Friday, March 02, 2018

Varieties XVI-XVII: Ripples and pebbles

Having now read "Mysticism," we are reconciled to James. After the uncertainty about his argument and the abrasive characters he presented to us in healthy-mindedness and sick souls (can they be taken seriously? are some people doomed?), converts (is such change real?) and saints (why such extravagance?), he had us just where he wanted us. Who could not envy the person who had this experience (399);
And how reassuring James' tripartite conclusion that, while anyone who has as powerful an experience as this is entitled to build a life around it, it constitutes no kind of claim in the rest of us - just that, confronted with such experiences, we might safely conclude that there is more to life than we can articulate! We can listen to their accounts as to music. Indeed, the mystical speaks to us best through music, which gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict... There is a verge of the mind which these things haunt; and whispers therefrom mingle with the operations of our understanding, even as the waters of the infinite ocean send their waves to break among the pebbles that lie upon our shores. (421)

All was forgiven, as James knew it would be. At the end of "Mysticism," after he's arrived at these versatile conclusions, he confesses to over-generalizing and cherry-picking: he knows we'll excuse, even bless these inevitable editings. Nobody at this stage wants to hear more of most of the kinds of people whose testimonials he's "extracted"! And, more fundamentally, we're grateful for what he's given us. What he's slogged through for us, excerpting what we can use, are experiences which may determine attitudes though they cannot deliver formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. (388) Latitudinarian! We noticed the usual terminological fuzziness, some new omissions - where is the erotic in his account of the mystical? - and tut-tutted at the "diabolical mysticism" he acknowledges but relegates to an aside, but he's our friend now. Nobody's perfect, he has his limits, there was more material than he could have included in any event... most fundamentally, he means well, we like where he's going.

Or where we think he's going! "Mysticism" offers a rest, but the journey continues. Will all still feel so warm and fuzzy when he turns to philosophy, science and the pragmatist metaphysics of "piecemeal supernaturalism" in the book's concluding chapters? Stay tuned!

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