William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 8

Certain identification of la belle B.W. sans merci is impossible. One candidate is Bessie Ward, the sister of Tom Ward, one of James’s best friends. Her father was the James family banker; her mother, the former Anna Hazard Barker, was a famous beauty. “The adorable Miss Bessy,” Henry later called the daughter after running into her in Rome; “. . .—pretty, intelligent, gracious and elegant—a most noble and delightful maiden.” “Sympathy gives pain” suggests that if William had a crush on Bessie Ward (and she certainly sounds like a person compatible with crushes), it was not recipro¬cated. (William seems to have nursed a number of fruitless passions in his youth. He appears to have gotten involved, while he was in Germany, with an American woman, Catherine Havens, who was even more neurotic than he was; he was smitten by Fanny Dixwell, who married Oliver Wendell Holmes, and by Clover Hooper, who married Henry Adams. Bessie Ward, much to the amusement of William’s sister, Alice, eventually married a Saxon baron named Schonberg.) If William had committed his feelings about her (or some other B.W.) to paper, this might later have constituted a rea¬son for destroying that portion of his diary. In any case, there is no hint of the asylum here.
And the excised pages from 1869 form the small gap in the record. After the extant diary resumes on December 21, 1869, there are regular entries up to the Renouvier episode, on April 30, 1870. But the next page is dated February 10, 1873—more than three and a half years later. There is one more entry, for April 10, 1873, and the diary ends. The silence of the diary would matter less if we had enough letters. But we don’t. Though James was ordinarily a pro¬lific correspondent, between the July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson James, already quoted, and a letter dated May 30, 1872—a period of nearly two years—only four letters survive. If James wrote other letters besides these four, they were presumably destroyed along with the diary pages. Between August 1871 and May 1872, ten months, nothing remains at all. And third-person information about William’s activities during this period—for example, in let¬ters written by other family members—is sparse. All kinds of things may have happened to James between 1869 and 1872. We know only a few.
Was the period for which there are neither letters nor diaries the period in which James was a patient at the McLean Asylum? Appar¬ently not. Although Linda Simon was, of course, denied access to James’s medical records at McLean, she did arrange to examine the patient logs from 1866 through 1872 with the names blacked out. She found nothing in the remaining information about age, sex, oc¬cupation, and time of stay that matches up with William James. Given the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of James’s life in the early 1870s, it seems fair to conclude that the story of the epileptic patient is biographical flotsam. It is unmoored to any known event in James’s life. It can be interpreted as a precipitating crisis, as a psychological breakthrough, as simply one among many crises, most of which are now unrecoverable—or as a partial invention, a little work of faction.
Even considered as a discrete event, unembedded in some larger structure of negation and transcendence, the story of the epileptic is not exactly raw data. Simon registers some skepticism about the verisimilitude of the account in The Varieties of Religious Experi¬ence, and she is right to do so. The passage feels mildly precooked; the coda, in particular, about clinging to “scripture texts” in order to avoid insanity does not sound very much like William James (or, for that matter, like a Frenchman). The passage is designed, after all, to mimic a medical case history and to fit into a book about religious experiences. The Frenchman’s testimony is cross-referenced to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and to a well-known story James’s father wrote about his own spiritual crisis, which led to his conversion to Swedenborgianism, and remarkable similarities are pointed out by James. As Oscar Wilde once said of Wordsworth: He found under the stones the sermons he had already placed there. One reason for disguising the source must have been to license some opportunistic revisions of the original experience—whatever it was.
The literary self-consciousness of the passage, in particular the way in which it resembles Henry Sr.’s account of his crisis—which involved the apparition of “some damned shape squatting invisible to me . . . and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life”—has been remarked on by a number of commentators. But even the perception that the boundary separating the epileptic from the “normal” person is paper-thin was probably not as spontaneous as the passage makes it appear. Charles Brown-Squard, the man who diagnosed poor William Alger in Paris in 1871, had been William James’s teacher at the Harvard Medical School five years earlier. Diseases of the brain were his specialty, and he taught, ac¬cording to William’s own lecture notes, that there is “a not[able] tendency in every man to some of the features of epilepsy.” He men¬tioned coitus and the involuntary jerking of muscles when being tickled or in sleep: “Thus degree by degree we are led to look on epilepsy as an incrd. degree of the normal reflex excitability of cer¬tain parts of nervous centres.”
This notion, much amplified, grew to occupy a central place in James’s own psychology. “His thought was that there is no sharp line to be drawn between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ minds, that all have something of both,” James’s former student Dickinson Miller re¬called. “Once when we were returning from visits to two insane asy¬lums at one of which we had seen a dangerous, almost naked maniac, I remember his saying, ‘President Eliot [Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard] would not like to admit that no sharp line could be drawn between himself and the men we have just seen, but it is true.’ ” The epileptic patient had performed his heuristic role before.

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