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The Exceptional William James

A Stroll with William James

by Jacques Barzun
Harper and Row, 344 pp., $19.95

William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes to “read in,” James’s

ideas, his words, his temperament speak to me with intimacy as well as force. Communication is direct;…he “does me good.” I find him visibly and testably right—right in intuition, range of considerations, sequence of reasons, and fully rounded power of expression. He is for me the most inclusive mind. I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles.

Barzun does not have to say that his love and homage owe much to one overriding fact. William James is a figure impossible to imagine in contemporary America. With James as his herald and shield, Barzun makes a point of this whenever he comes anywhere near today’s “half-educated” citizens, our age that “cries out for all the freedoms,” our “politics, which after all is only hasty management under stress.” He notes with pursed lips that nowadays “all deficiencies from idleness to cheating invite interested care—so much, that none is left to bestow on those who perversely perform and stay out of trouble.”

One can see why Barzun has taken this “stroll” not only with William James but out of the hateful 1960s—and 1970s and 1980s—into the nineteenth-century Cambridge where the stroll begins. The most memorable chapter in his book, stirring in its way as Freud’s account of the stroll with James in 1909, when James asked Freud to walk on ahead while he lay on the ground recovering from an angina attack, is Barzun’s account of the founding of modernism in the cultural rebellion of the 1890s. James appears here as a modernist with the élan of Barzun’s other culture heroes Shaw and Nietzsche. But, Barzun goes on to lament, modernism, so often mistakenly relegated to the 1920s, was (as we can see now) done in by World War I.

Whether or not James was a “modernist,” he is certainly not our contemporary. Years ago I started collecting reminiscences of James by his last surviving Harvard students, old neighbors in Cambridge, auditors at Columbia and Stanford. What most stood out in the memories of these very old people was James’s dependable unconventionality, his freshness and love of novelty in all things. Even in 1890 and 1904 he had nothing in common with “the age.” The iconoclastic educator and libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn, a man always in trouble with authority and the established, remembered with astonishment James (in the frock coat of the period) lecturing at Teachers College while perched on the edge of the stage.

Without seeming unworldly, James appeared to family, friends, and even detractors (such as Santayana) wholly removed from the commonplaces of society, the pettiness of academe, the grasping, at another’s expense, which James in a famous letter to H.G. Wells called “the bitch goddess.” I shall later argue, in discussing James’s subjective and salvational use of religion, that he was indeed unworldly. In any event, as Barzun proudly demonstrates, he was unlike anyone else. A famous philosopher whose academic degree was an MD, a founder of modern laboratory psychology who confessed that the first lecture he heard in psychology was the first lecture he himself gave, a clinician of the “varieties of religious experience” whom ridicule could not swerve from psychic research, a founder of the minuscule, powerless Anti-Imperialist League after the US crushed the Filipino insurrection, a scornful opponent of the “strenuous life” exhorted by his sometime student Theodore Roosevelt, William James was in no way a conventional American, a conventional professor, or even the typical humanitarian liberal in New England who replaced the man of faith.

He was above all—a favorite point with Barzun—not a “pragmatist” in the “practical” style supposed to be an American habit and ideal. Quite apart from being one of the great American writers—even in the formal argument of philosophy—and leaving behind him a body of superlative letters (the inexhaustible vividness of his personality turns these into one of the great autobiographies), James was a naturalist who argued against positivism, a psychologist who called psychology “trivial,” a philosopher whose most famous works were given as popular lectures, a passionate defender of any man’s “will to believe” who never for a moment testified to an existent God. What he said of his brother Henry can begin to explain William himself. “He is a native of the James family, and has no other country.”

Although Bernard Shaw is another of Barzun’s heroes, it is surprising that he does not cite Shaw’s admiration for the genius of Henry James, Sr. With his usual Irish bravado, Shaw proclaimed this son of an Irish Protestant greater than his famous sons. Although only William and Henry matched and enlarged their father’s intellectual vitality, even the untalented were aware of the family as exceptional, which may be why the two youngest sons, “Wilky” and “Bob,” and the lone girl, Alice, suffered so much—not least from condescension by William and Henry. When the Civil War came, the father easily sent off his nongenius sons; he was neither sorry nor surprised to hear from William and Henry that they were not fit to fight.

The “James country” was made possible by the private wealth passed on by the first William, the Irish immigrant; the spasmodic schooling in several European countries and America; the elder James’s contempt for commerce; the despotic, perhaps unbearable, love that the crippled father, always at home, imposed on children who could escape him only in Europe. The father’s intellectual vehemence, oddly mixed with his innocent removal from worldly cares, left its stamp on future generations. Not long before his death just a few years ago, “Billy” James, the philosopher’s charming son, rose at a family party to tell the guests: “Alice and I have decided to accept the twentieth century.” (It was like the Jameses for the philosopher to have a sister and a wife named Alice, and to have a son William who married an Alice.)

I am sure that wonderfully clever and sophisticated as William James was, he never quite accepted “modern times” despite his pioneering as a laboratory psychologist and his founding of “pragmatism.” Barzun finds this removal lovable and infinitely valuable, and it is. Barzun’s homage is ultimately directed to James’s pluralism in every sense, his detestation of system making, of “bigness” in every form. He especially prizes James’s ability to indicate the actual movement within his thought, his genius for locating the concrete and the particular. These are literary proficiencies, as well as a “lifelike” inclination, on every philosophical issue, to show ideas becoming truths as a validation of every corner we turn in experience. James’s psychology was most unlike the psychologies that dominate our age in its gift of conviction. Our ideas, in his view, are our values, our values our real personality. To the extent that we know our values, we are human; to the extent that we live them, we are free.

This, by current notions, is nonsense, unrealistic, and certainly “elitist.” James recognized that only a few people could possibly share his values in the style, the complete psychic sense, in which he literally embodied them. These few were likely to be the “sick souls,” the intellectual saints, whose personal crises and conversion to the faith they had long resisted he sympathetically reported in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He was so much in tune with the “sick” that he slipped in an account of his own nervous breakdown as reported by a “French correspondent.”

To believe that values—active, unresting, insatiable—are one’s personality, that such values, no matter where and how learned, are the genesis of behavior and relationships, is to accept and to endure personality that is antinomian, “religious,” necessarily solitary. Alfred North Whitehead said at Harvard in the 1920s that religion is what we do with our solitariness. If James had lived to hear that, he would have linked “solitariness” positively with the state of being “exceptional” that the Jameses saw as their role, their mission, their fate. Henry James in a remarkable letter near the end of his life said that loneliness was the starting point of all his work and the harbor to which it returned. Alice James, who had a more acute mind than her unfortunate younger brothers, accepted a terrible life racked with illness only when she began her now famous diary. She became happy when she developed cancer; only the proximity of death provided her with occasion for metaphysics:

It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life…. It is as simple in one’s own person as any fact of nature…and I have a delicious consciousness, ever present, of wide spaces close at hand, and whisperings of release in the air.

William, learning of her terminal illness wrote her that

…life and death seem singularly close together in all of us—and life a mere farce of frustration in all, so far as the realization of the innermost ideals go to which we are made respectively capable of feeling an affinity and responding…. Father would find in me today a much more receptive listener….

Father” explains some of William’s propensities, not what the children wearily called “Father’s ideas.” The ideas are in fact now unrecoverable. The elder James was preoccupied with tracing his liberation from the omniscient God-tyrant of Calvinism into his personal transaction with Swedenborg’s “spiritual worlds” which exist only through us. His throbbing, teeming, overcrowded, altogether personal theology records a private journey that he never completed in a conception of God himself; he was too busy itemizing every step of the way. William Dean Howells said in a review, “Mr.James has written a book called The Secret of Swedenborg and has kept it.”

William, born into a positivist age, trained in medicine, a naturalist on Agassiz’s scientific expedition to Brazil, could not have copied “Father’s ideas”; like his own to the very end of his life, they were provisional, personal, a way to keep oneself going “in the battle of life.” What his father had, as William was to have it overwhelmingly, was temperament, the energetic sense of his own abysmal want. In Society the Redeemed Form of Man the elder James described how in England in 1844, lingering at the dinner table, “suddenly, and for no apparent reason, his composure abruptly abandoned him and he found himself face to face with an invisible terror.” He was redeemed by learning from Swedenborg that a person lost to himself can be reborn in his “Divine Natural Humanity.” The incorporation of God in man, Swedenborg explained, is the sole purpose and destiny of creation. James, Sr., was to fuse this with the Fourierist deliverance of man in society. None of these projections is as vivid as the elder James’s sense of his suffering, his liberation from other people’s God:

…imagine a subject of some petty despotism condemned to die, and with—what more and worse—a sentiment of death pervading all his consciousness, lifted by a sudden miracle into felt harmony with universal man, and filled to the brim with the sentiment of indestructible life instead, and you will have a true picture of my emancipated condition.

William was to credit his recovery from depression to his belief that he could prove the freedom of the will by exercising his freedom. The father attested—cloudily—to the divine partnership, the son to the freedom we actually use. Different idols of the mind, but this ability to transpose absolute depression and intellectual recovery, bondage and freedom in the religious sense, seems almost hereditary.

The gift of “perspectivism,” as Barzun calls it, was William’s genius for locating the unexpected in any context. He scintillated in the art of transposition. It explains why his life and career are so fortifying, for his way of thinking is that of a man arguing himself out of one difficulty after another. James said that the “axis of reality” runs through our personal lives and nowhere else. “Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself!” But terror forces salvation upon us—a salvation found in “accumulated acts of thought,” not maxims, that should win the external unfriendly universe to ourselves. Publicly—James functioned more through popular lectures than any other first-class American intellectual except Emerson—he told his relatively innocent and provincial contemporaries that everything was working out. What runs through his letters is his admission that his own battle had to be won over and over again.

Barzun’s James is equable on all occasions, too merely intelligent to have had such a desperate want as James repeatedly acknowledged. Barzun himself is of course too intelligent and informed to ignore James’s inner despairs. But I don’t think Barzun’s condescension to the uprooted, ill-educated, morally abandoned people in our society prepares him to appreciate James’s interest in the abnormal and the marginal as clues to all that is hidden and perhaps universal. James the physician was certainly “motivated” to heal himself. His seeking of another’s reality makes his letters wonderful in their loving playfulness—and candor. In finding himself over and over again in others, he recalled the extraordinary relationship that his father tried to find with God. William was a primary naturalist of souls, Henry the master novelist of interlocked personalities.

As Barzun admiringly notes, only William James, staring at an octopus in an English aquarium, would have remarked on such “flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy.” Only this talent for the unexpected, for seizing upon any moment as an “occasion” of truth, explains his critical need to realize oneself in acts of thought. The real meaning of pragmatism is surely this freedom of the overburdened consciousness to make itself actual. But while pragmatism is not “practical” in the common sense, it does give us a sense of thought as necessarily and perhaps inherently provisional. And since we live in a world more and more closed off from what used to be called the “moral sciences”—the physical sciences alone now suggest the infinity within which we live—I do not see in James what Barzun does: an example we can follow, a guide beyond compare.

James was a phenomenon, not a model; an astonishing exception to everything we know, not—despite a lifetime of teaching—someone whose teaching can still be followed through his writing. It is his charm, his relative purity, his eloquence that win us—not a body of thought that we can turn to as we do to Nietzsche’s. James in his last years, struggling with a bad heart, regretted that he had given so much of himself to lectures and articles, felt that he owed himself one big book that would explain and justify his philosophy. It is surprising to see how many of his most famous works, after the one systematic treatise of the great Psychology, are collections of essays and lectures. Even if he had lived to attempt it, I do not think he could have given his philosophy ultimate form, for the whole direction of his thought and its catch-as-catch-can style were against this.

Nietzsche, seemingly a counterpart to James for literary genius and sense of himself as exceptional, also wrote more and more in personal, spasmodic form. But if the axis of reality runs through personal lives, it wholly occupied Nietzsche. What we get from Nietzsche is a counterphilosophy to platonic-Christian stasis, a constant rebuttal of the historic illusion that the world stands upon or in any way represents a moral tradition. Nietzsche is a poet-philosopher like the pre-Socratics, one who not only locates the primordial elements as truth but identifies himself with them in the audacity of his style. For all his opposition to system building, his love of apercu comes across to his readers as a quest for truth, because Nietzsche cannot bear to represent to himself anything that is not truth. James is experimental, “personal” in the American way; he is forever asking the world what it can do for him and how it may save him.

Thought was indeed serious to William James just to the extent that it enabled him to save himself. Maybe it did. Nietzsche could not save himself at all. He went crazy in his thought, and in a sense fell victim to his thought: it was so much bigger and more hallowed than himself. His own sense was not the ultimate issue. He did not want to use thought, and he did not expect thought to release him from anything. Truth really existed, although Nietzsche, in this respect just another modern philosopher, could not prove this.

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