Delight Springs

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"A Jamesian Personscape"

Worked on my TPA/AA comments yesterday, though it's not "work" if nobody's making you do it. Right?

I'm glad I did. Came across a remarkable oration/confession from the legendary John J. McDermott, the 2010 William James Lecture on Religious Experience at Harvard Divinity School. 

It begins with an epigraph from James's Varieties, and an understated announcement.
I believe that no so-called philosophy of religion can begin to be an adequate translation of what goes on in the single private [person].
"I AM NOT GOING TO PRESENT a traditional philosophical paper on the thought of William James..."

No kidding. Starting with a standard reflection on James's conception of philosophy...
William James wrote that philosophy bakes no bread, but it does encourage the "habit of always seeking an alternative." In a spiritual crisis, only an alternative will work. Herein, as a variant of religious experience, James marries the wisdom of the noble Jewish tradition of teshuvah (repentance or atonement) to the thick terrain of conversion, that is, to speak to myself in a different voice, an alternative, if you will. With Heraclitus, "I searched out myself."
McDermott swiftly reverses direction midstream, and drops a  bombshell.
And thereby—My name is John and I am an alcoholic.
The ensuing address is riveting on the page, it must have been electrifying in person.

There's much in it I still must digest and assimilate, but one big immediate takeaway with important implications for AA's familiar renunciation of personal will and affirmation of a Higher Power is McDermott's appropriation of the famous James crisis text of April 30, 1870 [my emphasis].
"I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well. . . ." This turn does not involve a higher power and yet it was to be the decisive thread that knit together all of James's work for the next forty years. James's belief in what he later, famously, calls the "Will to Believe" is a philosophical bootstrap move. But this contention will enable him to set out with the mission that "Life shall [be built in] doing and suffering and creating." From that "way" of William James, I took a "way" out of my trouble, from which I was told over and again, there was no way out.
"Doing and suffering and creating" doesn't sound much like renouncing. It does sound like affirming, but affirming oneself and one's own powers of will (strengthened by a supportive community of fellow doers and sufferes and creators)- not one's powerlessness with alcohol, or anything else.

But again, as I say, there's much here to absorb. Mustn't leap to premature judgment.

By the way, I did will myself to do one other thing yesterday that nobody made me do: got back in that chilly pool one more time before finally pulling the plug. Willpower!

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