A Terrible Good: William James, Charles Williams and Divided Consciousness

By Madsen, Catherine | Cross Currents, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Terrible Good: William James, Charles Williams and Divided Consciousness


Madsen, Catherine, Cross Currents


In anatomizing religious experience, William James drew on an emerging body of psychological observation which had no well-defined relation to the phenomena of conversion and mysticism he was addressing. For about fifteen years before James's Gifford Lectures, Binet, Janet, Breuer, Freud, and other psychologists had been charting the workings of the unconscious, and in speaking of "heterogeneous personality"--"a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution"--James drew upon the wide range of discordancies they had examined. Under the heading of the "divided self" he classes everything from ambivalence and pronounced difference between public and private personae, to fully divided consciousness with states of amnesia and "whole systems of underground life" in which painful memories are stored. James characterizes the sudden conversion as a phenomenon long prepared for in the unconscious, with "the tension of subliminal memories reaching the bursting-point" and issuing in a profound and decisive change. The "indetermination of the margin"--the potentiality of memories to move from an unconscious to a conscious state, bringing with them "the entire mass of residual powers, impulses, and knowledges that constitute our empirical self"--is, for a person at any point along the continuum of division, the key to transformation. Whatever we are, the accumulated pressure of what we are seeks its expression.

Objectively speaking, there is no reason for a book on the varieties of religious experience to lean so heavily on psychological brokenness. The "healthy-minded" will find (and have found) such an emphasis to be skewed and bizarre, just as they find the states of soul James describes to be at best signs of weakness and at worst flaws so pathological as to lie beyond moral relevance. But James is not speaking objectively. Both his own experience of ambivalence and breakdown and his studies of people with divided consciousness kept "discordancy" at the forefront of his attention and led him to speak in defense of subjectivity. While some of the phenomena he describes are rather uncommon (though, sadly, common enough to have an established course of treatment), ambivalence and a sense of shame are extremely widespread, and are felt, as James understood, as a kind of soul-sickness. While there is some intellectual discordancy between what we mean by the psyche and what we mean by the soul, our felt experience makes no firm distinction between them.

It may be because I was immersed in the novels of Charles Williams when I first read James that I hear echoes between the two. James, of course, has always had the wider reputation and influence, but there are biographical and intellectual points of contact; in particular, both writers convey a strong sense of religion as felt experience. James lived from 1842 to 1910, Williams from 1886 to 1945; James experienced the "irremediable impotence" of a wealthy young man prevented at every turn from finding his powers, while Williams experienced the humiliation and drivenness of a brilliant young man without resources. Both men eventually arrived at the intellectual center of their worlds, James as a professor at Harvard and Williams as an editor at the Oxford University Press. Religiously speaking, James was chiefly a Swedenborgian and a Transcendentalist, whereas Williams was an orthodox Anglican; but orthodoxy in Anglican terms is elastic and permits a good deal of privacy, and in practice both men treat religion as essentially subjective and self-determining. Both had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, James through experiments with hypnosis and automatic writing and Williams through his training in the esoteric orders of fin-de-siecle London. Both found secondary outlets for their intellectual energies in physical symptoms, James through extended periods of illness and Williams through quirks of speech and movement that his acquaintances noted.

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