What James Knew
by Catherine Madsen


Neuroses differ from age to age and culture to culture, but the brain operates in certain consistent patterns. William James, speculating on the psychology of religion, saw how these patterns repeat themselves in both religious and irreligious people: how the experience of spiritual paralysis can be called a sense of sin or a sense of shame, the experience of release can be called “leaning on Jesus” or regeneration, and the effect on the personality is much the same either way. James’s critics accuse him of excessive individualism, of so private and Protestant an approach as to make The Varieties of Religious Experience useless as a general guide, but the book’s immediacy is striking: if it is “private” it is private like literature. To read it is to plug into a live current of intelligent scrutiny and active compassion that can alter one’s thinking. The book does not claim to be a guide to religious experience in the anthropological or sociological sense; it is a map to the availability of transformation from any approach at all.

There is still disagreement on whether James should be placed with the “healthy-minded” or the “sick souls,” so evenhandedly and sympathetically did he write of both, and so conscientiously did he attempt to pull himself up by his emotional bootstraps when beset by despair. I class him among the sick souls; the healthy-minded have trouble comprehending the condition of the sick, and James had no such trouble. The wide streak of Emersonian optimism in his character sat uneasily with his recurrent inability to choose and to do his work. N His appreciation for the “pessimistic elements” of Christianity points to his wider sense of the agonal nature of profound religious experience; he fought a war between paralysis and freedom, and he studied transformation as evidence that the war could be won.

The Gifford lectures, which became The Varieties of Religious Experience , were given in 1901-1902. James died in 1910. Four years later the Armenian genocide and the outbreak of the First World War initiated the series of political upheavals that would mark the twentieth century as peculiarly destructive to optimism. How, if James had lived and written during those times, they would have changed his outlook and his philosophy, it is impossible to know. The robust pragmatism that became his eventual position would certainly have been severely tried. But his observations of mental brokenness would only have been confirmed as one after another example emerged into public knowledge—the shell-shocked soldier of the First World War, the “ Mussulman ” of the Nazi camps, the Vietnam veteran destroyed from within by memories, the battered woman and the molested child. The threats of atomic warfare and ecological catastrophe that marked the latter half of the century undermined our sense of the future more effectively than the fear of the apocalypse had ever done, and introduced a subtler sense of paralysis. “We have learnt,” said Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz , “that our personality is fragile, that it is in much more danger than our life. . . . Take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.” A hundred and one years after the Gifford lectures we know something about fragility.

Large public events and social forces are large because they leave their mark on many individuals; history is personally crippling, and the public is public because it is so generally private. We may each exist within our demographic— as a man or a woman, as a member of an ethnic group and an income bracket, as a worker at a certain kind of job, as a defender of a certain ideology, as an enthusiast of art or music or science or movies or sports—but we cannot escape the singularity of a distinct self and a distinct past. We each suffer and die as a body and a consciousness, from which all allegiances can be brutally stripped by pain. We teach ourselves to recover—if we do—through the revision of physical habits and patterns of consciousness. The way out of mental brokenness is what it has always been: partly a matter of painstaking preparedness, partly a matter of unplannable luck. James, from within his own demographic, knew something about the part of us that transcends demographics, or at any rate is consistent across them: the process of transformation is lonely and long, and no one can do it for you.

To emphasize practical adjustments—though to the “sick soul” all practicalities may seem intolerably healthy-minded—is not to negate the uncanny interventions of the numinous in our lives. The practical is not the enemy of the miraculous; sometimes it is the very achievement of the miraculous. To be able to clean your house, when that had been insurmountable; to eat without shame and sleep well; to keep a job; to love without constraint and without exacting a high payment from the beloved—the normal is extraordinary if it has been unattainable. The numinous is so uncanny that in addition to its unexpected approaches it can be created —as the theater artist knows, as the newly observant Jew knows when lighting the Sabbath candles, as the sick soul reaching toward sanity knows whenever a habitual reaction of violence or self-loathing is replaced by a conscious turn toward equanimity and peace. The locus of transformation is wherever we choose to establish it: the sanctuary, the seminar room, the dinner table, the bed. We can invite the numinous and it will appear; even, perhaps especially, in the aftermath of disaster, it knows our voice and will answer. One of the most welcome patterns of the brain is its capacity to arrive— having survived its own history, and thus with a sense of permanence and completion—at the peace, the energy and the moral presence of those whom James called the “twice-born.”

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall  2003, Vol. 53,  No 3.