Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Metaphysics and Melancholy: A Review of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience," Part I

I set myself the goal this holiday break of toiling all the way through William James' Varieties of Religious Experience -- heading as it does my mental list of "things I probably should have read in div school by now but haven't." The book is sprawling, companionable, and at last, time-consuming -- but in a good way. It is also interesting to me for more extrinsic reasons. The book helps me to understand the place and the people among whom I currently find myself. To read Varieties after spending time at a liberal seminary is to think "Ah -- so that's how we got here." Good ideas and bad, they all seem to have their place, if not their origin, in James.

Unfortunately, the promised "varieties" in the book are more those of argument than of "religious experience." James' book is more eclectic in its reasonings than in its Revelations, that is to say. Therefore, trying to disentangle a single philosophical thread from the skein is difficult -- at least it is difficult when one is only half-way through the book, as I am currently. I get the sense James wanted it this way, and delights in not showing his metaphysical hand too much (until perhaps he reaches the penultimate chapter on "Philosophy," which I have not yet read). 

It is probably better therefore to discuss the book in terms of themes than of arguments, which is how I've chosen to break down this multi-part review. I plan to write it in stages as I finish the book. If nothing else, Varieties makes me think, and it makes me think enough things that I won't pretend to be able to get them all down in a single post at the end.


As hinted above, when it comes to the "varieties of religious experience" in James' book, they are really just one, although it arrives in different stages. And that one experience goes like this: 

1) An abject state of desperation, weighted down by an unaccountable sense of one's own guilt and worthlessness; 2) the frantic effort by means rational, theological, and practical to dispel this feeling and escape from the tortures inflicted by one's own mind; 3) the complete failure and exhaustion of all such efforts; 4) the surrender of one's efforts, the casting of oneself on a higher mercy, the passive acceptance born of the total defeat of the will; and 5) the sudden intrusion on one's consciousness, at this lowest ebb, of a second, higher self. The second self bears the following message: There was no need for all that striving and self-mortification; one already had from the start all that was necessary for one's deliverance. More than that, one had been delivered all the time. So rejoice! You were already free! 

-- Any of that sound familiar? Would it help if I mentioned that James came from a line of Presbyterian ministers? As James himself puts it: "It is needless to remind you once more of the admirable congruity of Protestant theology with the structure of the mind as shown in such experiences." (244) Ahem; well, which came first, James? The "structure of the mind" as you, James, perceive it? Or the "Protestant theology"?

Ok, so once we've had our chuckle at the fact that the "Varieties of Religious Experience" turn out to be, well, the American Protestant Preacher's Kid experience, let's acknowledge that James himself was at least half-aware of what he was doing. He summarizes the regenerative realization that awaits the "sick soul" at stage five of the above process as follows: it is "the assurance [...] that I, this individual I, just as I stand, without one plea, etc., am saved now and forever." (246). He knows, moreover, that this is a Protestant, and more specifically Lutheran, kind of regeneration -- he just happens to think that some version of it, though perhaps posed in other language, lies at the heart of the experience of "conversion" to any denomination -- or even of any experience of sudden renewal, resolution, or revitalization that one may experience within any faith or none. And besides, if it doesn't, it ought to anyhow. Because it happens to be the best sort of regenerative insight, in addition to being the universal one. "Nothing in Catholic theology," says James "[...] has ever spoken to sick souls as straight as this message from Luther's personal experience." (246)

The postmodernists are always complaining about the fact that in all these supposedly objective comparisons of different religions, especially when they are supposedly designed to elicit a common thread that can stand as the "essence," the real meat of all "religion"-- this much-sought "essence" always turns out to be whatever the investigator already likes or identifies with in religion. I think they've got a point, much as it pains me to admit it. What is deemed "universal" in human experience is often not universal at all, or even pretended to be universal. What the investigator means by "universal," it turns out, is really just "good." Her or his private theology is, guess what!, the core teaching of every faith, which has only been obscured over the years by so many regressive degenerations and fallings-away and superstitious accretions. 

The thing is, though, that this doesn't bother me so much, since I happen to think some theological views are better than others, and that it is not wrong to argue for them. (And in truth, it shouldn't bother the postmodernists either, since it would not be possible for us to help doing this if we wanted to, according to them.) And if the religious experience described above is not actually universal, I nevertheless feel it contains a very significant therapeutic truth, especially in the means by which the fundamental problem of stage 1, the sense of one's own worthlessness and dejection, is solved in the final stage of the progression.

Of course, Protestant Christianity historically has not been an especially therapeutic faith -- not in its Calvinist form anyways. It has not sought primarily to show the lost soul the way out of his desperation, but to deepen it, and thereby show him that he is utterly at the mercy of his Creator, who would be more justified in damning him eternally than in granting him relief. The goals of a therapist, to put it mildly, are different. She sees the desperation as the sickness, and hope as the cure. Martin Luther perhaps came closer to a therapeutic truth, with his belief that -- as James puts it -- "You are saved now, if you would but believe it" (James p. 108). However, Luther too believed that the belief in one's essential unworthiness for salvation was part of the journey to reaching this regenerative conclusion, rather than part of the problem. If therapy leads the "sick soul" toward the conclusion that she never was so bad as she thought, Protestantism teaches that she is just that bad and worse, so she'd better depend on a power that transcends her own capacities for goodness.

What James has accomplished, however, is to show that these two paths, however different their origins, do not lead to such different places, nor assume entirely different patterns. Regardless of the intention at the outset, the actual mental progress that characterizes the whole Protestant conversion experience -- the unaccountable misery, the mental toil expended in trying to reason one's way out of it, the collapse of all one's efforts in this direction, the new awareness born from one's subconscious that these efforts had been unnecessary from the start -- comes to seem in James' hands far more familiar to a modern audience than they used to. 

These are in fact the phases through which any mind, religious or secular or otherwise, passes in its struggle with and eventual victory over a severe depression. 

James is quite clear, meanwhile, that this could all be a natural psychological process, with no supernatural influence; and that people who would never speak of themselves as being "converted" to anything might still pass through it. Here is where the promised diversity of James' title does finally make an appearance. He manages to convince us, temporarily at least, that we are all psychological Protestants, though theological humanists or Catholics or Universalists we might remain.

Now, perhaps James only succeeds in pulling this off because human experience is so intrinsically diverse and complicated, that it will manage to fit itself into any narrative structure that you hand it. This is why horoscopes work: "Yes! It's like it already knows me!" Spend enough time with any story, even one as seemingly alien and unlikeable as Protestantism, and one begins to feel that one's own life too has mirrored its progress. 

But hey, a therapeutic insight is true if it helps to cure the sickness. This is so because the structure of a therapeutic proposition is as follows: "If X is applied, then the patient will overcome her depression, anxiety, etc." If fitting one's experience into the conversion process relieves the burden of mental affliction, then it must contain some psychological truth. And here we find that James is a step ahead of us. "It is the character of inner happiness in the thoughts which stamps them as good[,]" he writes (15). I don't think all that much of this kind of pragmatism, in general. But with regard to the distinct type of proposition that a therapeutic insight must satisfy, it is applicable.

Thus, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for all the breadth and grandiosity of its title, is at heart a book about one thing: depression, and the means human beings have devised of contending against it. The insights it reveals to us all relate back to this one lonely struggle and its eventual outcome. In the process of spinning this narrative, James says a lot of things about God and metaphysics that I don't think are supportable. However, his basic therapeutic insight about depression still stands, whether we peer through the theological lens or not. This, in fact, is one conclusion of James' own researches, and if he had done a better job of listening to himself, he would have stood behind it more consistently in his book.


It is no great biographical secret that James partly had himself in mind in his account of the "Sick Soul" and that he was himself possessed of the "religious melancholy" that stands at the beginning of the 5-part conversion process. The text itself contains some perhaps semi-conscious hints to this effect. In listing in the first chapter the names of some pretend individuals with pretend maladies, for instance, James mentions, alongside "Fanny" the hyper-scrupulous and  "Peter" the guilt-wracked, a certain individual named "William" -- His affliction turns out to be his "melancholy about the universe[.]" (10).

The big and famous chapter on the "Sick Soul," when one reaches it, leaves even less doubt in one's mind as to James' self- identification with these sufferers and form of suffering.  As a professor of mine once put it in a lecture, James is "hiding in plain sight" in these pages. Erik Erikson writes in Young Man Luther of James' closing peroration to the chapter that it is "one of the few passionate passages" in the book, and "[t]he tenor of this mood is immediately convincing."

It is indeed a harrowing section of the book. In it, James offers a whole demonology of psychological evils. Passing through his morbid morphology, so carefully presented, is like touring a haunted house. First, we have the melancholy of torpor and listlessness, when a grey film seems to roll down between one's eyes and reality, and to tint irrecoverably the vision of the world outside ("The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny," as James puts it, "Its color is gone." (161)); then there is that of a "positive, active anguish," in James' words; and last -- that of a "panic fear,"-- which James' plausibly deems the "worst kind of melancholy" there is. 

It was evidently this last affliction that James most perceived in himself. Quoting from some unnamed French correspondent -- whom, as a friend informs me, the biographers now believe to be James himself, disguised in print -- he describes an encounter with a catatonic patient, fighting the outer limits of anxious depression. The experience with this patient left him aware, in a way he had never been before, of the limits of his-- and all of our -- ultimate psychological safety. "That shape am I," writes the 'Frenchman' James, "[...] Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him." (160)

James disguised his presence in these pages, however transparently, no doubt out of a desire for privacy, as well as out of a sense of decorum. Since this is a personal blog, however, and not an esteemed series of lectures, let me not be so circumspect. Let me say, rather, that reading the Sick Soul chapter this was like passing through a menagerie of my own darkest nightmares. I shut the book at the close of the chapter like I was trying to trap a ghost inside it, hoping that it wouldn't get out so long as I held the pages fast. I avoided Varieties for about a week after this, as if it were an evil talisman possessed of dangerous power -- which in fact it was. Panic is a catching illness. It can seep through the membranes of one mind into another. 

I could only resume my reading of the book after peering into the next few chapters had confirmed for me that the nightmare was past, and we would be moving on to different subjects. "The last lecture was a painful one," (166) says James at the start of the next chapter, and I breathed relief: this implied the next ones would be less so.

As much as the Sick Soul lecture alarmed me, however, it also dispelled forever the irritated feelings I had entertained toward James up to this point. They were replaced with love for someone who suffered, and who understood suffering. I do not agree with all of James' philosophy, but in the important sense, he "got it."


James, in this chapter, correctly identifies the forms in the reasoning process that melancholy takes -- the means of ingress and infiltration by which it presents itself to us as a seemingly inescapable "truth." They include: the fear that oblivion at death will render life meaningless; the realization that one is never absolutely safe, whatever one does, from the possibility of catastrophe; and the fear that life itself is inherently destructive of other life, and that one is guilty therefore, no matter what one does. 

The first of the three is the terror that dogged Qoheleth, whom James cites. "But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. [...] The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. (Eccl. 9:4-5 NRSV). It is the dread breathed from a poem of Thomas Hardy's, which imagines the thought of the dead who, till now, have lived on at least in the recollection of their loved ones: “[O]ur future second death is near; / When, with the living, memory of us numbs, / And blank oblivion comes!” The second of the three is the one that confronted James in his encounter with the catatonic patient. And the last of this unholy trinity is the anti-life pessimism of Schopenhauer; it is the kernel in the husk of Original Sin; it is the insight that obsessed Nietzsche and which, however much he protested to remain a partisan of life in spite of its destructive nature, filled him in truth with the despair that all his works communicate.

Where James errs, however, is in mistaking these rationalized forms of melancholy, for the rational origins thereof. James seems to believe that depression is simply the reasonable consequence of the logical process. One is depressed, on this view, chiefly because one has thought one's way to the bottom of things, and come up empty. In his lecture on "Conversion," James speaks of "subjectively centered [...] morbid melancholy" -- but only to contrast it with the more "objective forms of melancholy" (which include, presumably, those from which James himself suffered) "[...] in which the lack of rational meaning of the universe, and of life anyhow, is the burden that weighs upon one[.]" (203-204).

Oh, my poor friend. Don't you see? Every insanity is "objective" to the one who's insane! Every madness is always "subjective" so long as it is someone else's. One's own, meanwhile, is always the product of straightforward deduction and observation, the consequences of which the rest of humanity has simply failed to grasp up to now, as you have! Or so it seems from the inside.

Melancholy presents itself to the mind as simply a logical consequence of the rational process, but in so doing it is duplicitous. It presents us with a series of apparently sensible questions -- ones which would appear to demand some rational answer of us, if we are to go on living. Yet both it and we know from the start that these questions cannot be answered: "What is the ultimate purpose of things?" "What is the use of it all?" "What ultimate meaning will my actions have if one day I'm no longer here?" You could add to the roster: "Why does the universe exist?" "What can I know to be true with absolute certainty, to be true even beyond the limits of my own perception and consciousness?" 

The whole of metaphysics, in fact, is a series of these questions. And all of them show themselves to be unanswerable in their very structure, to have un-answered themselves in the asking, as it were. "What can I know to be true with absolute certainty, to be true even beyond the limits of my own perception and consciousness?" Well, you can't know anything beyond the capacity of your own mind for knowing, by definition. "What is the use of it all?" There can't be an ultimate "use" and "purpose" for things, because "use" and "purpose" in our language are always defined by reference to some further thing, in a chain that never ends. "Why does the universe exist?" The universe exists only because "exist" is a word we invented in our language to define the first and essential activity of the universe and everything in it. The universe "exists" by its own definition.

But James, because he still believes to his hurt that his melancholy is "objective", still believes in turn that there is an answer to these questions, and that the answer is God. Or at least, he seems to believe that if God's existence could be proven, that it would put an end to this inward metaphysical inquisition that drives the patient mad. He writes:
"The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;—and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place round them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.
For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature's portion." (James, p. 141).
Ah, the answer was there, but we let it escape us. What can we know with certainty, even past the severe caveat "so far as my own limited mind can know"?
-- God-- because God is defined in part as that which transcends our knowledge. 
"What is the value of it all?" 
--God-- because God is defined in part as the source of value. 
"Why does the universe exist?" 
--God again. 
Yes God is what the depressed mind needs! If only one could believe, if one could will oneself to believe... 

Because depression presents itself as a series of apparently rational questions, the patient thinks, at the deepest level, that the cure must lie in finding a rational answer to them. One therefore presses and strains and exhausts oneself seeking after the answer-- seeking after knowledge of God -- in order to silence one's inward questioners. But we never can reach it. It is deus absconditus. It is so because of the basic problem with all metaphysics, pointed out to us by A.J. Ayer and others. We cannot ever know, by any means, what is by definition beyond our knowledge! 

We can, however, press on in this infinitely unfruitful direction until we reach the physical limit of our powers and collapse into exhaustion. As James puts it: "we drop down, give up, and don't care any longer. Our emotional brain-centres strike work, and we lapse into a temporary apathy." (212).

Yet as James tells us, it is exactly through this moment of utmost despair, that the relief from depression comes flooding in. It is when we stop caring, that we realize we never need have cared. It is when we stop looking for the answer, that the question swallows itself up like an Ouroboros worm.

 This is the great therapeutic insight of James' book, and it is the part of the conversion experience that still rings true, whether we are Christians or not.

But the relief, James must see, comes not from finding and proclaiming a new belief in God, for this is a form of "answering" the unanswerable metaphysical inquisitors. The relief comes precisely from the recognition that those inquisitors cannot be answered, by logical necessity, and anyhow did not need to be answered from the start! 

This is the whole sum and message and fruit of James' long investigation of the conversion experience, and the regeneration it brings. It is in effect little different from Luther's conversion, when, as described in James' words, he was delivered by the following thought: "You are saved already, if only you will believe it."

Ah, and if only James could see that the same insight, at heart, promised relief for his own melancholy, however "objective" he may have believed it to be! James had, in effect, already solved his own problem, by his own psychological analysis of conversion. He was delivered already from metaphysical despair, if only he'd believe it. And the same is true of all of us.

I'm going to say something rather Jamesian at this point however: namely, that a further discussion of the nature of this process of deliverance will have to wait for Part II of this post. Probably you can gather its basic form already. In fact, you can gather it just from reading James. I merely repeat back to him his own arguments -- for the sake of his and our salvation.

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