William James is known as the father of American Psychology and a Philosopher of Religious Experience par excellence. He also could exhibit a wide range of mood and sensibility.
One of his early sketchpads contains what most scholars think is a self-portrait in red crayon—a young man, seated, hunched over, with an inscription over the figure: HERE I AND SORROW SIT.
As we know from any number of passages in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James could plumb the depths of despair.
In his 20’s, before he had caught the waves that brought him acclaim first in psychology, then in philosophy, he could write, “Here I and sorrow sit” — and then full in the thick of his career he could be abundantly joyous. I’m thinking here of those gorgeous sentences, addressed to his philosophical companion Josiah Royce, that Steve Webb had found and shared in a Zeteo comment just a few weeks ago. I quoted them just last week, so if you read them then, you can skim on. They forced themselves on me as I read the caption to his drawing. Here they are:
When I compose my Gifford lectures . . . [I have] the design exclusively of overthrowing your system, and ruining your peace. I lead a parasitic life upon you, for my highest flight of ambitious ideality is to become your conqueror . . .
Why should we expect steadiness or uniformity in the mood or pulse of a life? Of course we expect nothing of the sort in children who can succumb to regular emotional melt downs, and granting the volatility of teenage composure we nevertheless expect a smoothing out. Something is lacking if a life takes on the wild swings of a Dimitri Karamazov. Or so we might think.
I have nothing profound to say here. It’s sufficient just to share a moment of amazement that the man who placed himself among the religiously “sick-souled” (sick with worry and despair) could also show such uninhibited, wildly modulated love of life, philosophy, and intimate companionship. It would take a long essay by a writer more skilled than I to convey how, over time, one soul could span such extremes.
And yet . . . I wonder if this question of exuberance and despair can also be a question about the course of nature, the place of our being? Perhaps inner nature and outer nature work in tandem. The following, from Joseph de Maistre, can stand in for despair:
The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.
And let these words stand in for celebration, exuberance, flamboyance:
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. (Isaiah)
The singer can easily move us to tears or to laughter, but where is he who can excite in us a pure morning joy? When in doleful dumps, . . . perchance, a watcher in the house of mourning, I hear a cockerel crow far or near, I think to myself, “There is one of us well, at any rate,”—and with a sudden gush return to my senses. (Thoreau)
A despairing vision can oscillate with its other. The first does not definitively erase the other. With regard to the onset of “pure morning joy,” the readiness is all.
The report of James’ early sketch pad is found in American Philosophy: A Love Story, John Kaag, soon to be published. The sentences from Joseph de Maistre, come from Soirėes de Sainte-Pėtersbourg, Quoted in Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 113. For clapping trees, Isaiah:55.12. For Thoreau’s “thanks-giving,” see Correspondence, December 6, 1856, p. 444; for “the singer,” see “Walking,” p. 254 [para 83]. The “to change one’s life” quote is everywhere attributed to James, but where did he write that?