“Perhaps the greatest breach in nature,” wrote William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), is “the breach from one mind to another.” He went on to describe two brothers waking up in the same bed, each reconnecting to the thoughts he had had before falling asleep. Peter may be able to conceive of Paul’s last twilight state of mind—Paul might tell him about it—but he cannot remember or feel it with any of the “warmth and intimacy and immediacy” of his own inner experience.
James called this chapter of his book “The Stream of Thought,” specifically defining consciousness as a stream rather than a chain or a train: “It does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…. It is nothing jointed; it flows…. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” [Italics in original]
How does thought appear to itself? Over one hundred years later, it remains as exhilarating to follow William James’s forthright march into a new “science of mind” as it is to read the novels in which his brother Henry broke open the form of nineteenth-century fiction to portray his characters’ interior experience, their private streams of consciousness—beginning with The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. After Henry James, literary modernists dispensed with linear time and conventional plot, capturing the flow, drift, and tumbling associations of their characters’ minds.
That William and Henry James directed their formidable gifts to the subject of consciousness itself is perhaps not entirely surprising—although genius always is. Their father, Henry James Sr., an eccentric, independently wealthy Swedenborgian, devoted his life to his ideas—one of which was to provide his children with as free, liberal, and “sensuous” an education as he had felt his own to have been constricted and severe. By “sensuous,” he meant immersion in the arts, culture, history, foreign travel, and languages. He dragged his large troupe—five children, his wife, her sister, and a maid—back and forth across the Atlantic in search of a perfect education that existed only in his mind. They stayed nowhere long enough for the children to make real friends, and the rarefied, isolated world of the family became their whole world. William in effect described them all when he said years later that Henry was “really a native of the James family, and has no other country.”
Henry Sr. probably bequeathed to all his offspring a predisposition to depression. And though he encouraged them constantly to offer up their private perceptions and sensations for public (family) consumption, he imposed bizarre limits on what they could actually know about themselves. He defined morality according to his own anguished fight against powerful demons—“The natural inheritance of every one who is capable of spiritual life, is an…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.