The French Patient Mentioned in The Varieties of Religious Experience

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    • #1262
      Avatar photoGary Jaron

        Let me present what I find a fascinating case; it is an example of: it is sometimes more worthwhile to have questions rather than answers. Perhaps you know all about this, or perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you have read ‘the definitive’ paper on this one. Either way, I think it is worthwhile to consider and ponder. James in the Varieties presents the experience of a French patient to illustrate a point. A series of questions come to my mind. Perhaps others will come to you.

        1) Who is the patient? What proof does anyone have to state who that patient was?
        2) What did he suffer from? What proof does anyone have to state what the patient suffered from?
        3) Was it appropriate for James to withhold the patient’s name in his time?
        4) Would it be appropriate for someone writing this paper now to do so?

        Let us treat this as an incident on a TV detective program, and let the clues and the evidence for the ‘conclusion’ play out bit by bit, comment by comment, over time. Don’t spoil it for those who have not ‘watched’ that episode. Layout your evidence and cite your sources like good academic detectives. Let it play out. What may seem a definitive solution to one source, perhaps to another, is not so ironclad a case.
        Enjoy the game; it is now afoot.

        The worst kind of melancholy is that which takes the form of panic fear. Here is an excellent example, for permission to print which I have to thank the sufferer. The original is in French, and though the subject was evidently in a bad nervous condition at the time of which he writes, his case has otherwise the merit of extreme simplicity. I translate freely.

        “Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.

        In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.

        On asking this correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words, the answer he wrote was this:—

        “I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”

        {From The Varieties of Religious Experience, Reprint: pp 160-161, Harvard: 134-135}

      • #1396

          Thanks, Gary, for your email of May 5th about the Forum. That’s a great idea—the more bridges from our deep scholarly dives to public interests and issues the better. And how Jamesian….
          I am catching up, first by registering for the Forum. I see a lot of interesting posts; I start with yours of March 31st.
          You ask good questions about the French patient—setting the right tone with a detective hunt! I wrote an essay in that spirit a few years ago on young James, and I called it A Detective Hunt and Review of the Literature.
          I present my take on the patient, the bits of evidence, his condition, his relation to James, and his anonymity at least until James claimed the patient was himself, but I didn’t take up how appropriate his method would be in our time—another good question.
          In Young WJ Thinking, pp 250-60, I suggest that the patient (I call him “correspondent”) is a stylized version of James himself, in composite review of his own crises, presented for teaching about the power of religion in a text on spiritual experiences.
          I welcome your thoughts and from others too.
          And Gary, it’s also good to see your many writings.
          All the best,
          Paul Croce

        • #1397
          Avatar photoGary Jaron

            I like that take- a Dectictive hunt.
            Do you know about

            It is a great site and if you are not a member – please join! You can upload your paper there and then send us the link to it here.
            Would love to read your paper.

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