- Historic Sites
William James Finds His Vocation
One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening in a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse grey undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. … This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I , I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. 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. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go into the dark alone.”
No such vision could be counted on to recede by degrees, like the storybook cat, without long intellectual analysis and a heroic “sustaining of the idea” of himself as an active and rational being.
It was during this effort that the news came of cousin Minny Temple’s death. For him, as for Henry, the fact was a devastation. It struck at their tenderest feelings of love, of course, but also at their imagination of love, at the poetry of human excellence, at any trust they might have in life itself. William’s renewed struggle to will his recovery seems to be linked with that loss, turning it into a source of energy through the recognition of the tragic and the resolve to accept himself. A diary entry dated two weeks after Minny’s death gives the contents of this emotional upturn: “By that big part of me that’s in the tomb with you, may I realize and believe in the immediacy of death! May I feel that every torment suffered here passes and is a breath of wind—every pleasure too. Acts and examples stay. … Is our patience so short-winded, our curiosity so dead or our grit so loose that that one instant snatched out of the endless age should not be cheerfully sat out? Minny, your death makes me feel the nothingness of all our egotistic fury. The inevitable release is sure; wherefore take our turn kindly whatever it contain. Ascend to some sort of partnership with fate and since tragedy is at the heart of us, go to meet it, work it in to our ends, instead of dodging it all our days. … Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning)…”
To outward view that young wastrel nearing thirty was not the wretched, impulse-torn creature that he knew himself to be. He finally found a use for his knowledge of many subjects in his first consecutive, recognized, official occupation. James had attended a course of lectures on optical phenomena and the eye, which led him to some experiments of his own in a lab he used at the medical school. This initiative attracted notice. In 1872 James was offered and accepted an instructorship in anatomy and physiology at Harvard; his colleagues included Henry Adams, John Fiske, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The odyssey was over: James had found his vocation.