Attacking the Rationalists

In the winter of 1906-1907, William James delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston on the subject of pragmatism. They were, in many ways, the culmination of a lifetime of work (James would die only two years later) and they also have the virtue of what can only be called voice — one hears William James speaking in these lectures in the most direct way. James writes in his preface that the lectures are “printed as delivered, without development or notes,” making these deeply personal essays into the central theme of James’ battle against the Absolute in philosophy and religion, against Plato and Hegel. In the second lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James says:

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is overruled already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, threat the temporal as if it were potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

I find this bracing, even exhilarating. James was never one to let himself off the hook and in this passage he refuses to let us off the hook either. The emphasis on responsibility is characteristic of James’ philosophy and connects in my thinking to Camus and the mid-twentieth-century existentialist philosophers whom James prefigures in many ways. Existence not essence, in James, is experience not essence. I’ve recently been reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and James fits in there as well, but that’s a big subject and I just wanted to make a note of the above paragraph because James has become absolutely central to my view of the world (and my poetics) over the last few months.

Mindfulness & the Chaos of Voices

Even a little experience trying to cultivate what the Buddhists (and others) call “mindfulness” demonstrates one thing for certain: the mind is a chaos of voices. At least mine is. If the goal is to observe and ultimately come into some kind of harmony with the chaos of voices, that is a robustly active attitude that paradoxically emerges from what appears to be passivity; on the other hand, the Western materialist approach to the mind, which sees it as some kind of epiphenomenon of a biological system, is strangely passive, leaving one powerless over the voices because one has denied their existence as real things.


I’m tired of the static in my head. I’ve mostly quit reading political sites, though I still scan the news. Maybe this has something to do with getting older and trying to see some meaning in the arc of my life from birth to death; the endless daily chatter seems increasingly toxic, though perhaps I’ve just grown more sensitive to it. I’ve been reading a lot of William James the last month or so and according to this great psychologist, we each create ourselves continuously by the choices we make about what to attend to. Recent research [see Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain] suggests that those choices literally remap our brains, the mind shaping its own physical substrate so to speak. If that is true — and I think it is — human beings are presented with an awesome set of potentials, but an equally awesome set of responsibilities. Since we are free to choose and not merely the product of our biology, we are free to choose freedom and compassion and openness, or, to choose strife and conflict and ultimately disaster, both personally and as a culture. I’ve been a pessimist since I was six years old and learned to include the word “catastrophe” in my prayers (“Protect us against fire, burglars, and other catastrophes and disasters…”), but reading James I feel a great heavy wheel turning in my life, opening an old and nearly forgotten door. Opening.

Another Kind of Life

Lt. William Calley stood before a Kiwanis Club meeting the other day and apologized for the My Lai massacre [also: 1, 2]. Reading the article, I take it as a sincere apology and a real expression of regret, though I understand how the prosecutor who tried Calley felt, too:

William George Eckhardt, the chief prosecutor in the My Lai cases, said Friday he was unaware of Calley ever apologizing before. Eckhardt said that when he first heard the news, “I just sort of cringed.” ”It’s hard to apologize for murdering so many people,” said Eckhardt, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “But at least there’s an acknowledgment of responsibility.”

And while I would have liked to hear a more unequivocal statement from Calley, I have to say I appreciate his long silence and the modest setting for his first public discussion (since his trial) of his actions at My Lai. He should no go back to being quiet, as silence from him is the only adequate response. Two things: In order to live with myself, I have to believe in the possibility of redemption, of turning away from evil, in others; also, he was in fact a scapegoat: Colin Powell, Captain Ernest Medina, and others were equally responsible for the murders of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. This second point does not lessen Lt. Calley’s responsibility, but it puts it in context. So, I accept his apology, at least provisionally. The effects of his actions continue to ripple outward through the histories of both Vietnam and the US and, paradoxically, out of evil some understanding can emerge.

But what I really wonder about is that “standing ovation” the Kiwanis gave the aging William Calley. What was that about? When I was in high school, before the My Lai massacre, some of us graduating seniors were given dinner by the local Kiwanis and then lectured by a congressman about our duty to be “patriotic,” which was framed in terms of supporting the Vietnam war. I got up and left. (I didn’t wait for the standing ovation.) Were the Kiwanis who listened to Calley applauding his courage for admitting he committed murder in their service? That seems unlikely to me. Were they subtly applauding the murder, excusing it? Perhaps that is too harsh a judgement. I suspect they were applauding their own sense of relief: Well, that’s finally behind us. Maybe William Calley believes he can put it behind him and in a sense he can, by keeping quiet and doing good. To the Kiwanis, I’d say: Don’t let yourselves off the hook so easily. Lt. Calley served in your army — in our army — and he acted in our names; so, while, yes, the event is behind us, it is still there. The murdered are still murdered. Going forward, that is what we bear.

A Notable Life

I had never heard of Adrien DeWind until I read his obituary in the NY Times this morning. (The older I get, the more I am drawn to the obits, with fear of personal extinction prompting me to recall the motto Samuel Johnson is said to have written on his watch dial: Work for the night is coming.) DeWind lived a long time and accomplished a great deal. I especially admire him as one of the founders of Human Rights Watch. Whatever one believes about rights — whether they are universal standards or arise only within specific social and cultural contexts — it seems indubitable that working to protect other people’s basic humanity is an admirable thing to do. What I find most moving about an obituary of this sort is that it marks the only kind of immortality I can believe in, that what one does in one’s life continues to ripple outward even after one is dead. For good or ill. In the memories of others, in the institutions one creates or shapes, in the written record one leaves behind. It’s little enough, of course, but it’s something, not nothing. Our lives are much longer than we imagine.