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“A Mass of Morbid Melancholy and Apology”

November 28, 2010

William James

N.B.: Today I borrow shamelessly from the fine model Ian Wolcott sets up in his Marginalia series at The New Pslamanazar.

Must my thoughts dwell night and day on my personal sins and blemishes, because I truly have them?—or may I sink and ignore them in order to be a decent social unit, and not a mass of morbid melancholy and apology?

William James, Pragmatism

One might suppose “sinking” an effortless enterprise. It asks of us only inaction. But as to this “sinking,” well, sometimes how hard it is to rise to the occasion. Which is, of course, what I suppose James to mean.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Roberts permalink
    December 13, 2010 1:54 PM

    Phrases like: “or may I sink and ignore them,” almost cry out for the application of some Chomsky-like formal grammatical scheme to resolve or, even better, dissolve the syntactical ambiguity therein. (Which of Empson’s “7” is it an example, by the way?)

    1. or may I[(myself) or (my own self)] sink and (thereby) ignore them

    2. or may I sink (them) and ignore them

    In the first case, one may be said to sink out of view leaving the feelings behind (or above) at (or on) the surface. In the second case, one may be said to rise relative to the “sinking” feelings. Either way, it’s a matter of orientation as Burke would say and it’s as hard to get one’s bearings in deep water as it is to orient oneself at the North Pole, that is, with or without a compass, that is, of the moral or of the other sort. The second analogy puts me in mind of the puzzle in which one is asked to walk a mile south, then a mile east, then a mile north only to find oneself where one started; and then to answer the question: Where is one?

  2. December 13, 2010 11:28 PM

    Thanks, Jack. Good points all. But how would one “sink” one’s sins? In the time-honored East River way, with a block of concrete?

    I read (past tense) the sentence as follows: “Or may I sink, and so thereby ignore them,” where “I” is the subject of both verbs (I sink, I ignore), as against “sins” being the object of “sink,” etc. It also strikes me that “sink” is an odd word here (an odd metaphor) to use transitively w/ “sins” as its object/tenor.

    Let’s summon up Empson from the vasty deep.
    Aye, but will he come, Mr. Glendower?

  3. Ian Wolcott permalink
    January 7, 2011 4:45 PM

    I like. I’m always meaning to read more Wm James, but am overwhelmed. I’ve read the Varieties. What next?

    • January 9, 2011 6:56 AM

      Perhaps first, “Pragmatism.” Then “Psychology: the Briefer Course.” Or if you are ambitious, the whole of “The Principles of Psychology.” A little book called “Talks to Teachers” is also wonderful.

  4. Dave Lull permalink
    January 9, 2011 2:07 AM

    Hi Ian,

    Patrick Kurp told me that he agrees with Jacques Barzun that WJ’s masterpiece is Principles of Psychology. It’s been on my to-be-read list for some time, which like most such lists is way too ambitious so I’m not confident that I’ll be getting to it anytime soon. If you read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.


    • Ian Wolcott permalink
      January 14, 2011 9:06 PM

      Thanks for the tip, Dave. Either of you read Menand’s ‘The Metaphysical Club’? I’m working through that right now, actually. Thoughts on Menand?

      • January 15, 2011 1:19 AM

        I read The Metaphysical Club when it came out some years ago & liked it. I wish Menand had dealt with John Jay Chapman, something of a holdover from the old dispensation that pragmatism displaced; he ought to be in there, contrapuntally. But then, no one ever gives Chapman his due, notwithstanding that he was one of James’ sometime correspondents, and wrote the best essay on Emerson to date. And heavens!––that book he did on Garrison!

        In any case, I think it is a fairly good book. And Menand writes clean prose.

      • Dave Lull permalink
        January 16, 2011 12:05 PM

        I’ve not read Mr Menand’s book, though I have read enjoyably some of his pieces in the New Yorker.

        As Mark knows, one appreciator of John Jay Chapman is Jacques Barzun, who edited and introduced a selection of his writings. In the introduction, Mr Barzun quotes him:

        “Literature is for our immediate happiness and for the awakening of more literature; and the life of it lies in the very seed and kernel of the grain.”

        (All but two pages of that introduction can be found by scrolling up and down from here: )

        And several interesting blog postings about JJC can be found here:

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