Thursday, May 5th, 2011
I've been rereading Julian Jaynes' The Birth of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind -- a book which I read shortly before I started blogging about reading and which has pretty strongly influenced my ways of thinking -- and thinking there is a lot I want to write about it; but nothing is coming together yet when I sit down to write about it. Instead I want to quote a passage from another book, from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, a passage which surprised me when I happened across it this afternoon.
I was raised a Quaker but never really learned much about George Fox. I guess to the extent that I have any image of him, it is as an ethereal, meditative pacifist, a thoughtful, reflective man. Below the fold, James quotes a passage from Fox' journals which shows him in full-on bicameral, hallucinatory prophet mode. Check it out.
Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.
If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than is furnished by the person of George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Everyone who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort: --
"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! It being market day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so on my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to do: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again.
After this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason I should be sent to cry against that city, and call it The bloody city! For though the parliament had the minister one while, and the king another, and much blood had been shed in the town during the wars between them, yet there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian's time a thousand Christians were martyr'd in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their blood in the market-place, that I might raise up the memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years before, and lay cold in their streets. So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord."
Wednesday, February 25th, 2009
In his note on "Jorge Luis Borges and William James" (pdf), Jaime Nubiola quotes a passage from Borges' introduction to a Spanish translation of James' Pragmatism. Very nice: I now understand a little better than I ever did before the common distinction between "Aristotelians" and "Platonists". (Also, I never realized this distinction was Coleridge's coinage.) This paragraph is useful in reading Borges' lectures on Emanuel Swedenborg and on Immortality.
Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians
or Platonists. The latter feel that ideas are realities: the
former, that they are generalizations. For the latter,
language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols:
for the former, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist
knows that the universe is somehow a cosmos,
an order; that order, for the Aristotelian, can be an
error or a fiction of our partial knowledge. Across the
latitudes and the epochs, the two immortal antagonists
change their name and language: one is Parmenides,
Plato, Anselm, Leibnitz, Kant, Francis Bradley; the
other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Roscelin, Locke, Hume,
William James. (...) From 1889, this lucid tradition is
enriched with William James. Like Bergson, he fights
against positivism and against idealist monism. He
advocates, like Bergson, in favor of immortality and
Here is the source for Coleridge making this observation: Table Talk of S.T. Coleridge, p. 102.
Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
A fun passage from the beginning of Borges' lecture "Immortality":
Without understanding [William James'] joke, don Miguel de Unamuno repeats it word for word in his The Tragic Sense of Life*: God is the provider of immortality, but he repeats many times that he wants to go on being don Miguel de Unamuno. Here I don't understand Miguel de Unamuno; I do not want to go on being Jorge Luis Borges, I want to be another person. I hope that my death will be total, I hope to die in body and soul.It's just really nice to see Borges, whom I've always pictured as a sort of forbidding presence, talking in this down-to-earth manner, having a house and a sister...
I do not know if it's ambitious or modest, or at all justifiable, my pretension of speaking about personal immortality, about a soul which preserves a memory of that which was on earth and which already in the other world corresponds to the previous one. I remember that my sister, Norah, was at my house the other day and said: I'm going to paint a picture called "Nostalgia for Earth", having as its content that which an angel feels in heaven, thinking of earth. I'm going to make it up of elements from Buenos Aires when I was a girl.
Update: fixed a blunder in my translation, after referring to Eliot Weinberger's translation of the lecture in Selected Non-Fictions.
* Jaime Nubiola and Izaskun Martínez of the Universidad de Navarra have written a paper on Unamuno's Reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience and its Context. Nubiola also has an interesting note in Streams of William James, vol. I, #3 (pdf), on "Jorge Luis Borges and WJ", and in vol. III, #3 (pdf), on "WJ and Borges Again: the Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández". Professor Nubiola has confirmed to me by e-mail that as he understands it, "Unamuno is a deep believer and William James is -- at the end of the day -- a non believer, who understands the belief in God as the other side of the belief of immortality."
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