blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Prologue from William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism


Image of book cover, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
(Houghton/Mifflin 2006)spacer

He had not been sleeping well in Palo Alto all semester—he suffered from angina and had recently been much troubled by gout—and William James was lying awake in bed a few minutes after five in the morning on April 18 when the great earthquake of 1906 struck. James was sixty-four, famous now as a teacher and for his work in psychology, philosophy, and religion. He was spending the year as a visiting professor at Stanford University, twenty-five miles south of San Francisco. His mission was to put Stanford on the map in philosophy.

Jesse Cook, a police sergeant on duty that morning in the San Francisco produce market, first noticed the horses panicking, then saw the earthquake start. “There was a deep rumble, deep and terrible,” said Cook, “and then I could actually see it coming up Washington Street. The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me.” 1 John Barrett, city desk news editor of the Examiner, was already in his office when he heard “a long low moaning sound that set buildings dancing on their foundations.” Barrett and his colleagues suddenly found themselves staggering. “It was as though the earth was slipping . . . away under our feet. There was a sickening sway, and we were all flat on our faces.” Looking up, Barrett saw nearby buildings “caught up in a macabre jig . . . They swayed out into the street then rocked back, only to repeat the movement with even more determination.” 2

James Hopper, a reporter for the Call, was home in his bed. He rushed to his window. “I heard the roar of bricks coming down,” he wrote, “and at the same time saw a pale crescent moon in the green sky. The St Francis hotel was waving to and fro with a swing as violent and exaggerated as a tree in a tempest. Then the rear of my building, for three stories upward, fell. The mass struck a series of little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs, the bricks passing through the roofs as though through tissue paper. I had this feeling of finality. This is death.” 3

Out in the streets, “trolley tracks were twisted, their wires down, wriggling like serpents, flashing blue sparks all the time.” Barrett saw that “the street was gashed in any number of places. From some of the holes water was spurting; from others gas.” Astonished guests in the Palace Hotel looked out one of its few intact windows and saw a woman in a nightgown carrying a baby by its legs, “as if it were a trussed turkey.” 4 In the first moments after the quake there was total silence. “The streets,” Hopper recalled, “were full of people, half clad, disheveled, but silent, absolutely silent.” 5

In San Jose, south of Palo Alto, along the line of the rip, the buildings of the state asylum at Agnews collapsed with a roar heard for miles, killing a hundred people, including eighty-seven inmates. Some of the more violent survivors rushed about, attacking anyone who came near. A doctor suggested that since there was no longer any place to put them, they should be tied up. Attendants brought ropes and tied the inmates hand and foot to those (small) trees that had been left standing.

In Palo Alto the stone quadrangle at Stanford was wrecked. Fourteen buildings fell; the ceiling of the church collapsed. The botanical garden was torn up as if by a giant plow. A statue of Louis Agassiz fell out of its niche and plunged to the pavement below, where it was photographed with its head in the ground and its feet in the air. Stanford was still on Easter vacation. Almost all the students were gone. One, however, was staying on the fourth floor of Encina Hall, a large stone dormitory. He sprang out of bed but was instantly thrown off his feet. “Then, with an awful, sinister, grinding roar, everything gave way, and with chimneys, floorbeams, walls and all, he descended through the three lower stories of the building into the basement.” The student, who later told all this to James, added that he had felt no fear at the time, though he had felt, “this is my end, this is my death.”6

The first thing William James noticed, as he lay awake in bed in the apartment he shared with his wife, Alice, on the Stanford campus, was that “the bed [began] to waggle.” He sat up, inadvertently, he said, then tried to get on his knees, but was thrown down on his face as the earthquake shook the room, “exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.” In a short piece of writing about the quake, written twenty-three days later, James recalled that “everything that was on anything else slid off to the floor; over went bureau and chiffonier with a crash, as the fortissimo was reached, plaster cracked, an awful roaring noise seemed to fill the outer air, and in an instant all was still again, save the soft babble of human voices from far and near.”7

The thing was over in forty-eight seconds. James’s first unthinking response to the quake was, he tells us, one of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” He felt, he said, no sense of fear whatever. “Go it,” I almost cried aloud, “and go it stronger.” The Marcus Aurelius whom James admired, and who had prayed, “O Universe, I want what you want,” could scarcely have improved on James’s unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature. It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality, like Thoreau’s outburst on top of Mount Katahdin, like Emerson’s opening the coffin of his young dead wife, or like the climax of Robert Browning’s poem “A Grammarian’s Funeral” (one of James’s favorites), in which the funeral procession of the outwardly unremarkable but deeply dedicated scholar—whose patient work has ignited the renaissance of learning—climbs from the valley of commonplace life to the heroic alpine heights where his spirit belongs: “Here—here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form, / Lightnings are loosened, / Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm.”

James’s second response was to run to his wife’s room. Alice was unhurt, and had felt no fear either. Then James went with a young colleague, Lillien Martin, into the devastation of downtown San Francisco to search for her sister, who was also, it turned out, unhurt. James’s active sympathy and quick mobilization were characteristic, as was his third response to the event, which was to question everyone he saw about his or her feelings about the quake. His diary for the next day, April 19, says simply, “Talked earthquake all day.”8 It was also entirely characteristic that he next wrote up and published a short account of the experience, in which he noted that it was almost impossible to avoid personifying the event, and that the disaster had called out the best energies of a great many people.”9

James’s care for his wife, his concern for his colleague, and his writing up what he learned seem usual enough; it is his initial, unexamined, unprompted response that opens a door for us. James possessed what has been called a “great experiencing nature” he was astonishingly, even alarmingly, open to new experiences. A student of his noted that he was at times a reckless experimenter with all sorts of untested drugs and gasses. This risk-taking, this avidity for the widest possible range of conscious experience, predisposed him to embrace things that many of us might find unsettling. It has been suggested that the earthquake experience was for James the near equivalent of a war experience. It may have been that, and it may have been even more than that. He no longer believed—if he ever had—in a fixed world built on a solid foundation. The earthquake was for him a hint of the real condition of things, the real situation. The earthquake revealed a world (like James’s own conception of consciousness) that was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it.

James had four years to live after the earthquake of 1906, and his work was far from done. In 1909 he was still trying to make sense of some of his most challenging and sweeping ideas in a book called A Pluralistic Universe. Here he firmly rejects what he calls the “stagnate felicity of the absolute’s own perfection.” He rejects, that is, the idea that everything will finally be seen to fit together in one grand, interlocked, necessary, benevolent system.10 For James there are many centers of the universe, many points of view, many systems, much conflict and evil, as well as much beauty and good. It is, he said, “a universe of eaches.”11

James’s universe is unimaginably rich, infinitely full and variegated, unified only in that every bit of it is alive. Citing the German thinker Gustav Fechner for protective intellectual cover—a common maneuver for the canny enthusiast whose intoxicated admiration extended outward to writers and thinkers in all directions—James speaks approvingly of “the daylight view of the world.” This is the view that “the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and envelopments, is everywhere alive and conscious.”12 In Pragmatism, published a year after the quake, he wrote, “I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken.  So we are tangent to the wider life of things.”13

James’s understanding of how each of us operates in the world is like George Eliot’s description of the pier glass and the candle in Middlemarch. “Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel,” Eliot writes, “rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable,” she concludes. “The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person.” For William James, too, the world as a whole is random, and each person makes a pattern, a different pattern, by a power and a focus of his own. There is no single overarching or connecting pattern, hidden or revealed. “We carve out order,” James wrote, “by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.”14

Eliot’s image also suggests something important about James’s own life. Just as his early career plans careened wildly from civil engineering to painting to chemistry to being a naturalist to becoming a physician or a researcher in physiology, so any biography that undertakes to locate or exhibit the central James, the real James, the essential James, or that tries to make a shapely five-act play out of his life, runs the risk of imposing more order than existed—like the medieval hagiographer who gave the world what a modern scholar summarized as “all and rather more than all that is known of the life of St. Neot.”

We have at least three main reasons to remember William James. First, as a scientist, a medical doctor, and an empirical, laboratory-based, experimental physiologist and psychologist, he was a major force in developing the modern concept of consciousness, at the same time that Freud was developing the modern concept of the unconscious. James was interested in how the mind works; he believed mental states were always related to bodily states and that the connections between them could be shown empirically.

Second, as a philosopher (psychology, in James’s day, was a branch of philosophy and taught in the philosophy departments of universities), James is famous as one of the great figures in the movement called pragmatism, which is the belief that truth is something that happens to an idea, that the truth of something is the sum of all its actual results. It is not, as some cynics would have it, the mere belief that truth is whatever works for you. It must work for you and it must not contravene any known facts. James was interested more in the fruits than in the roots of ideas and feelings. He firmly believed in what he once wonderfully called “stubborn, irreducible facts.” Written in readable prose intended for both the specialist and the general reader, James’s books, in the words of one colleague, make “philosophy interesting to everybody.”15

Third, James is the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the founding text of the modern study of religion, a book so pervasive in religious studies that one hears occasional mutterings in the schools about King James—and they don’t mean the Bible. James’s point in this book is that religious authority resides not in books, bibles, buildings, inherited creeds or historical prophets, not in authoritative figures—whether parish ministers, popes or saints—but in the actual religious experiences of individuals. Such experiences have some features in common; they also vary from person to person and from culture to culture. The Varieties of Religious Experience is also, and not least, the acknowledged inspiration for the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is James’s understanding of conversion that AA has found especially helpful.16

In trying to specify the groundnote of James’s thought, his gifted student, colleague, and biographer, Ralph Barton Perry pointed to “the one germinal idea from which his whole thought grew, . . .the idea of the essentially active and interested character of the human mind.”17 The mind was never for James an organ, a “faculty,” or any kind of fixed entity. There is a good deal of truth to the comment of Paul Conkin that if psychology lost its soul with Kant, it lost its mind with James.18 Mind for James was a process of brain function, involving neural pathways, receptors, and stimuli. Mind does not exist apart from the operations of the brain, the body, and the senses. Consciousness is not an entity either, but an unceasing flow or stream or field of impressions. James was convinced that no mental state “once gone can recur and be identical with what was before. . .There is no proof that an incoming current ever gives us just the same bodily sensation twice.” James proposed that the elementary psychological fact “ . . . [is] not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought.”19

The process of mind, the actual stream of consciousness, is all there is. James throws down his challenge to Platonism: “A permanently existing ‘idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodic intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.”20

In place of the mythological world of fixed ideas, James has given us a world of hammering energies, strong but evanescent feelings, activity of thought, and a profound and relentless focus on life now. For all his grand accomplishments in canonical fields of learning, James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson. James’s best is urgent, direct, personal, and useful. Much of his writing came out of his teaching, and it has not yet lost the warmth of personal appeal, the sound of the man’s own voice. In one of his talks to teachers he said, “Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who acts habitually sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza. To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman. See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good.”21

James’s life, like all lives lived with broad and constant human contact, was marked by losses and tragedy, which he felt as deeply as anyone. Yet death moved him, most often, not to speculate on the hereafter but to redouble his energies and mass his attentions on the here and now. He remarked in Pragmatism that “to anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent”—and he had done both—“the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

It is not hard to see how the writer of such sentiments became a much-loved person. How he came to be such a writer and such a man in the first place is more difficult to understand, and that is what this book is about.

James’s life, especially his early life, was full of trouble, but the keynote of his life is not trouble. He is a man for our age in his belief that we are all of us afflicted with a certain blindness “in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” He understood, and he said repeatedly, how hard it is to really see things, to see anything, from another’s point of view. He had a number of blindnesses himself. But he did not abandon the effort to understand others, and he proposed that wherever some part of life “communicates an eagerness to him who lives it,” there is where the life becomes genuinely significant. He himself looked for what he called the “hot spot” in a person’s consciousness, the “habitual center” of his or her personal energy. James understood the appeal of narrative, and so it is with a narrative that he made his point about joy. He tells a story, taken from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which Stevenson describes a curious game he and his school friends used to play as the long Scottish summers ended and school was about to begin.

“Towards the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally forth from our respective [houses], each equipped with a tin bull’s eye lantern.”

“ . . . We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught, the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s eye lantern under his top-coat asked for nothing more.

When two of these [boys] met, there would be an anxious “Have you got your lantern?” and a gratified “Yes!” . . . It was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern bearer, unless (like the polecat) by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a fishing boat or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s eyes discovered, and in the checkering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night and cheered by the rich steam of the toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or the scaly bilges of the fishing boat and delight themselves with inappropriate talk. 

But the talk, says Stevenson, was incidental. “The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself on a black night, the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned, not a ray escaping . . . a mere pillar of darkness in the dark, and all the while deep down in the privacy of your heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to sing and exult over the knowledge.”

“The ground of a person’s joy,” says James, is often hard to discern. “For to look at a man is to court deception. . .and to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies any sense of the action. That is the explanation, that is the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the Lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless.”22

The great Hasidic masters say that we each have a tiny spark in us waiting to be blown into a fire. Jean-Paul Sartre said there are really no individuals, only universal singulars. William James would say that each of us is alone, but each of us has a lantern. Without the lantern, the interior spark, we are in the position of the old man who was observed by a reporter, a few minutes after the San Francisco earthquake, standing in the center of Union Square, and who was, “with great deliberation, trying to decipher the inscription of the Dewey monument through spectacles from which the lenses had fallen.”23   end of text

(reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company)



1 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Watts, The San Francisco Earthquake (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 64. See also Philip Fradkin, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (University of California Press, 2005).

2 Thomas and Watts, The San Francisco Earthquake, 65.

3 Thomas and Watts, 67.

4Thomas and Watts, 70.

5Thomas and Watts, 76.

6 William James,“On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake,” in Essays in Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 333.

7  Essays in Psychology, 331-32.

8 William James’s Diary, 1906.

9 R.W.B. Lewis and Linda Simon have both remarked on the earthquake as the equivalent of a war experience for James. See Lewis, 553, and Simon, 341.

10 William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 27.

11 For Jeremy Bentham’s idea that “each is to count for one and none for more than one,” see Michael Pecter, “The Dangerous Philosopher,” The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1999, 48.

12 A Pluralistic Universe, 70. Fechner’s idea of the infinitely full and variegated universe is in what has been called the tradition of liberal Platonism. See my article of that name in Symbiosis 1, no.1, Apr. 1997.

13Pragmatism, 143-44.

14 George Eliot, Middlemarch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), 194-95; A Pluralistic Universe, 9-10.

15 L.P. Jacks, “William James and His Letters,” Atlantic Monthly 128, Aug. 1921, 198.

16 For the general influence of William James on Bill W. (William Griffith Wilson), one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, see Nan Robertson, Getting Better: Inside AA (New York: Morrow, 1988). The rebuilding project, the renovation, the sudden, dramatic, and significant change (in religious language, the conversion) to a better path begins, according to Wilson, with a feeling of hopelessness as regards a medical or psychological cure. Wilson’s letter to Carl Jung of Jan. 23, 1961, details the beginning of Wilson’s understanding of the process. A friend of Wilson’s, Rowland H., had gone to seek Jung’s help with his alcoholism. “First of all,” Wilson wrote Jung, “you frankly told him of his hopelessness so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our society has since been built.

“Coming from you,” Wilson continued, “one he so trusted and admired, the impact upon him was immense. When he asked you if there was any other hope, you told him there might be, provided he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience, in short a genuine conversion.” Wilson then recounted how, after he heard of Rowland H.’s case, he went to Dr. William Silkworth, who treated him as Jung had treated Rowland H. Shortly after his own conversion, Wilson read James’s Varieties, and he told Jung, “This book gave me the realization that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth.” Wilson told Jung that AA “has made conversion experiences—nearly every variety reported by James—available on an almost wholesale basis.” For the full text of Wilson’s letter to Jung, see For Jung’s reply, identifying alcoholism as in some sense a spiritual problem, see C.G. Jung, Letters, vol. 2, ed. Gerhard Adler and Aniella Jaffe, trans. R.F.C. Hall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 383-85. For Wilson’s later saying “that James, though long in his grave, had been a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous,” see Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson (New York: AA World Services, 1984), 124.

17 R.B. Perry, introduction to Willam James’s Collected Essays and Reviews (New York: Longmans, Green, 1920), ix.

18 Quoted in Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 55-56.

19 William James, Psychology: Briefer Course (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 142, 141.

20 Psychology: Briefer Course, 144.

21William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 113.

22  “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology, 134-37.

23Thomas and Watts, The San Francisco Earthquake, 77.

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