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.
I’ve been enjoying fall this year, even more than usual. I grew up on the west coast in places where there was an observable but not spectacular display of autumn color. It wasn’t until I came to northern New York twenty years ago that I got the full experience or spectacular color and charged-up weather. I don’t think this year’s colors are any more intense (though they does vary a bit from year to year) — No, I think I’m more perceptually tuned-in. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and slower so that I see more of what’s in front of me — that’s probably part of it, but not the whole thing. Maybe it’s that I gave up drinking alcohol a couple of months ago — not that I was walking around in an alcoholic fog or anything. I suppose it’s all these things that have sharpened my sense of this season, the season of sinking down, which lasts a long time here in the north country. In August some of the leaves begin to yellow and by the end of the month the nights are a little cooler. In September, the maple trees begin to go read and brown, though the birches and many other species stay green or just begin to shade toward yellow; this is also the time of year you begin to notice more activity among the birds. Families of crows begin to congregate and migrating songbirds make stops in the dogwoods. In October the winds come up and rain begins to knock the old leaves off the trees. It is the colors of the trees at this point in the year — just past the peak of their intensity — that give me the most pleasure. Yesterday in my freshman writing class we were talking about Romantic versus Rationalist views of the world and the language we use to talk about these different approaches. It was a good discussion, but i was really knocked back on my heels when one student said, “I took a meteorology class in high school because I’ve always had a deep feeling for the weather and I was a little disappointed to find out how it all worked — it took away some of the mystery.” This is of course what Keats famously said about Newton “unweaving the rainbow” and I told the class as much, then went on to say that I, too, had always had a special feeling for the weather; that, as a child, I had had a little weather station in my room; but then added that I hadn’t found that the meteorology course I took diminished my feeling for the beauty, suggesting that one could sustain both a Romantic and a Rationalist / Realist response. I think that’s true. In fact, I think such a view is at least related to Keats’s idea of negative capability and that learning to sustain a sense of negative capability prevents one from falling either into sentimentality or the aridity of intellectualism.