Friday, March 09, 2018

Varieties XVIII-Epilogue: Almost a bodhisattva

I had completely forgotten how the Varieties ends. Not just with the lowest common denominator which goes lower still to a mere "MORE," which might be no more than approaching the world as if it's friendly to you, but that the Epilogue, in which he reiterates the "piecemeal supernaturalism" of his pragmatic way in religion, expresses an affinity not only with polytheism but with Buddhism as he understood it.

But what really moved me was a line I'd forgotten, from the Epilogue:

the current of thought in academic circles runs against me, and I feel like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not wish to see it closed and locked (523)

This is a dramatic image for the pragmatist resistance against an all-smothering universalism, whether naturalist or supernaturalist, and it speaks to James' somewhat difficult position within the science of religion he is proposing. The Varieties refers repeatedly to a "subliminal door," that space at the edge of conscious experience through which anything supernatural which might come to us can only come (243). James has repeatedly let on that his own door is shut, maybe even bolted. (I've always taken this line in his discussion of the Sick Soul to express a personal hope: Even late in life some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the man's hard heart may soften and break into religious feeling. (205))

Holding a door open with your back, strange and striking image! He's not going through the door except incidentally, and not facing into the religious but away from it. Or perhaps one should say, in the direction it faces as it enters human lives: he sees how it helps, even if he is not himself helped. But he helps it help. Which might be enough:

Some men are even disinterested enough to be willing to be in the unsaved remnant as far as their persons go, if only they can be persuaded that their cause will prevail (526)

Not quite the bodhisattva (his Buddhism is the Victorian idea of karma, the self-made sufferer), this is more like a martyr. That's a religious variety he didn't highlight in his discussion, even among the saints, but it fits within the heroism he thinks all men called to.

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