Monday August 23rd, 2010

How to Fathom an Emotion (Guest Post by J. C. Hallman)

J. C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe, a work that prominently features the life and thought of William James. Hallman’s new book is In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise.


In 1997, Mark Edmundson offered an interesting take on Freud and the Gothic in modern culture in Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic. Edmundson’s view is that the resurgence of the Gothic in the 1990s proves that Freud was “mostly right.” Now I, like William James, harbor a little skepticism when it comes to Freud—but no worries: my interest in Edmundson (in regard to James) has less to do with his message than his method.

Late in Nightmare on Main Street, Edmundson takes on the nature of S & M culture (what now is more frequently called BDSM culture). He assesses some of the literature and some of the extant philosophy on the subject, and then holds forth:

Then too, it is not clear for how long S&M remains a game, stays ironic. At what point does role-playing disappear and obsession take over? For very few is an urbane irony compatible with sexual ardor. I expect that often what begins in sophisticated farce ends in an intensity and maybe too a passion that is closer to the tragic.

What’s worth considering here is the source of Edmundson’s authority. Surely, he’s incredibly well-read on his subject, but what permits him to declare that “very few” retain the ability to mesh passion and punning? Even he seems to doubt himself with equivocal language—from there, he is willing only to guess at what he “expects” is “maybe” the case.

Edmundson seems to think that this is his job. Once he’s gone on to state the thing as he sees it, a possible solution to the Gothic dilemma lies not with himself: “I would like to go further in describing such works of art and intellectual imagination, but it is at this point that the critic is compelled to step aside and the artist to take over.”

Thud! (That was William James rolling over in his grave.)


“One can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it,” James wrote, in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

This was more than a quick insight. It was the credo by which James lived: he could tell us about the varieties of religious experience because in addition to exhaustive reading about them, he had experienced all of them, experimenting with their healing techniques just as he had experimented with a variety of drugs to experience alternate states of consciousness (and thereby advance his understanding of consciousness). If you want to be able to discuss something without falling back on equivocation, he believed, you have to struggle to become that which you hope to describe. Otherwise you’re just guessing.

One should expect nothing less from the man who made experience the focal center of his philosophy.

Edmundson isn’t a Jamesian—he’s a Freudian. Freud has pretty clearly had significant impact on literature (some of it magically retroactive!), but William James, too, has left his mark on how writers—artists, surely, but critics, too—go about their craft, mainly by offering the only good metaphor for consciousness we’ve ever had (the stream of consciousness).

It’s James’ emphasis on firsthand experience, I think, that helps give rise to the spirit of participation in journalism—specifically, George Plimpton’s “participatory journalism,” which he applied to sports writing. Want to consider football? Play. Baseball? Play. And so on. At another important juncture, James worried over the “rift” that he sensed science—taken in a very narrow way, as he says—was causing in the world, and this spirit of participation, theoretically applied to ethnography rather journalism, hints at the heart of the thing. Any ethnographer who now hopes to be taken seriously inside the scientific community must retain a particular distance, must remain objective. The scientific methodology to which even Edmundson seems compelled to adhere requires that anthropologists and/or critics reject the very thing James found to be absolutely essential to true understanding.


James died 100 years ago this month—but it didn’t take that long for Freud to displace James in the psychological pantheon. Indeed, it arguably happened during James’ lifetime, and with his knowledge. James has waned, but he has not disappeared. He may even be waxing anew. Ironically, James’ methodology now plays “id” to the “superego” of Freud. More and more, all kinds of writers, critics, journalists, and scientists are returning to James’ participatory spirit, striving to fathom emotions by experiencing them. And does the old superego strategy fare? Considering Goth teenagers, Edmundson says, “The kids look like stylized dungeon escapees, which is pretty much the point. Those who’ve been well pierced and tattooed are hardly ready for life in the glass box . . . or will find much revelation in . . . Sense and Sensibility.”

Perhaps if he’d sought to divine the dictates of the emotion he hoped to describe, Edmundson would have seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies rising from the grave.

William James, RIP.