Wild Facts: Lives in Context (Presidential Address)

Wild Facts: Lives in Context

Linda Simon

    A biography is a constructed illusion. The merest wisps of a life, fragments that consist of words or images on paper, serve as evidence for a human being: evidence of flesh and blood and heartbeat, of breath, of desire, of fear, of countless unspoken, unwritten thoughts. From these fragments—even twelve or twenty-four volumes, even scores of boxes from the archives of Houghton Library—biographers invent coherence, which may or may not have anything to do with the inchoate complexities and contradictions of real, lived experience.
    But coherence is such a temptation. We, after all, each of us, invent our own stories, which may or may not coincide with the story our husband or wife or parent or child, or colleague down the hall, would tell about us. Or even coincide with our own revised version from last year, or last week. And whose story represents our own reality? Whose is “true”? Surely not a biographer’s, who “reads” a subject from a distance of time and space, culture and perhaps class. It’s flimsy business, this business of biography, and yet not futile. Somewhere in the accumulation and conflation of many life stories, many perspectives, many rereadings of those fragments of evidence, we approach a sense of another self.
     Each biographer necessarily creates a context for the fragments of evidence available, a context that reflects the biographer’s life and times as much as the subject’s. Before I talk about contextualizing William James, then, I’d like to say something about contextualizing anyone. Any biographical subject lives in a time and place, more or less; paying attention to that context, perhaps responding to that context, perhaps not; and creating a set of memories of that context. That context, as the individual processes and recalls it, forms a kind of force, and that force, for want of a better term, we tend to think of as “cause.” The cause helps us to understand effects: that is, decisions, beliefs, predilections to hold one idea rather than another, and actions or, sometimes in James’s case, inactions; and this thread of causes and effects generates, for the biographer, the shape of a life. But identifying a cause and attaching it to an effect is not inevitable; it has little to do with “truth”; it does have to do with the questions a biographer asks and the answers that seem possible.
    Let me give you an example. I would like you to think about yourself for a minute, and pretend that a biographer is trying to understand this moment of your life: your attendance at a conference of the American Philosophical Association. The biographer is going to write a sentence about this event in her book about you, to try to characterize you here: how you are feeling, what you are thinking, what motivated you to attend, what the interactions you have here mean to you, how this event fits into your life, what is its significance. Here are some questions the biographer may need to address in order to write this sentence:

1.     How do you feel about traveling in general? How did you get here, and how do you feel about that means of travel?

2.     How do you feel about leaving your home so soon after the Christmas holiday?

3.     How do you feel about attending a professional conference?

4.     Whom might you know here, and how do those relationships affect your feeling right now?

5.     If you are delivering a paper, how do you feel about that? Do public presentations make you nervous? energized? anxious? respected? vulnerable?

6.     How do you feel about being in Washington? As I write this question, the nation is on “orange alert.” To what extent are you worried about being in this city at this time?

7.     World events are swirling around us: to what extent are you thinking about these events during these few days? And if you are thinking about them, what are you thinking? Are you reading the daily newspaper? What are you reading? How does what is happening in the world make you feel about your professional choices in being a philosopher or a scholar?

8.     How does your personality—being gregarious, or withdrawn, or solitary—affect your feelings at this conference? For example, did you come alone or with friends? Did you initiate or renew friendships here? Have you sought out company and if so, whose, and why?

9.     What problems or concerns might you have brought with you? Do you see this conference as a few days to escape from those problems, or are you thinking about them even now, when you might be listening?

10.  How do you feel, physically? It’s cold and flu season, and I wonder if you are tired, or achy, or feverish. Do you have a headache?

11.  Where does this conference fit into your professional life? Are you interviewing for a job? Hoping for a promotion? Eager to have your work published?

12.  How do you feel in the middle of winter, in general?

13.  Why did you choose to attend this particular session?

14.  And last, what are you thinking, sitting here? What are you paying attention to?

Some of these questions are fairly straightforward. I can find out how you traveled here, for example, perhaps by checking your credit card statements; and if you hate flying, I may be able to find out from an email message that you sent to someone, which, even if deleted, I suspect exists somewhere in the vast celestial archive of computer trash. I might know, from my research, that you get depressed every winter, much as James did; and I might surmise, also, that you are tired because the semester has just ended, and you have worked hard. I can check the program to tell whether or not you delivered a paper, and you might write something to someone about how you felt it was received. Or one of your listeners might write something, which I might be able to discover if this listener was well known enough to have a recoverable paper trail. Your own comment about the reception of your paper may prove to be a problem because, who knows, you may be subject to self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement; and your assessment may or may not concur with the perception of your listeners. But which is important anyway: what you thought about yourself, or what others thought of you? Who is the “you” that exists in any moment? 5
     The British child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, in his book The Beast in the Nursery, quotes a passage about Wittgenstein, recalling a conversation that occurred during a visit to a friend in 1949, when Wittgenstein was 62: “Later, walking in the hills, he returned to the way in which we borrow—hints. He had seen a play, a third-rate, poor play, when he was twenty-two. One detail in that play had made a powerful impression upon him. It was a trifle. But here some peasant, some ne’er-do-well says in the play: ‘Nothing can hurt me.’ That remark went through him and now he remembers it. It started things you can’t tell. The most important things just happen to you.” 1
    I hope you can see, then, how complicated this is: this writing of biography, this writing of one sentence about your attendance at this conference. I simply cannot get inside your mind; I need to rely on written evidence to verify my conclusions; and whatever I conclude will, inevitably, be influenced by my own feelings, my own perception of what can be true, and especially by my questions about what constitutes the context of your being here. I may not ask the most important question, the question that would help me truly to know who you are.
    This process of sorting out cause and effect becomes fraught with risk when the biographer considers her subject’s intellectual life: in James’s case, his beliefs and his writings about philosophy, religion, and psychology, about which you will soon hear more. It is tempting, and, I think, wrong-headed, to create a context for professional work that is separate from a larger context of personal needs, desires, and legacy and from a larger context still that includes the swirling influences of the subject’s culture and historical moment. If, for example, I want to understand your own interest in James, I would guess that it involved more than academic background and training. Something drew you to his work, and I would guess that that something had to do with beliefs about your own sense of responsibility to the community, about your perception of the ways that you—and maybe your children—learn, about depression and anxiety, about the limitations and burdens of living in a democracy, about your own capacity for religious belief and prayer About the contradictions between your own social and private selves. About, perhaps, nostalgia. All of the questions I asked earlier about your reasons for being at this conference and at this session I would ask about your professional work as a philosopher and scholar of philosophy.
    Which is a long way to introduce what I’ll talk about this afternoon: the advent of electricity in the second half of the 19th century. When we consider religion and science in the age of William James, we can expand that context by considering technology, and what new technologies implied about nature and the human spirit. 9
    I became interested in electricity, oddly enough, through my work on James and his quest to understand what he called the “wild facts” in the universe—apparitions, occult powers, telepathy—phenomena that suggested the existence of mysterious energies. Because many of James’s colleagues in his quest were physicists whose professional work focused on electricity, and because the language describing these wild facts borrowed significantly from the language used to describe electrical phenomena, I wondered how—or if—early electrification was connected to the coincident intensification of their research. That question led me to histories of electrification, where I learned that in the last quarter of the 19th century, electricity was a force stronger in the imagination than in reality: there were few light bulbs, telephones, or electric trams in everyday use; people learned of the potential of electricity from the spectacular demonstrations they saw at fairs and from eager articles in magazines and their daily newspapers. Readers were invited to imagine themselves in control of a benign power—a power that would protect them. In fact, electricity’s first use in homes was in batteries for burglar and fire alarms. Of course, the power would enhance comfort, too: door-openers, shoe polishers, and even a miniature train track installed around a dinner table to distribute plates of food would make everyday tasks easier. Elevators, carpet sweepers, fans, coffee pots, and sewing machines would transform housekeeping. But beyond this image of life made easy by a multiplicity of electrical gadgets, people were told that as wielders of electricity, they themselves would be transformed for the better. Once women controlled electrical power in their homes, once they freed themselves from mundane chores, they would evolve into man’s intellectual equal. When electricity speeded up the pace of life, human evolution would proceed faster. 10
    With such euphoric predictions, one would suppose that the public hardly could wait for electrical power in their homes; but although electrical companies worked hard to gain a domestic market, more than thirty years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, barely ten percent of American homes were wired. Since the light bulb seems like an incontestably good idea; since we ourselves would be horrified at giving up electrification, I wondered why the 19th century public needed so much persuasion, for so long, to try electricity. Some reasons were not hard to discover. Alongside articles extolling electricity were others that reflected fear, distrust of the hyperbolic claims of electrical companies, and worry about the possible physical consequences of a new, untested technology. Accidental electrocutions made front-page news, as did terrifying explosions, caused by poorly insulated wires laid alongside gas mains. Articles warned about possibly malignant effects of electricity on the human body: blindness, for example, from reading by incandescent light. Electricity, moreover, was unreliable: in cities that had installed public lighting, bulbs and wires often failed, and repairs were slow and difficult. Few trained electricians were available to support the new systems. Most significantly, harnessing electricity seemed an act of transgression against the power of nature. Electricity, after all, was nature’s most devastating force; lightning was electrical, and it seemed foolhardy to invite that force into one’s home. 11
    Yet at the same time, the application of electricity as a medical therapy spread rapidly, embraced with enthusiasm by physicians and patients. In the context of apparent resistance to electrification, the widespread appeal of electrotherapy as a mainstream medical treatment seemed even more puzzling. I knew that James and many members of his family had undergone electrical therapy: James for heart trouble, his brother Henry for digestive problems, their sister Alice for depression. Now I discovered that electrotherapy was not just one of the medical fads that the Jameses were prone to embrace, but a treatment endorsed by traditional medicine throughout America and Europe. Physicians routinely included a battery set among their office equipment, and major hospitals boasted an electrical unit, headed by a physician who took the title of Electrician. This form of electrotherapy was not the electro-convulsive treatment that came into use in the 1950s for severe and intractable mental illness, but included a variety of massages, baths, showers, and infusions. Sometimes gentle and benign, sometimes painful and punitive, electrotherapy was the treatment of choice for scores of common ailments, and especially for a newly diagnosed illness, neurasthenia, or nerve weakness, with which James was so familiar. Electricity, physicians believed, provided nourishment for depleted nerves. 12
    The new technology, then, brought into popular discourse—that is, into newspapers, magazines, and public lectures—a consideration of beliefs about vitalism, spiritualism, and the consequences of scientific investigation: beliefs, of course, that were central to James’s work. Vitalism, which held that electricity was the source of life itself, justified the conviction that applying electricity to the human body could strengthen and energize; at the same time, vitalism contributed to a fear of artificial electricity, since the force that energized this new technology was, in the popular mind, the same force that coursed through one’s nerves. While people were willing to submit to the invasion of electricity into their bodies, with their own permission and administered by a physician whom they trusted, they were suspicious about allowing electricity to flow into their homes, where the force could stealthily invade their body in ways that they might not be able to control. It might even kill them. 13
   Spiritualism intensified the beliefs of vitalism, asserting that one’s soul, will, and spirit were electrical in nature: the spirit of the dead existed as disembodied energies; a person with a strong electrical force manifested a powerful will that could manipulate others, infiltrate their minds, and overwhelm them. All through the last half of the 19th century, Americans and Europeans from every class and educational background sat in dimly lit rooms where they witnessed tables turning, mediums communicating with the dead, apparitions materializing from behind gauzy curtains, and telepathic subjects guessing the contents of documents in sealed envelopes. They attended “mesmeric evenings” where personalities were “read” by men and women claiming special empathic powers. They were attuned, in their own daily lives, to tremors of inexplicable feelings that might portend disaster to someone, far away, whom they loved. The language of electricity became a rich source of metaphor for sexual prowess and erotic feelings. But animal electricity and magnetism also suggested malevolence. Mesmerism implied emotional intimacy that could blur into feelings of being overpowered and violated by someone who could manipulate one’s thoughts and invade one’s private space. These disquieting notions about animal electricity formed a context for public understanding of artificial electricity. 14
    Scientific research inspired uneasiness, as well, and surely undeniable fascination. Audiences flocked to see stunning displays of electricity, including such phenomena as lightning; shooting stars; a facsimile of the Aurora Borealis; an electrical model of the solar system; an electrified model insect, so realistic it could fool the eye; a fiery “halo” shimmering around a subject’s head as if evidence of beatification; or an electrified “Venus,” whose kiss gave new intensity to the notion of sexual attraction.2 But scientific investigations also inspired worry. Many scientists’ conviction that in probing nature they were fulfilling God’s will was undermined, as the nineteenth century progressed, by the technological applications of their discoveries, applications that spewed fumes, created clamor and glare, and seemed to have as its ends the financial enrichment of businessmen rather than the enlightenment of humankind. 15
    Scientists’ projects often seemed arrogant and foolhardy: to tamper with the electrical force risked causing an unbalance in nature; to tamper with nature at all risked punishment and retribution. Were accidental electrocutions really accidental? Or were they nature’s way of striking down transgressors? Scientists comprised a new class of experts whose discoveries about nature were publicized as having vast potential to change the world morally, socially, politically, and materially. In speculations about the future, electricity featured prominently as a power to effect great cultural changes. Such changes in themselves generated anxiety; but one risk of scientific research seemed especially terrifying: the possibility of a universe consisting of matter, and nothing more; a universe without a guiding intelligence, a universe without God. 16
    As science pushed aggressively to uncover Nature’s secrets, the public encountered, in magazine essays, newspaper articles, and fiction, disturbing characterizations of scientists as heartless, godless, transgressors. If scientists accumulated knowledge, they did not necessarily impart wisdom. It was as late as 1834 that the term “scientist” entered the English language, the result of years of debate among members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As scientist came to replace naturalist, the difference proved troubling. A naturalist’s true vocation was not invention or innovation, but affirmation of a divine intelligence; to discover, as Emerson once remarked, a theory of nature that could explain the “occult relation” among all natural phenomena: in short, a theory that revealed God as the ultimate creative force, professed sympathy between humans and all other living entities, and enriched one’s sense of humanity. Early electrical investigators, such as Michael Faraday and Hans Oersted, shared this goal. But increasingly, scientists were becoming more and more specialized, revealing a partial view of nature according to their special vantage. A botanist or a physiologist, a neurologist or a chemist, delivered one theory and another into the world, fragmenting rather than unifying nature. Those discoveries made for sensational news stories, disseminated by the popular press, sometimes accurately, often not. “The immense amount of valuable knowledge now afloat in society enriches the newspapers,” Emerson wrote sardonically in 1848, “so that one cannot snatch an old newspaper to wrap his shoes in, without his eye being caught by some paragraph of precious science out of London or Paris which he hesitates to lose forever. My wife grows nervous when I give her waste paper lest she is burning holy writ, & wishes to read it before she puts it under her pies.”3 Emerson’s wife was not the only one growing nervous because of the onslaught of scientific information. With more than two hundred professional associations founded between 1870 and 1900, it seemed that there was an expert opinion on everything, opinions that often contradicted one another, supported by evidence that the public felt inadequate to evaluate. Especially in the sciences, expertise convinced non-experts that investigation of natural phenomena was an esoteric activity and that theories could not be evaluated by common sense. Most certainly they convinced a wary public that scientists were intent on reducing nature to mere matter.
    James was one among many who resisted the idea of a materialist universe. In talks that attracted hundreds of listeners, in articles in popular magazines—the same magazines that published articles and fiction in which electricity was a central theme—James responded to his contemporaries’ concern about the consequences of scientific research; the limits of scientific authority; the possibility of affirming religious faith in a world that privileged the empirical; about, as he put it, “the contradiction between the phenomena of nature and the craving of the heart to believe that behind nature there is a spirit whose expression nature is.”4 James was skeptical about science’s claim of objectivity, asserting that belief in scientific method was itself a faith, like any other: scientists, he said, held a “certain fixed belief,—the belief that the hidden order of nature is mechanical exclusively, that non-mechanical categories are irrational ways of conceiving and explaining such things as human life”; a belief, moreover, that excluded “capricious, discontinuous, and not easily controlled” experiences.5 James resisted the idea that science was barred from investigating whatever transcended matter: “the so-called order of nature, which constitutes this world’s experience,” he wrote, “is only one portion of the total universe”; and beyond the empirical there must exist “one harmonious spiritual intent.” 6 We can explain James’s thinking about a materialist universe in academic, philosophical, and religious contexts, but we cannot exclude from his thinking the context of technology in his time.
    Throughout the 19th century, electricity was temptress and seducer, feared and coveted, a force that could animate life or inflict death. Electrification threatened a public who treasured shadows and secrets, and who yearned, as James did so eloquently, for a universe in which “wild facts” preserved a feeling of wonder.
Skidmore College


1 Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery. London: Faber, 1998: 70.

2 See Michael R. Lynn, “Enlightenment in the Public Sphere: The Musee de Monsieur and Scientific Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Paris,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32.4 (1999): 463-476.

3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal entry September 1848. Emerson in his Journals, ed. Joel Porte. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982: 393.

4 William James, “Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy. New York: Dover, 1957 [1897]: 40.

5 William James, “What Psychical Research Has Accomplished,” The Will to Believe: 324, 325, 306.

6 James, “Is Life Worth Living?”: 51, 52.

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