The great San Francisco quake of 1906 was a century and a decade ago this morning, notes the Almanac. William James was there, and his reaction was amazing - "...no fear, only admiration for the way a wooden house could prove its elasticity, and glee over the vividness of the manner in which such an 'abstract idea' as 'earthquake' could verify itself into sensible reality." The quake "fed his thoughts," says Rebecca Solnit, as extreme outer events can sometimes nourish a person's inner life with challenge and purpose. But you have to be the kind of person who welcomes spontaneous extremity, to be so nourished. Some of us come by that temperament naturally, others have to work at it.
I dipped into James's letters over the weekend, as I often do, for sustenance and inspiration. In what would turn out to be his final months, he was writing to friends of his admiration for a new "discreet" biography of Nietzsche, by Halevy. He was not a fan of the Will to Power and "poor Nietzsche's antipathies" but he did appreciate the German iconoclast's openness to extremity and the strenuous life. I've started Halevy's Life of Nietzsche, it's good. (And free on Kindle.)
Earthquake is a good metaphor for that, not only the geologic energy of the seismic event itself but even more the social energy of reconstruction. The willingness to pitch in with your peers, in times of stress and destruction, to bring about something better for the whole community, is admirable indeed. The will to collaborate in common cause, for the common good, is one of our best attainments. Nietzsche didn't quite get that. San Francisco did.
We're doing Nietzsche in class tomorrow, and existentialism. I'll note Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's unexpected mention of Camus, in his unexpected endorsement of Hillary.
And Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe... And Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson's existential recoil from celebrity and commercialism... and the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness as our peculiar twist on continental existentialism.