Friday, October 16, 2009

Hanging in there

Had fun with William James in class today. Among other things we focused on (read aloud!) the old "oriental fable of the traveler surprised in the desert by a wild beast" he quotes Tolstoy recalling:

"Seeking to save himself from the fierce animal, the traveler jumps into a well with no water in it; but at the bottom of this well he sees a dragon waiting with open mouth to devour him. And the unhappy man, not daring to go out lest he should be the prey of the beast, not daring to jump to the bottom lest he should be devoured by the dragon, clings to the branches of a wild bush which grows out of one of the cracks of the well. His hands weaken, and he feels that he must soon give way to certain fate; but still he clings, and see two mice, one white, the other black, evenly moving round the bush to which he hangs, and gnawing off its roots
"The traveler sees this and knows that he must inevitably perish; but while thus hanging he looks about him and finds on the leaves of the bush some drops of honey. These he reaches with his tongue and licks them off with rapture.
"Thus I hang upon the boughs of life, knowing that the inevitable dragon of death is waiting ready to tear me, and I cannot comprehend why I am thus made a martyr. I try to suck the honey which formerly consoled me; but the honey pleases me no longer, and day and night the white mouse and the black mouse gnaw the branch to which I cling. I can see but one thing: the inevitable dragon and the mice--I cannot turn my gaze away from them.
"This is no fable, but the literal incontestable truth which every one may understand. What will be the outcome of what I do to-day? Of what I shall do to-morrow? What will be the outcome of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?
"These questions are the simplest in the world. From the stupid child to the wisest old man, they are in the soul of every human being. Without an answer to them, it is impossible, as I experienced, for life to go on.
"'But perhaps,' I often said to myself, 'there may be something I have failed to notice or to comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind.' And I sought for an explanation in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully and protractedly and with no idle curiosity. I sought, not with indolence, but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together. I sought like a man who is lost and seeks to save himself--and I found nothing. I became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought for an answer in the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, but that they have recognized that the very thing which was leading me to despair--the meaningless absurdity of life--is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man." (Varieties, 154-55)

This "oriental fable" is in fact part of the story of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat - a wise hermit who converts an Indian prince - which has been shown to have antecedents and kin across the Eurasian continent from Japanese to Yiddish. The original Josaphat, descended from Greek Ioasaph, Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yudasaf and Manichee Bodisaf, was evidently none other than Gautama, the bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be), and the transformation-inducing story Tolstoy repeats seems to go back farther still. (Sometimes, as in the 15th century drawing above, the branch evidently becomes a tree, the beast the allegorically one-pointed unicorn.) It's certainly evocative, and you can sort of imagine how it will have found its way across religious traditions, naming and engendering dark nights of the soul and so conversions of various sorts. Tolstoy's on his way to describing his own conversion - the despair is mitigated, or braked, or leavened, by countervailing hopes derived from peasant cheer. James' own version of a comparable bleakness, given in his own voice a few pages earlier, is if anything more terrifying:

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. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation. (141)

More poignant and also quicker, for sun, bonfires and skating all hasten the breaking of the ice! How über-pessimistic - just what you'd expect from the person who had the epileptic patient experience. We talked a bit about James' own position outside religious experience but still somehow convinced that religion is "mankind's most important function." And I referred students back to a "healthy-minded" alternative to the old oriental fable which I'm sure is still in use.

A story which revivalist preachers often tell is that of a man who found himself at night slipping down the side of a precipice.
At last he caught a branch which stopped his fall, and remained clinging to it in misery for hours. But finally his fingers had to loose their hold, and with a despairing farewell to life, he let himself drop. He fell just six inches. If he had given up the struggle earlier, his agony would have been spared. As the mother earth received him, so, the preachers tell us, will the everlasting arms receive us if we confide absolutely in them, and give up the hereditary habit of relying on our personal strength, with its precautions that cannot shelter and safeguards that never save. (111)

James knows how to present a variety of views in striking ways! The "healthy-minded" thesis and "sick souled" or "morbid-minded" antithesis sure leave you wishing for some kind of Aufhebung, "the divided self and its unification," through "conversion."

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