Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hearing voices

I seem to be very interested in oral culture these days - stories you hear rather than read, like Job, for instance. This led me to do something new in what must be at least the tenth time I've taught William James' Varieties of Religious Experience on Tuesday. The Varieties is full of first-personal testimonials, accounts of feelings of dread and joy and relief and transformation, as one would expect for a project devoted to examining "the feelings, acts, and experienes of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine," a project, indeed, committed to showing that "out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow." Earlier theorists of religion had looked at creeds and scriptures and sermons and ritual manuals; James was among the first to listen to the voices of individuals - and what a remarkable bunch of individuals he found to quote! Here's the very first, George Fox, founder of the Quakers:

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! It being market day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so on my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to do: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again. After this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason I should be sent to cry against that city, and call it The bloody city! For though the parliament had the minister one while, and the king another, and much blood had been shed in the town during the wars between them, yet there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian's time a thousand Christians were martyr'd in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their blood in the market-place, that I might raise up the memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years before, and lay cold in their streets. So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord."

What occurred to me this time through was that, while Fox was writing (all of James' sources are written, presumably in solitude...), the Varieties itself was a (hugely successful) series of lectures. That first day in Edinburgh in 1899, as James embarked on the first of that year's ten monthly lectures (a second cycle would complete the project) - the first American and the first psychologist to have been honored with an invitation to deliver Gifford Lectures - his audience heard Fox's voice. Through James' voice. James must have performed Fox, along with the scores of other religious geniuses and weirdos who make the Varieties such a remarkable work. William James' voice was the one heard crying, "Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!" And in order to make his point that these testimonials contained "facts" a scientist of religion must learn to learn from, he couldn't have done it with irony or distaste in his voice.

What must it have been like to hear these voices? I had some students try reading aloud some of James' sources, including Fox. An interesting experience! By enacting and enjoying the performative in these lectures in our class I was able to raise the necessary questions about the description and interpretation of supposedly ineffably individual experience. Can personal experience be communicated? Is it a problem that/how it's recollected, verbalized, written down, read, excerpted? The exercise of reading aloud becomes, indeed, an interesting hermeneutic and even ethical point: how should you give voice to someone else's arguments or experience if you are to understand and respond to them?

Part of the magic of the Varieties is that the other voices are more memorable than James' - by design, I think: while James believes he's making important contributions in collecting and interpreting experiences, no collecting or interpreting could take the place of the individual experiences where religion really lives. Tomorrow I'll start with a few more performances of James' sources, including a much discussed account from an unnamed Frenchman:

"Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other THAT SHAPE AM I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone."
"In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind (I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing."

A few years later, it became clear that this experience was James' own. What to make of that?
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience:
A Study in Human Nature
(Penguin, 1982), 30, 7-8, 160-161.

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