In Sickness and Health

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.

images I just came across this – something new to me – in an account of James’ well-known struggles, especially in his youth, over meaning or purpose in his life:

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 . . .

38085-oJames gave up his early aspiration to be a painter, but if he had continued he might have captioned a sketch from this later energetic period: HERE I AND EXUBERANCE SIT.

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 William-James-1910amazement 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)

images-7My thanks-giving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite … . O how I laugh when I think of my vague and indefinite riches. (Thoreau)

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.

—Ed Mooney

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?



  1. William Eaton

    Would that more had the self-confidence to write: “I have nothing profound to say here. It’s sufficient just to share a moment of amazement”. Or would some be bold enough to write: “I am inspired by curiosity, nothing more, nothing less!”

    As regards the central theme of mood swings, I am aware of course that, in the span of a life, and in some dialogue with changing social and personal circumstances, people can come to feel quite differently about themselves and about life in general. I remember how the Sixties brought new life to so many people (and thus ushered in a new petrification), and I believe the Second World War had a similar effect on many Americans (those who were not killed!). And yet, I have to say . . . Why does Thoreau, say, not write about his brother’s sudden death, which apparently so grieved him?
    Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
    Of what we say we feel — below the stream,
    As light, of what we think we feel — there flows
    With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
    The central stream of what we feel indeed.
    — Matthew Arnold


  2. Ed Mooney

    Buddha was overcome by the shock of disease, death, and poverty, and spoke thereafter of how one could nevertheless cope. He didn’t dwell on his personal wounding experiences — didn’t seek pity. Perhaps he thought, “suffering just knocked me down; how can I ever get up as a whole human being? And I vow to generously pass on the steps in my recovery without harping on my personal wounds.”

    Thoreau was overcome by the shock of his brother John’s death, and in his first letters after that he begins the ascent out of the pit.

    In a way all his writing has the “central stream of what [he] feel[s]” — the stream of death’s horror. [What a great Arnold poem!] It flowed deep even as he crawled into the light. He thinks (like Buddha?) that an account of recovery is what we need. The horror is left aside or below as relatively insignificant seen against the wonder and necessity of recovery.

    He could find allegories of John’s death everywhere, and displaying the death of a horse or a muskrat would remind him and his readers of the ugliness and pervasiveness of death — yet more important, he wants to move on to remind us how that ugliness can be transformed. We are always to see death as preparation for new life.


  3. Steve Webb

    That James quotation is a mystery, all right. I tried to track it down on the various quotation websites, but they never give specific citations, just authorship. That’s because they’re all copying from one another and could care less. Also, quotations unmoored from their contexts tend to drift away from their original phrasing. I notice that the novelty t-shirt companies, those that adorn their shirts with pictures of famous people along with associated words of wisdom, tend to omit the last words of this particular quote. And for good reason: the quotation makes far more sense without it. “No exceptions” just doesn’t fit, does it? The quote opens with “To change one’s life…,” not “To change a plurality of lives…,” so who might the disallowed “exceptions” be? It seems to me that the obvious word-choice here would be ‘excuses.’ “To change one’s life, do it immediately, do it flamboyantly, and no excuses.” I suppose “no exceptions” might be a way of saying, “and that goes for everyone (who wants to change their life).” But that’s unnecessarily vague and pretty much understood in any case, which I guess is what the t-shirt entrepreneurs have concluded as well.

    As for the advice itself, I’m rather skeptical about its wisdom. I think more sensible counsel might go something like this: To change your life ask yourself 1) why you want to change it in the first place, 2) what specific changes might make the difference, 3) what specific steps can be taken to bring about those changes, and 4) what single act you can perform this instant as an earnest start? You might, for example, immediately turn off the computer, get out pencil and paper, and work on the first question. This approach, though less flamboyant, might get more reliable results in the long run. As it stands, James’s advice doesn’t say a word about how we’re supposed to do this most difficult of things; it merely tells us the speed and style with which we should do it. I should think that anything as important as changing one’s life—which might be doubly hard to change back again in case of failure—requires careful deliberation up front and a plausible plan of action to carry it forward.

    Such an approach seems to be more consistent with Thoreau’s recommendation to live deliberately, i.e., to carefully chose one’s ends and then adopt the most efficient means to achieve them. This would be the very opposite of James’s advice (if indeed it is his advice), which strikes me as impulsive and ineffectual. Unless of course James is only talking about altering a transient bad mood. In that case, yeah, drop what you’re doing, put on Grateful Dead full blast, and go clean out the garage; that might help. But if your brother’s death has paralyzed you with grief, maybe, like Thoreau, you can devise a plan to flood his gravesite and turn it into a little swamp teeming with life—or something similarly life-affirming. Obviously we can’t always act as impressively as Thoreau, but the point is, when it comes to changing one’s life, the best advice probably is indeed to act, but always with deliberation.


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