William James 'On Melancholy'


As man's body serves as his physical residence and each person relates to that residence in his own fashion, in his mind also man's main moods form a psychic shape that seems to fit the contours of his own subjective reality. If these ‘inner residences', these psychic or spiritual neighborhoods could be viewed, then those persons stricken by melancholy could be pinpointed in a moment, for melancholy separates an individual from his fellows by constructing about him a moat of fears and resentments. No cheerful cottage of a soul here to welcome travelers, but a gray castle of stoned walls with curtained windows drawn against the sun. Inside - frightened, aloof, angry, and alone - the man of melancholy temperament watches from the highest walls the panorama of daily tumultuous life that goes on far below.


Well I understand the proud disdain that characterizes such midnight of the soul, and know how the bleak isolation itself achieves a cold but shining value to one so constituted. Much of my life was spent in just such a fashion when the day's normal sunlight filtering through my fears seemed the most artificial, gaudy, falsely seductive illumination, promising vitality and nature's good graces only to highlight men's greed and nature's overriding insensitivity.


Castles are by their nature grand if dank, damp, and filled with secret passages, monuments to generations long dead or to tragedies too numerous to recount. They represent superior barricades for the cultivated, as in Europe's dark past the nobles in their baronies protected themselves against the peasants and perpetuated their own grand estate.


In such edifices, vestiges of the past line the walls and corridors - knights' armor, swords crossed, ancient portraits - and in forgotten desk drawers lie old parchments describing wars won or lost, alliances made and broken, claims and counterclaims to estates no longer in existence. So the man of melancholy mind painstakingly collects old grudges and from them forms monuments that ever remind him of past bitterness.

These resentments need not be personal ones such as an ill-tempered man might have against his neighbors, for they have often a grand cast of tragic coloration, representing intense grudges against the conditions of life itself. The melancholy man is angry at the universe, but with no way of retaliating against it he is reduced to grumbling and muttering beneath his breath. He collects instances of life's seeming insensitivity, life's cruelty, man's imperfections, and while he is doing so, feels the greatest virtue. At least he is keeping score. Someone is taking the universe to task. Idioms such as ‘God's in His heaven and all's right with the world’ set his teeth gritting. In his incensed mind's eye he sees the unclothed poor, the ignorant, the warring world of men set in the drearier, vaster context of a gluttonous natural world that creates individual specimens only to destroy them, preserving the species by annihilating its vulnerable parts.


Life itself seems a mockery, since it is to be taken away - the ravages of age wrinkling the youngest face finally into a prune like dried oval, and youth's feelings of invulnerability only too quickly crumbling into the quicksand’s of justified fears. Hence he retreats to his mental castle, watching sorrowfully from the high buttresses while below the peasants go about their daily concerns, jabber at the marketplace and praise God, shouting fool anthems while the priests grow fat at their expense. Or so it seems.


Nor can he see that science offers any hopes, since the scientist is tainted with his own humanity; he has the disease himself from which the world suffers. How can the scientist, then, pretend to have more reason than other men, blighted as he is with humanity's emotional morass?

So thinks our melancholy man in his darkest hours. To prove his point, now and then he visits the castle's dungeon where, from Europe's past, dark doctrines of religion and science merge to do their worst: Frankenstein’s rise to confront science's proud aspiration, and the scientist tampering with evolution's ways brings forth beasts that are not animals or men.


Yet now and then, more often than he would admit, our lord of the manor is drawn to the companionship of his fellows. He yearns to join the dancing throngs below. He spies flowers growing even in the rock crevices of his retreat. He is touched despite himself by the sun's warmth as it circles the castle as if searching for entry. He even imagines sometimes that the inside walls are warm where outside the sun, even for a moment, pauses in one spot, and alone he tries to warm his hands against the stone.


Yet to give in would be defeat, would mean that he was giving tacit acceptance to life's conditions-so he strides angrily away, where in deeper solitude he can ruminate upon the sins of God against man, the malice of nature, and the futility of his own reasoning.


Though this picture I paint is exaggerated, some men are captured by melancholy to this extraordinary degree, while others allow their lives to be overshadowed by the same dreariness which creeps into their dreams, blots out their aspirations, and turns the most cozy mental cottage into a dark stone edifice set in forbidding woods.


No joy can mitigate his desperation, no relationship comfort his fears as long as our melancholy man sulks within the confines of his barricades. Such a fellow has faith in neither God nor man. To some extent he echoes the doubts in each man's heart. He is a perfectionist, but one who seeks out mars and overlooks those tendencies toward excellence that appear clearly to other less fastidious men who do not compare them so drastically with a rigid ideal to which the universe must conform - or else!


Yet loneliness can drive even the most melancholy of men outward, for within despair's castle the heart and pulses grow faint. The face pales. The hands and limbs tremble until everything natural within a man finally calls out for light, warmth; and he is driven like an animal from its cave out into the world for nourishment and contact with his kind.


With what squeamishness does our friend emerge, with what trepidation does he step across his moat while crocodiles of his worst imaginings snap just beneath his feet. It will most certainly storm; he will end up rushing back to his castle, his coat in tatters, because the townspeople below will undoubtedly congregate to stone him or yell abuse. So his thoughts go as he emerges, covering his unease with a calm, cold, aloof, dignified air, and wrapping his muffler about him whether the air is warm or cold.


At first he is everywhere surrounded by fog, and he grimly compares his position to that of mankind in general - set isolated in an accidental universe, mind askew upon the carcass of animal heritage, steeped in superstitions of gods and demons. For, despite all his seeming independence of thought, our melancholy man is immersed in the very kind of mire he sees so clearly elsewhere.


He has accepted from science and religion both the most nefarious and insidious beliefs, and he has not examined their inconsistencies. Pausing, he looks down at the village, which now appears through a small patch of sky dear of fog, and he sees human beings, accidentally formed, born without reason yet doomed by a vengeful God - or by a vengeful nature - their puny endeavors useless and even their finest attempts at reason only showing by contrast the shallow idiocy of human mentality.


Yet curiosity so long denied jerks him forward with uneven steps. He scrutinizes the scene, which becomes dearer as his intentions to explore form an active, swirling, freshening wind within his mind. The fog disperses. He stands in the foothills, and dose by duster the peasants' huts and the tiny marketplace. But no, as vision clears further he realizes that he has been projecting old romantic concepts and memories upon what is indeed a modern scene.


Melancholy knows no nationality, yet a man's melancholy is tinted by his nationality, for it is the frame in which his mental picturing is set. So it seems to me that German melancholy carries the deepest passivity. The Chinese, from my little knowledge of their affairs, set theirs most prettily and formally restrain it. The French glorify their melancholy, but the American's is the most poignant, sharp, and compelling. For in that country most of all, men's ideals freshly born after centuries of labor pains - encountered men's deepest fears. Hopes were raised beyond men's ability to achieve, and all the symbolic powers of good and evil as they exist in men's minds met full tilt.


So our melancholy man upon leaving the castle pauses in astonishment. From his windows he had imagined the peasants going about their medieval ways. Here instead is a bustling city: industry, rousing shouts of workingmen, harbors with ships perhaps just in, men and women jostling elbows in the streets. Far from jeering at him, no one pays him any mind at all.


His cheeks bum with humiliation. No one notices. As he walks along further, however, the situation changes. Now and then some man or woman smiles at him or wishes him good morning just as if the world were reasonable, as if the poor creatures didn't know the predicament in which the species was certainly mired. Children play on the sidewalks and in gutters. Our friend finds himself amazed at their boldness, their unconcern. An ant crosses the sidewalk, seemingly certain it will reach the other side though everywhere shoes and boots clump up and down, threatening not only the ant's journey but its very existence.


At first, all of this activity gets on our friend's nerves. He tells himself again that the world is an accidental mechanism set adrift in an uncaring universe, and what he hears and senses now is no more than the busy whirling of the world's motor, which will slow down eventually. Yet for all of this, his heart quickens. He responds. If there is no God or good-natured universe, at least he feels within himself some new determination and impetus.


Since he has left his castle and finds no place his home, he will become a traveler. He will certainly not be a joiner, but he will look at the world firsthand, seeing whether or not it justifies his low opinion of it. And when he makes that decision, melancholy loosens its rigid hold upon him.

He does not suddenly become cheerful or unwrap his muffler, but now and then he does permit himself to smile. Moreover, now he looks out at the world directly, rather than from behind a barricade as before. To one extent or another, the events of the world take his notice, even if they only appall or amuse him.


His discontent no longer feeds upon generalities but he meets concrete incidents to which he can, and does, react. He still collects injustices and shakes his mental fists at the universe. Yet, despite himself, he discovers compensations overlooked earlier, so that now and then forgetting himself, he pauses to watch a child or animal at play, or delights in the warmth of the sun which falls now directly on his cheeks, or marvels at a fine lunch or good cigar. These ‘weaknesses’ alarm him. He doubles his resolution to remain sober and reproving, to let God or the universe get away with nothing. Yet for all of this, his melancholy is already tempered, and his own good nature begins to rouse within him.


William James on 'Faith and Coincidence'
William James on 'The Atmospheric Presence'
William James 'On Melancholy'
William James 'Faith's Visions'


Jane Roberts: The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher; The World View of William James

Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1978
This book presents the world view of the philosopher William James (1842-1910) as he has developed it since he left his body. He comments on the limitations of his outlook when in our reality, analyzes U.S. cultural development in the light of what he has discovered since his "death," and describes the reality in which he is now focused. His account of "God," whom he refers to as the "the knowing light" is deeply moving. This work is one of Jane's productions while in a state of altered consciousness.]


William James The Atmospheric Presence 

William James