James's Narrative of Habit
by Renee Tursi
a wracking melancholia that revealed to him "that pit of insecurity
beneath the surface of life," a young William James found rescue
from his own "ontological wonder-sickness" in a definition
of free will posited by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier (Varieties
135; Will 63). In James's 1870 diary entry that records this remarkable
instance of mental and moral resummoning, he enlists Renouvier's concept
of free will - "'the sustaining of a thought because I choose to
when I might have other thoughts'" - in a grim struggle against
his own morbid degree of "mere speculation and contemplative Grublei"
(Letters 1: 147). Having previously determined suicide to be "the
most manly form" to put his daring into, James now vows to direct
his "free initiative" towards staunch belief in his "individual
reality and creative power" (148).
While scholars have often fixed on this passage for its nascent markers
of a pragmatism James most famously lodged in his celebrated declaration
that "my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,"
they tend to give only a nod to what James attests will be his means
to subsequent acts of free will (147). Citing the English psychologist
Alexander Bain and his postulates for the acquisition of habits, James
writes, "I will see to the sequel" (148). Recollect, he instructs
that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting
fields of action - and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful
choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes
an indefinite number. (148)
Hence James rediscovers in habit, that usually so stolid affair, not
only a newly valiant source for the homecoming of his very being, but
also a language with which to express his restored creative energy.
From this point on James begins with quiet urgency to develop a narrative
of habit, one that proves integral to his writing on the processive
self and challenges our assumptions about habit's aesthetic force.
Perhaps because we tend to dress habit in so prosaic a mood, readers
of William James have neglected to address fully the range of its significance
in his writing. More often than not habit's importance to his work is
generally dealt with straightforwardly as constituting the topic of
his engaging "Habit" chapter in The Principles of Psychology,
or is handled as a building-block philosophical concept on the way to
grander ideas - its function, for instance, in the tychistic ideas with
which James worked. In his bench mark 1935 study of the philosopher,
Ralph Barton Perry writes of James's "Habit," curiously, with
no further analysis, that "it is not without bearing on its success
that it should have sprung from an early and lifelong faith of his own
in the benign effect of routine and the cumulative significance of little
acts" (2: 90). Gerald Myers, who presents a more recent and deeper
interpretative analysis, still only mentions the concept as a physiological
layer underlying the will's "psychological habit" (199). George
Cotkin, on the other hand, does recognize James's emphasis upon "the
salutary role of habit formation," hearing in it an echo of the
Victorian predilection to regard habit's disciplinary function as "an
anodyne for doubt," yet he keeps his inquiry trained on the influences
of "Scottish common-sense philosophy" and the principles of
science (69-70). Even in as involved a cultural critique as Ross Posnock's,
which at its core places James's work within a genealogical model of
human thinking that presents the historical conditions of how we think,
there is no intensive examination of habit's presence or power in that
kind of human shaping; again, habit becomes subsumed by other ideas,
as it does in the work of Bruce Kuklick, James Kloppenberg, and Kim
Townsend. Only Joseph M. Thomas's searching exploration into how James's
writerly reliance upon habit issues from his deeper and conflicted involvement
with the concept stands as the welcome exception. He finds in James
a discourse of habit that, in its attempt to "domesticate"
experience rhetorically, fluctuates between signalling "an ethos
of war" and one of "accommodation" (14, 15).
Just what habit signifies to James can remain enigmatic, for he often
relocates its home far from where habit traditionally dwells. Neither
routine nor repetition sums up its character, although these aspects
certainly come into play. Nor is mere custom alone, what we usually
regard as institutionalized or community-sanctioned habit, the "real"
subject at hand, for his use of habit extends well into the spiritual
and metaphysical aspects of the human circumstance. Rather, in his writing
its features of intuition, intention, and tendency go hand-in-hand with
James's ideas of rationality, morality, and the will to express a profound
dynamism. If in good part habit causes a "settling in" or
hardening of our experience like the rings of a tree, to use James's
own image, it also paradoxically serves as the very source of re-animating
or narrating those experiences. We have, James notes in his draft of
the 1896 Lowell Lectures, "reproductive power stored up in the
form of habit," a startling notion when considered creatively (Manuscript
Lectures 39). Unlike Josiah Royce, who saw our daily mental negotiation
of sense experience as the "destruction of possibilities"
(World 450), James credits habit with the perpetuation of possibility,
including its moral valence. An original thought would perish if left
on its own; only habit, according to James, enables the environment
to preserve an idea's ongoing potential. Such a view contradicts everything
we have taken on faith from Walter Pater regarding habit and an inventive
world on the cusp of modernism, for in 1888 the English essayist suggested
that we fail on every creative plane by forming habits.
On the face of it, habit would appear to be a force hostile to James's
open-minded thinking and writing, an ossifying power that could eventually
render inert the goodness of even the most moral possibility. Beckett,
who famously called habit "the great deadener" in an age of
tremendous cultural remove from James, appears to answer him directly
on this score (Waiting for Godot 82). Beckett writes that by giving
our thoughts a place to rest from "the suffering of being,"
habit all too soon imprisons them (Proust 8). In a pertinent echo of
one of James's enfigurations of habit in Pragmatism - that you can never
wholly rinse away the taste of the whiskey that first filled the bottle
of our own as well as our collective genealogical experience (83) -
Beckett harangues that "the whiskey" or our cumulative thinking
eventually "bears a grudge against the decanter" (Proust 10).
Thus habit seems to have cast only a sinister and truculent shadow across
the history of the everyday. Samuel Johnson observed that at first the
grip of habit is too weak to be noticed, but soon it becomes too tight
to be broken (165), for from the realm of the personal to the political,
the consequences of habit's ease toward a customary passivity have never
been slight. Francis Bacon recognized that "the contentious retention
of custom is a turbulent thing" (qtd. in Abbott 24), and like Beckett,
Emerson brooded on how soon habits become fixed, finessed by propriety
and then worn as a "badge" of one's distinctions (75).
as well, habit has earned scant appreciation. By the end of the nineteenth
century, Pater leads his clarion call against it with the hope of fostering
a truly modern sensibility. To him, a great artist's making will necessarily
be in a supreme "failure [. . .] to form habits" (85). James
himself could make the oracular pronouncement that genius comes only
to the man who perceives in an unhabitual way (Principles 2: 754). Once
a new manner has become "the race's average," he writes in
The Will to Believe, "it becomes "a dead and stagnant thing,"
built up layer upon layer like the trunk of a tree (193). Yet the sturdiness
and sheer means of support inherent in the metaphor's image undermines
his attempt at a detraction of habit's qualities. As his own layered
narrative of habit reveals, James would characterize the "failure
to form habits" as anything but a strictly sublime moment. What
he terms in "Habit" our own organic "plasticity,"
a quality of pliancy that might exhilarate the artist, should, to James's
way of thinking, petrify him as well (Principles 1: 110). He suggests
that the resulting uncanny metaphysical homelessness takes us far from
what an artist might regard as an interesting cognitive or creative
freedom; certainly James projects from his own experience that such
a habitlessness could be manifestly paralyzing. Even in such a "popularized"
and confident rendering of habit as we encounter in Principles, James's
apprehensions and discomforts with the kind of uncanniness that the
"unhabitual" gives rise to are never far below the surface.
"Shipwreck in detail," to use James's words (Some Problems
73), looms ever-present because in disquieting ways, as Richard Hocks
writes, "the same is always returning as the different" (Henry
A beginning look at the force of habit in James leads quickly to a simple
but crucial premise. While the familiar maxim tells us that habit is
second nature, there is no question that, to James, it operates as the
very first kind of nature we have. "Make it clear," James
writes in a teaching note to himself, "that without a body we need
not be in the least subject to the law of habit" (Psychology: Briefer
448).(1) We are nothing, then, if not "bundles of habits,"
he informs us in Principles (1: 109). But as far as "mind"
or "consciousness" per se is concerned, we are much more than
bundles of mere physiology or biologically-based instinct. In late nineteenth-century
American literary representations of psychological thought, as Gordon
O. Taylor has written, there occurs a shift from an earlier notion of
consciousness as a series of "static, discrete mental states"
reflective of conventional values to a more fluid and physiological
concept emphasizing "the nature of the sequential process itself"
(5, 6). That is to say, the frame of reference moves away from regarding
thought as an abstract mirror of sanctioned ethics and more towards
viewing it as a response to environmental factors - the mind as "soul"
replaced by the mind as "brain." For James, however, intellectual
and scientific explorations remain wholly steeped in moral hues.(2)
So the allaying effects of habit that James had experienced in the face
of severe personal alienation suggest that, for him, it not only functions
on the simple biological level, but also on the most intuitive and thus
aesthetic - or pure sensory - level for a performance that, according
to his pragmatic thinking, necessarily results in real, practical, and
The preliminary terms of this process emerge in James's own episode
of "panic fear" (reminiscent of the 1844 "vastation"
experience of his father, Henry Sr.) that he presents as a "case"
in The Varieties of Religious Experience, but later reveals as being
in fact autobiographical.(3) Having entered his dressing-room one evening
while in a pessimistic state, William was suddenly overcome by "a
horrible fear of [his] own existence," a condition he refers to
as a kind of soul sickness (Varieties 134). In the same instant an image
appeared in his mind of a patient he claims to have seen in an asylum,
a man who used to sit all day with his knees tucked under his chin,
"looking absolutely non-human."
This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each
other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. [. . .] I awoke morning
after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with
a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that
I have never felt since. (148)
By speaking simultaneously of an estrangement from his own familiar
self and an eerie identification with someone or something wholly unfamiliar,
James introduces elements that make up the uncanny, which, according
to Freud, also functions aesthetically. To discern the rudimentary connection
between habit and the uncanny that James goes on to make, however, first
begs two questions: why must the Jamesian self undergo such a struggle
in its quest to feel at home in the world? And why does James find the
language of habit so well suited to the task?
Growing up within the James household, William found himself immersed
in an untamed atmosphere of intellectual aimlessness, one that indulged
in what Posnock describes as "purposeless knowledge of pure curiosity"
(40). In 1868, queasy from forever "pointing at the void"
in wonder, he was on the verge of despair himself from the over-examined
life (Will 63). While Townsend has made much of James's sexual consternation
as the source of his anxiety, in particular within the context surrounding
James's episode of "panic fear," such a reading cuts short
James's spiritual and metaphysical needs. If James's anxieties eased
during his courtship and subsequent marriage to Alice Howe Gibbens,
they did not disappear. James, like his father, found that anxiety would
come to be essentially a spiritual problem, but unlike his father, he
could meet that problem only by way of a pragmatic philosophy, not a
religion in its traditional sense. As he contends in "Philosophical
Conceptions and Practical Results," religion is "a living
practical affair" (Pragmatism 265). Hence "knowledge about
a thing is not the thing itself"; the man who might best understand
religion "might be the man who found it hardest to be personally
devout" (Varieties 385). A sick soul to James, then, is one suffering
from ontological doubt and purposelessness. In response to such an ailing
soul, James offers the conviction that the only kind of life worth living
is one we fight for spiritually and otherwise with unrelenting grimness
and grit. Even an altogether morally good universe would be "too
saccharine to stand," he implies:
the very "seriousness" that we attribute to life mean that
ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine
sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter
always remains at the bottom of its cup?
Such a statement, published in 1907, should refute any reader who thinks
James had altogether vanquished the menace of his earlier personal despondency.
As his life shows, learning how to live with uncertainty was the younger
James's own besetting sin and grace. Ultimately it was in a philosophy
of pluralism, in welcoming both the treachery and elation that can come
with unfinished uses of knowledge that James could continue to make
Lighting much of the path for James was the language of habit. It propels
his thinking and prose style through a continual use of habit-based
analogies that illustrate his meaning. As a launching point, James finds
in Hegel the phrasing (although certainly not the ideas) he needs to
express what he considers to be not only the central theme for all philosophies,
but the driving metaphor for his own ontological searchings. The aim
of knowledge says Hegel, in a passage James quotes, "is to divest
the objective world of its strangeness, and to make us more at home
in it" (A Pluralistic Universe 10).(4) Given James's own depressive
crisis, the question of how we come to feel at home in the world carried
with it an intensely earnest meaningfulness. In contrast to the rationalist
ideas of his day, James's pluralism offered a view neither optimistic
nor pessimistic, but melioristic rather. The world, it thinks, may be
saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck
in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities. (Some
Adherents to pluralism, explains James, having no "'eternal' edition"
to rely on, must always live with a certain degree of insecurity (The
Meaning of Truth 124). This open-ended perspective meant he had no patience
for rigidly fixed classifications or "systems with pigeon-holes"
(qtd. in Perry 2: 700). They violated his sense of the character and
expression with which life performs for us. We must take the "continuous
transition" of life at face value, says James (Essays in Radical
Empiricism 25). That means "first of all to take it just as we
feel it" and not bewilder ourselves with disaffected abstractions
about it; we must feel it before we can think it.
Thus our craving for explanation, in James's view, is decidedly psychological
in nature, not philosophical. Such a conclusion led him to term rationality
a "sentiment" rather than an a priori fact. That thought arises
in us as a feeling of active agreement rather than passive acceptance
establishes the beginning of thinking on the aesthetic, familiarizing
level. When we come to understand an idea, James writes in his chapter
on "The Sentiment of Rationality" in The Will to Believe,
it means that idea has come to feel "at home" in us. If, however,
the objective references of our thinking are drained of emotional relevance,
as James himself clearly could attest, we are left with a "nameless
unheimlichkeit": a condition of psychological homelessness that
leaves us with powers, but no motives (71). This condition is the opposite
of nightmare, which allows us motives but no powers, yet "when
acutely brought home to consciousness it produces a kindred horror."
To James, certain absolutist theories, such as materialism, which, with
their ready-made worlds, deny "reality to the objects of almost
all the impulses which we most cherish," count among the most objectionable
philosophies for their potential to bring about this grievous state.
If we concur with such a scheme, a dreadful feeling of homelessness
overcomes us at the thought of there being "nothing eternal in
our final purposes, in the objects of those loves and aspirations which
are our deepest energies."
James's ever-malleable design for the macrocosm waits for us to engender
truths upon it - not vice versa. We fool ourselves into thinking that
the world comes to us in a completed form, James explains (using the
ideas of the German thinker R. Hermann Lotze), only because once we
have the sentiment of rationality about something, when we next recognize
it "out there" it feels a priori. His opposition in the 1870s
to Herbert Spencer's "spectator theory" of knowledge stems
from his conviction that "the knower is not simply a mirror floating
with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he
comes upon and finds simply existing. The knower is an actor" (Essays
in Philosophy 21).
In keeping with this model James reaches for an animating, active phrase
to extend his ideas. He writes that realities paraded before our consciousness
for the first time invoke in us the practical question "what is
to be done?" instead of the theoretic "what is that?"
(Will 72). Hence our thinking comes not just by way of opportunism,
a frequent misinterpretation of James's pragmatism, but by way of an
inextricable and rigorous moral quality as well:
We are acquainted with a thing as soon as we have learned how to behave
towards it, or how to meet the behavior which we expect from it. Up
to that point it is still "strange" to us. (73)
Our thoughts are ours by answering us with their uses, good or bad -
our own thoughts are "what we are least afraid of" because
they now feel agreeable and familiar (75); they carry with them what
in Principles he calls their "warmth and intimacy and immediacy"
(1: 232) - terms that answer our needs in the deepest sense.
By linking as he does here the qualities of homelessness, strangeness,
and fear along with their contrary states, James anticipates Freud's
exploration of the uncanny, which traces meanings of the German word
for uncanny, "the unheimlich" (literally "unhome-like"),
that bring together these same terms. In surveying the word unheimlich's
varied usages, Freud discovers that certain definitions of the uncanny
journey so far in the direction of ambivalence that they meet their
opposite meaning: terror comes to be tinged with a freedom from fear,
the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus all paths lead Freud to designate
the uncanny as "that class of the frightening which leads back
to what is known of old and long familiar" ("The Uncanny"
To James, our mind travels a similarly circular road, but one contentedly
lacking the predetermined, transgressive nature of Freud's. Never free
from "the ingredient of expectancy," our consciousness, as
James sees it, constantly seeks to "banish uncertainty from the
future" (Will 67), to turn the strangeness felt in the "aboriginal
sensible muchness" of our experiential world into thoughts that
feel at rest, at peace, and familiar by constant appraisal against the
past (Some Problems 32). Again he turns to the home-like for an analogy
of this process:
meant by coming "to feel at home" in a new place [. . .]?
It is simply that, at first, when we take up our quarters in a new room,
we do not know what draughts may blow on our back, what doors may open,
what forms may enter, what interesting objects may be found in cupboards
and corners. When after a few days we have learned the range of all
these possibilities, the feeling of strangeness disappears. (Will 67-68)
Every new room in life, every unclassified experience strikes us a baffling
"mental irritant" that we must soothe by explanation (67).
Echoing Hume and the empiricist tradition, James holds that to explain
something means that we can refer to its antecedents, and that to know
something is to be able to predict its consequences. Remarkably, the
agent that allows us to do both, James asserts, is habit. Are not all
intellectual satisfactions mere matters of consistency, he asks:
not of consistency between an absolute reality and the mind's copies
of it, but of actually felt consistency among judgments, objects, and
habits of reacting, in the mind's own experienceable world? And are
not both our need of such consistency and our pleasure in it conceivable
as outcomes of the natural fact that we are beings that do develop mental
habits - habit itself proving adaptively beneficial [. . .]? (The Meaning
of Truth 58)
In other words, habit gives us footholds in the morass of the unknowable
by emptying experience of its uncanniness. Only then do thoughts truly
feel sufficient and at home.
We begin to comprehend habit's primacy for James when he declares it
to be "the source of whatever rationality" things "may
gain in our thought" (Will 67).(5) If the conceived world consisted
of singularities only, with no two things alike, our powers of reasoning
would be rendered useless, "for logic works by predicating of the
single instance what is true of all its kind" (Pragmatism 69).
As William Hazlitt wrote, without custom (and prejudice), "I should
not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct
myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life"
(Sketches 69). Yet any such notion of "truth" in a Jamesian
context must be understood as a psychological conception, not a theoretical
one. Whether or not any "real" sameness exists in things,
or whether or not we are correct in our assessment of a "sameness"
in things, has no bearing on James's pragmatic view of habit. As he
states in his chapter on "Conception" in Principles, "our
principle only lays it down that the mind makes continual use of the
notion of sameness, and if deprived of it, would have a different structure
from what it has" (1: 435). For James it comes down to a matter
of our intention (and the force of habit's intention) to cover the same,
as always, through the mediation of language - be it merely thought
or actually articulated. "Perhaps even, in view of our theoretically
possible error," he writes in his notes for Principles, "it
might be well to change the name of the psychological principle of sameness,
& to call it the law of constancy in our meanings" (Manuscript
Essays and Notes 285). Moreover, by provision of a kind of continuing
answering trust that habit can coax from our thoughts, thinking becomes
believing and gives our ideas their meaningfulness and profound moral
potency. "What is this but saying that our opinions about the nature
of things belong to our moral life?" he wrote in 1875 (Essays,
Comments, and Reviews 307).
An entire spectrum of such habit-born canniness comes to bear somewhat
dramatically on the very elemental and even poetic narrative link James
makes to habit. As his discussion of psychical research illustrates,
he is thoroughly dependent in this realm upon the language of habit.
In 1909 he published "The Confidences of a 'Psychical Researcher,'"
an essay that reflects his later philosophy of religion and flirtation
with metaphysics in its discussion of "supernatural" or "psychic"
phenomena. James's open-mindedness welcomed inquiry into the vaguenesses
of this aspect of the universe as much as any other. But having devoted
a fair amount of his own energy to keeping abreast of formal research
into the field, as well as to witnessing ("or trying to witness")
such phenomena, James concluded that he could only remain puzzled (Essays
in Psychical Research 362).(6) Yet while he was convinced that fraud
was behind most psychic performances brought to his attention, his "white
crow" embodied in the acclaimed "spiritist" Leonora Piper
aside, he by no means dismissed the idea that such other-worldly phenomena
occur. In his essay "Is Life Worth Living?" from The Will
to Believe, he writes that our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.
Whatever else be certain, this at least is certain - that the world
of our present natural knowledge is enveloped in a larger world of some
sort of whose residual properties we at present can frame no positive
One explanation he offered for the experience of psychics was that while
the medium feels that spirits exhibit a "tendency to personate,"
the more likely scenario is that, if there be spirits at all, they are
unwitting "passive beings" whose stray bits of memory are
at the hands of the medium's "will to personate" (Essays in
Psychical Research 368).
By opening the door to psychological (or, one might argue, psychoanalytic)
aspects without totally abandoning the metaphysical ones, James is able
to open his language and widen the terrain by removing its restrictive
definitional fences in a way that once again, through the force of habit,
recasts the uncanny in home-like ways. Indeed, James re-emphasizes that
with this essay he goes on record for "the presence, in the midst
of all the humbug, of really supernormal knowledge" (372). He wrote
The Varieties of Religious Experience, in good part, to give evidence
of what he meant by such a statement. As he explained in 1904 in answer
to a colleague's questionnaire on religious feeling, "the whole
line of testimony" on the point of having felt God's presence,
for example, leads him to conclude that such real effects cannot be
refuted (Letters 2: 214). "No doubt there is a germ in me of something
similar that makes response," he acknowledges, for even though
James was personally incapable of spiritual belief in the conventional
sense ("I can't possibly pray," he wrote, "I feel foolish
and artificial"), he felt that his "need" for some sort
of cosmic divinity, pragmatically speaking, proved his belief in the
idea of such a force or in a "universe of spiritual relations surrounding
the earthly practical ones" (214, 213). He used the term "religion"
in the supernaturalist sense to mean that it is in our relation to "an
unseen world" that the "true" significance of our human
life lies (Will 48). "Religious experience," per se, he defines
as "any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things
more 'home' to one" (Letters 2: 215). So he holds that other sorts
of preternatural phenomena might likewise find equally valid response;
"'normal' or 'sane' consciousness," he maintains, "is
so small a part of actual experience" (213).
in the language of habit, James's early model of consciousness bears
its own consistency with this point of view. Developed from the scientific
approach to psychical phenomena taken by the German philosopher, psychologist,
and physicist Gustav Theodor Fechner, James's rendering presents a threshold
process along the lines of Fechner's wave theory.(8) According to James,
our level of consciousness can rise and fall; "normal" consciousness,
finding itself in a lowered state, might then very well experience an
overflow of the supernormal or unconscious into its own "stream
of thought." This notion, by assigning consciousness a purely filtering,
sieve-like function rather than a generative one, not only allowed for
paranormal occurrences, but also provided the initial steps toward satisfying
his desire to do away with the Cartesian model of a mind that produces
its contents.(9) But even with the gate of consciousness lowered, so
to speak, just how, without the "humbug" help of a self-styled
spiritualist, might unexplained forms of knowledge actually go about
getting themselves rationalized by us?
James's answer aligns habit and knowing in a fanciful but serious musing
on the birth of human consciousness; its cosmic scope and narrative
buoyancy illustrate what Ann Douglas has aptly described as James's
"celestial gaiety" (140). Reflecting the work of the American
pragmatist Charles Peirce, James's speculations suggest that we consider
radicalizing the ideas of evolutionary theory and assign the same principles
to inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. Then,
drawing on the ideas of panpsychism - a theory that proposes a universe
entirely steeped in psychical aspects - he says we might imagine that
amidst the aimless possibilities which were first swimming about in
a kind of cosmic sea, "a few connected things and habits arose,
and the rudiments of regular performance began" (Essays in Psychical
Research 369). These wisps and shreds, or "diffuse soul-stuff'
of the original chaos, would, thanks to habits begun, be in a position
to have some relation to the cosmos, but not enough to be "hunted
down and bagged" (373,369). When we do experience occult phenomenon,
James goes on to say, we feel them to have something of this nature;
they are incoherent, wayward, and fitful. "They seem like stray
vestiges of that primordial irrationality," he writes, "from
which all our rationalities have been evolved." Coming through
our lowered threshold of consciousness as "lawless intrusions,"
these uncanny phenomenon disturb us as well and seem to have but one
purpose: to baffle. So if there is an environment of other-consciousness
trying to get into "consistent personal form" (373) - the
complement to a "will to personate" on our side of things
- it would have to design a strategy to make itself congenial to our
own process of consciousness:
it might get its head into the air, parasitically so to speak, by profiting
by weak spots in the armor of human minds, and slipping in and stirring
up there the sleeping tendency to personate. It would induce habits
in the subconscious region of the mind it used thus, and would seek
above all things to prolong its social opportunities by making itself
agreeable and plausible. It would drag stray scraps of truth with it
from the wider environment, but would betray its mental inferiority
by knowing little how to weave them into any important or significant
irrationality, then, must produce a conception of sorts that can mature
into a welcoming form. Hence only habit, in its role as what the Scots
used to call the "canny woman" or midwife, can facilitate
the "birth" of narrative in the form of a canny, familiar
These elements come together in a letter to his wife, Alice, of a night
spent in the New Hampshire woods during the summer of 1898. Occurring
as it did during his preparatory phase for a series of upcoming lectures
in Scotland on religious themes - what was to become, of course, The
Varieties of Religious Experience - the incident, a "Walpurgis
Nacht," as he termed it, caused in him a moment of "spiritual
alertness" that distilled for him a variety of influences he felt
to be concurrent in that circumstance: nature, the idea of America,
the "wholesomeness" of his travelling companions, thoughts
of his wife and children, his brother Henry, and the subject of his
present work (Letters 2: 76-77). The metaphysical result came to him,
he wrote, as an "intense significance of some sort, of the whole
scene, if one could only tell the significance"; as it stood, the
whole event remained "a mere boulder of impression" that nonetheless
he felt would be keenly - and rightly, as it turned out - linked to
his Edinburgh lectures.
It is in a kind of poetics of habit that he makes what he can of the
whole experience. He writes to Alice that as "memory and sensation
all whirled inexplicably together," he felt the experience would
be "worth repeating year by year, if repetition could only procure
what in its nature I suppose must be all unplanned for and unexpected"
(77). He believed that in such a habit-related idea he understood what
a poet is: "a person who can feel the immense complexity of influences
that I felt, and make some partial tracks in them for verbal statement."
A month later, in an address delivered at Berkeley, he was able to make
the more confident pronouncement that poets and philosophers are both
"path-finders" in that respect, and that the articulation
of such an uncanny "boulder of impression" has something to
do with habitual canny-making narrative properties (Pragmatism 258).
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he describes how this poetic
task evolves in the human spirit. A "sick soul" will recognize
"the profoundest astonishment" at his own unsatisfactory state
and will say to himself:
The strangeness is wrong. The unreality cannot be. A mystery is concealed,
and a metaphysical solution must exist. If the natural world is so double-faced
and unhomelike, what world, what thing is real? An urgent wondering
and questioning is set up, a poring theoretic activity, and in the desperate
effort to get into right relations with the matter, the sufferer is
often led to what becomes for him a satisfying religious solution. (128)
Thus his habit-driven narrative again reveals in its language the desperate
human need to banish metaphysical homelessness.