Saturday, November 22, 2014

William James by Charles Taylor

I now want to engage with the very heart of James’s discussion, which I identify with the description of the plight of the ‘twice-born.’ Their contrast case, the ‘once-born,’ are healthy-minded. They have a sense that all is well with the world and/or that they are on the right side of God. After citing numerous cases, James comments: “one can but recognize in such writers .  .  . the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of the opposite temperament linger, over the darkest aspects of the universe”.

As against these, there are the ‘sick souls,’ who cannot help but see the pain, the loss, the evil;, the suffering in the world. Of course, a typically Jamesian playfulness and irony is running through these passages. Once the distinction is made with a contrasting classification like ‘healthy’ and ‘sick,’ it would seem axiomatic that the former is to be preferred. But in fact James stands on the other side; he identifies with the sick. Not just that this is where he classifies himself, without, of course, explicitly saying so. (Research has shown that one of the examples he quotes of deep metaphysical depression, attributed to a ‘Frenchman,’ actually describes his own earlier experience.) But also in that he sees the sick as being more profound and insightful here.

As he moves from describing the healthy-minded “to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls .  .  .  have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness,” he declares: “Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, ‘Hurrah for the Universe! – God’s in his Heaven, all is right with the world.’ Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view and put in our hands a more complicated key to the meaning of the situation.”

What do the sick souls see that their healthy cousins don’t? We might summarize that they see the abyss over which we stand. But as we follow James’s discussion, we can distinguish three forms that this consciousness can take.

The first might be called religious melancholy. “The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny.” Things seem unreal, distant, as though seen through a cloud. Another way of putting this would be to speak f a loss of meaning. In describing Tolstoy’s experience, James says of him that “the sense that life had any meaning whatsoever was for a time wholly withdrawn.”

The second. Which James also calls ‘melancholy,’ is characterized by fear. The intentional object here is the world not so much as meaningless, but rather as evil. And as we get to the more severe forms, what threatens is “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one .  .  . Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!” (This is incidentally the form of melancholy experienced by James’s “Frenchman.”

The third form of the abyss is the acute sense of personal sin. Here he is talking about, for example, people reacting to standard Protestant revival preaching and feeling a terrible sense of their own sinfulness, even being paralyzed by it – perhaps to be later swept up into the sense of being saved.

James speaks again here of the superiority of the “morbid-minded” view. The normal process of life contains many things to which melancholy (of the second kind, the fear of evil) is the appropriate response: the slaughter house, death.

Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as wee: their loathsome experience fills every minute of every day that drags its length along; and whenever they or other wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which the agitated meloncholiac feels is literally the right reaction to the situation.
The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which pessimistic elements are best developed. Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are best known to us. They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into a real life.

Those who have been through this kind of thing and have come out the other side are “twice-born.” Just as religious experience is the more authentic reality of religion, so this experience is the deeper and more truly religious one. It is thus at the heart of religion properly understood. It is an experience of deliverance,. It yields a “state of assurance,” of salvation, or the meaningfulness of things, or the triumph of goodness. Its fruits are a “loss of all worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same.”  The world appears beautiful and more real, in contrast to the “dreadful unreality and strangeness” felt in melancholy. We are also empowered; the inhibitions and divisions that held us back melt away  in the condition James calls “Saintliness.” It gives us a sense of being connected to a wider life and greater power, a sense of elation and freedom, “as the outlines of confining selfhood melt down,” a “shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections.”

This is at the heart of religion for James, because this experience meets our most dire spiritual needs, which are defined by the three great negative experiences of melancholy, evil, and the sense of personal sin. Some of the perennial interests of James’s book comes from his identifying three zones of spiritual anguish, which continue to haunt our world today.

The third one, the sense of personal sin, may be less common among James’s readers. Who generally belong to the educated classes, which are disproportionately nonbelievers and, when they have some faith commitment, are unlikely to find it in those modes of evangelical Protestantism in which this sense is most acuter. And yet who can fail to notice that this kind of religion, and the experience of personal evil and deliverance which makes it central, is alive and in full expansion in our day. This is true not only in the United States, but even more so in Latin America, Africa, and even in parts of Asia. Some have estimated that evangelical Christianity is the fastest-rowing form of religious life, faster than or as fast as Islam –but this is the more remarkable in that its expansion is largely the result of conversion, whereas Islam’s comes mainly from natural growth.

The surge of evangelical Protestantism often occurs in contexts where community has broken down, in Third World countries, where people have been pitched into urban life, often in Chaotic circumstances and without support systems. They can be overwhelmed by a sense of personal incapacity or evil, but find that they can overcome crippling failings and weaknesses, drink or drugs or drifting or whatever, by surrendering themselves to the conversion experience. It would appear that entering the Nation of Islam has wrought a similar change in the livers of some African-Americans. Here is a very important religious phenomena, whose incidence seems to be growing with developing modernity and which figures in James’s account.

Melancholy is, of course, a phenomena long recognized. It goes back well into the premodern world. But its meaning has changed. The sudden sense of the loss of significance, which is central to melancholy, or accidie or ennui, used to be experienced in a framework in which the meaning of things was beyond doubt. God was there, good and evil were defined, what we are called cannot be gainsaid; but we can no longer feel it. We are suddenly on the outside, exiled. Accidie is a sin, a kind of self-exclusion, for which there can be no justification.

But in the modern context, melancholy arises in a world where the guarantee of meaning has gone, where all its traditional sourced, theological, metaphysical, historical, can be cast into doubt. It therefore has a new shape: not the sense of rejection and exile from an unchallengeable cosmos of significance, but rather the intimation of what may be a definitive emptiness, the final dawning of the end of the last illusion of significance. It hurts, one might say, in a new way.

One might argue which mode of melancholy hurts more: my exile from the general feast of meaning, or the threatened implosion of meaning altogether But there is no doubt which has the greater significance. The first pain touches me, the second everyone and everything.

The shift to the new mode and context is clearly marked in the life and work of Baudelaire. Against a backdrop of a real cosmic significance which I am perversely incapable of rejoicing in, talking the side of evil seems pointless; but  where the threat is the ground zero of all meaning, even the recovery of evil is a gain. Baudelaire’s “spleen” poems accomplish a paradoxical liberation: in describing the empty world, the lowered, leaden sky, they lift its weight from my shoulders, by giving this burden a visage and a shape. The ground zero of melancholy has always been one that loses even the sense of what has been lost, even awareness of the source of the pain.  To the extent that melancholy has a place in the cosmic order, as one of the “humors,” which is in turn connected by “correspondences” to other realities, one can escape the ground zero by portraying its characteristic symbols, as Durer does.

But by the time of Baudelaire, where even the correspondences have to be reinvented, our only course is to paint the lack, the evil itself. Hence the new spiritual power of something that can be described as “les fluers du mal.”

' Les Fluers du mal' by Melanie Aimo-Boot

Melancholy, modern style, in the form of a sense of perhaps ultimate meaninglessness, is the recognized modern threat. We readily see it as a danger that menaces all of us. We even see our philosophies and  and spiritual positions addressed to this threat, as attempts to rebut or thwart a sense of meaninglessness. It is common to construe the history of religion through this prism, as though from the beginning we could see it as an answer to the inherent meaninglessness of things. This view is implicit in Weber, I would argue, made more explicit in Gauchet.

I think this is a  serious distortion, but there is obviously some truth in it. And once more, we see James identifying a crucial area of modern spiritual malaise.

But how about the third version of the abyss, the sense of enveloping evil? This is less widely recognized. Awareness of it can be eclipsed by the sense that our great problem in a secular age, after the “death of God,” is meaninglessness. The sense of evil seems to partake too much of the metaphysical dimension that we are supposed to have lefty behind us in modernity. But I believe that it defines just as important a threat, if not more urgent than the loss of meaning. As a sense of a guaranteed order in which good can triumph recedes, the sense of the surrounding evil, within us and without, which James so well describes, faces no obvious defenses. It cannot but deeply disturb us. Indeed, one can suspect that we sometimes take flight into the meaninglessness of things in order to avoid facing it, just as Baudelaire in a sense moved in the opposite direction, while aestheticizing evil to make it bearable. But beyond that, the fierce, often violent, moralism of the modern age constitutes one of our important defenses against this sense of pervasive evil.

Even if some of this were true, we can once more credit James with an extraordinary insight into the spiritual needs of the modern world.

1 comment:

  1. James put the definitive emptiness and implosion of the meaning in the world at the core of his understanding of religious experience. The fierce, often violent, moralism of the our age is seen as a defense against this pervasive sense of evil