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November 1874

Review of "The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy"

by William James

What we are, we are! Fear not, gentle reader, we are only thus beginning to give you a brief account of The Anaesthetic Revelation, a privately printed pamphlet which its author has sent us. What we are, we are, whether we be aware of it or not! The stuff of which we and our universe are made cannot be helped by knowledge. Her use is to forestall contingencies; but in Being nothing is contingent. It shall be what is always was; whether for weal or woe its inmost equality or meaning IS already, nor can all our complacent recognition confirm or clinch it, "or all our tears wash out a word of it." This utterance of practical sense has helped to bring the metaphysical craving into disrepute, as being a morbid overgrowth of intellectual activity; whilst more subtle reasons still are making some minds condemn it as an essentially hopeless passion. Among these latter stands Mr. Blood, who, however, frees himself from philosophy only as many others have done, by wading deeply through, and thereby exposing himself to the scornful eyes of the sound-minded and practical crew as one of the other visionary sort. More indeed than visionary,--crack-brained, will be the verdict of most readers, when they hear that he has found a mystical substitute for the answer which philosophy seeks; and that this substitute is the sort of ontological intuition, beyond the power of words to tell of, which one experiences while taking nitrous oxide gas and other anaesthetics. "After experiments ranging over nearly fourteen years, I affirm what any man may prove at will, that there is an invariable and reliable condition (or uncondition) ensuing about the instant of recall from anaesthetic stupor to sensible observation, or 'coming to,' IN WHICH THE GENIUS OF BEING IS REVEALED; but because it cannot be remembered in the normal condition, it is lost altogether through the infrequency of anaesthetic treatment in any individual's case ordinarily, and buried amid the hum of returning common-sense, under that epitaph of all illumination, This is a queer world!...To minds of sanguine imagination, there will be a sadness in the tenor of the mystery, as if the key-note of the universe were low,--for no poetry, no emotion known to the normal sanity of man, can furnish a hint of its primeval prestige and its all but appalling solemnity; but for such as have felt sadly the instability of temporal things, there is a comfort of serenity and ancient peace; while for the resolved and imperious spirit there are majesty and supremacy unspeakable." So glorious does this solution of the world's mystery seem to him, that he rises to this flight of rhetoric, which will seem grand or funny according to the disposition of the reader: "My worldly tribulation reclines on its divine composure; and though not in haste to die, I care not to be dead, but look into the future with serene and changeless cheer. This world is no more that alien terror which was taught me. Spurning the cloud-grimed and still sultry battlements whence so lately Jehovan thunders boomed, my gray gull lifts her wing against the night-fall and takes the dim leagues with a fearless eye."

Now, although we are more than skeptical of the importance of Mr. Blood's so-called discovery, we shall not howl with the wolves or join the multitude in jeering at it. Nirwana, whether called by that name or not, has been conceived and represented as the consummation of life too often not to have some meaning; and the state without discrimination, the "informal consciousness," the "being in a meaning prior to and deeper than manifestation in form" of our author seems to be the same as nirwana. Every one has felt the proverb, "In vino veritas," to have a deeper meaning than the common interpretation, that the mask falls from the drinker's character. Ontological emotion, however stumbled on, has something authoritative for the individual who feels it. But the worst of all mystical or simply personal knowledge is incommunicability. To the mere affirmation, "I KNOW that this is truth, therefore believe it!" the still more simple reply, "I won't!" is legitimate and conclusive for the time. The intellect, with its classifications and roundabout substitutions, must after all be clung to as the only organ of agreement between men. But when a man comes forward with a mystical experience of his own, the duty of the intellect towards it is not suppression but interpretation. Interpretation of the phenomenon Mr. Blood describes is yet deficient. But we may be sure of one thing now: that even on the hypothesis of its containing all the "revelation" he asserts, laughing-gas intoxication would not be the final way of getting at that revelation. What blunts the mind and weakens the will is no full channel for truth, even if it assist us to a view of a certain aspect of it; and mysticism versus mysticism, the faith that comes of willing, the intoxication of moral volition, has a million times better credentials.

The greater part of the pamphlet, in which he ratiocinatively explains the gist of all philosophy to be its own insufficiency to comprehend or in any way state the All, is marked by acuteness of thought and often great felicity of style; though it sins by obscurity through a quaint density of expression, and by such verbal monsters as spacical instead of spatial. We can enter into it no further than to say that the common run of believers in the "relativity" of knowledge, who feel as if the imbecility of the latter were due to its bounds and not to its essence (which is to duplicate Being in an Other, namely, Thought), will find here the view argued interestingly that the trouble all comes of a gratuitous guest; that the mystery we feel challenged to resolve, and baffled at not resolving, is not mystery if we decline the challenge; in other words, that fullness of life (unreflected on) forestalls the need of philosophy by being in itself "what we must confess as practical somewhere, namely, an apodal sufficiency; to which sufficiency a wonder or fear of why it is sufficient cannot pertain, and could be attributed to it only as an impossible disease or lack." The secret of Being, in short, is not the dark immensity beyond knowledge, but at home, this side, beneath the feet, and overlooked by knowledge. We sincerely advise real students of philosophy to write for the pamphlet to its author. It is by no means as important as he probably believes it, but still thoroughly original and very suggestive.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1874; Review of "The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy"; Volume 33, No. 205; pages 627-628.
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