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The Strange Case of William James: An Exchange

In response to:

William James & the Case of the Epileptic Patient from the December 17, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

Louis Menand in “William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient” [NYR, December 17, 1998] says that the idea of James having a problem with “self-abuse” was “introduced to the world” by my essay “William James and the Twice-born Sick Soul.” A reader might be misled into thinking that I invented the idea, consider it an established fact, and make it an important part of my interpretation of James’s career.

On the contrary, I never had the idea until it was suggested to me in a private conversation by the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, who was a commentator on my paper, given at a Daedalus conference. I treated it only as a speculation (“we may speculate”), which might be related to the twenty-one pages for 1869 that had later been scissored out of James’s diary. Ipresumed they contained embarrassing material. Menand thinks the excisions protected the privacy of other people, but it seems most unlikely to me that twenty-one consecutive pages would involve other people, rather than James’s own thoughts and experiences. In any case that particular sexual hypothesis was only a small side issue in my essay. My next sentence after the one Menand quotes refers to the meat of the matter: “Neither Wyman nor Agassiz had shaken his belief that his father was, as James had written in Brazil, ‘the wisest of all men’ he had ever known.”

Unfortunately, Menand gives no hint that the main purpose of my essay, researched in collaboration with my friend Howard Feinstein, was to show in detail the pertinence of Erikson’s concept of identity crisis to James’s search for a vocation. We found helpful Erikson’s idea in Young Man Luther that it is usually a parent who has “selected this one child, because of an inner affinity paired with an insurmountable outer distance, as the particular child who must justify the parent” and who “by an all pervasive presence and brutal decisiveness of judgment” precipitates the child into “a fatal struggle for his own identity.” Erikson noted that “the crisis in such a young man’s life may be reached exactly when he half-realizes that he is fatally overcommitted to what he is not.”

Erikson had Luther in mind, but we were struck by how closely this pattern could be supported in detail over time by documenting William James’s longstanding conflicted relation to a crippled, neurotic father whose advice and example, which contradicted each other, the son tried to follow with the result of having a despondent breakdown with suicidal thoughts in medical school. The episode of the epileptic patient can be fitted into this story because of its resonance with the panic-fear experience of Henry James, the father, when he also was experiencing trouble in deciding on his vocation. That helps to explain why the encounter was so charged for William James. Menand is convincing about the difficulty of placing the episode chronologically, but by seeing it only as fear of “an unforeseen catastrophe,” he cannot account for its hold on James’s imagination. Nevertheless, even if the episode had never happened, Erikson’s identity-crisis concept, seen in relation to William James and his father, would still be pertinent.

The puzzle that propelled my narrative was “the striking peculiarity of James’s career—the long deferment of a youthful philosophical ambition, which he did not fully commit himself to as a vocation until he was nearly sixty.” Menand cannot identify the problem because he sees James as continually changing his mind about his career, a matter of temperament rather than of history. Menand rejects crisis-and-recovery narratives and, in a sweeping gesture of deconstruction, disdains the very notion of identifying any problems of family, career, or identity as explanatory.

Howard Feinstein and I began our collaboration with the sense that Ralph Barton Perry’s explanation of James’s troubles by reference to “morbid traits,” as if they had no history, was radically insufficient. Menand concludes that James’s troubles cannot be understood in terms of any problems because he lived in a depressive “weather pattern” in which “everything else is a problem.” In this view there is no story to tell about his melancholy. We are back full circle.

Cushing Strout

Professor Emeritus of American

Studies and Humane Letters

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York

To the Editors:

I was delighted to see that Louis Menand’s discussion of William James incorporated an up-to-date view of depression, from which James suffered chronically. As Menand aptly says, “…Depression is not a problem; it’s a weather pattern. Under its cloud, everything else is a problem” (his italics). This definition has strong empirical support, but it has not yet fully permeated the mental health field and is unusual in the popular press.

New York readers who suffer from chronic depression (dysthymic disorder) as William James did, and who seek modern, free treatment with psychotherapy and/or medication, are encouraged to call the Cornell University Medical Center at (212) 821-0772. (Treatment is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Nancy Pritzker Foundation.) One of the psychotherapies offered, interpersonal psychotherapy, takes a pragmatic, “can-do” approach of which James might have approved.

John C. Markowitz, M.D.

Associate Professor of Psychiatry

Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College

Cornell University

New York City

Louis Menand replies:

I fail to see how the fact (obviously unknown to me) that Mr. Strout got the idea that William James was a compulsive masturbator from Erik Erikson in a “private conversation” contradicts my statement that it was Mr. Strout who introduced that idea to the world. His position now seems to be that although there is not a shred of evidence to support this notion, and although the chronology he and others have proposed for James’s “crisis” is empirically groundless, his theory is defensible because…it is better to have a theory than not to have a theory.

He says that I reject—“in a sweeping gesture of deconstruction,” no less—the possibility of any explanation for James’s troubles. I didn’t “deconstruct” anything (whatever that would mean). I did what Mr. Strout, a professional historian, presumably once did himself: I looked at the evidence. It did not seem to me to be consistent with a crisis-and-recovery narrative of the kind that he, Mr. Feinstein, and virtually every other commentator on James have tried to construct. It did seem consistent with another explanation, which is that James was depressive. I didn’t “disdain” theories. That was my theory.

I am grateful to Dr. Markowitz for confirming my understanding of the nature of the depression I believe James suffered from at various times in his life, and I am glad, though not surprised, to see that Cornell is an institution broad-minded enough to accommodate both him and Mr. Strout among its faculty.

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