On November 18, 1898, William James wrote to his friend, the pro–imperialist Mack Salter, that “there is nothing to urge” against the “killing, presumption, international hates and jealousies” of imperialism “but the vague hope that where motion and action are, success is always among the possibilities.” What does James mean by “success” here? The “success” of “empire”? The success of what he viewed as the counterparts of killing, presumption, international hates and jealousies? “I am writing with great haste, and an appearance of vehemence which in me is inseparable from the writing act.” This said, James admits to “being unable to distinguish in practice, as you seem to do so beautifully, between the lofty and elevating appropriation of the Philippines for their future freedom and the appropriation of them sans phrase. Our outward acts must be the same in either case.”

James comes close here to urging “the writing act” as his version of “success”: it can distinguish no difference, finally, between “appropriation” with phrase (“for their future freedom”) and “appropriation” sans phrase. (“With me,” he says elsewhere, “to conceive is to execute.”) James’s famous “pragmatic test” (“Our outward acts must be the same in either case”) applies here as much to American military action in the Philippines as to James’s writing in this letter. His “outward” act of writing manifests the “vehemence” of “motion and action” that he sees manifested in the “outward acts” of American imperialism.

James’s writing here can be seen as both part and counterpart of imperialism. A writing act informed by pragmatic sanctions renames killing, presumption, and international hates and jealousies as “motion and action.” It abstracts and categorizes them. For James, writing itself becomes a “moral equivalent of war,” the stress falling on the adjective “moral.” To an out–and–out imperialism, that is, James opposes a radical imperialism: the vehement motion and action of writing that, in its “great haste,” disposes of fine phrases and cuts to the chase.

James understands the appropriative “urge” of imperialism only too well. In 1890, he laid down for “The Stream of Thought” and “Consciousness of Self” a fundamental principle of appropriation (he called it “attention”). What the self chooses to attend to it appropriates, and what it appropriates is what it is known as. In 1898, James chose to attend to American imperialism. He chose at the same time to reform philosophy by announcing and advocating “the principle of pragmatism”: “that the effective meaning of any philosophic proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive; the point lying rather in the fact that the experience must be particular, than in the fact that it must be active.” This letter to Salter is one of those “particular” consequences James refers to.

While James has been praised for his anti-imperialist stance, the difficulty he had in doing something about it bears looking into. That difficulty raises the old problem of reform: is it possible, and how? In the period when James was attending to American imperialism—between 1898 and 1903—he was also coming to terms with Emerson, the writer for whom reform was, in James’s disparaging terms, “a purely literary ideal.”

James didn’t quite buy reform as “a purely literary ideal.” But because he felt vehement when he wrote, James couldn’t dismiss reform altogether. Emerson arrived at his purely literary ideal of reform by proposing, in “The Poet,” that the reformer be indifferent to the age–old maxim that words are not deeds. Emerson’s reformer sees a difference of degree, not of kind, between the two. “Words and deeds,” he writes, “are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.” Emerson never resists the prudence that knows actions are not words; he is simply not interested in it, since it is what every man has “foretold.” The poet, on the other hand, “announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes.”

Emerson’s point of view here is radically physiological—and attractive to a man who felt that conception and execution were one and the same. In the chapter on “Will” in his Principles of Psychology, James notes just how airy this physiology can be: “ . . . from the physiological point of view a gesture, an expression of the brow, or an expulsion of the breath are movements as much as an act of locomotion is. A king’s breath slays as well as an assassin’s blow; and the outpouring of those currents which the magic imponderable streaming of our ideas accompanies need not always be of an explosive or otherwise physically conspicuous kind.” Over and over again Emerson has been criticized because his efforts at reform were not “of an explosive or otherwise physically conspicuous kind.” Yet the same Emerson, upon returning young Oliver Wendell Holmes’s essay criticizing Plato, could say: “If you strike at a King—you must kill him.” Emerson was no more interested than James was in expulsions of breath per se; but in those expulsions as words, Emerson and James had a vital investment.

What I’m suggesting is that James was no more committed to worldly political reform than Emerson was. They were both determined, rather, to justify the life of writing.

In 1589, George Puttenham published a treatise on poetry. He named a figure of thought “pragmatographia, or the counterfait action.” What was merely one among many figures of thought and speech was to become, in early twentieth-century poetics, the reigning figure. In Kenneth Burke’s term, literature is “symbolic action.” Emerson didn’t concede as much to the practical world: for him, literature was “action.” Emerson took to extremes what had been latent in Shakespeare and Montaigne and Bacon—the proposition that writing was an equivalent of action, a political and legal force. Writing was not merely a “counterfait action,” a symbolic or representative action; it was an actor, an agency; what it promised it performed, and what it performed it promised. Writing bridged the gap between rest and motion.

Like “pragmatographia,” James’s pragmatism names that bridge, or that illusion of a bridge. Like Emerson, James would no longer be “cowed by the name of Action,” as Emerson says in “Spiritual Laws.” “Action” for Emerson was “a trick of the senses.” Emerson simply laid it down “that the ancestor of every action is a thought.” Further, since the mind itself was most sensitive to the tricks of the senses, it was the mind (Shakespeare’s, in Hamlet) that invented “the name of action . . .to testify that it is somewhat.”

Emerson used the ancient economic dualism of “rich” and “poor” to bolster his thesis. The mind is “poor”; “action” is “rich”; and, like the rich, “The rich mind lies in the sun and sleeps, and is Nature. To think is to act.” Action was “an outside badge” for “the poor mind [that] does not seem to itself to be anything.” The claim that the mind should need nothing beyond its poverty, with the implied persuasion that this in itself is what it means to be “rich,” is precisely “the false note in Emerson” that jarred William James and John Jay Chapman, and jars us still.

Is writing, then, the “outside badge” of poverty? To Richard Poirier, one of Emerson’s best critics, this argument yields Emerson’s peculiarly American genius. But it reverses what can be called the common–sense position—often taken up by Robert Frost in his discussions of poetry—that the ancestor of every thought is an action, and that poetry is the afterthought of action, a reflection on, a regard for, action. The argument is eminently reversible in Emerson, too, as in Frost and William James. Nor does it prevent Frost—who said that in writing, “the escape is from actions into words”—from naming poetry “action.”

Perhaps Emerson’s greatest service to American literature—to literature in general—is his insistence that writing is action, and therefore “work.” He never tired of the metaphor. It informs his saying that he wrote his essays as “an apology to my country for my apparent idleness,” and it deepens the pleasure he took in the (relative) commercial success of Hawthorne’s writing—since, as he put it, Hawthorne’s writing was “useless.”

Literature is where things happen that don’t. For John Jay Chapman, Emerson’s false note came from harping on literature’s sublime form of contact. Emerson’s indifference to the more ordinary forms of contact—politics, for example—was nonetheless a form of action. That action, as in James’s letter to Salter, took the form of writing, vehement writing. But the principle informing such writing is the highly ambiguous imperative attributed to Jesus: “Resist not evil.” On the one hand, it suggests the doctrine of non-resistance, passive disobedience, civil disobedience; on the other, apathy and futility, and the better world to come.

Not long after Jesus saw that people found it difficult not to resist evil, Juvenal saw that it was difficult for writers not to write satire. Did William James see, in 1903, that reform, as a purely literary ideal, would take the form of satire? He certainly had a penchant for the satirical—as when he wrote to a friend in 1909: “To be a real philosopher, all that is necessary is to hate some one else’s type of thinking, and if that someone else be a representative of the ‘classic’ type of thought, then one is a pragmatist and owns the fullness of the earth.”

As an anti-imperialist, James wanted nothing so little as that; as a radical imperialist, he wanted nothing less.




Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


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