Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hearing voices

Have I told you that, as part of a new curriculum of "one text" courses, I'll be spending half of next semester reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience - just the Varieties - with a small group of students? The model comes (unsurprisingly) from the Philosophy Department, but I'm looking forward to giving some undivided attention to Varieties, which, truth be told, I haven't given a thorough reread since graduate school.

Varieties was on the bill in "Theorizing Religion" today - first of two days, where we're reading two clumps of lectures. As I've been doing for rather longer than I realized (时间都去哪儿了?), today's class was centered on reading aloud some of the many testimonies James includes. He read them aloud when delivering the lectures (although all of them were written texts before he vocalized them...), and hearing these strange words, in his voice, must have been a significant part of the experience of the Varieties. So students chose a half dozen of the long quotations and read them aloud. I had them consider the generosity of James' lending his voice this way  - surely, his reading wasn't mocking or distancing but a demonstration of a will to hear if not to understand others' experiences, he was a sort of spirit medium for others.

Later in the class I performed one of his acts of possession, quite emotionally rendering the famous account of the person overwhelmed by a sense that the gauziest film kept him from the catatonic paralysis of an "Epileptic patient" he'd seen in an asylum, unable to function or even move. It's shattering, heart-breaking. (No small number of students at our school know comparable experiences of anxiety and depression.) We lingered in it for a while, then I let them know that this was in fact James' own experience, though he never says so. Varieties isn't a view from the mountaintop of religious consolation and empowerment, but from farther down, by someone who's never been to the summit and is, indeed, "constitutionally incapable" of getting there. (He doesn't claim legitimacy from a personal experience of the depths, either.) What a feat of generosity the Varieties now seems, acknowledging the value of experiences he himself had not had! The class was awed...

And I was not a little pleased to have done for James, lending my voice to him, what he did for so many others. What a pleasure it will be to give Varieties of Religious Experience even more time!

(And yes, that edition was blurbed by James' student Horace Kallen.)

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