Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ethereal railroad

A testimonial in James' Varieties to which I hadn't paid much heed in past readings - it's in a footnote - stopped me in my tracks today. It's in the discussion of mystical experiences, experiences he suggests can be had in moments of intoxication, the report, by a "friend in England, ... a gifted woman, [who] was taking ether for a surgical operation."

"I wondered if I was in a prison being tortured, and why I remembered having heard it said that people 'learn through suffering,' and in view of what I was seeing, the inadequacy of this saying struck me so much that I said, aloud, 'to suffer is to learn.'
"With that I became unconscious again, and my last dream immediately preceded my real coming to. It only lasted a few seconds, and was most vivid and real to me, though it may not be clear in words.
"A great Being or Power was traveling through the sky, his foot was on a kind of lightning as a wheel is on a rail, it was his pathway. The lightning was made entirely of the spirits of innumerable people close to one another, and I was one of them. He moved in a straight line, and each part of the streak or flash came into its short conscious existence only that he might travel. I seemed to be directly under the foot of God, and I thought he was grinding his own life up out of my pain. Then I saw that what he had been trying with all his might to do was to change his course, to bend the line of lightning to which he was tied, in the direction in which he wanted to go. I felt my flexibility and helplessness, and knew that he would succeed. He bended me, turning his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, as he passed, I saw, I understood for a moment things that I have now forgotten, things that no one could remember while retaining sanity. The angle was an obtuse angle, and I remember thinking as I woke that had he made it a right or acute angle, I should have both suffered and 'seen' still more, and should probably have died.
"He went on and I came to. In that moment the whole of my life passed before me, including each little meaningless piece of distress, and I understood them. This was what it had all meant, this was the piece of work it had all been contributing to do. I did not see God's purpose, I only saw his intentness and his entire relentlessness towards his means. He thought no more of me than a man thinks of hurting a cork when he is opening wine, or hurting a cartridge when he is firing. And yet, on waking, my first feeling was, and it came with tears, 'Domine non sum digna,' for I had been lifted into a position for which I was too small. I realized that in that half hour under ether I had served God more distinctly and purely than I had ever done in my life before, or than I am capable of desiring to do. I was the means of his achieving and revealing something, I know not what or to whom, and that, to the exact extent of my capacity for suffering.
"While regaining consciousness, I wondered why, since I had gone so deep, I had seen nothing of what the saints call the love of God, nothing but his relentlessness. And then I heard an answer, which I could only just catch, saying, 'Knowledge and Love are One, and the measure is suffering' – I give the words as they came to me. With that I came finally to (into what seemed a dream world compared with the reality of what I was leaving), and I saw that what would be called the 'cause' of my experience was a slight operation under insufficient ether, in a bed pushed up against a window, a common city window in a common city street. If I had to formulate a few of the things I then caught a glimpse of, they would run somewhat as follows:
"The eternal necessity of suffering and its eternal vicariousness. The veiled and incommunicable nature of the worst sufferings; the passivity of genius, how it is essentially instrumental and defenseless, moved, not moving, it must do what it does; – the impossibility of discovery without its price;- finally, the excess of what the suffering 'seer' or genius pays over what his generation gains. (He seems like one who sweats his life out to earn enough to save a district from famine, and just as he staggers back, dying and satisfied, bringing a lac of rupees to buy grain with, God lifts the lac away, dropping one rupee, and says, 'That you may give them. That you have earned for them. The rest is for ME.') I perceived also in a way never to be forgotten, the excess of what we see over what we can demonstrate.
"And so on! – these things may seem to you delusions, or truisms; but for me they are dark truths, and the power to put them into even such words as these has been given me by an ether dream."
(William James, Varieties, 392n-393n)

Wherever these words come from, they are words to make a person shudder. I definitely have the desired reaction, described in James' famous letter to Leuba: there is something in me which makes response when I hear utterances from that quarter made by others. I recognize the deeper voice. Something tells me: - 'thither lies truth' (xxiv) And it is a near perfect illustration of many of the points James is making as he winds up the Varieties.

Was this experience chemically induced? So what if it was: this experience was clearly life-changing.

Is the language suspect - the celestial railway a giveaway of 19th century anxieties? So what if it is: in its very specificity it earns a place next to experiencers, from Anthony of the Desert to John of the Cross, whose truth we hear through their words.

Is religious experience self-important? It only seems to be: if in these minutes James' friend "served God more distinctly and purely" than ever before in her life, enabling God to "bend his course" as only she could have done, it was clearly understood as service to something greater, experienced not as a "purpose" but as a "relentlessness." Here we find a quite self-effacing example of religion as "mankind's most important function," an anticipation of the Varieties' closing suggestion that our faithfulness actually help[s] God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks" (519).

Of course - and now you'll see why students sometimes get whiplash in my classes - the English friend's experience can also help a Marxist critic in turn be more faithful to her task in critiquing James' fetishism of individual experience. Forget the opiate of ether. You could start with railroads and the reference to Indian famine - she's English, after all. (Marx actually praised the English for laying rails in India; it would hasten, he thought, the experience of national oppression required for revolution.) But, wherever the analogy comes from, she's describing a personal experience, too. We labor mightily to feed each other, but God takes almost all that we earn for himself. Even if described in a state of religious awe, the Marxist hears in it also a critique of a religion which parasitically weakens our efforts to help each other. A religion we experience as relentlessly intent but whose purposes we don't understand, which offers suffering as the only valid kind of knowledge, an experience which is incredibly powerful, explaining all, and yet one which the human isn't "capable of desiring."

Critiquing James is always a touchy business. James is so personal and personable that some students take it as an attack on their own interiority, their own ineffable experiences. I'm content just to have left them with a worry: does James' view that it is in private solitary experiences that we earn our keep in the universe blind us to other important experiences, not only of finding this-worldly solutions to our problems, but also in relations with other people? At one point, James affirms the importance of every individual experience:

If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. (487)

This is a stirring picture of the human race as a whole, but it's a whole divided into as many immovable and evidently unrelated parts as there are individuals, each of whom must do what she must do, on her own. (A bit like Charles Taylor's lonely conception of the "communion of the saints.") Otherwise religion goes off the rails.

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