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Posts Tagged ‘William James’

Staff Picks: Constellations, Cartography, Costanza

August 5, 2016 | by

Exhibition of the Laughing Gas, a wood engraving, ca. 1840.

We’ve been closing the Fall issue of the magazine this week, so I haven’t had much of an opportunity for outside reading (there are a couple long poems in the issue I’m particularly keen on). No matter what, though, I’ve spent an hour each night watching the new Netflix show Stranger Things. Set in eighties Indiana, the smart and thrilling eight-part series is indebted to much of what was great in eighties horror and youthful sci-fi and fantasy—PoltergeistE.T., Stephen King novels, D&D—and shows its influences appreciatively, without seeming imitative or derivative. The tautly drawn plot centers on three adventuresome boys, dorks of the Goonies variety, who lose a friend to a monster-populated parallel world and who befriend a telekinetic girl, named Eleven, to help bring him back. It manages to combine everything I want from my science-fiction entertainment: it’s funny and frightening, doesn’t take the science for granted, and is as much about how people relate to one another as it is about supernatural doings. And of course, John Carpenter–style synths. —Nicole Rudick

A few years ago, Benjamin Breen wrote for the Daily about the literature of laughing gas, focusing on the psychedelic poetic yield of William James’s encounters with the drug. (“Agreement—disagreement!!,” James wrote. “Emotion—motion!!!”) Now the Public Domain Review has put out Oh Excellent Air Bag, an eye-opening compilation of writing about, on, or under the influence of nitrous oxide: an enthralling look at the range of responses laughing gas brought about before the culture began to dictate our reaction to it. Beginning in 1799, when Humphry Davy embarked on a systemic effort to chronicle the effects of the gas, the book goes all the way up an unsigned piece from 1920, in which the writer’s routine tooth extraction sends him on a voyage to the edges of consciousness: “I drifted out among star-ways, and a galaxy of saffron constellations whirled about my head. In some outer void of space I took my station on a base of infinite nothingness … Eventually there was to come, in the wake of all, a world white and lucent, gleaming like the plumage of an angel’s wing.” Something to keep in mind before your next root canal. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

The Native Henry James

February 26, 2016 | by

February 28 marks the hundredth anniversary of James’s death.

Photo: Alice Boughton, 1916.

Henry James died in London, at the age of seventy-two, on February 28, 1916, in the midst of World War I. His funeral was held at Chelsea Old Church on March 3, with a mostly British congregation of mourners—though his sister-in-law Alice, widow of his brother, the philosopher William, was in attendance, having crossed the war-torn ocean when she heard of his illness.

The U.S. had not yet entered the war—the issue was controversial, and indeed, James and his old antagonist Theodore Roosevelt, who had long denounced him as un-American, had found common cause in their indignation at their country’s prolonged neutrality. This caused particular tension on James’s death, because the novelist had taken British nationality in July 1915, an implicit protest against America’s refusal to join the conflict. As he had written to his fellow American-in-London John Singer Sargent just after the event, “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James.” He had finally grown tired of waiting for America to end its neutrality, and felt he needed, by this gesture, to end his own detachment from the conflict. The memorial in Chelsea Old Church tactfully describes him as “a resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War”—the “cherished” insisting from the grave that James had been a good American. Read More »

The Afterlife of the Voice: An Interview with Peter Gizzi

March 16, 2015 | by

 Gizzi

Last year saw the publication of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987–2011, a significant retrospective of the work of poet Peter Gizzi. Gizzi—who also has three poems in the latest issue of The Paris Reviewhimself selected and arranged In Defense, which not only samples nearly twenty-five years of his poems but finds a new order and a new context for them—both for Gizzi and for his readers. The titles of his earlier books provided points of location and navigation. His first collection, Periplum (1992), takes its title from an Ezra Pound line about a journey, and the notion of the poem as a journey is something Gizzi has carried throughout his career. The Outernationale (2007), his fifth collection, gives a sense of the landscape these journeys cross—at once internal and external, subjective and universal. In Defense of Nothing, which will be published in paperback in April, was recently named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

I spoke with Gizzi by phone about assembling the volume. At the beginning of our conversation, I told him that we had met once years before, at an event, and that after our conversation he had given me the copy of Artificial Heart from which he had been reading. He couldn’t remember our interaction, but for him, that individual connection—between the poet and the poem, the poem and the reader, and the reader and the poet—is the heart of the poetic experience.

What does it mean to assemble a selected-poems volume, and how does a project like this begin?

It began as a conversation with my editor of fifteen or more years, and now my dear friend, Suzanna Tamminen. She has a good sense of my work and she knew there had been a lot of changes in my life, some difficult, and that I was taking stock, as it were. So she proposed that I do a selected poems.

Did you learn more about what that means over the course of the project?

I’ve discovered there are several versions of Peter Gizzi. Over the course of this book there is the Peter Gizzi who lived in New York City, the Peter Gizzi who lived in the Berkshires, in Providence, in California, in Amherst, and so on. I learned that twenty-five years of life accumulate, as does one’s work. And yet I found that there is an uncanny consistency to the variety and reality of address in my poetry in whatever form I happen to be working—small lyric, series, long form, prose poem. It was illuminating to me simply because my inner life can be a turbulent experience, and I live one poem at a time and one book at a time. Read More »

Damn the Absolute

January 19, 2015 | by

WilliamJames_JosiahRoyce_ca1910_Harvard

William James, left, and Josiah Royce in New Hampshire, September 1903. When James heard the click of the shutter, he shouted, “Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! I say, Damn the Absolute!”

A letter from William James to his publisher Henry Holt, sent from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1896.

MY DEAR HOLT,—At the risk of displeasing you, I think I won’t have my photograph taken, even at no cost to myself. I abhor this hawking about of everybody’s phiz which is growing on every hand, and don’t see why having written a book should expose one to it. I am sorry that you should have succumbed to the supposed trade necessity. In any case, I will stand on my rights as a free man. You may kill me, but you shan’t publish my photograph. Put a blank “thumbnail” in its place. Very very sorry to displease a man whom I love so much. Always lovingly yours,

WM. JAMES.

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Extreme, Extreme!

September 17, 2014 | by

The literature of laughing gas.

Laughinggas1

“This is not the Laughing, but the Hippocrene or Poetic Gas, Sir.” Colored etching by R. Seymour, 1829, via the Wellcome Library.

What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!!
Emotion—motion!!!

These words were set to paper in 1882 by William James, one of the most celebrated proponents of the new science of psychology, and a newly minted assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard. James was in many ways the paragon of an eminent Victorian—his writing tends to summon images of the author ensconced beside a roaring fire in some cozy wood-paneled study in Cambridge. And yet here James comes off as utterly, absurdly stoned.

Because he was.

After huffing a large amount of nitrous oxide, James set out to tackle a prominent bugbear of 1880s intellectual life: Hegelian dialectics. He came up with a stream of consciousness that centered on a kind of ecstatic binary thinking:

Don’t you see the difference, don’t you see the identity?
Constantly opposites united!
The same me telling you to write and not to write!
Extreme—extreme, extreme! Within the extensity that “extreme” contains is contained the “extreme” of intensity
Something, and other than that thing!
….
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
Thought much deeper than speech … !
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

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What We’re Loving: Pragmatism, Professional Consultants, Pubic Crests

January 31, 2014 | by

Walter_Battiss_painting_"Wandering_Nude_1"

Walter Battiss, Wandering Nude 1, 1978, oil on canvas.

Pop quiz! Which American philosopher coined the following expressions: pluralism, time-line, healthy-minded, live option, stream of consciousness, and the bitch-goddess success. Hint: he counted among his most devoted students Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, and W.E.B. DuBois. Last hint, from a letter he wrote to his little brother Henry, in 1902: “You have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean).” If you guessed William James (correctly), you probably remember him as the main inventor of “pragmatism,” the can-do philosophy that professional philosophers love to hate. But as Robert D. Richardson shows in his 2006 biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, it is hard to imagine a livelier, more lovable mind. As a scientist, James did original work on everything from evolution to spiritualism. As a philosopher, he anticipated everyone from Bergson to Wittgenstein to Austin to Daniel Kahneman. As a person, James is the most appealing kind of genius, continually inspired by his family, by his friendships and romances, and by communion with what he called “the hidden self,” where we are most vulnerable and alive. —Lorin Stein

The latest issue of Granta includes “Nudity,” an essay by Norman Rush about his youthful encounters with the body au naturel. Rush’s parents dabbled in a kind of functional nudism, which we might today call “letting it all hang out.” “The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest, but inflamed it,” he writes. “I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.” Though the piece mostly chronicles the young Rush’s quest to see live nudes, it takes an astonishing, affecting swerve in its final paragraph, which I won’t spoil here. It also includes, of course, those quintessentially Rushian terms for the female anatomy, “escutcheon” (the pubic crest) and “introitus” (just look it up). —Dan Piepenbring

Sunday is Groundhog Day (fingers crossed!), but I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for days now, however futile my attempts may be. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book this week. I’ve read Jansson’s Moomin comics and her children’s books, but I haven’t ever delved into her prose. This book—a series of interrelated vignettes about a girl and her grandmother on a quiet island in the Gulf of Finland—is a treasure. Its stories are miniatures not just in length but in perspective as well: sometimes literally, as when the grandmother lays down near the beach and studies a blade of grass, a fluff of down, and a piece of bark in the sand by her face. Through her examination, their minute details are writ large; the bark, for instance, becomes “a very ancient mountain.” And when she finally gazes past them, to the wider world, it no longer looks so big. —Nicole Rudick

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish is a paean to that now-extinct species, the “dress doctor,” a professional consultant who helped average citizens navigate questions of style and economy in a rapidly changing landscape. How should a working girl look professional on a budget? How might a farm wife stretch a yard of fabric and still be chic? And how to incorporate principles of harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis into every aspect of aesthetic life? The author, Linda Przybyszewski, is an academic, and the book serves as an informative cultural history. But more than this, it is a tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers. —Sadie Stein Read More »

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