Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

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Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part Two, Hoodoo

Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself. Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles. And the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism. Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started. (176)

There is a story retold by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Part One of Mules and Men. It is about a man named High Walker who could raise the bones in the graveyard to life, but only for a moment. He needed only to command the bones to “shake yo’self.” Another man asks the devil to take his soul so he could die. He is sick of the world as it is. He dried up and left only bones behind. High Walker came across these bones and asks them to shake. The bones do not shake but it does talk to High Walker telling him to beware and that he will join them soon. High Walker finds a white man and tells him about the talking skull. When the skull does not reply to High Walker in the presence of a white man, the white man kills High Walker by slicing off his head. Later the skull tells High Walker that he told him that to watch out. The white man runs off when he seen the bones shake on their own. They proclaim victory having seized High Walker’s bones.

This story is sits in the book just before Hurston makes the transition to discussing hoodoo. It suggests a few things about this African-American religion. The struggle over the boundary between life and death, the power of the devil, the unknowability of the nuances of the religion to white people, and its playfulness. Hurston tells us that hoodoo is a part of the suppressed and underground tradition of black people in America, as much a part of their tradition as the folk stories. By including this in Mules and Men she is posing a challenge. You cannot just accept the stories—even incorporate them into mainstream American culture through public education—without taking the entire package. Although I guess she knows few will. Brer Rabbit will always have a place in American folklore. I am less sure about voodoo (at least not as something most people will praise and speak of casually with their children). Perhaps what make is more frightening is that it is not capable of being assimilated. It is part of a culture of resistance in active revolt and as such not possibly co-opted.

Hurston tries to find the origin of hoodoo in general use of magic in all cultures, suggesting its roots even as far back as the mythical figures of the Old Testament. She clearly wants to tell us that the line between Christianity and voodoo is not very far. Moses in her view was a glorified conjure doctor. Yet, she quickly gets to her main point which is the application of hoodoo in the contemporary United States, especially New Orleans, where she experimented in various hoodoo ceremonies and rituals as well as telling stories about practitioners and consumers of hoodoo. People sought out voodoo for dramatic life-changing needs such as finding a mate and for more mundane things like medical treatment. I find it interesting that this religion fills in where Jim Crow segregation likely made access to physicians more difficult. One “member of a disappearing school of folk magic” used hoodoo to provide legal services, including criminal defense.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Looking at this we are almost forced to go back to this question I looked at in some early posts (“McTeague”) about the role of professionalization in a free society. The question is, by whose standards is this conjure doctor lawyer unsuitable? The law’s standard, of course. But whose interest is served by seeing the formal written law as the only possible standard for resolving conflicts in society. I do not want to aggrandize this practicioner too much. Many of the spells he cast seemed to have the purpose of obstructing justice (silencing witnesses and such), but at a more basic level we understand that the reason lawyers have power to interpret the law and most of the rest of us do not, is that they have a piece of paper backed by the legal authority of the state. I am still not sure how we can find alternatives to professions (even Bakunin seems to accept some professionalization in his theory of authority), but I suppose they should be more free and more reflective of people’s diverse traditions and values.

The end of Mules and Men consists of some fairly extensive appendices, with a glossary, some songs lyrics with musical scores, and methods for casting various hoodoo spells (many of them cures for illnesses, but some are more interesting things like love potions).

In short, Mules and Men is a great book. Hurston did a great service in recording African American folklore traditions at a particular moment in time, but she also gives us good reasons to see this tradition as part of the broader narrative of black working class resistance. Her inclusion of hoodoo is a powerful reminder that we cannot bracket these traditions when we study them.

 

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)

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Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.

James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)

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It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.

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Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?

 

William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part Two

Those of us who are not personally favored with such specific revelations must stand outside of them altogether and, for the present at least, decide that, since they corroborate incompatible theological doctrines, they neutralize one another and leave no fixed result. If we follow any one of them, or if we follow philosophical theory and embrace monistic pantheism on non-mystical grounds, we do so in the exercise of our individual freedom, and built out our religion in the way most congruous with our personal susceptibilities. (459)

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The second half of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences builds on the argument that religion creates experiences that have real results that cannot be so easily discarded as crazy or irrational. This is not so much an argument for the truth of various religious claims. James’ appears to be rather indifferent to this question, focusing more on what can be studied and measures: the religious experiences themselves as their ramifications in the world.

Throughout the second half of the book, which consists of a series of lectures James gave in 1899 and 1900, the focus is on the good acts that religion inspires in people (“saintliness”), the sometimes excessive behavior it inspires, mystical experiences, and religious philosophy. He ends the book with a proposal for a scientific approach to religion.

Starting with “saintliness,” James argues that religion seems to promote clearly positive behavior in people that cannot be accounted for from other sources. (At the very least, individuals claim religions origins for some of these behaviors.) There is something deeply individualistic about James’ approach that I find compelling. Maybe this is something now lacking in some of the discourse on religion. “Every individual soul, in short, like every individual machine or organism, has its own best conditions of efficiency.” (274) I am not a big fan of comparing humans to machines as he does, but I am going to choose to be open-minded that religious experiences can be one of the ways that people can reach “saintliness.”

James confesses in one of the lectures on “saintliness” that there are also a host of negative habits that a religious life and religious devotion can bring, although he seemed to think these are in the minority. However, these need to be looked at as part of the entire package of the mind. Here is another pitfall anti-religious types like me fall into. We assume that some negative characteristic, some hypocrisy, or some bad thought has its origin in what we do not like about another person’s mental universe. James seems to think that these components of someone’s mental universe is just as likely something else. “The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodsits, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and the eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators.” (308) Well, I do not know about the Hobbessian stuff in there, but I take his point.

To give much more summary may be pointless and I skimmed a fair deal. Toward the end of the book his focus is on religious mysticism and philosophical idealism rooted in religious experiences. The argument seems to me to be the same in both cases. From the individualistic perspective, these experiences are real (“absolutely authoritative”). They also should be taken seriously by outsiders because they are possible paths to truth.

What I think we should take from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is an argument for religious individualism. In this it can be very powerful. It can also be applied more broadly. I just got into a debate on Facebook with some scientists over whether the humanities have anything to teach science and the innovators of technology. Clearly I think people in the humanities do, but they were less certain and took what I was saying as a bit preachy. However, I think there is a value in coming out of our own skin and at least taking the perspective of outsiders seriously enough. At times these opposing ideas really do have little to add to our discussion, or are in the end reactionary or disgusting. But they are products of a mind, and therefore real. For good or for ill, they must be taken seriously.

 

William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. He can willfully turn his attention away from his own future, whether in this world or the next. He can train himself to indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible. He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs. He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries. He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires. Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane. He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. (48—49)

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Psychologist and philosopher William James delivered the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1899 and 1900.  As I am working on a book on Philip K. Dick, I read this book with great interest. Dick’s religious experiences have become the center of scholarship and have been offered up as the key to understanding his work. I explored Dick’s works earlier in this blog from a more political and sociological point of view. But with James, I can appreciate the attraction that those religious experiences have for readers. James’ central argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experiences are historically real in that they seem to happen. What matters is the result of belief, not their origins. This is his pragmatism. James worked on this idea in some of his earlier writings as well (I looked at them before in this blog). For him, what matters in psychology is action when precedes thought and habits. (To be simple, one learns to play the piano by playing the piano, not by thinking about how to play the piano.) In the same way, it may be true that George Fox was crazy, but this does not make Quakerism theologically wrong or even factually untrue. It certainly does not make the good feelings and actions that Quakerism inspires delusional. In short: “Religious happiness is happiness.” (30)

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I was raised Lutheran and I recall having religious experiences as defined by James (both the positive and negative aspects he mentions). I no longer have such experiences and am an atheist. But I accept James’ point that there are numerous experiences that I am not having, many feelings I may be missing out on, because of that choice. Is this not true of any lifestyle or intellectual choice one makes?

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One important point James makes is that if what really matters is the religious experience rather than truth, religious can be studied scientifically through the regular tools of psychological, biological, and social scientific research. Since James day many—including many atheists—have embraced this approach. The controversial point is here. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connection spiritual values in general with determinante sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even out disbeliefs, could retain any values as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (22)

The first three lectures map out his general thesis about the nature of religious experiences, the definition of religion (which he defined quite broadly), its role in creating states of mind that are not “logically deducible from anything else,” and creating positive action in the world. This final point James summarizes under “The Reality of the Unseen.” He borrows from Kant the following idea. “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our life.” (56) One thing that is noticeable in leftist Internet culture is the willingness to attack thought (because what else can one discuss when we exchange ideas instead of actions) rather than action. I think something that we can learn from American pragmatism is that we should focus less on the thought that leads to good actions than we should focus on actions. In this sense, imagining prefigurative politics is less important than actually tearing down the institutions of power. There is some value when prefiguarative politics is acted out (as in Occupy Wall Street), but it is objectively a failure if it cannot undermine power. This is a bit off of James’ point, but seems to flow from his perspective on religion.

The next two lectures examine “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” which is general are religious belief that seem to creative positive emotions and healthy living in human beings. At this point in the lectures, James moves to giving quite a few case studies of various religious experiences documented in psychological practice and in history. If is of this type. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than the dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.” (79) Well, I can agree that the more religious thought promotes happiness, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and beauty the better. I am less certain it always does so, which brings us to the next set of lectures.

Lectures six and seven are titled “The Sick Soul.” Bad thoughts and bad actions can be as easily derived from religion as the positive “healthy-mindedness.” To the degree religion promotes obsessions on sin, guilt, death, and punishment they promote what James is calling the “sick soul.” Religious melancholy is very real in the world, James points out with several case studies. Significantly, James likens materialism and atheism to promoting the “sick soul.” I am not sure that can be empiraclly sustained now.

In the next three lectures, James looks at the experience of religious conversion. Conversion is yet another religious experience like the positive expressions of religious joy and the religious melancholy. Conversion allows a rapid and dramatic change in a person’s values and perspective on life. The actual role of some spiritual agent is irrelevant to the truthfulness of those experiences and emotions. “It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomenon occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession.” (211)

I will look at the rest of this book and try to reach some more conclusions in my next post.

James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw: “Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of” (1772)

We met with a great deal of ill treatment after this, and found it very difficult to live—We could scarcely get work to do, and were obliged to pawn out cloaths. We were ready to sink under our troubles. (33)

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The first in the series of ten slave narratives collected by the Library of America is the 1772 pamphlet Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. This was the first slave narrative published in English. What first strikes us is that this small book was presented to the public as a story of religious awakening and not as an anti-slavery tract. The sufferings that Gronniosaw endured (at least from the perspective of the publishers) existed only to clarify the religious transformation of being lifted out of the darkness of idolatry and superstition in Africa into Christianity. This is, anyway, the point of view offered up in the preface by a Walter Shirley.

In what Manner will God deal with those benighted Parts of the World where the Gospel of Jesus Christ hath never reach’d? Now it appears from the Experience of this remarkable Person, that God does not save without the Knowledge of the Truth; but, with Respect to those who hath fore-known, though born under every outward Disadvantage, and in Regions of the grosses Darkness and Ignorance. (3)

That is the opinion of the editor, and as far as we believe the text this is shared by Gronniosaw, who starts the narrative not with his captivity but his feelings that the traditional religious beliefs that he was born with were misguided.

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Gronniosaw is a fully Atlantic figure, having been born in Africa, working as a slave in Barbados and New York, working as a sailor, and finally settling in England. He was a working class figure, often struggling to survive and constantly looking for work to support his family. It seems that his story was told orally to several people, including Calvinist ministers in Holland. It comes to us as an oral tradition. The full title specified “related by himself,” whereas other slave narrative often clarified “written by himself/herself” (Douglass, Bibb, Jacobs). Despite this, Gronniosaw was literate.  Like Equiano we see claims of being an African Prince before being sold into slavery. As doubts have been cast on Equiano’s past we may doubt these as well, but Gronniosaw was slightly older when taken into slavery and may have had more accurate memories of Africa.

According to the narrative, Gronniosaw was the grandson of a king around Lake Chad. A Dutch trader visited the area and he was invited to see the Gold Coast. He was eager to see ships (floating cities with wings) and the vibrant commercial environment on the coast. While he was there, he was taken for a spy and sentence to death, which was late commuted to enslavement. As a slave, Gronniosaw was sold in Barbados and brought to New York. He was later sold to a Dutch minister, who freed Gronniosaw at his death, although he continued to serve the family. It is at this point, so to speak, that his troubles begin. It is important to notice that Gronniosaw says nothing against slavery or expresses much regret at his circumstances as a slave. His post-enslavement poverty is more troubling and presented as more of a spiritual test than slavery.

One approach to this slave narrative is to stress the importance of slavery in the exploitation of working people in the Atlantic without forgetting that exploitation was broad for many different social groups. Insurgent capitalism imposed horrendous work regimes, terrible poverty, and desperation on free and enslaved alike. That Gronniosaw experienced the worst of this as a free man may be outside of the norm with most slaves being worked to death in Caribbean plantations, yet it does speak to the broader experience of working class oppression.

Another approach is to read the narrative in line with Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity among Indians during Metacom’s War. In both of these works suffering, the death of loved ones, and huger are presented as the will of God and a lesson speaking to God’s goodness and his ultimate plan. “The boundless goodness of GOD to me has been so very great, that with the most humble gratitude I desire to prostrate myself before Him; for I have been wonderfully supported in every affliction. My GOD never left me. I perceived light still through the thickest darkness.” (29) Even the death of his child and the constant struggle for basic survival is presented with thanks to God. At one point he expresses more hostility to the idea of his wife working on the Sabbath than the economic exploitation that formed the narrative of his life.

Gronniosaw’s experiences on a privateer after the end of his enslavement is interesting. It does cause us to question the belief (common among some leftist maritime historians) that the ship was a space of solidarity for a transnational working class. He speaks more of persecution by fellow sailors during his time on the privateer than he does about either of his masters or the early capitalist system that was consuming most of his working life.

Gronniosaw likely wanted his reader to see his life as a morality tale narrating the spiritual darkness of his birth and his coming to know Christ. Slavery is merely a background to the story, only covering a handful of pages (7 out of the 30 pages that make up the narrative). In this sense, it is a far cry from the abolitionist narratives of the nineteenth century. More importantly it is very different from the work by the politically conscious Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative was clearly an ant-slavery tract.