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.


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