All of William James’s essays in “popular philosophy” embody and express the spiritual condition of jazz. In particular, I want to focus on the incandescent suite of essays collected as Talks to Students—“The Gospel of Relaxation,” “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and “What Makes a Life Significant”—which constitute, in my idiosyncratic reading, our greatest theorizing of jazz sensibility. How are we to live in modernity? William James strongly encourages us to strike out boldly into modern life, to respect and learn from the varieties of human experience bustling around us, and to use our great freedoms to realize our genuine ideals. Talks to Students is as clear and wise a conception of the virtues necessary to flourish in a modern liberal democracy as I know of. In these three essays, James gives us a kind of step by step process of how to live jazzfully, which begins with homey advice from pop psychology in “The Gospel of Relaxation” and attains the heights of the Sermon on the Mount in “What Makes a Life Significant.”
Step 1: Find your Binnenleben.
A pedestrian translator would render the German term Binnenleben as “inner life.” James’s translation is: “the unuttered inner atmosphere in which [our] consciousness dwells alone with the secrets of its prison-house.” It’s this “wraith and ghost” which “our friends feel as our most characteristic quality.” Binnenleben, in James’s usage, refers exactly to the personality tremor that a master jazz musician is able to find and communicate. In traditional culture, as in traditional music, one forges an inner life through pre-established social roles and rituals. In our New World we have to adjust and even forge social roles by means of our inner lives. James and the jazz tradition represent the optimism that freedom can be a path to greater social cohesion and personal satisfaction. But freedom alone is no guarantee of justice and happiness: we have to develop new virtues to use it well.
“Be yourself”—by now it’s a cliche. James gives us instructions. It’s not simply that you should act on your feelings, for that’s not the relationship between action and feeling. In fact, the opposite is nearer the truth: how we act loosely dictates how we feel. “The sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness,” according to James, “is to sit up cheerfully.” So how do you find your Binnenleben? James gives the marvelous example of Norwegian women. Once docile wives and mothers, they enthusiastically took up skiing after its invention and soon were saying “good-bye to the traditional feminine pallor and delicacy of constitution.” The delightful, out-of-the-ordinary physical practice unleashed their personalities from their prisons. Soon after taking up skiing, the women roared into the public sphere and enacted numerous positive social reforms. The straightforward moral of this fable is that we should keep up a healthy vigor of the body in order “to give moral elasticity to our disposition, to round off the wiry edge of our fretfulness, and make us good-humored and easy of approach.” In a deeper sense, James is reminding us that we need to find ways of breaking deadening routines and practicing enlivening ones, for it’s only through vigorous practices that we’ll be able to discover our unuttered inner genies and lead them out of their jails.
The secret of finding yourself, in other words, is a certain amount of experimentation in what we do and a strong degree of carelessness about how we feel, which is almost the direct opposite of our standard therapies. Though James has done complex research in psychology on the relationship between action and emotion, he states his thesis by quoting from The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by a Mrs. Hannah Whitall Smith, who instructs us “to let our emotions ebb and flow as God pleases”—not a bad recipe for jazz.
Step 2: Unclamp your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free.
It turns out that James is not necessarily exhorting us to do more, but to worry less, for we’re too busy, too harried, too “over-contracted,” to pour our all into our vocations and avocations. Lacking the traditions, calendar, and shared values of the Old World, we’re all-too-inclined to mistake constant commotion for meaningful action. True work isn’t done by overwork but by being free of tension and anxiety. Though James’s essay is entitled “The Gospel of Relaxation,” he doesn’t mean that we should carve out more time to kick back; he means that we need to find ways of maintaining inner calm in our work and our leisure: “Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.” Since he’s talking to teachers and students, James frames his advice pedagogically:
They talk much in pedagogic circles today about the duty of the teacher to prepare for every lesson in advance. To some extent this is useful. But we Yankees are assuredly not those to whom such a general doctrine is to be preached. We are only too careful as it is. The advice I should give to most teachers would be in the words of one who is herself an admirable teacher. Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall always be on tap; then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all farther care.
The same goes for students. The day before an exam they should say to their books, “‘I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.’ Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.” The point is as at least as old as Laozi’s Daodejing, where it is labeled wuwei, effortless action. Though you must work hard in order to invest power in yourself, maximum power is achieved only when you finally let go. The same principle is clearly at work in jazz musicians, who train themselves on their instrument so they can unclamp and let the surrounding music channel through them.
Part V is here.