Academic journal article Philosophy Today

William James's "Specious Present" and Willa Cather's Phenomenology of Memory

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

William James's "Specious Present" and Willa Cather's Phenomenology of Memory

Article excerpt

"One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."

2 Peter 3:8

"They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men-some in their brushed Confederate uniforms-on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, dividedfrom them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years."

William Faulkner.

"A Rose for Emily,"

Several years ago I was a visiting professor of English and philosophy at the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. When I told one of my English department colleagues that my family and I were planning to visit Taos, Santa Fe and Mesa Verde, he suggested that I read Willa Gather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and so I did. About the same time my brother called and said that if I wanted to say good bye to our father before it was too late I had better come home to Bismarck, North Dakota soon. And so I did.

It was a bittersweet visit. My father's condition had progressed to the point that his grasp of the present and past were jumbled and he seemed to sleep most of the time. For the weekend I was home, in our conversations, he sometimes recognized that I was his son, but other times he thought I was either his brother or his father. However, each time I came back into the house he knew it was me, but often he so quickly lost track of my comings and goings that it seemed to him that I had made several fresh, new visits that had each involved a trip from Colorado.

My younger brother who had called me home found all of this very sad; but somehow to me it was not partly because I had just finished Death Comes for the Archbishop.What stood out above all else was the last book wherein Bishop Latour lays in the study with his eyes closed and, notice Gather's carefully chosen verb, "the Bishop was living his life" (297, emphasis added).2 At the time that section of her wonderful book most impressed me. Later when I reread the book in connection with research for essays dealing with Gather's treatment of pragmatic religion and her environmentalism, I found considerable value in many themes of her rich narrative.3

What I find compelling about Gather's description that Latour is living his life-not re-living or remembering it is how perfectly her account dramatizes William James's contention that human's awareness of time requires the consciousness of a "specious present." The most influential aspect of the "Sense of Time" and "Memory" chapters of William James's The Principles of Psychology was his contention that our consciousness of "the now" is not an awareness of an evanescent moment on the heels of a vanishing past awaiting a future, but that our sense of "the present" is an elastic and extended "saddle" of awareness that contains both pulses of the past and inchoate expectations of the future. With regard to the elasticity of "the present" one's consciousness can embrace, as the present, a second, minute, hour, day, year or scores of years.

In her rich phenomenology of memory Willa Gather perceptively displays, via the recollecting consciousness of her characters, how their "past" lives are present and remain vividly alive. In effect, then, Gather can be seen as perceptively utilizing, extending and embellishing James's "specious present." She accomplishes this whenever she allows us to be privy to the consciousness of her characters as they enjoy continuing to live (instead of re-living again) the defining events of their lives. …

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