William James, On some mental effects of the earthquake

William James

William James (Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

There are a couple of reasons why I was intrigued to read this week’s Library of America offering. The most obvious is that it’s by William James. Not only is he a recognised American philosopher and psychologist, but he is also the brother of Henry James, and I have come across him several times in that context. For that reason alone, I was keen to read something by him, albeit a fairly small and very specific piece.

The other main reason, though, is more personal. In 1990, my family and I went to live in Southern California for a few years and, I have to say, there were several fears attached to this decision: guns, pollution, and earthquakes, not to mention the high probability that our kids would be kidnapped from under our noses in the queue for Disneyland! Well, the latter, you may be surprised to know, didn’t happen – and, while we were there during the Rodney King riots, we didn’t really have any run-ins with guns. We did, however, experience pollution. As for earthquakes, it just so happened that we were out of town on vacation for the two biggest that occurred during our time. All we experienced were a couple of tremors. Nonetheless, like all good Californians, we had our earthquake kit ready to go.

After that long introduction, let’s get to James. This essay, titled “On some mental effects of the earthquake” (1906), was written a few days after James and his wife, who were at Stanford University at the time, experienced the big San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He starts the essay with his east coast friend’s farewell statement: “I hope they give you a touch of earthquake while there, so that you may also become acquainted with that Californian institution”. Hmm … what’s that saying? What I’d say is: Be careful what you wish for?

As it turned out, the good people of Stanford were far enough away from the centre to feel the big shake (and quite a lot of damage) but minimal loss of life. James’s first reaction, once he realised what he was experiencing, was:

glee and admiration; glee at the vividness with which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely [me: I think this means “at the excitement of experiencing an earthquake” don’t you!?]; and admiration at the way in which the frail little wooden house could hold itself together in spite of such a shaking. I felt no trace of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.

Ever the psychologist philosopher, he then analyses and articulates his early spontaneous non-fearful response. He said he “personified” it as having “animus and intent”, that it was easy to perceive it as “a living agent”. He goes on to say that he now understood how people mythologised catastrophe, that “it was impossible for untutored men to take earthquakes into their minds as anything but supernatural warnings or retributions”.  He also observes that most people slept outside the next few nights, not simply to be safer in case of a recurrence “but also to work off their emotion, and get the full unusualness out of the experience”. That makes sense to me and I rather like his way of articulating it.

In San Francisco proper, though, the situation was different (as we know). There was more devastation, and a lot of death. He managed to get to SF for the day and draws some conclusions from that too. As he says, his business is not with the “material ruin” but “with ‘subjective’ phenomena exclusively”. What he saw were people going about their business:

It was indeed a strange sight to see an entire population in the streets, busy as ants in an uncovered ant-hill scurrying to save their eggs and larvae.

And he is surprised, as were the officials, by the lack of criminal activity, besides petty pilfering. Is this the same now? Anyhow, this is not his main point. Two things, he says, stand out, and they are both “reassuring to human nature”:

  • “the improvisation of order out of chaos”: he notes that there are some people who are natural organisers (“natural order-makers”) and that at times like this they get to work. He suggests that while much of this was “American, much of it Californian” it would have happened in any country in crisis. In  fact, he says that “Like soldiering, it lies always latent in human nature”.
  • “universal equanimity”: he suggests that the expressions of horror and pathos came from elsewhere, but that the people experiencing the crisis just got on with recuperating. He writes that “the cheerfulness, or, at any rate, the steadfastness of tone, was universal. Not a single whine or plaintive word did I hear from the hundred losers whom I spoke to. Instead of that there was a temper of helpfulness beyond the counting”. And again, he suggests “it is easy to glorify this as something characteristically American, or especially Californian…But I like to think that what I write of is a normal and universal trait of human nature”.

I must say that I do like his lack of nationalism in all this, his suggestion that these positive and admirable traits are “human” rather than “American”. We have had many, many catastrophes and disasters since then, and I’d like to think that what James saw in 1906 has held true. But has it? Does more looting and crime go on now (as the media always implies)? Or, do the people on the ground immediately organise to help themselves and each other? Being one who likes to see the good us, I’d like to think so.

4 thoughts on “William James, On some mental effects of the earthquake

  1. Too bad there were no blogs back in the 90s since I was living in Northridge at the same time you were in the Los Angeles area! I, however, was not fortunate enough to miss the Northridge earthquake in 1994. My apartment was only 2 miles away from the epicenter. I therefore must disagree with James’ assessment. I was terrified. I fully expected to die and waited for my roof to fall in on top of me. My experience does match James in the aftermath though. When the shaking was done and my husband and I made it outside I can say that all of the neighbors were incredibly concerned about everyone’s safety and well being. We had no power and no water for a couple of days and so the buidling’s courtyard became a gathering place where we’d all meet to share food and comfort. We also gathered clothes and blankets and took them to the school across the street where people from another building were camping because their apartments were too damaged to go back into. It was the most intense and satisfying communal experience I have ever had. The earthquake itself, however, I suffered mildly from PTSD for about 2 years afterwards and even now after all that time still dread the prospect of there being an earthquake whenever I am visiting my parents.

    • Oh poor you. I have only ever experienced tremors – one, in Sydney, on the morning I turned 21. I thought that was pretty auspicious! Of what, I don’t know – LOL. I can totally understand your ongoing fear. Thanks for responding to William James’ views – I’m glad your experience of human behaviour afterwards accords with his.

      (Oh, and yes, what a shame we didn’t blog then!)

  2. An interesting article with some good personal experiences to back it up! In my recent read “Bomber County”, the people of Hamburg saw the first few bombs as a spectacle and came out in the streets to watch the fireworks. Small boys found it terribly exciting.

    A lot of what James writes about the way the people got in with the job of bringing order out of chaos could be written about the Blitz spirit of Londoners in WW2 – and Germans too no doubt. Alas, the devastation probably reaches a pitch where it all becomes too much – Pakistan today perhaps

    • Thanks Tom … I suspect it often is a natural human reaction to be “excited” about something before you realise the full ramifications. As for the Blitz etc, yes I thought about other events when I wrote this. I started to make a reference to Hurricane Katrina but then I thought I’d leave it open to see what others thought. Katrina was such a complex situation. I certainly agree re the likelihood that as devastation goes on that ability to keep going probably wears thin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s