Wednesday August 25th, 2010

Spooky Visitations (Guest Post by Levi Stahl)

In addition to holding a full-time job at the University of Chicago Press, Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation and a blogger at I’ve Been Reading Lately.

As someone who has never felt even the slightest stirrings of religious feeling, I find the most compelling part of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to be a portion of the third lecture (“The Reality of the Unseen”) called “Examples of ‘sense of presence.’ ” James opens that section with the proposition—set out, as is his tendency in his philosophical writing, as of course agreed rather than needing to be proved—that the

whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion something like this: It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there,” more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.

From there, he proceeds to relate a number of firsthand accounts of spooky visitations, of instances where reliable people were certain, despite improbabilities, that they were being visited by some indefinable presence. Here is one testimonial:

It was about September, 1884, when I had the first experience. On the previous night I had had, after getting into bed at my rooms in College, a vivid tactile hallucination of being grasped by the arm, which made me get up and search the room for an intruder; but the sense of presence properly so called came on the next night. After I had got into bed and blown out the candle, I lay awake awhile thinking on the previous night’s experience, when suddenly I felt something come into the room and stay close to my bed. It remained only a minute or two. I did not recognize it by any ordinary sense, and yet there was a horribly unpleasant “sensation” connected with it. It stirred something more at the roots of my being than any ordinary perception. The feeling had something of the quality of a very large tearing vital pain spreading chiefly over the chest, but within the organism—and yet the feeling was not pain so much as abhorrence. At all events, something was present with me, and I knew its presence far more surely than I have ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature. I was conscious of its departure as of its coming: an almost instantaneously swift going through the door, and the “horrible sensation” disappeared.

Others follow—including one particularly evocative account of “the figure of a gray-bearded man dressed in a pepper and salt suit, squeezing himself under the crack of the door and moving across the floor of the room towards a sofa”—all serving, obliquely, to “prove the existence in our mental machinery of a sense of present reality more diffused and general than that which our special senses yield.”

Now James is well known for being open to the concepts of spiritualism—both Robert Richardson’s biography and, in a slightly poppier vein, Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters, cover his engagement and eventual disillusion with the spiritualist movement. But what I find most compelling in James’ consideration of presences is the way it offers a sort of implicit connection to the work of his brother. Henry and William tended to talk past one another when it came to their writing. In his biography of William, Richardson quotes a letter to Henry that contrasts their styles, William’s

being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the “ghost” at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space.

Yet when the subject turns to presences, how can one help but “avoid naming it straight”? Acceptance of the concept of presences—acknowledgment that, if they are real in the mind, then in a crucial sense they are real—links William’s straightforwardness directly to Henry’s endlessly honing interiority. The world, William is seeming to accept, is what our minds make of it, which Henry, with his shadings of feeling, had been trying in one sense to say all along. And Henry, meanwhile, returned the favor in his many ghost stories, which in their most chilling moments read like nothing so much as the testimonies of visitations collected by William. Side by side, the pair make incomparable Halloween reading.