Friday, September 25, 2009

On History, Narrative, and Epilepsy

According to Louis Menand, the past is something that retreats further and further behind but to which we desperately cling. We wonder what became of the "golden age" yet fail to realize that we are looking at history from the anachronistic vantage point. People often do not realize the significance of the era they occupy. Events build on one another, quietly and unnoticed, until one day we realize a whole movement has occurred, and things have profoundly and uncomfortably shifted. We then try to twist old concepts to fit present circumstances, or we try to take new concepts and use them to understand the past. This is where "historical criticism" comes in. It is the practice of trying to understand the past on its own terms, with things, people, and events in their proper context. It sounds like common sense, but nostalgia, sentimentality, and blind conservatism tend to blur our view. American Studies is a series of essays in which Menand sets out to demonstrate how great ideas, rooted in their time and place, eventually insinuate themselves into the culture at large.

"William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient"

History isn't a narrative. We just like to think it is because that's how humans conceptualize of an inherently disordered world. Marxist historiography, for example, attempts to explain all of history by whittling everything down to class struggle, an apparently overwhelming meta-force that conveniently puts everything else on the back burner. Similarly, biography, as a form of individualized history, is often structured as a "crisis-resolution" narrative: the "protagonist" experiences a period of difficulty which they eventually overcome and upon which they build their famous life. It's not unlike Gustav Freytag's analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama:

Exposition → Rising Action → Climax → Falling Action → Resolution

Of course, that is not the only way to organize a fictional story or play; therefore, it is highly questionable if such a model is appropriate for understanding a real, living human being.

Though he never says it outright, Menand critiques this paradigm in the first essay of his book American Studies: "William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient." Biographies of James (a philosopher and psychologist, not to be confused with his brother, Henry James the novelist) have often pivoted his life around two seemingly defining moments, as detailed in an excerpt from a series of published lectures James had done at the University of Edinburgh from 1901-1903, and in an 1870 diary entry made when James was studying in Germany as a young man. The former comes from a chapter called "The Sick Soul," consisting of the talks James had done on pessimism, disenchantment, and other dark states of the mind. James had initially claimed it was the translated testimony of a Frenchman who one day, out of nowhere, was struck by an intense horror personified by the image of an epileptic patient the Frenchman had once seen in an asylum. Much to his despair, the Frenchman realized that everyone was potentially a helpless, degraded wreck of humanity. Health and sanitary are frighteningly fragile gifts. My only consolation, the Frenchman concludes, was to turn to Biblical scriptures promising hope and redemption.

William James later confessed to his French translator, who had asked to see the original document, that this was a true story and that it had actually happened to him.

The second momentous document, the diary entry, is more subdued but profound in its nascent expression of what later became James's "will to believe" doctrine. James has just read an essay by French philosopher Charles Renouvier and found himself at odds with Renouvier's definition of free will as an illusion: "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts." To Renouvier, this type of control is a fantasy, but to James it made perfect sense. Contemplation seems to only bring melancholy, he mused, so therefore, instead of wallowing in Grüblei [the "grubbing among subtleties"], I resolve to focus on action and self-assertion. Though this may be difficult at first, over time the forced habit will become a true habit. If I wish to do something daring, then I shall do it without the need for what ifs? and self-doubt. Overall, this is a very bold, positive, and pro-active personal philosophy, and one that is innately self-fulfilling. It is an entire mode of being brought into existence by individual will alone. I act, therefore I shall be.

To many James biographers, the epileptic story represents a crisis in James's life. The Renouvier piece represents its resolution.

However, says Menand, some information is often worse than none, because this is when people start speculating and trying to fill the gaps. In doing so, they inevitably track in their present-day cultural baggage like a child leaving a trail of mud through a house. As an excellent example of this tendency, Menand introduces Kim Townsend's book Manhood at Harvard, which purports, among other things relating to masculinity and the university, that the epileptic story reveals that William James had a chronic masturbation problem. In this interpretation, the epileptic patient is a man driven insane by "self-abuse." (Townsend isn't the first to consider this theory but she seems to take it the furthest.) Townsend offers supporting evidence, which Menand promptly refutes, but the most intriguing aspect, for the purposes of my analysis, is Townsend's anachronistic interpretation of "self-abuse," as well as "moral" and "habit" in the same context. Linking these words to masturbation is actually a very twentieth-century thing to do. In the Victorian notion of "moral hygiene," these can refer to sexual activity, but also to anything else imaginable. Menand points to a celebrated 1859 psychology textbook, Alexander Bain's The Emotions and the Will (this same Bain, by the way, is mentioned in James's Renouvier diary entry), which asserts that "one of the strongest of our fleshy indulgences" is oversleeping.

Maybe James is having a rather strong reaction to a trivial matter like oversleeping? Actually, says Menand, the rhetoric of Victorian moral hygiene was usually quite hyperbolic. Bain's hypothetical account of a man overcoming his habit of sleeping late is downright heroic in tone. Furthermore, epilepsy is a physical disorder, not psychological. If anything, Menand argues, biographers may be getting the whole thing backward. Perhaps the epileptic patient is a renunciation of the thoughts expressed in the Renouvier piece. To put it simply: bad things happen to good people, regardless of their powers of positive thinking and self-assertion. It's the classic problem of religious faith: innocent suffering.

And for that reason, there are doubts that the story of the epileptic patient is even a factual account of something James experienced. It's too literary-conscious, with obvious overtones of Pilgrim's Progress. Furthermore, its lesson about drawing strength and sanity from the Bible doesn't sound very much like the modern, pragmatic William James (or, for that matter, like a Frenchman). Perhaps it was written by someone else?

For all his exhortations to act when faced with uncertainty, and to take risks sound in the assurance that fate will meet you halfway - thoughts expressed most famously in The Will to Believe and Pragmatism - William James was depressed all his life. No one falls apart over an ancient religious conundrum, Menand argues. Depression is a "weather-pattern. Under its cloud, everything else is a problem. When the weather changes, these problems disappear, or become 'opportunities' or 'challenges' – until the dark skies return." The Renouvier piece is simply a different form of "therapy," or self-help, for a very different problem: intellectual stagnation.

In a nutshell: biographers have failed to take a "holistic" view of William James. They have not taken the whole man into account, focusing largely on two small samples from a whole body of work done on various aspects of philosophy and psychology. When looking at the bigger picture – James's life, writings, career – Menand finds a rather melancholy edge to James's can-do promotion of self-assertion, self-confidence, self-help, bravado, and the power of belief. Many of James's critics have argued that this response simply isn't enough when faced with life's biggest challenges. But no one, says Menand, knew this better than James. And that is why the Renouvier piece is not an expression of philosophical triumph.

James believed in the legitimacy of religious response but not religion itself. He may have spent his whole life searching for some kind of transcendence but could only study its psychological aftereffects on true believers. That is where the epileptic piece comes into play as a hypothetical case study (if it wasn't written by someone else), and where the Renouvier piece comes in as merely one expression of a larger issue James wrestled with. James may have tried to believe, but finally had to accept that "[p]hilosophy is a moralism: it is for people strong enough to face the universe on its own terms, knowing that there is, in the end, nothing to back them up, nothing to guarantee that their vote will be counted." Later on, this became one of the central tenets of Modernism: the void that comes from knowing yet doubting in the old truths espoused by religion and tradition (see Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper for a contemporary discussion of this). "There was, in spite of his playfulness, a deep sadness about James" John Jay Chapman would later say. "You felt that he had just steeped out of this sadness in order to meet you, and was to go back in the moment you left him." The philosophy of William James, Menand concludes, was, for its creator, a personal failure.

The two pieces in question - the story of the epileptic patient and the Renouvier entry - cannot possibly reveal all this on their own, being taken simply as self-evident truths from which all understanding of the person of William James must arise. You cannot take two snippets from a person's life and construct a narrative around them. That's how you end up with "chronic masturbation" and other sensationalist, improbable, politically correct (for your time period, not the subject's), and ultimately subjective theories. Our lives are not fiction. They are reality.


Emily said...

What a great, thought-provoking piece! Resisting the temptation to make small moments count for more than they realistically can or should is probably especially difficult for biographers because the subjects themselves often build up personal mythologies, which they might even believe, but which are still not the whole story.

Of course, there is really no "whole story" that can ever be told about an individual, but I agree - trying for holism & balance is better than making talismans of particular moments in a person's life. It reminds me of a lecture by Greil Marcus on how we tend to do the same thing in the study of music history: romanticize individual moments as THE turning-point that ushered in a new era or philosophy of music. (The Ramones opening at CBGB, the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, etc.) But the truth is that most new movements and ways of thought come on gradually, in myriad ways, and this conveniently romantic moment-based history ignores a lot of fascinating complexity.

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