The Letters of William James, Vol. 2

★★★★☆

Links Finished More from this year

Full text
~Mar 14, 2015 Books read in 2015

Highlights

In his own house it seemed as if he was always at work; all the more, perhaps, because it was obvious that he possessed no instinct for arranging his day and protecting himself from interruptions.Introduction
And yet, whenever his wife wisely prepared for a suitable time and made engagements for some sort of hospitality otherwise than by hap-hazard, it was perversely likely to be the case, when the appointed hour arrived, that James was “going on his nerves” and in no mood for “being entertaining.” The most comradely of men, nothing galled him like having to be sociable. The “hollow mockery of our social conventions” would then be described in furious and lurid speech. Luckily the guests were not yet there to hear him.Introduction
When he had an essay or a lecture to prepare, he could not do it by bits. In order to begin such a task, he tried to seize upon a free day—more often a Sunday than any other. Then he would shut himself into his library, or disappear into a room at the top of the house, and remain hidden all day. If things went well, twenty or thirty sheets of much-corrected manuscript (about twenty-five hundred words in his free hand) might result from such a day. As many more would have gone into the waste-basket. Two or three successive days of such writing “took it out of him” visibly.Introduction
Once when we were returning from two insane asylums which he had arranged for the class to visit, and at one of which we had seen a dangerous, almost naked maniac, I remember his saying, ‘President Eliot might not like to admit that there is no sharp line between himself and the men we have just seen, but it is true.’Introduction
My dear Holt, —At the risk of displeasing you, I think I won’t have my photograph taken, even at no cost to myself. I abhor this hawking about of everybody’s phiz which is growing on every hand, and don’t see why having written a book should expose one to it. I am sorry that you should have succumbed to the supposed trade necessity. In any case, I will stand on my rights as a free man. You may kill me, but you shan’t publish my photograph. Put a blank “thumbnail” in its place. Very very sorry to displease a man whom I love so much. Always lovingly yours, WM. JAMES.
I had two days spoiled by a psychological experiment with mescal, an intoxicant used by some of our Southwestern Indians in their religious ceremonies, a sort of cactus bud, of which the U. S. Government had distributed a supply to certain medical men, including Weir Mitchell, who sent me some to try. He had himself been “in fairyland.” It gives the most glorious visions of color—every object thought of appears in a jeweled splendor unknown to the natural world. It disturbs the stomach somewhat, but that, according to W. M., was a cheap price, etc. I took one bud three days ago, was violently sick for 24 hours, and had no other symptom whatever except that and the Katzenjammer the following day. I will take the visions on trust!
You ask me, like an angel, in what form I like to take my sociability. The spirit is willing to take it in any form, but the flesh is weak, and it runs to destruction of nerve-tissue and madness in me to go to big stand-up receptions where the people scream and breathe in each other’s faces. But I know my duties; and one such reception I will gladly face. For the rest, I should infinitely prefer a chosen few at dinner.
I have been too lazy and hard pressed to write to you about your “Instinct and Reason,” which contains many good things in the way of psychology and morals, but which—I tremble to say it before you—on the whole does disappoint me. The religious part especially seems to me to rest on too narrow a phenomenal base, and the formula to be too simple and abstract. But it is a good contribution to American scholarship all the same, and I hope the Philippine Islanders will be forced to study it.
My letters, I find, tend to escape into humorisms, abstractions and flights of fancy, which are not nutritious things to impart to friends thousands of miles away who wish to realize the facts of your private existence.
I am all right this morning again, so have no doubts of putting the job through, if only I don't have too much sociability. I have got a week free of invitations so far, and all things considered, fancy that we shan't be persecuted.
I hope that Henry will have managed to get you and Miss Tuckerman to Rye for a day—it is so curiously quaint and characteristic. I had a bad conscience about leaving him, for I think he feels lonely as he grows old, and friends pass over to the majority. He and I are so utterly different in all our observances and springs of action, that we can't rightly judge each other.
The background of my consciousness, so far as my own achievements go, is composed of a sense of impossibility—a sense well warranted by the facts. For instance, two years ago, the ‘Varieties’ being published, I decided that everything was cleared and that my duty was immediately to begin writing my metaphysical system. Up to last October, when the academic year began, I had written some 200 pages of notes, i.e. disconnected brouillons. I hoped this year to write 400 or 500 pages of straight composition, and could have done so without the interruptions. As a matter of fact, with the best will in the world, I have written exactly 32 pages! For an academic year’s work, that is not brilliant! You see that, when I refuse your request, it is, after a fashion, in order to save my own life. My working day is anyhow, at best, only three hours long—by working I mean writing and reading philosophy.
I remember my own folly in wishing to return home after I came out of the hospital at Rio; and my general greenness and incapacity as a naturalist afterwards, with my eyes gone to pieces. It was all because my destiny was to be a “philosopher”—a fact which then I didn’t know, but which only means, I think, that, if a man is good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy.
The only thing to do, as with the process of the suns one finds one’s faculties dropping away one by one, is to be good-natured about it, remember that the next generation is as young as ever, and try to live and have a sympathetic share in their activities.
I am letting loose a deluge on you! Don’t reply at length, or at all. I hate to reply to anybody, and will sympathize with your silence. But I had to restate my position more clearly.
I dread the prospect of lecturing till mid-May, but the wine being ordered, I must drink it. I dislike lecturing more and more.
I wish I could have been at your recent discussion. I am getting impatient with the awful abstract rigmarole in which our American philosophers obscure the truth. It will be fatal. It revives the palmy days of Hegelianism. It means utter relaxation of intellectual duty, and God will smite it. If there’s anything he hates, it is that kind of oozy writing.
It is better, as the “Bhagavat-Gita” says, to lead your own life, however bad, than to lead another’s, however good. Emerson teaches the same doctrine, and I live by it as bad and congenial a life as I can. If there is anything that God despises more than a man who is constantly making speeches, it is another man who is constantly accepting invitations. What must he think, when they are both rolled into one?
As Chas. Lamb says, there is nothing so nice as doing good by stealth and being found out by accident, so I now say it is even nicer to make heroic decisions and to be prevented by “circumstances beyond your control” from even trying to execute them.
Dear Jack, —Invincible epistolary laziness and a conscience humbled to the dust have conspired to retard this letter…
Previous: by Italo Calvino
Next: by Miranda July