In the spring of 1870 William James was twenty-eight and at the lowest ebb of what was already a swift-flowing and emotionally tempestuous life. His early years had been spent trailing about Europe in the wake of his brilliant but improvident father Henry Sr., who was busily working his way through one of nineteenth-century America’s greatest inherited fortunes, while writing reams of unreadable, and unread, philosophical and religious maunderings.1 In London, Paris, Geneva, Berlin, young William and his brother Henry, the future novelist, had picked up bits and scraps of an education—precious bits, brilliant scraps—and, back home in America, William had attended Harvard Medical School and secured an MD, a thing far easier of achievement then than nowadays. He had tried his hand at being a painter and failed, had successfully avoided taking an active part in the Civil War—an evasion that haunted him all his life—had accompanied Louis Agassiz’s scientific expedition to Brazil, and had fallen in love with a bevy of girls, including his cousin, Minnie Temple. But Minnie died.2
We do not know enough about James’s inner life at this time to say for certain how profound an effect this loss had on the young man—and he was, even by his own admission, a very young twenty-eight—but in that fateful springtime, within weeks of Minnie’s death, he suffered a devastating emotional collapse that he was to describe years later in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The account, which he attributed to an anonymous French source, is vivid and frightening. Being in a state of depression and uncertainty about his prospects in life, he went one day at twilight into his dressing room
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…. 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 struck for him.
After this glimpse into the horror rerum, James writes, “the universe was changed for me altogether” and he was left with “a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.” Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, he concluded by professing to believe that “this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”
He was not the first in his family to be thus afflicted. Some twenty-six years earlier, in May 1844,…
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