Friday, September 18, 2009

James bio - 2

Time for our next installment from Richardson's James biography.

WJ BrazilThis week's reading includes young William's attempts to buck up his younger brother's spirits in a letter that evokes images he'd imbibed while traveling with scientist Louis Agassiz's South America expedition, in the 1860s (more on that, and more). I wrote about this once, while drawing a connection between John Dewey's naturalistic version of spirituality and James's.

In an uncharacteristic moment of self-revelation the stolid Yankee once apparently confided in his old student Max Eastman about a youthful "mystical experience" from his [John Dewey's] early stint in Oil City, Pennsylvania:

The essence of the experience was a feeling of oneness with the universe, a conviction that worries about existence and one's place in it are foolish and futile. "It was not a very dramatic mystic experience," Eastman continued. There was no vision, not even a definable emotion—just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries were over. Eastman quoted Dewey, ". . . to me faith means not worrying. . . . I claim I've got religion and that I got it that night in Oil City."

This melds very well with a homiletic, therapeutic, stoic, yet somehow joyous and de novo expression of James's unique view, dating from his prephilosophic youth but anticipating his most mature thought:

"Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as fullgull of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos."

I find it compelling, and not at all coincidental or incongruous, that the two great pragmatic meliorists of classical American Philosophy each achieved in their twenties the same quasi-stoic insight that, as we have noted, carried the world's oldest person happily through her many days. [The world's oldest person had just died when I wrote that; her position was quickly filled, of course. But it's not a job with a lot of long-term security.] The power of imaginative self-transcendence to conquer egoistic distemper, especially when coupled with the wide-open perspective of life as a self-replicating, self-correcting chain, is unrivaled. It has been conclusively "verified." The spirit of acceptance and the spirit of reform belong together. The mature James, for one, is full of admiration for the spirit of acceptance in whatever blissful forms it may assume in the actual lives of men and women. And he is full of expectancy and hope.

He wasn't so sunny while aboard ship during the Brazilian expedition: he became very depressed and homesick, and probably would at that time have been incapable of cheering himself with the letter he sent to Bob.

But the 23-year old James was already a kind of incipient Stoic, in 1865. He was much more of one when he got his land legs back under him. One of the more engaging graduate seminars I've participated in was "Pragmatism and Stoicism," jointly offered by John Lachs and John Stuhr at Vanderbilt.

It's hard for some people to get that link (Pragmatists and Stoics, not Lachs and Stuhr). Some think that Pragmatists are all about "go-go-go"-ing, trying to change the world and ameliorate its wounds, never noticing cliffs and sharp edges. Not so. A wise Pragmatist knows there's a time to put on the Stoic's hat and accept external conditions as they stand, while turning inward and conjuring some skimming gulls.

And a wise Jamesian is prepared to act on the belief that such an inward turn is freely available to us all.

But at 25, we learn in this week's reading of Robert Richardson, James has now added another vocation to his "reject" list-- "Medicine is busted," he told a friend-- and is one step closer to a breakdown and posssible suicide that would have been anything but stoically reasonable.

Here, in case you ever need cheering-up. A little YouTube might have done young WJ some good.

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