The Letters of William James, Vol. 1

★★★★☆

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~Jan 17, 2015 Books read in 2015

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I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary. Much may be said in favor of each. I have named them in the ascending order of their pecuniary invitingness. After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted.
I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury. If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of [the] advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate.
If there is anything I hate, it is collecting. I don’t think it is suited to my genius at all; but for that very reason this little exercise in it I am having here is the better for me. I am getting to be very practical, orderly, and businesslike. That fine disorder which used to prevail in my precincts, and which used to make Mother heave a beautiful sigh when she entered my room, is treated by the people with whom I am here as a heinous crime, and I feel very sensitive and ashamed about it.
I began the other day to read the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Long, published by Ticknor, which, if you have not read, I advise you to read, slowly. I only read two or three pages a day, and am only half through the book. He certainly had an invincible soul; and it seems to me that any man who can, like him, grasp the love of a “life according to nature,” i.e., a life in which your individual will becomes so harmonized to nature’s will as cheerfully to acquiesce in whatever she assigns to you, knowing that you serve some purpose in her vast machinery which will never be revealed to you—any man who can do this will, I say, be a pleasing spectacle, no matter what his lot in life. I think old Mark’s perpetual yearnings for patience and equanimity and kindliness would do your heart good.
The language is infernal; and I seem to be making no progress beyond the stage in which one just begins to misunderstand and to make one’s self misunderstood.(On learning German.)
I awoke at half-past eight at the manly voice of T. S. Perry caroling his morning hymn from his neighboring bed—if the instrument of torture the Germans sleep in be worthy of that name.
But lo! I here send another commission. I definitely appoint by name my father H. James, Senior, author of Substance & Shadder, etc., to perform it; and solemnly charge all the rest of you to be as lions in his path, as thorns upon his side, as lumps in his mashed potatoes, until he do it or write me Nay. ’Tis to send by post Cousin’s lectures on Kant, and that other French translation of a German introduction to Kant, which he bought last winter! By return of mail! And if not convenient to send the books, to write me the name of the author of the last-mentioned one, which I have forgotten.
It seems to me that perhaps the time has come for psychology to begin to be a science—some measurements have already been made in the region lying between the physical changes in the nerves and the appearance of consciousness-at (in the shape of sense perceptions), and more may come of it. I am going on to study what is already known, and perhaps may be able to do some work at it.
But enough! Excuse the damned whine of this letter; I had no idea whatever of writing it when I sat down, but I am in a mood of indigestion and blueness.
Suffice [it] to say that I have thought of you continually, and with undiminished affection, since that bright April morn when we parted; but I am of such an invincibly inert nature as regards letter-writing that it takes a combination of outward and inward circumstances and motives that hardly ever happens, to start me.
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.
I have just been quit by Chas. S. Peirce, with whom I have been talking about a couple of articles in the St. Louis “Journal of Speculative Philosophy” by him, which I have just read. They are exceedingly bold, subtle and incomprehensible, and I can’t say that his vocal elucidations helped me a great deal to their understanding, but they nevertheless interest me strangely.
I came here resolved to lead the life of an absolute caterpillar, and have succeeded very well so far, spending most of my time swinging in a hammock under the pine trees in front of the house, and having hardly read fifty pages of anything in the whole six weeks. It has told on me most advantageously.
I was truly glad to hear of your determination to stick to physiology. However discouraging the work of each day may seem, stick at it long enough, and you’ll wake up some morning—a physiologist—just as the man who takes a daily drink finds himself unexpectedly a drunkard.
Alice got a desk, and from me a Scotch terrier pup only seven weeks old, whom we call Bunch, who has almost doubled his size in a week, who is a perfect lion in determination and courage, and who don’t seem to care a jot for any human society but that of Jane in the kitchen, whose person is, I suppose, pervaded by a greasy and smoky smell agreeable to his nostrils. He has a perfect passion for the dining-room; whenever he is left to himself, he travels thither and lies down under the table and takes no notice of you when you go to call him. He does not sleep half as much as Dido, never utters a sound when shut up for the night in the kitchen, and altogether fills us with a sort of awe for the Roman firmness and independence of his character. He is “animated” by a colliquative diarrhœa or cholera, which keeps us all sponging over his tracks, but which don’t affect his strength or spirits a bit.
Meanwhile, my blessed old Father, I scribble this line (which may reach you though I should come too late), just to tell you how full of the tenderest memories and feelings about you my heart has for the last few days been filled. In that mysterious gulf of the past into which the present soon will fall and go back and back, yours is still for me the central figure. All my intellectual life I derive from you; and though we have often seemed at odds in the expression thereof, I’m sure there’s a harmony somewhere, and that our strivings will combine.
Mr. Howells called such letters “whoops of blessing.” When a new book pleased James particularly, he was apt to send a “whoop” to its author.
The best thing by far which I saw in Brighton, and a thing the impression of which will perhaps outlast everything else on this trip, was four cuttle-fish (octopus) in the Aquarium. I wish we had one of them for a child—such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy.
No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book. No subject is worth being treated of in 1000 pages! Had I ten years more, I could rewrite it in 500; but as it stands it is this or nothing—a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is an incapable.Referring to “The Principles of Psychology”
In one form or the other, either in the two-volume edition or the one-volume abridgment,—either in “James” or in “Jimmy,” as the two books were soon nicknamed,—James’s “Psychology” was soon in use in most of the colleges.
My dear Holt,—I expect to send you within ten days the MS. of my “Briefer Course,” boiled down to possibly 400 pages. By adding some twaddle about the senses, by leaving out all polemics and history, all bibliography and experimental details, all metaphysical subtleties and digressions, all quotations, all humor and pathos, all interest in short, and by blackening the tops of all the paragraphs, I think I have produced a tome of pedagogic classic which will enrich both you and me, if not the student’s mind.
Mark Twain is here for the winter in a villa outside the town, hard at work writing something or other. I have seen him a couple of times—a fine, soft-fibred little fellow with the perversest twang and drawl, but very human and good. I should think that one might grow very fond of him, and wish he’d come and live in Cambridge.
Mark Twain dined with us last night, in company with the good Villari and the charming Mrs. Villari; but there was no chance then to ask him to sing Nora McCarty. He’s a dear man, and there’ll be a chance yet.
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