Movements: Currents, Cataracts and Ambiguities

Self-creation, the most rarified of actions and arts.

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

Morality is imagination . . .Once the imagination is left to caprice, there is a price to pay.
— Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own “level best.” I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?
— William James, Pragmatism

Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.
— Matthew 7:16

One of a number of books I inherited from the various libraries Eugene Taylor left strewn about Cambridge following his untimely death five years ago is Jason Gary Horn’s Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self. Inside the book’s jacket, there is an inscription from the author, one expressing appreciation for Eugene’s help in the writing of the book: “For E. Taylor, I hope you continue with the work you do quite well — especially the James matter.” Eugene’s formidable scholarship concerning all things relating to James is discussed at various points in the text. James and Twain had become friends during the last decade of their respective lives, both men being members of the Society for Psychical Research and sharing pacifist inclinations and sympathies. Upon their initial meeting in Florence, Twain secured for himself a copy of James’s Principles of Psychology, following up this procurement with a copy of Varieties of Religious Experience upon the latter book’s subsequent publication. These books, along with the letters that flowed back and forth between these two masters, seem to have influenced Twain’s latter, less well-known works in significant, suggestive ways.

Horn discusses Twain’s earlier iconic masterwork, Huckleberry Finn, as a “novel of consciousness.” The first chapter in particular, “Developing the Introspective Link,” considers Huck’s gradual evolution of conscience and character as he floats down the Mississippi (that metaphorical stream of vagary and time) on a raft in the company of Jim. We remember well the homespun dialogue and narratives and the progression of Huck’s gestating senses of conscience and self as he contends with moral tensions and the myriad ambiguities amid the various drifters, patrols and ne’er-do-wells he encounters along the riverbanks — individuals he finds not essentially different in kind from those observed among society’s more polished and refined representatives inhabiting more effete settings further inland. As Huck drifts down the river, he comes increasingly to terms with his own emergent awareness of self and equally his relationship with Jim.

Periodically, Huck retreats to the covered “wigwam” aboard the raft, a makeshift shelter he and Jim have devised as a protection against the elements. Here are the moments when images, thoughts and moral stirrings coalesce, as James puts it, into a “spiritual self,” that “intimate part of the self” from whence new patterns of thought and action may arise. Horn elaborates:

No more apt image of James’s spiritual self could be found than that of Huck sitting and thinking alone within the wigwam aboard the raft as the entire structure drifts downstream on the Mississippi River. Within this floating citadel, Huck sits down to think and in thinking finds that peculiar presence of mind James describes as the core of being, the phenomenally known self.

Within the “inner sanctum” of the wigwam, feelings and thoughts intertwine within what James had called the “palpitating inward life.”

As inward and external journeys ensue, a sensitive, searching youth gradually matures and a more authentic understanding of and compassion for Jim slowly evolves, the latter occurrence something that would have been unthinkable without their shared sojourn aboard the raft. These movements of heart and mind foreshadowing external acts of conscience and courage occur only through thoroughgoing immersion in those Jamesean pangs and currents of consciousness and conscience (moments of reflection within solitude) afforded by the wigwam the two friends have fashioned. This sanctuary provides respite from conventional patterns of thought, constituting a kind of Sinai experience within the mind and breaking up the monotony of orthodox modes of discernment and action. Almost literally, a Dylanesque “shelter from the storm” — what Rollo May had called “the significance of the pause.”

In his essay “Great Men, Great Thoughts and the Environment,” originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1880, James poses an urgent question for the would-be-activist, indeed for any of us given to speculation concerning utopian mores, worlds and ideals: “What are the causes that make communities change from generation to generation?” In response to the question he has himself posed, James responds advisedly: “The difference is due to the accumulated influences of individuals, of their examples, their initiatives and their decisions.” James was abidingly interested in “great [women and] men” — exemplary spirits whose lives are spent, as was his own, in “doing and suffering and creating” and who ennoble others as a consequence of their own rarified efforts and acts. Jim, uncommonly decent and willing to break the law in order to be reunited with his family, functions in precisely this capacity for Huck. (“There is always the law,” May once confided to me, “but first do what’s right.”) Jim is exemplary of a higher manner of being and relating, an example that troubles and ultimately guides his young friend in his own personal quest.

Exemplars, Activism and Self-Transcendence

Once-upon-a-time protest singer Bob Dylan spawned innumerable movements (“You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows”) even by the end of the first decade of what has been from the start a stunningly creative oeuvre and life. Still, as Joan Baez has often pointed out, he has never turned up at any rally for whatever cause. (“Is he coming?” was the question she persistently encountered at the countless demonstrations she attended over many years. “He never comes,” was her pointed, perhaps ironic, rejoinder.) Even so, the chilling effects of “John Brown,” “Masters of War,” “Chimes of Freedom,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and innumerable other masterpieces have reverberated through the corridors of our collective planetary conscience and minds since the moments of their respective terrestrial arrivals. A recent rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (originally written in 1962 in the midst the Cuban missile crisis) by Patti Smith at the ceremony honoring Dylan’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature left several in the audience in tears. Even quantum physicist Thors Hans Hansson, on hand that evening to present the Nobel Prize in Physics and formidably attired in “white tie and tails,” sang silently along:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

Smith herself was so nervous that she flubbed a line or two of the song she knew thoroughly by heart before finishing her riveting performance with consummate humility and grace. A song with its hypnotic succession of apocalyptic resonances written long ago by a 21-year-old genius still holds knowing audiences rapt. More than a half-century after its own emergence, the poet continues to roam with astonishing pro-action and focus amid his own inner chasms, daemons and visions, still acting as a seeming medium and guide of the depths and possibilities of human experience for those within hearing distance. What else is the poet and seer for?

Watching the River Flow

As I selectively set down words issuing from my own internal flow of images and dialogues, I am listening to Triplicate, Dylan’s recently-released 3-disc compilation of songs selected from the Great American Songbook. It is suggested in an interview that the title recalls Sinatra’s 1980 recording, Trilogy: Past, Present, Future. Dylan, characteristically evocative and thoughtful, agrees while also demurring that he had had Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, also in mind. Clearly, this is a poet who looks back as much as ahead. (Read Thucydides, Dylan admonishes, and we would understand America infinitely better than we do.) From Sinatra to Aeschylus in the flash of an eye, this is an active mind, indeed one that has moved innumerable listeners and inspired myriad movements, both within an infinity of minds and upon the broader world stage. Never trust an activist who doesn’t get Dylan. We might say the same for the psychologist who would bypass William James:

And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

Humanistic psychologists should remain vigilant yet humble in both our cosmic and more local battles. We have labored in recent decades to find a more authentic, influential, collective voice. In an edited volume published some years ago entitled Humanity’s Dark Side, I referenced APA’s interactions with the CIA and Department of Defense referenced in the Independent Review — a seemingly obvious point to make in an APA-published work about humankind’s manifold quandaries and daemons. I was astonished to find that no other contributor mentioned this at all. I titled my own contribution to the compilation “Decalogue: Engendering Self-Examination.” There, as here, I point to the possibility of the ongoing, inward search and the prospects for its ultimate congruence with our more observable comportments upon the greater world stage. Our divisional effort in standing up for what is right was taken up by just a few: Mike Arons, Art Lyons and Scott Churchill, especially. In the end, Scott spearheaded the final effort and ultimate triumph in a significantly personal way. He had little in the way of divisional support and ended up forging ahead despite having actually lost his seat on the Council of Representatives insofar as so few of us had seen fit to return our ballots on the Society of Humanistic Psychology’s behalf. If we would contribute to the ultimate repair of a world torn increasingly asunder, we must rally around our more creative minds and conscientiously activist souls. We should take note of the fact that possibly as few as ten percent of our members bother, typically, to vote at all. When we do, it is more likely to be in support of our friends or associates or acolytes rather than for genuine innovation, virtue or change.

Attentiveness, inward imagery and callings, conscience: the activism within. Observance, character, courage: the activism without. These are the hallmark attributes of exemplars truly deserving our veneration — emblematic of an operative way of evaluating all forms of pro-action worthy of the name. James writes in Varieties of Religious Experience of the activation of “transmundane energies” presaging, in turn, “a wider world of being than that of our everyday consciousness.” And in Pragmatism, he writes of “live champions,” exemplary occurrences whereby beliefs may become “actual things”:

Our acts, our tuning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves, and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value? Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world — why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way by this?

We must become Jamesean seafarers — free-spirited, mindful and resolute in both inward and outward realms. The world has become a terrifying place.

In memoriam

In memory of Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), Eugene Taylor (1946-2013), Berta Cáceres (1973-2016 ), Erica Garner (1990-2017) and Hugh Masekela (1939-2018) — activists one and all.


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Dylan, B. (1963). The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.

Dylan, B. (2017). Triplicate [CD]. New York, NY: Sony.

Goodman, A. (2016). Democracy now! Twenty years covering the movements changing America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Horn, J. G. (1996). Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a free self. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

James, W. (1950). The principles of psychology. New York: Dover.

James, W. (1908). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co.

James, W. (2000). Pragmatism and other writings. New York, NY: Penguin.

May, R. (1953). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton.

Sinatra, F. (1980). Trilogy: Past, present, future [CD]. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros.

Thomas, R. F. (2017). Why Bob Dylan matters. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Twain, M. (1981). The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, NY: Bantam Classics.