Podcast • May 24, 2013

Iyer Dyer & Doty is not a Law Firm

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go. Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty ...

Dyer Doty Iyer close 2

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go.

Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty and globalist Pico Iyer and are testifying about the writers who inhabit writers — in their cases, respectively, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Graham Greene. We’re dropping names and having fun here with a genial crowd… but what’s more memorably instructive in the end than artists talking about the inner voices of their ancestors? As in conversations past with Harold Bloom on R. W. Emerson and the great Schmuel, Dr. Johnson. Or Dave McKenna speaking about his ideal, Nat Cole, the only pianist who could “bend” a note and play the tones in-between. Or Sonny Rollins, in humble astonishment that he had actually made music with the geniuses Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Or Roy Haynes talking with Ben Ratliff about Jo Jones.

As usual I am pining naively in the writers’ chat for my own William James or some magisterial successor who might explain Americans to themselves in a universal frame today. But the writers are reminding me of the contradictions in all these affinities. What we don’t have these days, and maybe don’t want, is a “synthesizing voice.” It’s one of England’s great achievements, Geoff Dyer slipped in, not to have a Bernard Henri Levy on the premises. If we had Whitman and his democratic vistas in our midst today, Doty says we might ignore him as his own generation did, or celebrate his worst poems, not his best. If by a miracle Graham Greene had been announced in the lobby of our theater, Pico Iyer insisted he’d have sprinted away because to meet his inspiration “would simplify, not deepen, my understanding of the man.” Odd, then, that everybody wanted to sit down with the subject that made Geoff Dyer famous — the inexhaustibly contentious, inconsistent and sometimes monstrous D. H. Lawrence, remembered as “a man who burned like an acetylene torch from one end to the other of his life” and elsewhere as “the man who could write brilliantly and awfully, in the same sentence.” Geoff Dyer gets the last line on the perplexity of writers’ affinities: “… but one would have thought it a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of a lashing from Lawrence.”

Podcast • September 8, 2012

Ralph Nader: One Citizen’s View from Winsted, CT

Mary McGrath photo Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England ...
Mary McGrath photo

Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England mills was bound for the Carolinas and Georgia, then Mexico and Asia. In 1900 there’d been 100 factories and machine shops in Winsted, making useful things for the world — cloth to clocks. In Ralph’s boyhood, a factory worker could raise a family on one paycheck in a 6-room house with a 2% V.A. mortgage, and drive a second-hand car. Then as now the green hills of northwest Connecticut were a breezy walk or bike ride away. “You could hear cows mooing one minute, and the milk would be in glass bottles on your doorstep a few hours later…”

We’re a long way from the convention speeches in Tampa and Charlotte. Listen and judge for yourself whether we’re closer to your experience and your aspirations. In Charlotte the Democrats are counting on an uptick in the job scores. In Winsted Ralph Nader is underlining what we all know: real wages for most American workers peaked in 1973, actual jobs in 2000. The United States, he says, is “increasingly an Advanced Third-World Country,” where mass poverty abounds and freakish new fortunes are lightly taxed. What Nader is counting on is a resurgence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great standard, Self-Reliance — a phrase he invokes continually, with many meanings. On the sandlot ballfield where Shaf and Ralph Nader played with Michael and David Halberstam in the 1940s, we are recalling particularly the omni-journalist David Halberstam, another giant of Emerson’s non-conforming boldness. “You didn’t want to be blocking home plate when one of the Halberstams slid in.” Baseball, as ever, is metaphor.

Every time you see local athletics, participatory sports, informal sports, a pickup game, basketball, touch football, it reduces the kind of spectator syndrome of people just sitting at home, eating junk food, getting overweight, watching spectacular athletes battle each other on a television screen. The more we can generate our own economic activity, the less we’ll be controlled by absentee owners in London, New York, Tokyo. And the more stable it will be, and the less risky. I would never have believed that the New York Stock Exchange would shake up and down, day after day, because of something going on in Greece. And that’s because of enormous global interdependence — that’s not healthy. It’s financial interdepence, linked by speculation and a Goldman Sachs relation with Greece. That never occurred in the United States. We are losing not only our community self-reliance but our regional and national self-reliance, and the only countervailing trend is these community economies I mention [credit unions, renewable energy, community health clinics]… The biggest obstacle is the emergence of the global corporations that have no allegiance to nation or to community, other than to control them or to export their jobs and industry to the most labor-repressive dictatorships and oligarchies in the world.

Winsted’s Main Street, about 1912, pre-Nader and pre-flood

The vernacular Ralph Nader laughs more than you remember and notices a hundred mundane details: the Christian Science Church that’s become an Elks Hall, the old fish store that’s now (“sign of the times”) a CPA’s office. He pines for the sidewalk bustle, even for the 20 taverns and bars of Main Street in his youth — booming with ethnic humor, gossip, trivia and grave talk. “You can be critical,” he says, “but it sure beats sitting at home alone watching a television screen.” Winsted the factory town had three restaurants. Winsted the lower-income bedroom town has eleven. “More people not eating at home,” Ralph remarks. His father’s restaurant — Highland Arms, named in a contest — is empty, but his parents, Nathra and Rose, are ever more on his mind: immigrants from Lebanon in their late teens in the late 1920s, who talked their way into a no-collateral loan from the Mechanics Savings Bank to start their business across the street. “You couldn’t do that with Bank of America,” Ralph laughs. In Nader’s restaurant, a dime got you a cup of coffee and five minutes, maybe ten, of political conversation with the owner. “My father thought things through, you know. He wasn’t an ideolog. It was ‘multi-step thinking,’ I call it, invulnerable to slogans and propaganda. He went deeper — the facts, the situation, the other side. He was a big reader, and he memorized a lot of poetry.”

I’m reminded of Tony Judt‘s cracks about mass media and “our dilapidated public conversation.” Who will tell the people about the country, I’m asking.

The country really knows who’s running the country, as Lincoln Steffens discovered in one city after another. In any bar in Pittsburgh or Cleveland he could get good answers to ‘who runs this city?’ People knew, by name in those days. Today people know logos, not the names of CEOs, but they do know that a handful of companies run the politicians and they run the show. What’s lacking is a sense that they can constructively rebel against this if they spend some time and some strategic smarts the way our forbears did at their best moments, especially the populist-progressive movement in the late 19th Century, which started with nothing but dirt-poor farmers in East Texas. In six months they organized 200,000 farmers. Each of them paid $1 dues, which is $50 today. And they organized the most fundamental political reform movement — almost electing a president — in the history of the United States. Governors they elected, senators, state legislatures… They didn’t make any excuses for themselves. They had two assets: their land and their votes, garnished by self-respect. And that’s what’s missing these days. There’s a widespread sense of utter powerlessness among people. It’s bred into them in grade school. School children do not learn practical civics. They don’t learn about their community. They don’t learn about town hall. They don’t connect with adults supervising them in improving the community, other than a few scraps of charity and cleaning up here and there…

I complain that he’s unfair to both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, and he softens some. “When the Tea Party turned up, I said: ‘They’ve got a pulse! All power to them.’ The original Tea Party people were against wars of aggression, they were against bloated military budgets, they were against the Patriot Act, they were against corporate welfare, they were against Wall Street shenanigans. Then they were high-jacked by the Republican Party. But at least they showed up, and they showed something very interesting: that less than a few tens of thousands of people could get the attention of the country. Half of democracy is showing up — at town meetings when members of Congress showed up in their district…” Occupy made three big contributions, on the Nader card: 1. energy and drama that sent “some tremors into the sanctuaries of corporatism and oligarcy.” 2. the “99 percent” slogan, which signaled an inclusive protest, with no identity politics under the umbrella. 3. A clear target: gross inequality between haves and have-nots, and the rule of the few over the many. “But they did not come up with a strategy of civic power, or with leadership,” Nader notes. If they had organized around a $10 minimum wage, for example, and acted up in Congressional districts around the country, “they could have won tens of billions of dollars for working people. But they rejected politics as dirty.” Our season of unrest, Ralph Nader says, is not over.

It is only the beginning, because… the economy is going to get worse. The greed at the top is going to get worse. The constant empire wars and drones and all the rest of going after people who basically are trying to protect their valleys or conquer their country, but are no threat to us — and we’re still droning them and putting special forces all over, draining our treasury enormously, distracting from domestic issues. All those are going to get worse. So we will see periodic eruptions. The question is whether we’ll see the leaders of the future as part of those eruptions. Serious people who know how to collaborate, keep their eye on the ball, who know that shift of power is the first step to recovering a modest, democratic society. What’s interesting about our country today is: we have all kinds of solutions on the shelf, and all kinds of problems on the ground, and we’re not connecting the two… We don’t have the democratic institutions to take the solutions like energy, housing, food, and foreign policy and connect them to problems on the ground. However, that is a source of hope: that we have so many solutions that are ready to go — technical, social, resource — that most countries don’t have.

It’s still a bit startling to many people that Ralph Nader feels a convergence coming with opposites like the libertarian Republican from Texas, Ron Paul — an indomitably principled fringe candidate for the presidency, as Nader was.

I think the common ground is antipathy to concentrated, unaccountable power that projects itself unconstitutionally and militarily abroad, and projects itself against the right of people to fulfill their life’s possibility by decent livelihoods and political voice. So that means that Ron Paul and I, for example, agree we have militarized our foreign policy illegally and unconstitutionally. We should not project empire; we should pay attention to our domestic needs. We agree that the Patriot Act had provisions that are insufferably violative of civil liberties. We agree that corporations should not be bailed out by taxpayers. We agree that there should be multi-party systems and we agree that small business, local economies, that kind of free enterprise is preferable to giant corporations and Wall Street domination. Now he thinks the free market will level the playing field; that’s where we disagree. He doesn’t like Social Security, he doesn’t like Medicare… So what do you do with someone like him? Well, you accept where the convergence is possible, without compromising your principles. When you talk about converging on civil liberties, when you talk about military and foreign policy, when you talk about corporate welfare, these are important areas. So let’s pool our resources and start new groups that only do convergence, without other priorities or conflicts. That’s where it is now, because convergence has enormous power in Congress.

Ralph Nader with Chris Lydon in Winsted, CT, August 30, 2012

Ralph Nader in conversation has a surprising effect on me — in common with that other hard-marker and scold, Noam Chomsky. In the end he’s a reassuring model of constructive hope. Professor Chomsky was reminding us not so long ago of the rising force of anti-imperial feeling in this country. So Ralph Nader judges that awareness and activism are very much alive. “When you go down to where people live, work, shop and play, the ideologies and abstractions — what George Will calls ‘the pitiless abstractions’ — fade away and the Golden Rule comes in. Basic decency comes in…” And then there are those “two secrets of democracy,” Ralph Nader says, that people discover sooner or later. “It works, and it’s easier than it looks.”

Podcast • March 31, 2010

Nell Painter’s History of White People: it’s coming to an end

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nell Irvin Painter. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3) Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nell Irvin Painter. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Nell Painter and I seem to have opposite takes on the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The History of White People, she makes Emerson “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” On the contrary, I say he was one of the inventors of transnational, transracial America. Before there was a “melting pot,” Emerson coined the phrase “smelting pot.” Granted: he prized inconsistency. But in his Journal in 1845, Emerson wrote resoundingly:

I hate the narrowness of the Native American Party. It is the dog in the manger. It is precisely opposite to all the dictates of love and magnanimity; and therefore, of course, opposite to true wisdom… Man is the most composite of all creatures… Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent – asylum of all nations — the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes – of the Africans and of the Polynesians — will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism. ‘La Nature aime les croisements’ [Or: ‘Nature loves hybrids’].

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Journal, 1845.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, we are having a cordial time here. A prolific historian recently emerita at Princeton, now pursuing an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Painter in this big new book flips the ethnographic mirror on white America. Now that we are all supposed to have absorbed the genomics of it — that “race” is a social concept, not a scientific one; a construction, not a fact — she is asking: who invented “whiteness” as a human category? (Answer: Germans thought up the theory. Brits refined the practice.) Who expanded and shrank that slice of the species over the years? It’s old news, of course, that “white” came to be code for Anglo-Saxon beauty, intelligence and power. But in 2010 the icons of American beauty, intelligence and power are our radiant brown President and his darker-skinned wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.

The gift in Barack Obama’s rise, Nell Painter suggests, is not least the affirmation that “mixed ancestry is an old story in America.” It is Nell Painter’s story, too. “People like Barack Obama have always been with us; we haven’t always been able to see them as bi-racial people.” Now we do.

It interests me that unlike Henry Louis Gates in his Faces of America PBS series, Nell Painter has not tested her DNA and finds that “roots” inquiry meaningless. It tells her only that “we’re all related, but I knew that… What I am is what my parents made me, and what I have made of myself. I am not my biology. Your biology is not you.”

The species, she says, is breeding its way to another history and another understanding.

NP: Anybody can be racialized. We have manifold choices in human difference. So we could build a race on the shape of the nose; in the nineteenth and century century, races were built on the shape of the head. So you can use anything. And whether it’s what we see as a big difference or what we now see as a small difference, the point is to show that the people who are at the bottom, who do the dirty work—paid, unpaid—are there because of something inside them, intrinsic in them, and permanent.

CL: Phrenology, of course, the shapes of heads, has been exploded many times. We come to the age of the genome, and a realization, which I think is pretty common now, that we’re all almost exactly the same stuff, and the human brain is almost everywhere the same thing. I think of it as a kind of universal carburetor that was tested and proven, evolved and improved, and then sent out from East Africa — what, 50 or 75 thousand years ago.

NP: And the point is that they kept walking, and they kept migrating. People have not stopped moving. People are still moving, they’re still meeting, they’re still having sex, and they’re still having babies. And their babies are growing up and having more sex…

Nell Irvin Painter in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 29, 2010.

In our children and grandchildren, it seems, The History of White People is dissolving.

Podcast • December 30, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (3) The Jazz Bridge

Not the least of Harold Bloom's many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he's heard as well as all he's read, and making meaning of it. Bloom's theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century.

Not the least of Harold Bloom’s many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he’s heard as well as all he’s read, and making meaning of it.

Bloom’s theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century. As Bloom remarked to me:

That is because the whole jazz tradition from at least Amstrong on features what was called ‘cutting.’ And cutting is the pure instance — from the Greeks on, and it was revived by Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzche — of the agonistic spirit; the agon or the contest. The last cutting contest I heard was the rather unequal match between the extremely brave Branford Marsalis and Sonny Rollins — very brave of Branford. Of all living masters in jazz now, Rollins is surely the greatest extant… Among poets it’s always a competition. Mr. Stevens and Mr. Eliot existed at the same time. Mr. Eliot thought well of Wallace Stevens and published him in England by Faber & Faber. Stevens refused to say a word about Eliot in prose, though it entered into the letters occasionally and it was family tradition; that’s how they told me he didn’t like Eliot or his poetry. Didn’t like the fact that Harmonium had been crowded out by The Waste Land in 1922…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Besides, Harold Bloom actually knew that elusive, suffering genius Bud Powell (1924 – 1966), the pianist who lives as large in legend as the great innovator Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins, who played with both of them, told us last spring it was part of the unspoken lore of jazz in the 1950s that “Bird was jealous of Bud.”

Bloom haunted Minton’s and other uptown hatcheries of the new music on weekends home from Cornell in the late 1940s. Bud Powell dominated the scene on intermittent leaves from the state mental institution at Creedmoor. Bloom remembers Powell as sharply as people who played with him:

I had conversations with him. He was very tightly restrained. You had the feeling of someone who was balancing himself on a wire, knowing he could plunge over on either side. Cheerful enough, but grim underneath. Very tense. Very beautiful. He had that wonderfully stripped down face at that point. It got tormented and puffy after that, but it was rather an astonishing profile at that point… He was very literate, though he didn’t like to talk in terms of literacy.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Who but Harold Bloom would have thought to put a volume of the doomed poet Hart Crane (1899 – 1932) into the hands of Bud Powell?

I actually talked to Bud Powell about Hart Crane. I gave him a copy of the old black-and-gold Liveright edition of the collected poems of Hart Crane. [Bud] was an extremely articulate and quite brilliant person. He read “The Bridge” and “The Broken Tower” at my suggestion, and “Repose of Rivers” and the “Voyager” sequence. And I told him there was a real affinity, I thought. I could not hear “Un Poco Loco” played by him, whether on the recordings — those three wonderful takes — or in person without hearing “The Broken Tower”… “The bells, I say the bells break down their tower and swing I know not where.” Because that’s what you feel is happening. Expecially when the now, alas, late Max Roach, in that extraordinary drum work in the latter part of it, particularly on the final take, the definitive take… You really feel the bells are breaking down their tower and swinging I know not where. You feel that the mind has reached its limit and is coming apart. Un Poco Loco indeed. The title is well chosen. It’s a highly autobiographical work, in a very complex way, “Un Poco Loco.” And for me it’s one of the summits of jazz. A cowbell ringing doom in the Hart Crane sense, or the Herman Melville sense.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And who but Harold Bloom would swing the conversation through accounts of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Coltrane and Proust, around all the glories of American music, back to our starting point? “Well,” he said, “it’s Walt Whitman. The two great American contributions to the world’s art, in the end, are Walt Whitman and, after him, Armstrong and jazz. Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Mingus, what you will. If I had to choose between the two, ultimately, I wouldn’t. I would say that the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

Podcast • December 18, 2007

Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

Emersonians, awake! Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle… We’re wallowing ...

Emersonians, awake!

Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn

You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle

We’re wallowing in the transcendent mystery of things with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History. Gura is an eminent professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, but he’s also “one of us,” avid in the non-dogmatic, non-exclusive pursuit of the ecstatic, the invisible, the divine.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gura here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

Toward the end of this conversation, Philip Gura explains how it began for him, 44 years ago. He was a child in Ware, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant mill folk, when he came upon a nest of “huge, garrulous, yellow birds eating choke cherries.” When he wrote to the American Museum of Natural History for help identifying his find, the great ornithologist Dean Amadon wrote him directly to say the birds had to be evening grosbeaks, cousins of the goldfinch.

Naturalist and Prophet: HDT

Birds and New England nature led to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau led to the genius moment and the genius cluster of the American renaissance in Concord — writers, thinkers, social consciences that to this day “represent something about our past that we want to be part of” and a key that perhaps hasn’t been turned all the way in the door of American life.

The insistent voice of Mary McGrath asks, as always: “Okay, Chris, what’s the question for listeners?”

Okay, Mary, here it is: Do the mostly sectarian, literalist and Fundamentalist questions around our politics of 2008 prove that transcendentalist impulses thrive — or expired long ago? Does the tempest that Mitt Romney, for example, has stirred around himself and his Mormonism mark a dismal falling-off — or rather an amazing continuity — of the old transcendentalist passion about faith, spirit and the religious underpinnings of this nation’s life. Extra points for apt Emersonian quotes. And extra-extra points for apt quotes from other than Emerson.

December 31, 2006

William James: Son, Brother, Hero

The quick-silver mind of William James -- "incandescent, tormented, mercurial" were his wife's words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience -- leaps off the page of Robert Richardson's new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson.

The quick-silver mind of William James — “incandescent, tormented, mercurial” were his wife’s words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience — leaps off the page of Robert Richardson’s new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson; to be with him is to feel the glow of his “minds on fire.” In William James’s case it’s the reckless, ever-experimental energy, what novelist Henry James remembered from boyhood as “my brother’s signal vivacity and cordiality, his endless spontaneity of mind.”

Just to remind you, James was first among the Harvard faculty giants a century ago, a man who’d tutored Teddy Roosevelt, W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein, a famous international lecturer who also dabbled in drugs and mind-bending gases and who, on his death-bed asked his brother Henry to linger in Cambridge for 6 weeks post-mortem, to receive if possible William’s messages from the next world.

Beyond his imprint on canonical learning and common understanding of psychology, philosophy and the study of religion, Robert Richardson writes: “James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and Emerson.”

Robert Richardson says there will always be three reasons to reacquaint ourselves with William James. I would add two more. Please add your own below.

1. James fathered the study of “consciousness,” about the same time Freud (a passing acquaintance) was developing the unconscious. James conceived of mind as a living stream of activity. His emphasis was on the action in consciousness, inseparable from the physiology and chemistry of the individual brain. The elementary fact of mental life “is not thought, or this thought or that thought, but my thought.” James is the source point of the cognitive sciences and the widespread study today of “how the mind works.”

2. William James was the philosopher of “Pragmatism,” i.e. the now old-fashioned American argument that the truth is something that happens to an idea; that the truth of something is the sum of its actual results. As in his psychology (where he argued: the child is not crying because she’s unhappy; she’s unhappy because she is crying), Pragmatism put the focus on the “fruits, not the roots” of ideas and feelings. President McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines, for example, demonstrated American Imperialism to be a Bad Idea:

… during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked… The most sanguine expect no real assimilation of our prey to us or of us to our prey for fifty years to come, and no one who knows history expects that it can genuinely come at all.

William James, Address on the Phillipine Question, December,1903

3. James was the re-inventor of religion, most especially for the multitudes (then and now) itching to loosen the authority of church and dogma. James created the modern universe of religious studies by shifting the focus from saints, scriptures and creeds toward the actual experiences of individuals — both common and peculiar.

4. As the son and brother of two remarkable Henry Jameses (Sr. and Jr.), William is a human study of endless interest. Growing up in the “gleeful anarchy and high-toned hilarity” of a rich, over-gifted family, eldest-son William felt pressure from his noisy, peripatetic father to be a scientist, and from himself to be an artist. He wrote in a letter from Germany at 16: “I will be prepared for everything.” Will we ever grasp how these James boys (the Good James Boys, as opposed to Frank and Jesse, their contemporary Bad James Boys) came to their enthusiastic mastery of multi-lingual reading, non-stop writing, distillation, argument and style? Richardson is brilliant on another personal secret: the process by which William, near suicide in his mid-twenties, “turned trouble into insight and self-loathing into energy.” James himself wrote later: “Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up.”

5. As a prose stylist, William today is arresting, fresh, original and quotable as he ever was — quite as perfect for his own purposes as was Henry, the beloved brother that William never stopped needling for his wordy abstractions in fiction. William James’s sentences have the sound of a man’s voice teaching — and of family-friend Emerson’s rockets going off. As, for example, in the line drawn against Platonism in his essay, “The Stream of Consciousness”:

…A permanently existing ‘Idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.

William James, The Stream of Consciousness, 1892

When Jimmy Carter in the oil shortage of the 1970s called for “the moral equivalent of war” against a ruinous energy addiction, he was of course drawing on one of William James’s most eloquent, uttlerly ageless essays, a sweeping denunciation of war and at the same time, a paean to military values:

…History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizens being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

…All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party. But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built — unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths, fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a centre of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, 1910

I think of William James as he thought of John Stuart Mill, “whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.” Or, as the philosopher George Santayana thought of his colleague. William James, Santayana said,

…kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, wizards, cranks, quacks and imposters… He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him…. Thus, William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full.

George Santayna, Winds of Doctrine, quoted in Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 160.

I think of William James, in short, as our mightiest, most inclusive American mind, still amongst us with an almost neighborly familiarity. Where shall the conversation begin?

Robert Richardson

Author, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Extra Credit Reading
Matt Asay, Open source: pragmatism buys in, InfoWorld, January 28, 2007: “I know I find open source in everything, but it seems to me to be a perfect rendering of James’ pragmatism. It’s not about the theory behind open source that matters. The only thing that matters is the output. That output makes me think that open source is “true” in the Jamesian sense.”Paul Vitols, searching for beliefs, Genesis of a Historical Novel, March 30, 2007: “Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I’m writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James’s view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I’m aware of them or not.”

William F. Valicella, Suggestions for Writing Well Part One: The Example of William James, Maverick Philosopher, January 16, 2007: “To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books. If you carefully read, say, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, you will learn something of the expository potential of the English language from a master of thought and expression.”

Gabriel, Gabriel’s LiveJournal, The Older, Cooler Brother, March 3, 2007:

“I’ll just leave you with these facts to explain why William James is so awesome:

* The Principles of Psychology are really just the notes William James made when he invented the brain.

* William James’s stare is ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’

* William James doesn’t write books, he stares down his brother Henry until Henry takes dictation.

* Anytime you experience anything, William James experiences it, too.

* William James’s fists cure stupidity, too bad he’s a pacifist.”

Jonah Lehrer, A Console to Make You Wiip, Seed Magazine, November 16, 2006: “To understand how the Wii turns Zelda into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by the great American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body.”

Diego Saa, Out of Self: Day 247., Teachable alcoholic, January 17, 2007: “Anyway, it has been an exceptional week so far, and for that I’m grateful to God. We’ve got a book reading club going with my homegroup and some of us are currently reading William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s proving to be quite a reaffirming experience to me; in that my personal belief of a Higher Power is predicated upon tangible phenomena.”

Mike Lynch, The Varieties of Religious Experience, PrawnWarp’s LiveJournal, November 29, 2006: “James, as an old-fashioned psychologist, is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of religion by its adherents. It’s his patience with the effusions of the revival-tent Methodist, the Mind-Cure movement and various mystics which I think would drive Dawkins to distraction. It tries my patience, and James is continually apologising for the imposition on his auditors of yet another excerpt from a tract or pamphlet; but the source documents are fascinating, and often hilarious.”

Maureen Ryan, A graduate seminar on Milch-ology: The creator of ‘Deadwood’ speaks, The Watcher, January 13, 2007: “Here’s what Milch said in response to a question about where he drew his inspiration from: ‘William James — and several of the actors have attempted to take their lives in the aftermath of my protracted speaking about William James.'”

July 4, 2006

Emerson Redux

Nothing says the 4th of July like Ralph Waldo Emerson, that's what we maintain at Open Source. So while you enjoy your barbecues and fireworks -- or watch Confederate re-enactors get ready for the Civil War (Civil War?), as I found myself doing in the Adirondacks yesterday -- you can also listen to our special hour about the Sage of Concord.


Nothing says the 4th of July like Ralph Waldo Emerson, that’s what we maintain at Open Source. So while you enjoy your barbecues and fireworks — or watch Confederate re-enactors get ready for the Civil War (Civil War?), as I found myself doing in the Adirondacks yesterday — you can also listen to our special hour about the Sage of Concord.

We’re back live, with Death, tomorrow.