to the waist, upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin. They never burned right, though they would always burn our fingers. Their use was naught, the pleasure of the merely fanciful, and yet a boy with a bulls-eye lantern under his top coat asked for nothing more. When two of these boys met, there would be an anxious, ‘Have you got your lantern?’ and a gratified, ‘Yes!’ It was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern bearer, unless, like the polecat, by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a fishing boat or choose out some hollow of the golf course where the wind might whistle overhead, and there the coats would be unbuttoned, and the bulls-eyes discovered in the checkering glimmer of the huge, windy hall of night, and cheered by the rich steam of toasting tinware. These fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or the scaly bilges of the fishing boat and delight themselves with inappropriate talk. But the talk,” said Stevenson, “was incidental. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself on a black night, the slide shut, the top coat buttoned, not a ray escaping, a mere pillar of darkness in the dark, and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your heart to know that you had a bulls-eye at your belt and to exult and sing in the knowledge.”

“The ground of a person’s joy,” said James, “is often hard to discern, for to look at a person is to court deception, and to miss the joy is to miss it all. In the joy of the actors lies any sense of the action. That is the explanation, that is the excuse: to one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless.”  

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