Tuesday, December 20, 2016

William James Let Me Down

William James let me down this year. Since this month marks the end of a ten-year reading plan that I drew up and assigned myself, it is no exaggeration to say that I had been waiting ten years to read James’s chapter on hypnotism. Ten years of building anticipation.

In the mean time James has pointed out the difference between the intuition of space I get from sensations on my back and the intuition I get from sensations in my mouth. He has explained the difference between a desperate frog and Romeo and Juliet. This is the William James who taught me how to memorize things again. The William James who explained to me why I teach my students to write. The William James who analyzed attention to me and explained to my ADD-imbued mind why I read so much better when I walk. Over the course of the first nine years of my plan, I learned from James about multiple personalities, the perception of things, the reason behind the word that’s on the tip of your tongue, and even the importance of taking a stream of consciousness to eternity in Heaven. He took everything I had read concerning the mind in Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume, added to it, updated it with clinical research (hey, 1890 is updated compared to 350 B.C.), and made it relevant to my everyday life. James explained such familiar yet intimate aspects of myself that sometimes I felt as if he knew me personally.

Naturally, I was ready for the Foundational Psychologist Who Isn’t Freud to peer through the pages directly into my thoughts and memories and show me how I already have been and once again should be hypnotized. I was almost prepared for him actually to hypnotize me! Instead, he just outlined the general shape of the topic familiar to most people today if only from movies and television: shiny objects, “You’re getting sleepy,” suggestions, the assurance that no one can make you do anything you wouldn’t normally do, the sudden arousal. All the standard fare.

The end of my reading plan doesn’t mean the end of William James for me, though. I have a few chapters of Principles of Psychology left to read, so I decided to take him with me into the Third Decade Plan. (I’m leaving his brother Henry behind.) I’ll be reading a biography of James this coming year and then the remaining chapters in subsequent years as well as his other classic, Varieties of Religious Experience. He’ll have a chance to work his charms on me again, and I’m not worried: he’ll come through.

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