William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 9

Without suggesting that anything that might significantly trans¬form our understanding of William James has been suppressed, we are entitled to note that the version of his early breakdown in his son Henry’s 1920 edition of the Letters and his protege Perry’s 1935 biography is very much the authorized version. Two pieces of evidence—the story of the epileptic patient and the response to Renouvier—were plucked from a fragmentary record and erected into the narrative emblems of a breakdown and recovery. For the story of a philosophical-spiritual crisis overcome by “the will to be¬lieve” is conveniently symmetrical with James’s writings in The Will to Believe (1897) and Pragmatism (1907), books that exhort us to act “as if” in the face of uncertainty—to believe that if we take a risk, the universe will meet us halfway. The biography is made to lend authenticity to the philosophy: James, too, knew pessi¬mism and despair, and this is how he willed himself to overcome them.
Except that he never overcame them. Simon’s biography empha¬sizes, more fully than any earlier one, the persistence of James’s ill health. For James was depressive all his life. And this may be the di¬agnosis that explains the insufficiency of all other diagnoses. Com¬mentators prefer to assume that James was despondent in the years after his graduation from medical school because of some prob¬lem—a family problem, a sexual problem, a career problem, an identity problem, a philosophical problem. But depression is not a problem; it’s a weather pattern. Under its cloud, everything else is a problem. When the weather changes, these problems disappear, or become “opportunities,” or “challenges”—until dark skies return.
Throughout James’s life, evidence in letters or diaries that he has recovered his health and spirits is always followed, sooner or later, by evidence that he has had a relapse. The letter from James’s father in the spring of 1873 announcing William’s new robustness is fol¬lowed by a letter in the summer from his mother (never the tender- est analyst of her oldest child’s troubles) to Henry Jr. (her favorite), complaining that William “has such a morbid sympathy with every form of trouble and privation. . . . He is very despondent about him¬self.” In March 1874, she complains, again to Henry, that “the trouble with [William] is that he must express every fluctuation of feeling, and especially every unfavorable symptom.” And the following July: “His temperament is a morbidly hopeless one.” In the summer of 1880, Henry, after seeing his brother in London, confides to his mother that “I can’t get rid of the feeling that he takes himself, and his nerves, and his physical condition too hard and too con¬sciously.”
William did take those things rather consciously. “If you knew my life,” he wrote to Renouvier in 1882, when he was forty, “you would confess that my little stream of work runs on under great dis¬advantages.” He was not referring to external pressures. He seems to have undergone what he called an “annual collapse” every February. He agonized for two years about his courtship of Alice Gibbens until their marriage in 1878—a period when he behaved, as he con¬fessed to her later, like “a man morally utterly diseased.” He com¬plained of depression in 1893 (“I . . . know now a new kind of melancholy”). In 1899, when he was supposed to be writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, a heart ailment brought on a de¬pression that lasted nearly two years. He was incapacitated again by severe depression in 1909, the year before his heart disease finally killed him. “The fact is,” he wrote in 1901 to his brother Henry (who, despite his wish that William would display a little more fortitude, was subject to serious depressions himself), “that my nervous system is utter trash, and always was so. It has been a hard burden to bear all these years, the more so as I have seemed to others perfectly well; and now it is on top and T am under.”
William experimented with pretty much every cure available for his various psychosomatic symptoms: chloroform, electric shock (intended to stimulate the nerves), weight-lifting, diet, hypnotism, drugs, travel, Christian Science, “mind cure” treatments (during which the practitioner “disentangled” his mind while he slept), and the “talking cure” (a primitive form of psychotherapy). So it would hardly be surprising if he had also checked himself into the McLean Hospital. Some of the rumors that have been reported indicate that he was being treated there for depression later in life. This seems plausible. It is worth noting that McLean did not accept voluntary admissions until 1881.
Still, the events used to frame the standard biographical narrative—the Renouvier diary entry and the story of the epileptic patient—are plainly relevant to our understanding of James’s thought. The question is, How? The texts themselves are a good deal less clear on this point than has generally been assumed. In the story of the epileptic patient, the Frenchman’s sudden perception that he might end up in the same condition induces a fear of going out in the dark and of being left alone, which is allayed by recalling tags from the Bible. In the Renouvier episode, a feeling of inanition caused by excessive philosophical speculation is addressed by a de-cision to assume a more active role in life. In the first case the prob¬lem is fear of catastrophe, and the remedy is religious consolation. In the second, the problem is intellectual paralysis, and the remedy is a belief in the efficacy of self-assertion. The two episodes do not seem to be related as crisis and recovery, or negation and transcendence, or down and up. They seem to be experiences of different kinds of distress alleviated by different kinds of self-therapy. The mistake has not been singling these passages out as emblematic of Jamesian insights. The mistake has been stringing them together as the endpoints of a single crisis.

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