Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"A Written Monologue by That Most Interesting Being, Myself": Sickness, Suicide, and Self-Reflection in the Diary of Alice James

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"A Written Monologue by That Most Interesting Being, Myself": Sickness, Suicide, and Self-Reflection in the Diary of Alice James

Article excerpt

In May 1895, William James delivered a talk to the Young Men's Christian Association of Harvard University entitled Is Life Worth Living? The lecture was subsequently published, first in the International Journal of Ethics in October of the same year and again as a stand-alone essay in 1896. The essay addresses the dangerous doubt that necessarily accompanies an "over-studious career":

    My task, let me say now, is practically narrow, and my words are to
deal
   only with that metaphysical tedium vitae
 which is peculiar to
   reflecting men. Most of you are devoted for good or ill to the
reflective
   life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt
in
   your own persons the scepticism and unreality that too much grubbing
in
   the abstract roots of things will breed. This is, indeed, one of the
   regular fruits of the over-studious career. Too much questioning and
too
   little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much
sensualism
   does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism
and
   the nightmare or suicidal view of life. (16) 

William is describing the predicament of Hamlet, the archetypal reflective man, but he is possibly drawing upon sources much closer to home. (1) As George Cotkin notes, "fin de siecle suicides and potential suicides suffered from a doubting mania akin to the type that had cast a shadow over [William]'s own life" (89). Elsewhere William describes himself as a "victim of neurasthenia and of the sense of hollowness and unreality that goes with it" (qtd. in Cotkin 77). William may also have in mind his sister's enquiry to her father about the ethics of committing suicide. In September 1878, the year of Alice's "hideous summer" during which she suffered her second serious breakdown, Henry James senior wrote to the youngest of the James siblings, Robertson, recounting the discussion:

    One day a long time ago [she] asked me whether I thought that
   suicide, to which at times she felt very strongly tempted, was a sin.
I
   told her that I thought it was not a sin except when it was wanton,
as
   when a person from a mere love of pleasurable excitement indulged
   in drink or opium to the utter degradation of his faculties and to
the
   ruin of the human form in him; but that it was absurd to think it
   sinful when one was driven to it in order to escape bitter suffering,
   from spiritual flux, as in her case, or from some loathsome form of
   disease, as in others. I told her that so far as I was concerned she
had
   my full permission to end her life whenever she pleased.... She then
   remarked that she was very thankful to me, but she felt that now she
   could perceive it to be her right to dispose of her own body when it
   became intolerable ... she was more than content to stay by my side,
   and battle in concert against the evil that is in the world. I
don't fear
   suicide much since this conversation, though she often tells me that
   she is strongly tempted still, (qtd. in James, Death
 15-16) 

William may have seen the letter, been aware of the situation at the time, been told about it later, or even received the same advice, as there is an echo of the discussion in Is Life Worth Living?:

    To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose
   is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is
   on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood
   on the assurance "you may end it when you will." What
reasons can
   we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take
   up the burden again? Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be
   suicides, have little to offer them beyond the usual negative
"thou
   shalt not." God alone is master of life and death, they say, and
it is
   a blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. But can we find
   nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections to urge
   whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all sad seriousness
feel,
   that in spite of adverse appearances even for him life is worth
living
   still? … 
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