William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 7

Leaving psychoanalytic interpretations of the story of the epilep¬tic patient aside for the moment, it is not easy to find evidence that James ever felt that he had a problem with masturbation himself. The passage from his diary that Gilman quotes—“Hitherto I have tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in . . . attaining certain salutary but difficult habits”—is suggestive, but only if we read “moral” and “habit” in a twentieth-century sense. James was taking those terms from Alexander Bain’s The Emotions and the Will (1859), for decades a standard text in British psychology and a work James later relied on in key sections of his own Principles of Psychol¬ogy. (This is the same Bain who turns up in the Renouvier entry three months later: “Today has furnished the exceptionally passion¬ate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits.”) In a chapter called “Moral Habits,” Bain uses, as an exam¬ple of a situation in which such habits might be developed, what he describes as “one of the strongest of our fleshly indulgences”: sleep-ing late. The passage is such a choice specimen of the Victorian rhetoric of moral hygiene that it is worth quoting the heroic climax:
Some necessity that there is no escaping, compels a man from his early youth to be out of bed every morning at six o’clock. For weeks and months, and perhaps, years, the struggle and the suffering are acutely felt. Meanwhile, the hand of power is remorseless in the uniformity of its application. And now it is that there creeps a cer¬tain habitude of the system, modifying by imperceptible degrees the bitterness of that oft-repeated conflict. What the individual has had to act so many times in one way, brings on a current of nervous power, confirming the victorious, and sapping the vanquished, im¬pulse. The force of determination that unites the decisive move¬ment of jumping out of bed with the perception of the appointed hour, is invigorated slowly but surely. Iteration is softening down the harsh experience of the early riser, and bringing about, as time advances, an approach to the final condition of mechanical punc¬tuality and entire indifference. Years may be wanted to arrive at this point, but sooner or later the plastic element in our constitution will succeed.
If getting out of bed early is a “moral habit,” pretty much anything can be a moral habit. Nothing in his diary requires us to assume that James was talking about masturbation.
The only evidence that remains is the passage about the epilep¬tic patient. But the crucial thing to notice about that passage is that the epileptic is epileptic. He is a person with an organic disorder, not a person who has made himself idiotic by “unhealthy habits.” “Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him,” says the Frenchman. The fear being expressed is the fear of unforeseen catastrophe. It is precisely not the fear of self-destruction.
The story of the epileptic is a story about what used to be called “the problem of evil”; that is why it appears in a book on religious ex¬perience. The epileptic patient represents the classic challenge to faith: innocent suffering. The realization that people can suffer as a result of their own actions does not cause a religious crisis. What causes a religious crisis is the realization that people can lead exem¬plary lives and suffer anyway. The Frenchman has been insulated by the assumption that in a rational universe, bad things cannot hap¬pen to good people. The blow to his ego, when the image of the pa¬tient is suddenly before him, comes from his recognition that moral worth does not immunize us against disaster. “The eternal God is my refuge” is the lesson of the vision: there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves against undeserved suffering. The only salvation is faith. Evil, in James’s time, was a motiveless malignancy. We think of evils as caused by something—by greed, or genes, or sexual abuse—and miss the point of James’s story.

The biggest impediment to getting a coherent crisis-and-recovery narrative out of the materials of William James’s life between 1867 and 1873 is that large portions of the record are simply missing. James was never a daily diarist, but the entries in the notebook he used for a diary are fairly regular from April 1868, when it begins, to February 1869. Then twenty-one pages (as much as forty-two pages of writing) have been cut out, apparently with scissors. The next dated entry is for December 21, 1869. Most of James’s diary for 1869, in other words, has disappeared.
Those pages were probably destroyed either by James himself or by his widow, Alice, who winnowed her husband’s papers with meticulous care, sitting in front of a fireplace, and who had (like her brother-in-law Henry) small tolerance for the embarrassing detail. It is, of course, stimulating to imagine the sort of revelation that might have led James, or his heirs, to consign these pages to the flames. And people who want to place the vision of the epileptic or the McLean hospitalization in 1869 will naturally look upon the missing pages as the dog that does not bark.
The reason letters and diaries are usually destroyed, though, is that they contain references to other people. And there is one tiny clue that points in this direction. James graduated from medical school in June 1869 and spent the summer—the period the missing pages presumably cover—in Pomfret, Connecticut, on vacation with his family. He was, by his mother’s account in her letters to her son Henry, in fairly miserable shape. Two sheets of notepaper are preserved among his papers in an envelope labeled “Pomfret 1869.” James seems to have been trying to work out, on these pages, some sort of philosophy of conduct, and is weighing the alternative pos¬tures of sympathy (an “expansive embracing tendency”) and defen¬siveness, or what he calls “self-sufficingness”—and in the course of this he writes: “My feeling towards B.W. (e.g.) comes from too par¬tial a sympathy; so does the optimist’s each sympathizing with oppo¬site sides of her being.” And later on: “sympathy gives pain (B.W.) Shd. sympathy go so far as to dictate suicide?” The wording is cryptic, but James seems to be referring to his feelings for a woman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*