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The Thought Experimenter | The Nation

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The Thought Experimenter

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But James could never be merely a positive thinker. That became apparent in Varieties, which contrasted "the religion of healthy-mindedness" with the travails of the "twice-born" and "sick souls"--among whom James included himself (disguised). Healthy-minded believers felt at home in the universe; sick souls felt that they were "living on a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs," knowing that the ice was melting. Their sense of dread could be cured only through some kind of conversion experience. Yet even this could not heal the divisions in the sick soul. "Neither Bunyan nor Tolstoy could become what we have called healthy-minded," James wrote. "They had drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep. Each of them realized a good which broke the effective edge of his sadness, yet the sadness was preserved as a minor ingredient in the heart of the faith by which it was overcome." This was autobiography. "If there was one thing James understood all the way down, it was the persistence of sadness," Richardson perceptively observes.

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears is editor of Raritan, and is writing a history of animal spirits in American economic and cultural life.

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Protestant in sensibility if not belief, James focused on personal narratives of the inner life--especially conversion experiences--rather than communal rituals or observances. While this narrowed his range, it increased his intensity, his ability to locate that "hot place in a man's consciousness" that constituted "the habitual center of his personal energy." Sometimes the experiences in Varieties resonated with James's own "hot places." This was especially true of the ineffable but noetic experience of mysticism, the feeling that one's identity was somehow merging with a larger cosmic or perhaps even divine identity. There is "More," and you are part of it. Tat tvam asi.

Yet James was unwilling simply to accept the faith in "More." He characteristically turned belief into an active proposition, a bet. "No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance," he wrote. Taking a risk on "More" did not mean embracing traditional theism. "Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?" This was the quintessence of "ever not quite"--a pluralistic universe where even God's tasks are unfinished. This was hardly orthodox Christianity.

From Jonathan Edwards to Emerson and Whitman, an American tradition celebrated mystical experiences as orgasmic congress with Nature (if not with God). James had experienced something like this one July night in the Adirondacks in 1898, not long after he had been invited to give the Gifford Lectures. He described it as a tumultuous convocation of pagan and orthodox deities: "The streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life." This was the experience that triggered The Varieties of Religious Experience, and unlike much of the rest of the mysticism recounted in that volume, it was pluralistic rather than monistic. It was not a matter of merging with the One but of mingling with the many.

Though Richardson does not catch the connection, pluralism in religious matters could be a polite name for polytheism--the paradoxically antimodern impulse animating many forms of Modernist thought. More democratic and inclusive in his sympathies than Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot and other antimodern Modernists, James nevertheless shared their desire to escape the metaphysical dead end of positivist certainty. At the apex of monotheism and secularism, in the confident Anglophone culture of the early 1900s, they imagined a return of repressed gods that might be more than a heap of broken images. James was animated by this yearning, too.

His openness to varieties of belief arose not out of mere tolerance but from a passionate commitment to the possibility of multiple explanations. He refused to dismiss the validity of individual experiences--no matter how bizarre--without giving them a fair hearing. Though he remained a skeptic, he contained multitudes. He tolerated all sorts of disreputable beliefs, from spiritualism to psychoanalysis. Theories of the unconscious were especially appealing to a sick soul, reborn into a two-storied universe. He insisted on the importance of attending to "wild facts" that fail to fit existing formulas. "The great field for new discoveries," he wrote, "is always the Unclassified Residuum." Radical empiricism was good science.

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