Tag Archives: William James

Marginalia, no.347

Each of us in his own person feels that a high-hearted indifference to life would expiate all his short-comings.

~ William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

It certainly helps – but there’s a difference between pretending not to care about things you really do care about and not caring overmuch about things you cannot change. The former is culpable; the latter, I think, is only healthy. It’s difficult sometimes to know which failings are fixable and which are permanent features of your character. Once your chronic short-comings are identified, however, it’s better (in most cases) to forgive yourself and take refuge in some high-hearted indifference. A perfectly earnest life is perfectly unlivable.

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Healthy Animal Insensibility

“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.

James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”

Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”

“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)

There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.

Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.

If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:

“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”

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Marginalia, no.287

He had not the gift of expression, but rather the gift of suggestion… His mind was never quite in focus and there was always something left over after each discharge of the battery, something which now became the beginning of a new thought. When he found out his mistake or defect of expression, when he came to see that he had not said quite what he meant, he was the first to proclaim it, and move on to a new position, a new misstatement of the same truth.

~ John Jay Chapman, “William James”

I think of the Boudin Bakery of San Francisco which has used the same sourdough starter for over 150 years, kneading a portion of the ancient “mother dough” into loaves of endless elaboration. William James was not alone in saying (or trying to say) the same things over and over again. There is a mother dough at the root of all we say and think, a leaven of shared nature that expresses itself in questions, desires and fears that we all recognize. For all the really shocking variety among human individuals and cultures, it is this habitual defect of expression, of misstating the same truths, that impresses me most.

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The Mysteries of Occupation

I started as a busboy and dishwasher at a greasy downtown bar and grill in California’s flat, hot Central Valley. I was “paid” (if you want to call it that) under the table. My duties included killing roaches in the kitchen, carting cases of beer out of the walk-in, and mopping up vomit in the restrooms.

At college in Seattle, I worked briefly for the records department. All student transcripts in the school’s hundred year history were stored in a single windowless room where, according to rumor, the doors would automatically shut and all the oxygen get sucked out at the merest whiff of smoke. When a grade change was authorized, we employed the medieval technique of “white-out and typewriter” to make the correction.

Through most of my school years I worked for the university library. The byzantine scheming of competing management factions made for gory blood sport, but it was pleasant to read Shakespeare while manning the circulation desk at night, and pleasant to roll through the aisles with an hour’s shelving to do.

Out of school, I worked short stints for an industrial printing company, a specialty grocery store, and at a salmon cannery in Alaska. Back in Seattle, I worked three years for a late-night bookstore where, on special days, homeless people promised to murder me, crazy people defecated in the children’s section, and animals wandered in from the streets to die.

I joined the party of the devil in 1998 and took a job with Amazon, answering customer emails and telephone calls. At the summer picnic one year, I dunked the company’s billionaire founder in the dunk tank. When the WTO met in Seattle in November of ’99, tear gas seeped into the office and some of my coworkers, fleeing the building, were herded onto buses and arrested en masse as anarchists. After a failed attempt to unionize, three hundred of us were laid off in the spring of 2001, our jobs outsourced to India.

From 2001 to 2003, I worked for a health insurance company. I started in customer service but ended by drafting and editing medical correspondence. Policyholders would write to request authorization of procedures to enhance their disappointing sexual features (photos included) or for coverage of bariatric surgery or growth hormone shots for their children. I would translate the decisions of our medical review panel into plain English explaining why these things could not be paid for.

Since 2004 I have worked in marketing and public relations functions for a dotcom in Silicon Valley. I manage a bit, but mostly I write. I write to create a felt need in consumers that leads them to use our services. I write to convince reporters that they should mention us in their stories. I write to make the company and our executives look good, to make investors feel sanguine and to make government agencies happy to award us fat contracts.

I don’t feel particularly good about this. In fact, though I’ve occasionally tried to feel otherwise, I hate business. I admit, there is a satisfaction in hearing my own bullshit talking points recited word for word by photogenic persons on national television news programs. But this is not a virtuous satisfaction.

John Jay Chapman, remembering his recently-deceased friend the philosopher William James, said that “the mysteries of temperament are deeper than the mysteries of occupation.” He meant, perhaps, that it’s easier to retrace the path bringing a person to his current occupation than to measure the influence of temperament on the route taken, or its ultimate destination.

I’ve rediscovered that I’m temperamentally unsuited to my work. At least, I prefer to think it a series of accidents that brought me here rather than an inevitable expression of my nature. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready to leave my job for something else. I’ve learned to be grateful, and I can’t afford idealism at the moment.

There are three options, as I see it. The first two are described in Swann’s Way when the narrator says that people unfitted to their work may “bring to their regular occupations either an indifference tinged with fantasy, or a sustained and haughty application, scornful, bitter, and conscientious.” A third option, the one I want most but can’t afford, is to run away and live, like Thoreau, a life according to nature and my own temperament.

Living according to my temperament, every day would begin at 9am. I would read and drink tea until 11am. Then, after a nice brunch and cleaning up, I’d run errands or do more reading until 2 or 3pm. After that, I’d go for a long walk (hills or shore), returning home about 6pm. I would drink wine or gin-and-tonic while cooking dinner, which I would eat at 7pm. I would listen – depending on my mood – to Bach or Benny Goodman or Tom Waits while scrubbing dishes. At 9pm I would drink a cup of coffee and start work on my writing projects. Between 1 and 2am I would go to bed.

In other words, I would be a self-centered bastard and no real use to anyone at all. Thankfully, I’ve got my wife and children and mortgage to prevent me from living in full accord with my temperament. I used to have a little homemade sign posted in my office that read: “STOP. Your heart will not guide you.” Of course it’s your bookshelf and your sense of comic irony that should guide you.

I confront myself in the bathroom mirror, the aging vomit mopper, the cannery slave, the midnight bookslinger, a little gray now at the temples and chin: “You may find a way out some day, pal, but let’s not forgot who you are. You used to believe that to look for identity in your “job” was to impoverish your soul. Remember, you might be at this baloney for another thirty years. Go, therefore, and cultivate an attitude of indifference tinged with fantasy.”

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Marginalia, no.222

What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

~ William James, Of a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

James imagines a dog puzzled by his master’s behavior reading a book. When dogs insist on cheeky questions like this it’s easy to take offense and demand, in return, why they insist on licking their own exits. But don’t give in to impatience. Remember that your pet, for all his fluent English, has only a very small brain. Smile indulgently, pat him on the head, and explain that it’s just your way of sniffing around for scents left by others.

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The Eloquent Bones

I recently found myself at a little shop in north Berkeley pondering a drawerful of worn beaver incisors and a jar of coyote ulnas. The latter, I read, were discounted at three dollars each for purchases of one hundred or more. This seems a bit steep, but I don’t pretend to have a handle on the ulna market. Before leaving the store – a natural history museum cum wunderkammer supply outlet – it somehow became necessary for me to buy a splendid black springbok horn. It rests now on a shelf of my bookcase next to volumes by Borges, Calvino and W.G. Sebald.

For a bit more money I could have left with something quite different. Moving from the front of the shop to the back I pressed by flocks of pinned insects and Lucite-encased birds and amphibians. I glanced with alarm at buckets of antique doll parts and a gallery of detached alligator heads. I stopped short, however, when I saw, suspended from a wooden beam by bolts drilled into their skulls, three “fully articulated” human skeletons. Not casts, mind, but actual human skeletons.

On the avenue outside on that particular summer’s day I could have counted any number of young women dressed in less than adequate clothing, but it’s a rare thing to see anyone so terribly naked as these three were. It need not be so rare. There’s no lack of people about and every one of them is capable of producing a skeleton that might, one way or another, get left lying around. War or famine could supply the dearth, I suppose, but in the regular order of things we don’t meet dead persons. Not in the suburbs anyway.

If I hadn’t felt so queer just then I might have liked to ask the proprietor some questions. I would have asked him, for instance, if the resurrectionist’s trade was really still thriving (so to speak) lo this many years after Jerry Cruncher’s heyday? And how does one legitimately come by skeletons anyway? And were these produced domestically or were they imported? For any hope of an answer, I might have posed some questions to the bones too: “Tell me, was it a lifelong ambition of yours to make a career as a memento mori? And on the day you signed your corporal donation papers, did you ever imagine your ivories going for retail at prices like these?”

However chummy you may be in theory with the idea of mortality (even your own), a practical encounter with an actual dead person can still rattle. If you were ever tempted for a moment on a nice Saturday afternoon to doubt the facts of the matter, here are the eloquent bones to set you straight. Bones which formerly belonged to formerly living persons who formerly walked around and jabbered and sulked and wondered at things in the same (or roughly the same) manner you do now. Bones just like the ones you’ve never got a good look at but always suspected of playing hide-and-seek beneath your own flesh and muscle and fat. What these bones are saying, friend, is that you are going to die. And if it becomes really necessary then I guess I will too.

Vacationing at the coast this past week, I spent my mornings with a cup of tea and a hardback copy of A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne’s brief, grateful prayer to pleasure and the path of least resistance. In the biographical note at the end I learned that Sterne died a month after publishing the book and that his body was dug up a day or two later and sold to a professor of anatomy. This anatomist, the story goes, knew Sterne personally and was half-way through dissecting the corpse when he finally recognized his old pal and blushingly returned him to the churchyard.

Sterne narrated A Sentimental Journey in the character of Tristram Shandy’s Reverend Yorick – supposed descendent of Prince Hamlet’s reticent conversation partner. He might have liked the irony of his disinterment. An even more Yorickian fate was famously endured by Thomas Browne, whose skull made an eighty-year tour of the Victorian and Edwardian eras after it was removed from his tomb for no very good reason in 1840. W.G. Sebald – who himself died several years ago but keeps printed-and-bound watch over my new springbok horn – makes Browne’s posthumous tour matter for meditation in his Rings of Saturn.

We like to think that what’s left of us when we’re gone can still belong to us somehow. One of my wife’s uncles, for example, had it written it into his will that his sons may inherit his house only on condition that they not sell it: it would be too painful even in the grave, he felt, to lose out on the low tax rate the property currently enjoys. As the author of Ecclesiastes could have reminded him, ownership even of our homes and bodies is only an accidental and temporary fiction. What we have and what we are is an inheritance for strangers.

Whatever a person may be, it seems he must be more than his material parts. It’s a popular notion of high school biology class that we are physically constituted of different stuff at different stages of life, adding and shedding matter constantly until, in the end, we’re made up of almost nothing that we started out as. Each of us is Heraclitus’s river, different each time it’s stepped into. Atom by atom, we borrow ourselves from plants and animals and stones of near and distant ages, and from burst stars and interstellar gas clouds of inconceivable hoariness. In geologic time to come, in a peculiar mode of afterlife, our constituent parts are repurposed into infinite successions of new and varied forms.

A person, by this view, may be imagined as not a material thing or collection of things at all, but rather as an organizing principle, a crook in the stream that shapes the flow (of matter, of consciousness) in a particular way for a particular – and depressingly brief – interval. Then the walls of the channel collapse, the stream overflows its banks, and new channels are cut from the relics of the old.

I am willing to believe that all of this is true – it may even be beautiful – but still we feel there’s something dear about those bones. The material stuff of a life, however arbitrarily procured or prodigally redistributed, is not Nothing after all. It is Something and humanly relevant. There’s a passage from Pragmatism in which William James captures the sense of this. No one, James writes, who has looked in the face of a dead child or parent or friend should fail to sense the basic holiness of matter:

[T]he mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred 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 life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

If this is only sentimentality then only sentimentality is needed for the building of whole cultures and faiths and arts. These are impossible without aid from the beloved dead. Their bones, like their books, serve to humanize the past, the material order, and our own finale. If part of me is tempted to break into that shop in Berkeley afterhours and deliver our skeletal friends to a well-deserved retirement under the sod, another part sympathizes with the Capuchins of Palermo and the New Guinean tribesmen who keep their dead well tended and in fresh clothes because they can’t bear to be parted from them.

To repurpose a phrase from Sterne, “The heart is for saving what it can.”

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Marginalia, no.204

If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.

~ William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

There was a street festival this past weekend that sent a flood of drunken out-of-towners through our neighborhood. My son and I kept a tally of persons seen driving erratically (four), pissing in the ivy (three), and punching each other (two). With none of James’s caveats, Abraham Cowley thought human intoxication a mirror of cosmic intoxication: “Nothing in nature’s sober found / But an eternal health goes round.” I don’t know about that. One could make a good case, I think, for the Temperance Society membership of things like angry baboons and pancreatic cancer.

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