William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 4

And the 1874 letter, also to Robertson, that Feinstein offers in support of his dating of the vision of the epileptic is at odds with his own theory. Feinstein cites the letter, but he does not quote it. Here is what it says:
I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here, which was more philosophical than theological perhaps, that is did not deal with my personal relations to God as yours seem to have done [Robertson had written to William about his own developing religious interests]—but it was accompanied with anxiety and de¬spair &c—I worked through it into the faith in free-will and into the final reign of the Good conditional on the co-operation of each of us in the sphere—small enough often—in which it is allowed him to be operative. Why God waits on our cooperation is not to be fathomed—but as a fact of experience I believe it—and having that belief open to me, I have lost much of my former interest in specu¬lative questions—I have taken up Physiology instead of Philosophy and go along on a much calmer sea with a more even keel.
This is essentially the language of the Renouvier diary entry.
Whatever this “crisis” in the fall of 1872 entailed, therefore, it was not a renouncement of Renouvier. On November 2,1872, James wrote a letter to Renouvier himself, in which he expressed “the ad¬miration and gratitude that reading your essays has inspired in me. . . . Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and ra¬tional conception of freedom.” Six weeks later, he wrote to Robert¬son, who was safely back in Wisconsin again, advising him that when feelings of depression come, “the only thing is to have faith and wait, and resolve whatever happens to be faithful ‘in the out¬ward act’ (as a philosopher says) that is do as if the good were the law of being, even if one can’t for the moment really believe it. The belief will come in its time.” And there is a letter from William’s father to Henry the novelist (then living in Rome), apparently writ¬ten in March 1873, in which he reports that William has been crow¬ing recently about the improvement in his health and spirits since the previous spring: “I ventured to ask what especially in his opinion had produced the change. He said several things: the reading of Re¬nouvier (particularly his vindication of the freedom of the will) and of Wordsworth.”
Finally, there is a piece of evidence that has not been mentioned before, but that brings us as close as we are likely to get to this mys¬terious crisis of 1872. It is on a single sheet of notepaper dated Octo¬ber 2i, 1872, and it reads, in part:
Tonight I feel full of Lebensmut [optimism] because of the unfore¬seen awakening in me within the past few days of dormant feelings and keen powers of thought. But this is an irrational ground of rec¬onciliation with the Universe, being based on accidental particu¬lars of experience, the which if they happened to be of an opposite quality wd. justify an opposite conclusion. The desideration is a conception of the whole which, no matter what be the experience of the moment, will reconcile one to it. So far I see only the: “for the sake of—!” The evil is somehow mechanically continuous with the good. The latter is thus ever imminent, ever potential and for its sake I’ll go the former.
This does not correlate very well with the feelings aroused by the apparition of the epileptic patient described in The Varieties of Reli¬gious Experience.
What is significant about these notes and letters from 1872 and 1873 is that they indicate that James was still struggling to recover from some sort of breakdown two and a half years after recording in his diary the fresh start inspired by Renouvier. Feinstein is surely right to point out that an experience that does not produce results for almost three years can hardly be counted a breakthrough. The most we can say is that Renouvier’s idea about free will was one of the things James preserved from a long period of ill health and poor spirits. It was neither the cause of a breakdown nor the cure.

What was the problem? In 1979, a graduate student felicitously named James William Anderson reported, in his dissertation, ru¬mors that James had once been a patient at the iMcLean Asylum for the Insane, outside Boston. The same rumor has been reported since by the historian of science Robert J. Richards, who said it had been confirmed for him by “someone who had worked in the hospi¬tal in an official capacity”; by Feinstein, in Becoming William James-, and by Alfred Kazin, who wrote in 1993 that “years ago the famous Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray told me that at one point in his life James had put himself into McLean’s.” In her biography of James, Genuine Reality, Linda Simon names a psychiatrist, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, who did her residency at McLean in the 1950s and who says that she saw James’s patient records in the archives there.
This fresh wrinkle has had two effects. It has devalued some¬what the biographical significance of the Renouvier episode—since if James was hospitalized, it is not likely to have been for frustration with what is, after all, a fairly ancient philosophical puzzle about whether there is such a thing as free will. And it has redirected at¬tention to the story about the epileptic patient. Hospitalization for a mental disorder not only seems to explain the shock of recognition in that story (“That shape am I”); it suggests that something more is possibly being masked than the nationality of “the sufferer.” James may have had deeper reasons for not wishing to give himself away, reasons having to do with an incident in his life he wished to remain suppressed, when he recalled the vision in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
But is it so? The McLean Hospital (the name was changed in 1892) still exists. Robert Lowell was a patient there; so was Sylvia Plath. It is now located in Belmont, and is affiliated, as it has been since its founding, in 1811, with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. Scholars who have asked to see James’s patient records there have been informed that hospital pol¬icy forbids the release of information about individual patients, in¬cluding confirmation that someone was ever a patient.

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