Sunday, July 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 89: William James, On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake (#33)

William James, "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake" (1906) from William James: Writings 1902–1910:

One of my favorite William James quotes is
As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed MACHINERY OF CONDITIONS—the game's rules and the opposing players [...]
That's from Pragmatism, and like the best philosophical notes, it's both true and funny. The rhythm of that "get up on some dark night and place it there" is a masterpiece of monosyllabic flatness. Which has nothing to do with today's piece, other than prove that William James can be very funny and very right.

But if you know William James today, chances are you know him as a philosopher of the personal experience, which gives you some hint about what this piece will be about--but not a total idea. Yes, James writes about what it felt like to be caught in an earthquake in 1906, when he was teaching in Stanford. (Or: when he was supposed to be teaching--because the earthquake, that semester was suspended and he went home to Boston soon after.) So there's some note about what "earthquake" means to him and how everyone he talks to imputes some psychology and agency to the earthquake.

According to James, since he is interested in the "subjective," he won't talk about the material issues--and anyway, that was covered by the newspapers. That's semi-infuriating to me, the idea that we can separate the subjective from the material; but it is a nice reminder that James exists in a print ecology. (The main problem, as usual, is that we can't read it all; all we have here is James's article.)

But what's particularly interesting to me is how the pragmatic and the social overwhelm (and interpenetrate, which means "penetrate" but with more syllables) the purely subjective and mental. So, yeah, James notes that everyone he spoke to had the same experience of the earthquake: not fear, only a readiness to work together. But as he notes, a lot of this had to do with the shared nature of the catastrophe. No one person was singled out, so what's the point of complaining? So even the personal experience is embedded in a social situation.

William James notes two takeaways from this experience: the first is that people are ready to reimpose order on catastrophe; and the second was that universal equanimity in catastrophe--Eastern newspapers worry, but "I heard not a single really pathetic or sentimental word in California expressed by any one." Where's the subjective in that?

And, as proof that William James was fairly enlightened, he goes on to note that this is "a normal and universal trait of human nature"; though the only emotional people he sees are three "very poor" Italian women, James doesn't tsk tsk over the excitable poor, the hysterical women, or the melodramatic Italians. All he does is say that every nation would probably react the same.

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