William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 2

On asking this correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words, the answer he wrote was this:
“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 re¬ally insane.”
As everyone now knows, the business about this being translated from the French was a pretense. In 1904, the Varieties was itself translated into French, and the translator, a man named Frank Abauzit, wrote to James requesting, understandably, the original text for this passage. “The document,” James wrote back, “. . . is my own case—acute neurasthenic attack with phobia. I naturally disguised the provenance! So you may translate freely.” Abauzit was a friend of the Swiss psychologist Theodore Flournoy, who was a friend of James’s: they shared an interest in psychic phenomena— spiritualism, mediums, trances, and so on. James died in 1910; a year later, Flournoy published a little book called La Philosophie de William James, in which he quoted the passage in the Varieties about the vision of the epileptic and cited James’s letter to Abauzit con-fessing the deception. And that is how it became known that the story is autobiographical.
Edwin Holt, who had published The Principles of Psychology, and William James, Jr., James’s son, put out an English edition of Flournoy’s book in 1917, but they removed the material about the vi¬sion of the epileptic patient: neither the quotation from the Varieties nor the reference to James’s letter appears in it. In 1920, though, the story was quoted and identified as James’s own in The Letters of William James, edited by his oldest son, Henry, and it has turned up in virtually every account of James’s life ever since. It has been the cause of endless biographical mischief; for although the vision of the epileptic has an important place in the story of James’s thought, it does not have an important place in the story of James’s life.
This may seem counterintuitive. James called the story, in his letter to Abauzit, “my own case,” after all, and there is no reason to believe that he made that up. It is the story of a kind of crisis, and biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and- recovery narratives, in which the subject undergoes a period of dis¬illusionment or adversity, and then has a “breakthrough” or arrives at a “turning point” (or, in the case of religious figures, undergoes a conversion experience) before going on to achieve distinction. The vision of the epileptic is an obvious candidate for such a crisis in James’s life, and most biographers have elected it to the office. But that is the wrong place to put it.
In the standard narrative of James’s life, the vision of the epilep¬tic is paired with a second experience, which is made to represent James’s recovery or breakthrough. This is what can be called the Re- nouvier episode. Information about it also first surfaced in the 1920 edition of James’s Letters. In this case the source is a diary James kept from 1868, when he was twenty-six and studying in Germany, until 1873, when he accepted an offer to join the Harvard faculty. The entry for April 30, 1870, reads as follows. (The reference in the second sentence is to the second of the Essais de critique generate, entitled L’Homme [1859], by the French philosopher Charles Re- nouvier; “Bain,” later on, is Alexander Bain, a British psychologist who was a friend and follower of John Stuart Mill.)
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see 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.
At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no 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 specula¬tion and contemplative Grublei [in this context, “grubbing among subtleties”] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little for speculation; much for the form of my action; recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. Principiis obsta [“Resist beginnings”]—Today has fur¬nished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits. I will see to the sequel. Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [“contemplations”], but in accumu¬lated acts of thought lies salvation. Passer outre [“To go on”]. Hith¬erto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the exter¬nal world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my indi¬vidual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self- governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall [consist in? the page is torn here] doing and suffering and creating.
The obvious temptation is to make the vision of the epileptic the crisis for which the reading of Renouvier was the cure. And this is just what James’s son Henry did in his edition of the Letters: he sug¬gested that the vision of the epileptic must have occurred in the winter of 1869-70, and that the diary entry for April 30, 1870, there¬fore marks the moment his father’s “resolution and self-confidence appear to be reasserting themselves.” Ralph Barton Perry, James’s former colleague in the Harvard philosophy department and his of¬ficial biographer, linked them in the same way in his two-volume life, The Thought and Character of William James (1935): he called the Renouvier episode the “turning point” in James’s “spiritual cri¬sis,” and dated the vision of the epileptic “probably in 1870, just prior to his conversion to Renouvier.” Most biographers have fol¬lowed their practice.

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