William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 3

Gay Wilson Allen, in William James: A Biography (1967), had it that James told his son Henry when the vision of the epileptic had occurred, but this assumption seems to have no basis. Henry appar¬ently learned about the episode the same way everyone else did, from Flournoy’s book, after his father’s death. And this means that we have no idea when the original experience actually took place. Assuming—no small assumption—that the autobiographical details in the phony Frenchman’s account are James’s own, it can be in¬ferred that it happened after James had visited an asylum, during a period of uncertainty about his career, and while he was living at home. This narrows the possibilities down to some date before 1878, which is the year that, at the age of thirty-six, James finally got mar-ried. James was continually changing his mind about his career (as, nearly until the wedding, he continually changed his mind about his marriage). And he was often inside asylums. Insanity was a particu¬lar interest of his, and he knew people who were patients in asy¬lums, notably his cousin Kitty James (who married her psychiatrist, Morton Prince). James was a student at the Harvard Medical School from 1866 to 1869, and probably visited asylums as part of his training. Although the diary in which the Renouvier entry appears is complete from December 1869 through April 1870, there is no men¬tion in it of a vision of an epileptic, or even of a visit to an asylum. Yet commentators can be remarkably certain about the timing. Jacques Barzun, in A Stroll with William James, informs us that the episode of the epileptic occurred “within the week before or after” March 8, 1870—that is, the month before the Renouvier episode. He does not explain how he arrived at this determination.
In fact, there is nothing to exclude the possibility that the vision of the epileptic occurred after the Renouvier episode. Such a theory was proposed by the psychiatrist Howard M. Feinstein in an article published in 1981, which became the basis for his fascinating work of biographical speculation, Becoming William James (1984). Fein¬stein begins with the psychiatrist’s standard presumption that what¬ever the etiology of a crisis, the patient’s own account of it cannot possibly be the correct one. In his diary and letters beginning around 1867 and continuing into the early 1870s, James complains continu¬ally of a bad back, an inability to use his eyes, poor digestion, rest¬lessness, pessimism, melancholy, misanthropy, general feelings of ineffectualness, and, a few times, suicidal impulses. Something, as Miss Clavel liked to say, was not right. Feinstein’s diagnosis is family dynamics: he thinks that (among other things) Henry Sr. was driving his son nuts on the subject of his future career. The Renouvier episode, in Feinstein’s view, was just another self-punishing effort by William during this period to take himself in hand and make something of his life—specifically, by denying himself (as the diary puts it) the “speculation and contemplative Griiblei in which my na¬ture takes most delight.” There does indeed seem to be a load of bad superego in that passage.
Feinstein quotes a letter from William to his brother Robertson, who had settled in Milwaukee (a reasonable distance from the in¬deed distracting Henry Sr.), which seems to support the contention that the Renouvier episode was a hollow epiphany. The Renouvier diary entry is dated April 30, 1870; on July 25, 1870, William informs Robertson that “my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything.” “As is so often the case with such self-treatment,” observes Dr. Feinstein, “the cure’ was part of the problem.”
But Feinstein did not wish to abandon the crisis-and-recovery narrative. He only wished to invert it. In his new chronology, the Re¬nouvier episode becomes the crisis, and the vision of the epileptic marks the breakthrough. James had the vision, Feinstein argues, not in the winter of 1870, which is where Perry and most other commen¬tators place it, but two and a half years later; and he offers as evi¬dence another letter to Robertson, this one written in 1874, in which William reports that “I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here.” Robertson’s “last visit” to the James fam¬ily home in Cambridge took place in November 1872: he had just gotten married, and was introducing his new wife to the family. (She was approved, but only just: “She is in no way responsive; takes everything as her due, is a peer of all the world, and don’t know the beginning of a life beyond sense,” Henry Sr. reported serenely to his son the novelist.) The vision of the epileptic, Feinstein concludes, must have happened in the fall of 1872, long after the Renouvier episode. Many people, including the editors of the mar¬velous twelve-volume edition of The Correspondence of William James, have accepted Feinstein’s chronology.
But it has a few holes. The July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson which Feinstein cites to show that the Renouvier “cure” had failed (“my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything”) was preceded by another letter from William to Robertson, dated April 17,1870, in which William reports that “after 3 months prostration I begin to show signs of getting on my legs again.’’” This can’t be an allusion to the Renouvier episode, because the diary for April 30 states that “yesterday was a crisis in my life”—that is, April 29. What James is referring to, in fact, is his bad back, which was almost always the leading item on his list of health problems, and which at times prevented him from walking even short distances without pain. “Getting on my legs’’ is not a metaphor. There is, in James’s letters, always a strong correlation between the state of his back and the state of his spirits, as would be natural for someone with a chronic ailment. But he is not saying, in that July 25 letter, “Renouvier has failed me.” He’s saying that his back is bothering him again.

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