Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Give Us Back the Bad Roads by John Waters




I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand
and he said, "How's dear old Ireland and how does she stand?"
"She's the most distressful country that you have ever seen
they're hangin' men and women there for wearing of the green"
(fromThe Wearin’ of the Green by Dion Boucicault)

If you met John Waters author of Give Us Back the Bad Roads just out published by Currach Press he would tell you the same thing only the wearin’ of the green would be the values of an Ireland represented by his father and the hangin’ the attempt at his reputational destruction by fellow journalists. Luckily though he has a very accurate litigation rifle and caused some not very smart people to smart in the wallet Not that he was after a pay day as he explains. He was described as a ‘homophobe’ by a drag queen on a popular chat show that goes out pure live. The host did not attempt to challenge this characterisation which had and has no basis. At that point an Apology was sought to be broadcast the following week. The form offered by the legal weasels of R.T.E. was of the ‘we regret’ type. They played it out and were eventually brought to the point of settlement on foot of definite court action. His colleagues in journalism did not support him as it is supposed to be bad form to sue when you’re a journalist because as you know suing is ruinous for newspapers being a limitation on what they can print. It sends the wrong message.

Running contrary to the liberal consensus gets you into trouble when you work on the Irish Times, the paper of record. The Byzantine machinations of its hierarchy as they practiced what Sean O’Faoilan called the Irish art of palicide is told viz. ‘the art of drinking to your friend with one hand while stabbing him in the back with the other’. The story has a darkly comedic aspect to it particularly his encounter with the Religious Affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry at Waters’ mother’s funeral. Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s one and only public intellectual of the Western world adds a sly Gramscian note to the liturgy.

John Waters supplied the conservative counter to the Times line on gay marriage and abortion. You might well say that was his role as a columnist. Unlike Paul Claudel he was not forgiven for writing well. He left in 2014.

If it was all just this then it would be a dispiriting read even if at the end calumny and detraction were vanquished. The book has a hero, Waters’ father and most alternate chapters focus on him. Does John mention his name, he may have but I choose to believe that he didn’t for his father is both a man and fatherhood, the good connection of a son working with him and not talking about it, not ‘sharing’. The grinding of the valves of an engine that his father set him to do when he was 12 was a way to condition his spirit and to show him that patience was all the strength man needs.

The job went on for weeks and then months, with occasional breaks when you were feeling unwell and I was required to come along on the run to help with the mailbags and the newspapers and the day-old chicks and the 80-year-old passengers. This was a welcome relief from the grinding and yet I remember going back to the task afterwards with a new zeal. The progress on any given day was so infinitesimal as to be undetectable......
But even towards the end, as I was beginning to note the fruits of my somnambulant exertions, you were relentless. Every evening you would return, shove up your glasses, peer expectantly at the valves and their seatings and pronounce: “More grinding”.

Eventually the valves pass:

That Sunday, we reassembled the engine, restoring the block with its new gaskets and the other reconditioned parts you had prepared. I remember watching you as you wired in the battery and connected the jump leads. The engine burst into life with a thunder of protest and a ferocious belching of smoke. It spluttered for a few moments, then found a rhythm and calmed down to a purr. We stood there listening to it, without speaking, each paying attention for any telltale irregularity. There was none. You nodded. “It might not be so bad,” you said. I don’t think you ever praised me so highly. To be standing there together in the balm of that noise, knowing what it signified and what it had arisen from, we were united in a way that would never be erased.

His relationship to his daughter Roisin and shared access with Sinead O’Connor, her mother, was gained by a court process which one gathers made valve grinding seem a pleasant hobby. Non disclosure agreements I surmise oblige silence on that subject. John has been a lone voice in support of father’s rights which are often ignored in court proceedings.

How does Ireland stand? Making great progress going backwards is the answer to that. I got this book on Friday last and finished it on Sunday morning, all 428 pages of small print. Nicely produced with a superb photo on the cover of the author’s father pulling an engineless Model T after him with a rope. The car is packed with children and young lads.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Katha Upanisad and Adhiropa/Apavada//Sublation


Let’s do philosophy as though the continuing development of science was irrelevant. Certain sorts of scientist agree that this is already being done and it’s not worth doing. How would science alter the following observations:

The self-existent Lord destroyed the outgoing senses. Therefore one sees the outer thing and not the inner Self. A rare discriminating man, desiring immortality, turns his eyes away and then sees the indwelling Self.
(Ka II.i.1)

What remains here (unknowable to this Self) through which very Self people perceive colour, taste, smell, sound, touch, and sexual pleasures? This is that (Self asked for by Naciketa).
(Ka II.i.3)

Anyone who knows proximately this Self - the enjoyer of the fruits of works, the supporter of life etc. - as the lord of the past and the future, does not want to save (the Self) just because of that (knowledge). This is that.
(Ka. II.i.5)

What, indeed, is here is there; what is there is here likewise. He who sees as though there is difference here, goes from death to death.
(Ka. II.i.10)

Note for a start the difference between this form of philosophising and that arising out of the Greek tradition. Is it a matter of style or substance? Is adhiropa apavada implicitly a dialectical process which the adoption by some advaitins of the concept of sublation implies or is it something else? Each of the Vedic sutras (logoi) are stated in order to be transcended and brought into a higher synthesis. To view them as arguments that are subsequently surpassed is too simplistic. We have to feel the force of each of them in turn not merely as logical positions. We realize them and then transcend them. That is wisdom and not a pat, rote learned position.

Going from the first citation to the last one the Western mind observes the contradiction between the Self that is the witness (saksin) of states of awareness, a quasi-dualistic position, and the Self which is both subject and object. How is that managed? Shankara in his commentaries on the individual sutras does not offer a reconciliation because his assumption is of a graded access to supreme wisdom.

Now excuse me while I get to work on Ka. II.i.10. The Tantric path regards a version of this - what is here is there, what is not here is not anywhere as paramount. (Tantra but not as you have heard of it, probably.)


Thursday, 25 October 2018

Climacterics

Passing the Saturnine ratchet of the climacterics every seven years offers a safe vantage point for the review of what has gone before. It is as though you were a new person with an interest in that individual back then but without the immediacy of the shame. We regret that those we offended took offence but, ‘moving on’.

This is not a bad strategy for those who believe in using themselves lightly, saving psychological wear and tear, rack, wreck and ruin. Using the climacteric metaphor as applied to fruit we may daily pick ourselves from the tree of life (oh God) and ripen a little faster that the seven years span. Meditation is that setting aside to ripen and as we know being in the presence of riper fruit or what the Hindus call satsang, accelerates the ripening process. [I can keep this up indefinitely] Feel the remorse, remordere, agenbyte of inwyt; now when it can be an effective engine of rectification. Balancing that is the bliss of being accepted by divine love.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
By T. S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Caleb Williams opens the Book in The Trunk


But what was in the trunk, I asked. I can now tell you that it was the Technicolor version of Political Justice . The pallid philosophical musing of that text has a Lockean flavour which, given subsequent serious emendations, has only the appearance of deeply considered obiter dicta.

Consider this citation in the light of Caleb Williams’ association with a band of thieves during a period of his escape from false imprisonment:

The most desirable condition of the human species is a state of society.
The injustice and violence of men in a state of society produced the demand for government.
Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.
By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war and conquest.
By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.
(from the summary of principles in Godwin’s introduction to Political Justice
Find it in a clean copy from Adelaide:
political justice

The captain of the brigands is angered that one of them has wounded Williams without any good reason:

"I have nothing to say to you; I have no hopes of you! Comrades, it is for you to decide upon the conduct of this man as you think proper. You know how repeated his offences have been; you know what pains I have taken to mend him. Our profession is the profession of justice." [It is thus that the prejudices of men universally teach them to colour the most desperate cause to which they have determined to adhere.] "We, who are thieves without a licence, are at open war with another set of men who are thieves according to law. With such a cause then to bear us out, shall we stain it with cruelty, malice, and revenge? A thief is, of course, a man living among his equals; I do not pretend therefore to assume any authority among you; act as you think proper; but, so far as relates to myself, I vote that Gines be expelled from among us as a disgrace to our society."

Throughout all his sufferings Caleb does a great deal of reasoning in an attempt to moderate his resentment at the cruel fate that a rotten system and its myrmidons have visited upon him.

The voluntary actions of men are under the direction of their feelings.
Reason is not an independent principle, and has no tendency to excite us to action; in a practical view, it is merely a comparison and balancing of different feelings.
Reason, though it cannot excite us to action, is calculated to regulate our conduct, according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements.
It is to the improvement of reason therefore that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition.
(from Political Justice)
Yes what we need are more and better sermons and exhortations. Let them be as readable and exciting as Caleb Williams. It is a fine work of demented hyperventilation which gathers you into its paranoia and leaves you longing for some kind of resolution. Is there to be no justice, will he die as a scoundrel in the eyes of decent society, driven out, lonely, followed and harried by his relentless enemy whose conscience he has become. That conscience must be stifled but left to live, for if killed it would kill Falkland himself. They are bonded together and to the last the tension is maintained. Read it as a manic classic.

Political Justice is composed of mostly short chapters. One a day can be managed. Wonder at the original source, or one of them,of libertarian anarchism and in its way a response, inadequate of course, to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Burke's Prejudice


Perhaps a little Burke to balance all that Enlightenment individualism. The term ‘prejudice’ is being used ironically. Burke considers the slow accretion of many moments of of widely distributed wisdom to be the bank of ‘prejudice’ that we draw on.

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings: that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree; and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, (and they seldom fail,) they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
(from Reflections on the Revolution in France)




Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Falkland's Trunk (Caleb Williams by William Godwin)


Who has not felt this at some point in their lives?

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties, and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name. I have not deserved this treatment.
(the opening of Caleb Williams by William Godwin)

I confess for my part that when greeted on opening a book with such a peroration I must read on to discover what has evoked such an impassioned plea for life to ‘leave off’ and let one at last be vindicated. Whether or not that shall happen I do not know for I have not reached the half way mark of the book and yet I am still impelled forwards by the force of the story. When I first began to read Godwin’s classic tale of revenge, madness, despair and squirearchy I was looking for a bit of fun or that unconscious humour that is achieved by a sustained, nay relentless elevation of diction matched by a moral tone punctilious in the description of its origins. But, what, in the name of all that is holy, is in Ferdinando Falkland’s trunk?

After reading for a bit you become used to his style and in the end find it suits the high moral theme of pride and evil and the corruption of false honour. Now I am off again to wonder why Caleb is tormenting Falkland with hints of a knowledge that is no knowledge but feverish conjecture. Falkland confronts him:

Two days subsequent to this conversation, Mr. Falkland ordered me to be called to him. [I shall continue to speak in my narrative of the silent, as well as the articulate part of the intercourse between us. His countenance was habitually animated and expressive, much beyond that of any other man I have seen. The curiosity which, as I have said, constituted my ruling passion, stimulated me to make it my perpetual study. It will also most probably happen, while I am thus employed in collecting the scattered incidents of my history, that I shall upon some occasions annex to appearances an explanation which I was far from possessing at the time, and was only suggested to me through the medium of subsequent events.]
When I entered the apartment, I remarked in Mr. Falkland's countenance an unwonted composure. This composure however did not seem to result from internal ease, but from an effort which, while he prepared himself for an interesting scene, was exerted to prevent his presence of mind, and power of voluntary action, from suffering any diminution.

Please note the triple withdrawal from the scene indicated by the square brackets. You have the general story, the commentary on the rule of its narration and so to speak an interlineal correction. Such layering increases psychological compaction and power.





Sunday, 14 October 2018

Henry Sidgwick's Esoteric Morality


Was Henry Sidgwick a twister by which I mean a low, dishonest fellow given to schemes and strategems? Yes, I would answer but a principled one.

It appears to me, therefore, that the cases in which practical doubts are likely to arise, as to whether exceptions should be permitted from ordinary rules on Utilitarian principles, will mostly be those which I discussed in the first paragraph of this section: where the exceptions are not claimed for a few individuals, on the mere ground of their probable fewness, but either for persons generally under exceptional circumstances, or for a class of persons defined by exceptional qualities of intellect, temperament, or character. In such cases the Utilitarian may have no doubt that in a community consisting generally of enlightened Utilitarians, these grounds for exceptional ethical treatment would be regarded as valid; still he may, as I have said, doubt whether the more refined and complicated rule which recognises such exceptions is adapted for the community in which he is actually living; and whether the attempt to introduce it is not likely to do more harm by weakening current morality than good by improving its quality. Supposing such a doubt to arise, either in a case of this kind, or in one of the rare cases discussed in the preceding paragraph, it becomes necessary that the Utilitarian should consider carefully the extent to which his advice or example are likely to influence persons to whom they would be dangerous: and it is evident that the result of this consideration may depend largely on the degree of publicity which he gives to either advice or example. Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example. These conclusions are all of a paradoxical character: there is no doubt that the moral consciousness of a plain man broadly repudiates the general notion of an esoteric morality, differing from that popularly taught; and it would be commonly agreed that an action which would be bad if done openly is not rendered good by secrecy. We may observe, however, that there are strong utilitarian reasons for maintaining generally this latter common opinion; for it is obviously advantageous, generally speaking, that acts which it is expedient to repress by social disapprobation should become known, as otherwise the disapprobation cannot operate; so that it seems inexpedient to support by any moral encouragement the natural disposition of men in general to conceal their wrong doings; besides that the concealment would in most cases have importantly injurious effects on the agent’s habits of veracity. Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. Or if this concealment be difficult to maintain, it may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few.
(from The Methods of Ethics)


His student and later brother-in-law Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister followed this crooked line in relation to Irish Home Rule. Henry was in agreement with him and would have had his ear. This is the same Balfour who promulgated the Declaration which gave Zionists a carte blanche. But that was after Henry’s time. When reading that esoteric morality dodge which has the true Platonic stink I begin to feel doubts coming on about Sidgwick’s busting of subscription, to the 39 Articles that is, which you had to aver to be granted a fellowship. Leslie Stephen renounced his fellowship in 1865 due to religious doubts. Charles Darwin bowled him out. As I recall from Noel Annan’s intellectual biography he had to survive on scraps thereafter and went on to literary journalism after a time. In 1869 Sidgwick renounced his fellowship and all its works and pomps but retained a lectureship. In 1871 the requirement of subscription was dropped. Was Sidgwick the precipitating factor? Had he perhaps an inkling that it about to collapse under the weight of hypocrisy? This was a beautiful moment to make a Socratic gesture and write an Apology. His book The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription was written in 1870: a noble document full of nice distinctions and sublime casuistry.

In regards to colonial policy the plain man’s common sense of the time required no special understanding. One simply had to accept the white man’s burden “without a pedantic adhesion to the forms of civilized judicial procedure”.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Work


Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones. The wise ones describe that path to be impassible as a razor’s edge, which when sharpened, is difficult to tread on.
Katha Upanisad: I.iii.14

Yeats said:
“Man can embody truth but he cannot know it. The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work, and if it take the second must refuse a heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.”

Yeats was wrong about this. Work (karma) done without desire for its fruits can purify and is the path to excellence. Contrast the Bhagavad Gita to the Nichomachean Ethics with its alertness to benefits. The problem for us, in a world where caste and class are more flexible than in the past, is to find work that is aligned with our spirit and our competence. What is it that we find easy to do even if from the outside it looks extremely laborious and painstaking? We don''t think about it involved as we are in the process that grows under our hands into a product. James Krenov the cabinetmaker remarked that he sometimes pleasantly forgets to sign his work.

Yet:
Son of Kunti (Arjuna), a man should not abandon the work he was born into, even if it is faulty, for just as fire is wreathed in smoke all undertakings are attended by faults.
(B.G. 18:48)

What is essential for the safe passage between the poles of action and consequence is the clarifying presence of ‘the excellent ones’. In that atmosphere our inner contradictions are made clear to us.

A man whose intelligence is free of any attachment, who has conquered himself, whose desire has evaporated, attains the supreme perfection of freedom from action and its results through renunciation.
(B.G. 18:49)

Sunday, 7 October 2018

James Family Psychodrama



I seem to remember that the account of the sick soul in James’s Varieties purporting to be a translation from the French was from his own experience.
“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially.

Was this in fact William’s version of the vastation of his father. I could check but I choose to believe that it is.

In May 1844, while living in Windsor England, James was sitting alone one evening at the family dinner table after the meal, gazing at the fire, when he had the defining spiritual experience of his life, which he would come to interpret as a Swedenborgian "vastation," a stage in the process of spiritual regeneration. This experience was an apprehension of, in his own words, "a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life."
(from Wikipedia on Henry Snr)

Those parallel worlds of Swedenborg are of course echoed in the fiction of Henry Jnr and I would submit are also to be sensed in William James’s openness to realities which transcend the logical and flout the causal principle. Belief can make romance happen but can it conjure up the afterlife or be a refuge. His ‘French’ informant writes:
I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”
None of the family though they skirted the pit fell in. I append a previous post on a biography of Alice James with more on the family psychodrama.

Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse

Jean Strouse has excavated the land of the James Nation thoroughly. William James said of his brother Henry that he was 'a native of the James family, and has no other country' and the lifetime perigrinations of the family made their homeland into luggage or indeed baggage in the terms of the cliche ‘a lot of baggage’. The grim Calvinist Cavanman William James, who ate his dinner out of a drawer, established the family fortune. Because he did not approve of his children who did not keep to the true way he made an onerous will that was successfully challenged and Henry snr. came out with an income from property of $10,000 per annum and never worked a day in his life at a job. If the will had stuck none of his 5 children would have gotten a penny until they were 21. One can scarcely imagine the James clan landlocked. Henry Jnr. might have taken to ‘chaw’. Instead you have the exotic hothousing of all of them moving around Europe picking up languages and above all developing that intense family relationship which can be both a stifling and a resource.

For all their gifts Alice and the James Boys were a neurotic bunch. Where would they leave it? Old Father William, doommeister, then Son Henry an alcoholic who lost his leg in a drunken accident was afflicted in 1844 by a ‘vastation’. This was the Swedenborgian interpretation of a debilitating crisis in which he was oppressed by the fetid rays of a presence in his dining room after a good dinner. Henry Jnr. suffered a similar breakdown in his later years hoping that death might take him in his sleep. Brother William was also a ‘sick soul’ with suicidal ideation as a constant presence in his twenties. Wilky and Bob the less famous brothers one of whom was an alcoholic and the other a pursuer of the dream of fortune with schemes which failed. Both of them had fought in the Civil War and experienced the general restlessness of that generation. Then there is the subject of this book, Alice, who drained the Dismal Swamp of the family and throughout her life from adolescence was crippled by mysterious maladies that resisted the palpations and auscultations of quacks and knighted medics. The range of treatments that she underwent is a review of all that was available to the wealthy neuraesthenic of the 19th. Century. Strouse’s detail is excellent. In a curious way her book escapes the woman question interpretation that she promotes. It is clear that this is an under-determining factor, being a member of the James Nation is a sufficient explanation. They all had bad backs and stomachs, she simply moved it to the next notch of paralysis. Brother Henry (Harry) whom she was closest to was very kind and looked after her in her decline. There was also the resource of the Diary which she kept before her death in 1892 at the age of 44. The creative ebulliance which was the other hallmark of the James family if it had been expressed from an earlier point might have been sanitive. I haven’t read the diary but the extracts in the biography show the sharpness of her observation in a prose that is direct and vigorous.

This is a splendid biography and an essential primer in Famille James.


Wednesday, 3 October 2018

John Kaag on Suicide


When I first read John Kaag’s essay on the value of life and the option of suicide I thought ‘this is his depression talking’.
is life worth living
Even the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge is changed into a humming windharp of misery. In that typical American way of starting an essay with a personal anecdote; are they taught this in school, J.K. at the entrance to the walkway of the bridge sees a little hand painted notice - ‘life is worth living’. That gets him going and allows him to call William James and David Hume as witnesses. The first offers as an indication of education in higher seriousness the occasional contemplation of suicide. In Hume’s intellectual frolic suicide is held to be a matter for the individual since "self-murder should not be regarded as illegal or immoral since it hurt(s) no one other than the perpetrator, and in many cases might alleviate great suffering”.
Hume on Suicide

The circumjacent devastation caused by suicide is well known and the thought that it would make no difference to anyone but the individual contemplating it is a sign of being dangerously suicidal. John Kaag alone on the bridge finds the choice of ending it all a continuous pragmatic resource. He tells us of William James - " James’s posthumous writings reveal a deep respect for the grim thinker’s (Schopenhauer) willingness to stare clear-eyed into the gloom of human existence”.

Kaag looking down is reminded of a suicide:

I almost always think about Steve Rose, a young black psychology graduate who threw himself off the William James Hall at Harvard University in 2014.

What does being a young black man have to do with it unless the metaphorical imputation is that he was pushed off by an old white man? As a tie in to the James theme it’s obtuse. Indicative of this blankness is the view that those who hold that life has an ultimate value cause the fatal jump.

The rest of this essay is essentially maundering waffle with an abundance of hedging locutions including two ‘I suspects’. Gratings of the great maybe.



Monday, 1 October 2018

Louis Auchincloss gets it (Portrait in Brownstone pub.1962)


Hugo looked at her suspiciously. He was not a bit sure that she cared about beautiful things. She lacked the smallest inclination for the abstract or philosophic. Her alert eye went straight from the general design to the specific detail, as her mind raced to the nearest pigeonhole. ‘I get it’ was the phrase most often on her lips. She seemed bent on reducing the wilderness of observed phenomena to an ordered garden, with white labels tied to the stem of every flower. But once defined there was an end to a subject; Alfreda was ready and eager to move to the next. She saw no point in dallying, in turning things over, in pondering their implications. Nor, in truth, did Hugo, but the exaggeration in her of his own intellectual bad habits made him uneasily aware of the toll of their kind of bright, picking mentality . And it exasperated him that everything he tried to teach her was immediately drawn through the tight sieve of her preconceptions, so that only what she had already believed remained.
(from Portrait in Brownstone by Louis Auchincloss)

A suitable match for darling Hugo and Mother will make sure of it. Alfreda is holding out for an ambassador and doesn’t see Hugo as a contender. He must be built up, amplified by power and position. It’s not the money, because one has never known anything else. Alfreda must be made to see him, to get him.