Dear Diary…

May 24, 2020 at 1:32 am (Book review, books)

Dear Diary,

Brain feeling like mush. But I don’t like to absent myself from this space for too long, so here goes.

Went out to  get the paper this morning, greeted by a picture perfect day: warm, but with a hint of cool, and intensely green,  with a cloudless blue sky. Surely if this is, in fact, the real, the actual world, we cannot be facing an apocalypse?

However, the paper, once gotten inside, and freed of its plastic covering and my hands happy-birthday cleansed, tells a different and altogether grimmer story.

Anyway, I’ve been reading. Boy, have I been reading:

 

I have now confirmed my suspicion that I am not the ideal reader of philosophical texts. To wit:

In many cases, James suggested we can falsify ideas, make relatively accurate predictions, answer questions, and reach agreement, by simply being faithful to the facts—realities that repel or reinforce our ideas. Ignoring these realities, or dismissing their interpretation as “fake news,” is to give up on the pragmatic method altogether. Truth happens to ideas only through the ongoing and collective conversation with sensations, moments in the stream of consciousness that either sustain them, wash them clean, or wash them away. In James’s words, “[S]ensations are the motherearth, the anchorage, the stable rock, the first and last limits, the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of the mind. To find sensational termini should be our aim with all our higher thought.”

Umm…. Okay….

Now, I read another book by John Kaag several years ago. In American Philosophy: A Love Story, he describes how, as a newly minted philosophy professor,  he undertook a project to save the precious remnants of the library of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), who in years past was a distinguished Harvard-based philosopher. In the course of this endeavor, Kaag acquires a research assistant. She shares his enthusiasm for the undertaking, then develops an enthusiasm for him, which he joyfully reciprocates. Long story short, after navigating past some obstacles, they get married.

That book came out in 2016. This past February, I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Kaag. Entitled “William James, Yoga and the Secret of Happiness,” it is adapted from his forthcoming book on that august personage. Possessed of pleasant memories of American Philosophy: A Love Story, I’m happily reading along until I encounter this sentence:

This winter—as I slogged through a second divorce at the tender age of 40, recovered from a second heart attack and lamented the state of the world—I reread James’s “Principles.”

WHAT?? Oh no! (I think I voiced my dismay aloud; in fact, I know I did, as Ron called over to ask what the problem was.)

But John, you told such a sweet love story in American Philosophy! I was counting on – nay, assuming – that a Happily Ever After ending would rightly follow. Nope – not this time. Notice I failed to get worked up over the poor man’s health – I mean, two heart attacks at such a young age is quite serious. But the breakup of that marriage seemed to me like the worst possible news. I admit – I took it personally. But I’m sure, not as personally as John and Carol took it.

(This was a  second marriage for both of them, plus by the time of the breakup. they’d had a daughter. John briefly mentions the misery of co-parenting with an ex-spouse; having been there, I know of what he speaks, and I sympathized.)

So, you may rightly ask, is Sick Souls, Healthy Minds about the wreckage of John Kaag’s domestic life or the life and philosophy of William James? As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is, some of both, although it’s really much more about James’s philosophical and intellectual endeavors. Much of that material is simply too complex and abstract for me to fully comprehend. I plowed through those sections dutifully, although at many points I felt like crying out, “Enough already! Stop doing all this excessive thinking and theorizing about things that can never be proven anyway and just live your life!”

Is this supposed to be the road to true self-knowledge, even to real happiness? I admit, it just doesn’t work for me.

Kaag gives us a brief summary of the life of William James. It’s clear he was a deep thinker, and this mental habit reinforced a tendency toward melancholy, even depression. And yet, in 1876, he was lucky enough to find just the right woman. Her name was Alice Howe Gibben; they were married in 1878.

James and Alice eventually had five children although they lost a son, Herman, when a case of whooping cough gave rise to a severe bout of pneumonia. James had nicknamed this youngster ‘Humster’ and wrote that he was “the flower of their flock.” Earlier in the book, Kaag says that James  was glad to leave all the details of domesticity, including child rearing, in Alice’s capable hands. I found myself curious about just what kind of husband and father William James was. So I guess I’m looking for a good biography of the man. Suggestions welcome.

William James 1842-1910. He fascinates me, both in his own right and because he is the older brother of that other enigma, the novelist Henry James.

 

3 Comments

  1. conormg said,

    Dear Roberta, I usually try to unsubscribe from book blogs but yours defeats me as I so often enjoy it. This blast of acidulous ennui on Wm James provoked a lot of responses but I don’t want to spend ages perfecting my writing in case I come unstuck in the great evidence chamber in the sky one day. (Archangel: I see you ran down Henry James. Why do you think you’d get on in Heaven?) So do you have an email address for nice British cat, music and Kaag admirers? Conor

  2. Angie Boyter said,

    I didn’t have your perseverance on American Love. I only last 50 pages, and I LIKE philosophy!

  3. kdwisni said,

    So how does yoga figure in the equation? This yogini wants to know.

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