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  • Beastly Vagueness in Charles Sanders Peirce and Henry James
  • Megan M. Quigley

In 1878, Charles Sanders Peirce closed the first section of "How to Make our Ideas Clear"—an article that William James later declared a "birth certificate of Pragmatism"—on a strangely anecdotal note.1 Using what would become known as the pragmatic method to demolish the notion of Grand Ideas ("Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects"), Peirce also included a lesson from an "old German story":

Many a man has cherished for years some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some morning to find it gone, cleaned vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it. I have myself known such a man.

(WCSP, p. 261)

The story of the fled Melusina (a half-woman, half-serpent who gives birth to monsters) acts ostensibly as a warning against the danger inherent in "vague" ideas. "A vague shadow of an idea" can sap the life-blood out of a young man and, therefore, Peirce asserted, we must strive to be clear. But Peirce's anecdote did more than further his argument; it was an autobiographical aside—so personal, in fact, that he ordered the passage to be deleted in all future printings of his essay.

Melusina was not just an allusion to a mythological figure; it was also a reference to the middle name of his wife, Harriet Melusina Fay. Since his schooldays, Peirce's friend and, later, wife, whom he called [End Page 362] "Zina," had been his constant companion and even the scribe for his fervent aspirations. Under the title "Theories of C. S. Peirce, 1854" she had transcribed his ambitious declaration: "My life is built upon a theory: and if this theory turns out false, my life will turn out a failure" (Brent, p. 51). By the mid 1870s, Peirce's theory, "passionately loved . . . his companion by day and by night," was finally being elucidated in his articles; however, Melusina herself had "cleaned vanished away," after two decades of intimacy, leaving Peirce in Paris to what his friend Henry James described as "a very lonely and dreary existence." Peirce's inclusion of an anecdote about his own loneliness—"I have myself known such a man"—is poignant even as it reveals his anger. Melusina is both a monster and "beautiful," and with her disappearance, Peirce has lost, "the essence of his life." The personal allusion also highlights the anxiety in the young Peirce's writing. What if his theories came to nothing, remained merely vague, and he lost his whole life and his wife to a misguided dedication? And how ironic would that be given that the idea itself aimed to explode the fallacy of grand ideas? Such an irony was not lost on his main companion during the winter of 1875, Henry James.

In the following pages I aim to demonstrate that Charles S. Peirce's anxiety acted as a germ for the beast of John Marcher in James's late story, "The Beast in the Jungle." "More than any of Henry James's tales," Paul Lindholdt writes, "'The Beast in the Jungle,' has prompted source studies and psychoanalytic discussions by critics striving to identify" John Marcher.2 Eager to diagnose the relationship between Marcher and May Bartram, critics have sought both autobiographical and literary sources for Marcher's character.3 Strangely, however, no one has noted the connection between Peirce and Marcher, an omission that is especially odd given the critical attention directed at the relationship between the story and pragmatism. Since Richard Hocks's Henry James and Pragmatistic Thought highlighted the pragmatic tendencies of James's story and called Marcher the "anti-pragmatist" hero, "an epitome of William's...


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