Copying the coyote

Richard Poirier

When, in the summer of 1898, at the age of 56, William James went to Berkeley, California to deliver a series of lectures on pragmatism, he could have used his own life to illustrate the immensely difficult but successful application of one of its tenets: that truth is best seen as ‘what it is better for us to believe’, not as ‘as an accurate representation of reality’, and that what is better for us to believe is what can be ascertained only in and through our actions, not by consultation with fixed ideas or traditions or, notably in his case, by family example. Until his late thirties, like his father, the theologian Henry James Sr, he had experienced breakdowns in which invalidism was compounded by the threat of insanity; like his brother Henry, 15 months his junior, he had had acute problems with his back and with constipation; like his sister Alice and another brother, Robertson, he had suffered nervous collapses, then called neurasthenia, which were augmented by recurrent eye troubles. Thanks to the further example of his father, who was famously leisured and vague (‘I am determined,’ he wrote a friend, ‘to take holiday for the rest of my life and to make all my work sabbatical’), and to his mother’s benevolent inducement of hypochondria in all five of her children, William had been in danger of devoting himself, in Alice’s phrase, to the ‘life-long occupation of improving’, even as he tried to make a go now of one thing, now of another. Howard Feinstein has written a brilliant study of William’s crises over idleness, illness and vocation, within the context of intense parental and sibling entanglements, especially as these lead back to his father’s own conflicts with his father, the fearsome William James of Albany. In the process, Feinstein offers an appalling account of the high incidence in three generations of the James family, and of many other privileged families in 19th-century New England, of affective disorders, alcoholism and psychopathology.

William nonetheless managed to use his illnesses to effect transitions from one form of activity or one place to another, especially if it meant getting away from Cambridge on frequent trips to Europe. He worked for a time in the studio of John La Farge and might have become a talented painter; he went with Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition to the Amazon; he received a degree in medicine from Harvard, where, despite his abhorrence of laboratory work and mostly to please his father, he instructed in anatomy and physiology, until at last, and after some quite shrewd academic manoeuvring, he became Professor of Philosophy, a subject that had long been his primary interest, in 1885. It was not until the age of 50 that he published his first and possibly greatest work – one should come to it, argues Jacques Barzun, in ‘a mood suited to a Moby-Dick or War and Peace’ – the massive Principles of Psychology. Just before the trip to California he had brought out The Will to Believe, and Other Essays. Meantime at 36 he had made a happy marriage to a woman selected by his parents, and they had had five children, one of whom died in its first year.

To his youngest child, Alexander, James wrote a remarkable and overlooked letter from California, enclosing with it a photograph of a girl and boy standing on a rock dangerously perched over a deep ravine in Yosemite Valley. James had visited there the week before on one of the strenuous camping expeditions that had already injured his heart. ‘Darling old Cherubini,’ he wrote:

See how brave this girl and boy are in the Yosemite Valley! I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in the little hotel where I slept in the dusty fields. The young man of the house had shot a little wolf called a coyote in the early morning. The heroic little animal lay on the ground, with his big furry ears, and his clean white teeth, and his jolly cheerful little body, but his brave life was gone. It made me think how brave all these living things are. Here little coyote was, without any clothes or house or books or anything, with nothing but his own naked self to pay his way with, and risking his life so cheerfully – and losing it – just to see if he could pick up a meal near the hotel. He was doing his coyote-business like a hero, and you must do your boy-business, and I my man-business bravely too, or else we won’t be worth as much as that little coyote. Your mother can find a picture of him in those green books of animals, and I want you to copy it. Your loving Dad.

I will have something to say about this letter in a moment, but want to note here that James’s correspondence is filled with things equally remarkable, some of them in the two volumes, long out of print, of The Letters of William James, published in 1920, and in the Selected Letters edited by Elizabeth Hardwick in 1962, recently reissued in paperback. A substantial new collection is needed to confirm the identity of purpose between his letters and the almost equally informal and personal philosophical writings. It would be a logical extension of the complete works in the process of being published by Harvard University Press under the editorship of Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers. Filled with his affectionate concreteness, and often solicitously conversational in tone, the philosophical essays are meant to be anti-intellectualist, in so far as ‘intellectualism’, a term he uses with some of the pejorative connotations given to it earlier by Henri Bergson, consists of inquiring into the nature of abstractions like Reality in order to abide by them better. Most of his books are collections of public lectures, and, as he says in the Preface to Pragmatism, they were ‘printed as delivered, without developments or notes’; they are ‘essays in popular philosophy’, to recall the subtitle of The Will to Believe.

As you come upon them, the writings are not difficult in the way Modernist literature would in a few years choose to be, bristling with allusions and jagged with discontinuities, presumably because God is at last dead. James thought he was dead, too, but, as even the brief letter to Alexander shows, he welcomed bareness, the clean heavens. He is committed to fairly casual forms of sense-making because he does not see why language needs to be cluttered with discredited implications and associations. But he was not naive about the inescapability of cultural inheritance or, as the Modernists would have it, cultural burden. The letter to Alexander is quite beautifully about what it ostensibly seems to be about – the lonely virtues and necessities of individual action. At the same time, it is also about models for action. Dad sleeps in the fields and he’s up and at it before breakfast. More directly still, it is the couple on the rock and especially the coyote who are held up for emulation. Though they are illustrations of a willingness to take risks without outside help, they are recommended by father to son as precisely a source of outside help. Which prompts the inevitable question: just how naked is a learned nakedness? James is never without density, and the letter gets quite complicated about bravery that involves what Faulkner would call ‘dispossession’, as when another boy, in The Bear, earns his chance to envision the mythical beast only after he lays to one side his stick, his compass and his watch. You must, it seems, take your chances, if you’re going to be saved, and do so without an arsenal, which for James meant that you do not lean, except critically, on traditional philosophical terms like Truth and Knowledge.

This association of heroic action with denudation (‘without any clothes or house or books or anything’) is a dream of American writers in a tradition that runs from Cooper and Emerson to Wallace (‘you must become an ignorant man again’) Stevens and the Mailer of Why are we in Vietnam? James is telling his son what he tells us in Pragmatism: that ‘truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience.’ Boosters of James have often been satisfied with observing that at such moments he is merely saying: ‘do your thing.’ That indeed is, for starters, what he is saying; it is what Emerson says in those very words in the Journals. But both were aware that if to ‘do’ something is to look forward to a result of some sort, it is also to look back at earlier examples so as to guess what the results might be. There is no way, that is, of wholly divorcing yourself from cultural inheritance, and surely no father writing to his son would want to say there was. The letter concerns itself with reproductions, and in not a merely generational sense. It refers at the outset to a photograph in which the boy is asked to ‘see’ how ‘brave’ two young people are, and it ends with instructions to find a sketch of the ‘brave’ coyote and copy it. ‘Copying’ and ‘correspondences’ were vexed questions for James in all his writing and no less in his life, especially given the complex relations to his father and siblings. If ‘truth’ is indeed something ‘made’ in ‘the course of experience’ rather than something already existent, grounded in philosophical concepts, then ‘experience’ must nonetheless include an appreciation of what already has been done: those actions which have created the world so far and which invite us to additional acts of creation.

This raises certain questions for advocates of cultural freedom, and the child of such an advocate might want to ask some of them. You deny, he or she might say, that truth is something already there, waiting to be discovered in what has been said and done. And yet at the same time you go right ahead and discover incidents wherein truth was ‘made’, and you then recommend I ‘copy’ them. What are we doing with these ‘makings’ if not discovering them, finding them there waiting for us? What is to prevent them from being institutionalised, classified, made into a burden no different from the ones you want to save me from? James’s answer to these questions is also, again, essentially Emerson’s. (When Emerson visited the James home in New York’s Washington Square in 1842, six weeks after the death of his beloved son Waldo, he was taken upstairs by Henry James Sr to bless his three-month-old son William. It was, as Gay Wilson Allen remarks in his biography of James, ‘a prophetic event for the future philosopher of Pragmatism’.) ‘shakespeare,’ Emerson says, ‘will never be made by the study of Shakespeare,’ and he warns on another occasion that ‘meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.’ He means that what we should look for in works of art, or works of any kind, is not wisdom but rather those creative acts by which the works were produced, the performative movements, the ‘executive faculty’ which he praised in Shakespeare above all others. ‘The real value of the Iliad or of the Transfiguration,’ he says in the essay ‘Art’, ‘is as signs of power.’ What we, no less than Alexander, should ‘see’ and ‘copy’ are acts and motions. These will not reproduce the past but enrich it, all acts being in any case no more than acts of interpretation which create the very objects that are to be interpreted. Thus James can say in ‘The Meaning of Truth’ that ‘theoretic truth, truth of passive copying, sought in the sole interests of copying as such, not because copying is good for something, but because copying ought schlechthin [absolutely] to be, seems, if you look at it coldly, to be an almost preposterous idea.’ His admonitory alternative here, and again at the end of ‘The Pluralistic Universe’, is that ‘the essence in any case would not be the copying, but the enrichment of the previous world.’ It is he, and not the coyote, who gives us the coyote.

In the essay in Pragmatism called ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’ James addresses the problem of copying and of its relation to the ‘making’ of truth in a figure that might easily have found its way, as did so much of James, into the poetry of Frost. I’m thinking especially of the poems having to do with work, apple-picking, wood-cutting and the like, poems where he discovers, as in ‘Mowing’, that ‘the fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows.’ ‘Truth,’ James writes,

emerges from facts; but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create and reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them. The case is like a snowball’s growth, due as it is to the distribution of the snow on the one hand, and to the successive pushes of the boys on the other, with these factors co-determining each other incessantly.

If the making of truth is like the making of a snowball, then truth is more a product of the imaginings that accompany the commonest acts of work or play than of intellectualist pondering. Truth cannot be abstracted from an action so that its validity may be tested by other actions in the form of logic or science. ‘The truth of an idea,’ he says in Pragmatism,

is not a stagnant property inherent to it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its validation.

This bears little resemblance to scientific method – James was weak in mathematics and impatient of the laboratory – nor does it even concede that the testing of truth depends on the co-ordinated or confirming investigation of colleagues. It is here that James differs markedly from his dear and prickly friend, Charles Sanders Peirce, who can be said to have given the name ‘pragmatism’ to American philosophy in a paper James heard in 1872. Both James and Peirce were indebted in their pragmatisms to a definition of belief given by the Scottish philosopher-psychologist Alexander Bain: ‘an attitude or disposition of preparedness to act’. But they diverged from one another on the crucial matter of ‘verification’, and Peirce energetically pointed this out in letters and in his quite tough review of The Principles of Psychology. As John Dewey put it, ‘everything ultimately turned, for Peirce, upon the trustworthiness of the procedures of inquiry ... The appeal in Peirce is essentially to those who have investigated, using methods which are capable of employment by all.’ Similarly, though Peirce, along with James and the British philosopher F.C.S. Schiller, took the view that truth consists in a state of achieved satisfaction, Peirce was obliged to point out that while for them ‘satisfaction’ was a matter of individual experience, he was concerned with ‘the satisfaction which would ultimately be found if the inquiry were pushed to its ultimate and indefeasible issue’. This, he wrote in 1908, ‘is a very different position from that of Mr Schiller and the pragmatists of today’.

The differences with Peirce help reveal something disturbing about James, though not disturbing, it seems, for Mr Barzun, in his eloquent testimony to the beneficial effects of James on his life. James’s specification that individual experience is not only the source of truth but also its confirming agent is in most instances expressed with vibrant optimism. But other instances are curiously frightening, leading to the conjecture that a nightmare of solipsism was the reverse side of his individualistic dream of salvation by action. Thus, in the crucial chapter ‘The Stream of Thought’ in the Principles, he claims that

absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, nor proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and context are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.

It isn’t, then, that the discovery of truth ought or ought not to involve, in Peirce’s phrase, ‘the notion of a COMMUNITY’, but that for James it is simply impossible that it should, except in a merely procedural sense or as part of an individual’s discovery that he shares a common lot with others in some moment of crisis, like the San Francisco earthquake. In the passage just quoted from Principles there is evidence, I think, that his insistence on the necessity of individual actions is not to be separated from a fear of the ‘absolute insulation’ of his own mental processes. One can understand why he preferred, in Varieties of Religious Experience, to attribute to an unnamed Frenchman an experience his son Henry later attributed to him. It was a sight that made him for ever ‘sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others’ – the recollected image, in a state of depression, of an epileptic patient who

sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. The image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.

James’s enthusiastic recommendations that one should ‘act’ has a likely source in the stubborn anxiety bred of years of illness, depressing irresolution, and a fear of insanity increased by the knowledge that his father had had visions similar to his own, including experiences of dread that he was about to lose all claims to selfhood. Feinstein, who in addition to a doctorate in American intellectual history has a medical degree and is a practising psychiatrist at Cornell, shows in fascinating detail that, like many of his generation, James was convinced, at least till 1873, that mental disorders required a physical basis, and that the tendencies were transmittable to offspring by progressive degeneration. This had much to do with his reluctance to marry earlier than he did. It is possible, too, that his decision not to pursue a career in painting and his impatience with the more elaborated of Henry’s novels are to be understood only in part as a reaction against his father’s claim that ‘our highest mode of action is aesthetic’ He had also, I suspect, a fear of being excited by art to beliefs, awarenesses and feelings that would then sicken him for want of the ability or opportunity to act on them.

Just what the act should be was sometimes a problem, as witness his merely charming remonstrances in the chapter called ‘Habit’ in Principles.

There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed ... The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert without expressing it afterwards in some active way. Let the expression be the least things in the world – speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers – but let it not fail to take place.

James is not, then, a figure – I doubt, in fact, whether there are any – who is best understood within the so-called history of ideas. In assessing the severe, suicidal depressions of 1869-70, for example, to which the death of his beloved cousin Minny Temple greatly contributed, all commentators, except Feinstein, follow James himself and Ralph Barton Perry’s great two-volume The Thought and Character of William James (1935) in saying that his recovery was due in large part to his reading of the French philosopher Charles Renouvier. In evidence they quote James’s diary for 30 April 1870:

I think yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s 2nd Essay and saw no reason why his definition of free will – ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ – need be the definition of an illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation & contemplative Grubelei [meditation] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favourable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysic study & scepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present, then, remember: Care little for speculation, much for the form of my action.

This passage is invariably used to demonstrate that James’s ‘will to believe’ required a prior leap of faith in the will itself, and that this decision is evidence, therefore, of a most important change in his life. But the entry can be read quite otherwise – as marking the perpetuation of his problems and in terms by which he deludes even himself. What sounds like an affirmation of free will is really a denial of it, a determination to thwart it. Can a man be said to believe in free will when, ambitious to be a philosopher and to get out of the scientific activities which please his father more than himself, he must forbid himself philosophy, at least in the form in which he defensively chooses to think of it? Further evidence of the problem is in a sentence deleted from the diary entry in Perry’s version, with which commentators before Feinstein have contented themselves. James goes on to say that ‘today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits for the acquisition of habits.’ Bain, in his role of associationist psychologist, tended to be a moralistic disciplinarian, especially partial, for example, to the therapy of getting up early in the morning, and Feinstein argues convincingly that Renouvier and Bain were both used by James actually to prevent himself recognising that what he needed to learn was freedom from the will. In line with this, he locates the vision of the epileptic, not in 1870, as all others have done, but in 1872, two years after his diary entry on Renouvier and Bain. The affirmation of belief in the will was followed, that is, by an intensification of the symptoms it was meant to cure.

I go into such detail because it lends support to the argument that James’s fear of stagnation and of inaction extended to a fear of speculation itself, especially when this led, as he felt it had often done in philosophy, to the system-building of ‘intellectualists’, to entrapment within concepts, to the danger of fixation even within one’s own formulations. Here, too, he would have known his Emerson, even if he often avoided acknowledging the indebtedness, and might have remembered from ‘The Poet’ that ‘every thought is also a prison, every heaven is also a prison ... all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.’ In that regard we can better understand what James meant in Psychology when he remarked that ‘to explain our phenomenally given thoughts as products of deeper lying entities is metaphysics,’ and therefore not within his intentions. With Nietzsche and Emerson and in anticipation of Foucault and Deleuze, James was essentially trying to release himself and all of us from any settled coherent idea of the human, from the conceptual systems and arrangements of knowledge by which man has so far been defined. He was drawn to the marginal, the transgressive, to misfits and the unelected. That is the pathos underlying his proposal that his son should ‘copy’ a coyote, or his devastating imagination of himself as an epileptic, like an Egyptian cat, or his writing to his wife after a visit to the Brighton aquarium that ‘the impression which will perhaps outlast everything on this trip, was four cuttle-fish (octopus). I wish we had one of them as a child – such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy.’ Perhaps James’s greatest achievement is, as Dewey believed, not any version of pragmatism, but ‘the fundamental idea of an open universe in which uncertainty, choice, hypotheses, novelties and possibilities are naturalised’. He welcomed all manifestations of being, even the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The last of the 29 short pieces collected in the latest of the Harvard volumes, Essays in Psychology, is entitled ‘On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake’, and he reports that when he was thrown out of bed by it, his ‘emotion consisted wholly of glee and admiration; glee at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely; and admiration at the way in which the frail little wooden house could hold itself together in spite of such a shaking. I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome. “Go it,” I almost cried aloud, “and go it stronger!” ’