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The Boston Phoenix Aches and Pains

Like many great thinkers, William James was troubled in body and mind.

By Scott Stossel

MARCH 30, 1998: 

GENUINE REALITY: A LIFE OF WILLIAM JAMES, by Linda Simon. Harcourt Brace & Company, 446 pages, $35.

Any study of William James is best undertaken with a copy of the DSM-IV, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, close at hand. James's life was one long series of panic attacks, mental breakdowns, and psychosomatic ailments, and it is impossible to fully understand the genesis of pragmatism -- his amalgamation of psychology and philosophy -- without reference to the neuroses that racked him.

Linda Simon's Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, the first full-length biography of James to appear in a generation, takes full account of James's litany of neurotic complaints. It attempts to place his work in the context of his various psychopathologies, as well as in the context of the philosophical trends that emerged between 1850 and 1910. But although this book is the result of prodigious research (the author has mined James's letters and diaries more thoroughly than have previous biographers), Simon adds little to the existing portrait of this complex man beyond filling out his already familiar catalogue of psychological twitchings.

Yet this is no small achievement, given the scope of those twitchings. Indeed, the entire James family is fertile ground for historical psychoanalysis. There is Henry James Sr., the erratic and domineering father, plagued by anxiety attacks, prone to beating his children, and desperately hungry for public recognition of his goofy philosophical work. There is Henry James Jr., the great expatriate novelist, a repressed homosexual whose bundle of neurotic complaints easily rivals William's. There is poor depressive Alice James, William and Henry's sister, who suffered a succession of nervous breakdowns. And there is abusive, alcoholic Bob, a failed businessman, failed father, and struggling painter. Of all William's siblings, only Wilky, who died in his 30s of premature heart failure, seems (perhaps) to have avoided the taint of the James neurosis.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that this family produced so much work of enduring merit. Or does it? Could it be that it was not in spite of this neurotic crucible but because of it that William and Henry achieved such success? Think of other psychotic family settings that gave rise to brilliant creative work: Terry Zwigoff's outstanding documentary film Crumb, for example, revealed how family pathology of truly Gothic proportions somehow yielded a cartoonist whose dark genius rivals the younger Brueghel's; and the creepily intense collective imagination of the Brontë children (Emily, Charlotte, Anne, and Bramwell) produced illness and great literature in roughly equal measure. Genuine Reality lends further credence to the appealing idea that a fucked-up family can play a catalytic role in the development of the artistic or intellectual temperament.

Appropriately enough for someone whose thoughts and emotions were governed by panic attacks and nerve-induced physiological problems, William James was especially concerned to figure out how much our emotional states affect our philosophical thinking. Indeed, it should not be surprising that James, almost uniquely in his time, strove to unite philosophy and psychology. Most philosophy, he felt, was too concerned with abstract systems and concepts, and not enough with empirical evidence or reality. Trained originally as a medical doctor before becoming a professor of philosophy at Harvard, James was attracted to the new field of psychology because of its emphasis not just on mind but on scientific research and results. In his best-known book, Varieties of Religious Experience, he explored the psychological underpinnings of religious faith (both he and his father experienced religious epiphanies while in the grip of panic attacks) and the practical benefits of belief in God.

Simon, a professor of English at Skidmore College, does not grapple very hard with James's work or philosophy. She is more concerned with the concrete details of his life, and even there, her approach is less interpretive than straightforwardly factual. The James that she draws is little more than a collection of ailments: insomnia, anxiety, tremors, angina, gout, colds, dyspepsia, depression, backaches, headaches, and constipation. (In fact, the letters between William and Henry James -- though not excerpted here -- are most notable for the astonishing array of constipation remedies they discuss.) Still, this information is not incidental, nor is the resulting portrait inaccurate. In yoking metaphysics to experimental psychology, and laying the groundwork for the philosophical study of consciousness, William did draw heavily on his medical training and on his readings in philosophy -- but he drew most heavily on his own troubled psyche.

Scott Stossel is executive editor of the American Prospect.

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