Magazine article Verbatim

Hogamous, Higamous!

Magazine article Verbatim

Hogamous, Higamous!

Article excerpt

The first time the quatrain below appeared in the The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was in its Fourth Edition (1992), and it is ascribed to the American philosopher William James. The sentiment is not expressed in the sonorous language of the Book of Moroni, where one might first look to find such a message. It has more the pithy irrefutability of Paul Jennings' "Man erith; woman morpeth":

   Hogamous, higamous
   Man is polygamous
   Higamous, hogamous
   Woman monogamous.

When and where did William James, philosopher and psychologist, pillar of Victorian uprightness, and brother of the novelist Henry, pronounce this subversive saying?

The source for the quotation is given, rather surprisingly, as The Oxford Book of Marriage (1990), which appears a somewhat incestuous way of defining origins. And indeed, on page 195 of that work, to introduce her section "Dangerous Liaisons," the editor, Helge Rubinstein, introduces the verse as follows: "William James, psychologist and philosopher, woke one night feeling he had solved the ultimate mystery of life. The following morning he found that this doggerel was the great insight he had written down: [as above]." But Ms. Rubinstein gives no source, and the supposed author has no entry under her acknowledgments of copyright later in the volume. The anecdote does not appear in any of the biographies of William James, and the lines do not appear in either his conventional works or his published letters. In what memoirs had this recollection been reported, and how had the incident lain dormant for so long (James died in 1910)?

The earliest published recording appears to be in Selected Readings in Psychology (by Don E. Gibbons and John F. Connelly, published by Mobsby, 1970). Chapter 11 of this work ("What a 'Bummer' Is Really Like", echoing the drug-hazed decade of the 1960s) consists of an abridgement from Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater. The authors introduce the piece as follows: "Around the turn of the century, William James decided to experiment on himself with the effects of opium in order to increase his creativity and powers of insight. In the middle of one drug-induced dream, he suddenly felt a flash of inspiration. Certain that the secret of the universe had suddenly been revealed to him, he managed to write down the content of his inspirational flash before losing consciousness. On awakening, he found to his dismay that what he had written was, 'Hogamous, higamous: Men are polygamous; higamous, hogamous--women monogamous!'"

This poses some new questions. The punctuation and number of the Gibbons-Connelly version differ distinctly from the Rubinstein version. Rubinstein, in turn, sanitized the anecdote to remove any reference to drugtaking. We still have no concrete reference, but the phrase "the turn of the century" sounds a little suspicious, as James had heart problems since well before 1900, and his acknowledged experiments with hallucinogens had taken place much earlier. So the claim that James suddenly, late in life, decided to experiment with opium, with some direct purpose, when he had sampled not only opium, but alcohol, nitrous oxide, ether, hasheesh and chloroform before he published Principles of Psychology in 1890, is rather lame. Moreover, Fred Leavitt (in Drugs and Behavior, 1994) cites the Gibbons-Connelly source but ascribes the incident to nitrous oxide (not opium) use, which must be owing to either a lapse of memory or to a subconscious desire to improve historical accuracy, given James's well-known, and detailed, accounts of his nitrous oxide experiments.

These experiments occurred in the early 1980s. As one biographer, Ralph Barton Perry, writes in The Thought and Character of William James: "We know that sometime in the early '80s he was prompted by the writings of his friend Blood to experiment with nitrous-oxide-gas intoxication, and that he caused some scandal among his philosophical friends by likening the effect to the insight of Hegel. …

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