Step 3: Open your eyes to the meaningfulness of other lives.
At worse, we’re clucking and running around according to crazy, meaningless routines; at best, we’ve found and unleashed our Binnenleben; either way, we feel our own desires and recognize our own duties, but tend to be oblivious to the desires and duties of others. Our blindness to the inwardness of others is fairly universal, but it’s particularly pronounced in our restless modernity, when we’re apt to see our neighbor as a competitor. We tend to be like the shepherd who, while eating his mutton, keeps an eye out for those vicious thieves the wolves, not seeing that their motivations are identical to his own.
In “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James gives an example from his own life. In the mountains of North Carolina, he came across a cleared forest of “unmitigated squalor” where just a few charred stumps of trees remained. In their place stood a ramshackle cabin and a few zigzag rows of Indian corn—to James’s eyes, “a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.” After striking up a conversation with the mountaineer whose cabin it was, James realized that what he’d seen as decimation was to his interlocutor a personal victory: “The chips, the girdled trees and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward . . . [T]he clearing . . . was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success.”
The lesson is not that you must agree with everybody or tolerate all tastes and pursuits. James is asking us to begin our interactions with others by seeing the meaningfulness in their struggles, by recognizing what ideals they’ve set for themselves and how they’ve come to measure the virtues embedded in those ideals, rather than by assuming that they’re wolves to our sheep. Our tendency is to assume, “A pain in [my neighbor] is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear,” whereas we ought to acknowledge, “Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere even as in thee” (James is quoting his friend and intellectual sparring-partner Josiah Royce). Here’s the summation of the fundamental message of James’s pluralism:
Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands . . . It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the whole field.
Hands off, and open your eyes—particularly to what gives zest and joy to others.
Well over half of “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” is not written by William James: nearly eleven of nineteen pages in my edition are quotations from others. Stylistically, James’s prose reminds me most of Duke Ellington’s music in that it coordinates various odd-flavored voices into a democratic whole. Yes, Duke and James themselves beautifully compose and ingeniously structure the order of the solos. But a big part of their genius is knowing when not to compose, of understanding that the truth of our pluralism is best communicated by letting others have the microphone. “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” like so many of James’s works, performs the pluralism it teaches.
What I’m calling Step 4 is really a return to Steps 1 and 2 with the expanded vision of Step 3. Insofar as we suffer a certain blindness toward the meanings embedded in other lives, we fail to see the whole meaning of our own. Insofar as we count ourselves kings of the infinite space of our own lives, we squander our connection to the world’s vast presence. But when we realize that our lives are but nutshells among other nutshells in this huge forest of ours, then we fill with appropriate awe and live with what James calls “responsive sensibilities.”
Like all religious realizations, this one is hard—to some degree impossible—to put into words. Whenever he’s trying to evoke the religious dimensions of his pluralistic pragmatism, James likes to quote Tolstoy or Walt Whitman.
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you that you be my poem [. . .]
None have understood you, but I understand you;
None have done justice to you—you have not done justice to yourself;
None but have found you imperfect—I only find no imperfection in you.
O I could sing such glories and grandeurs about you;
You have not known what you are—you have slumbered upon yourself all your life;
What you have done returns already in mockeries.
But the mockeries are not you;
Underneath them and within them, I see you lurk [. . .]
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.
Maybe the best I can do to get at James’s idea of “responsive sensibilities” is to compare it to authentic jazz improvisation. You could easily imagine an argument against improvisation in performance. Wouldn’t it be better for composers to improvise in private until they got the best possible melody and harmony, and for players to learn thoroughly and then play these compositions rather than doodling around on their own? Aren’t improvisations at best mere stabs at something that could be better executed? To understand why this argument ultimately fails (even if it has a point to it) is to understand James’s idea about the meaningfulness of a life. The fact is that the present is full of power—in a sense, of all the power we can access. In James’s view, your life right now, as you’re living it, is where you’ll find everything: “There is life; and there, a step away, is death. There is the only kind of beauty there ever was. There is the old human struggle and its fruits together. There is the text and the sermon, the real and the ideal in one.” To tap into the present, to open your valves to its power, to get in touch with the essential you picking its way through your triumphs and losses and ennui, even if that means opening yourself up to error, is to maximize what it means to be alive—is what it means to be alive.
Admittedly, certain jazz performances or recordings just fail, even though the performers make use of roughly the same ideas in their improvisations as in a successful performance. But the practice of improvisation means that sometimes jazz musicians are on fire: there’s no duplicating it, no improving it. In the words of David Schiff in his The Ellington Century, melody becomes “supermelody”: it flies—though I’d prefer that the parallel to our lives isn’t Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the superhuman, but rather James’s idea of the deeply human.
Step 5: Recognize that the deepest human life is everywhere.
Step 5, like Step 4, is a synthesis and expansion of previous steps; it’s essentially what I’ve been calling “blues-understanding.” If we’ve followed James up to now, we’ve recognized that our individual life is shot through with all the restlessness of life itself, and we’ve identified our efforts with those currents that pick their way most deeply in us. Now James gently cajoles us to recognize that the deepest human life is not only in us: it’s everywhere. We are “possibles in the plural.”
Again, James illustrates his point by narrating how it was driven home to him. In his essay “What Makes a Life Significant,” he tells of his visit to the Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake. Planning on staying a day, he stayed a week, because the place was a gem of civilization: a town of several thousand inhabitants, in a lovely location, with a “first-class college in full blast,” a gorgeous open-air auditorium with a chorus of seven hundred voices, lots of athletics, no crime, no poverty, no police, daily lectures by eminent thinkers, and “perpetually running soda-water fountains.” Yet when he left, James found himself thinking, “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage!” He suddenly disdained this community “so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man,” reflecting that danger and courage, sweat and struggle, darkness and even death are what give the human world all its panache. Is our civilization overrun by the mediocrity of happiness? He sank into philosophical melancholy. Then, on the train to Buffalo, James spied a laborer working high atop the construction of a skyscraper. In a flash of insight, he realized that he’d been locked in phony ways of seeing the world, thinking in terms of paradise and wasteland, paltry abstractions in comparison with a guy on the tiptop of towering, teetering scaffolding. In everyday people—day-laborers, Viennese peasant-women, soda-fountain jerks, everybody, even professors—he saw a real, unidealized heroism.
And there I rested on that day, with a sense of widening of vision, and with what it is surely fair to call an increase of religious insight into life. In God’s eyes, the differences of social position, of intellect, of culture, of cleanliness, of dress, which different men exhibit, and all the other rarities and exceptions on which they so fantastically pin their pride, must be so small as, practically, quite to vanish; and all that should remain is the common fact that here we are, a countless multitude of vessels of life, each of us pent in to peculiar difficulties, with which we must severally struggle by using whatever of fortitude and goodness we can summon up. The exercise of the courage, patience, and kindness, must be the significant portion of the whole business; and the distinctions of position can only be a manner of diversifying the phenomenal surface upon which these underground virtues may manifest their effects. At this rate, the deepest human life is everywhere, is eternal.
We live in times where wealth inequality is at issue—the problem of the 99% and the 1%, in the terms of Occupy Wall Street. James lived through similar times, what Mark Twain christened the Gilded Age. While society, in James’s view, has “undoubtedly got to pass toward some newer and better equilibrium, and the distribution of wealth has doubtless slowly got to change,” he goes on to make the decisive point that “if, after all that [. . .], any of you expect that [these economic changes] will make any genuine vital difference, on a large scale, to the lives of our descendants, you will have missed the significance of my entire lecture.” As long as we see our problems in economic terms, they will never be productively solved. As long as we see the issue as my stuff versus your stuff, my economic rights against your economic rights, not only do we come up with temporary, volatile solutions at best, but we impoverish the meaning of our lives, which are always richer than any amount of material wealth. The real problem is less about economic power than about political power (which, of course, can be bought by economic power), and less about political power than justice and humanity. If we add to our illumined sense of life’s meaning the sympathy for others’ similarly different predicaments, then we can start to have a just society. “If the poor and the rich could look at each other in this way, sub specie aeternitatis, how gentle would grow their disputes! what tolerance and good humor, what willingness to live and let live, would come into the world!”
The last entry of this series is here.