- “A written monologue by that most interesting being, myself”:Sickness, Suicide, and Self-Reflection in the Diary of Alice James
In May 1895, William James delivered a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University entitled Is Life Worth Living? The lecture was subsequently published, first in the International Journal of Ethics in October of the same year and again as a stand-alone essay in 1896. The essay addresses the dangerous doubt that necessarily accompanies an “over-studious career”:
My task, let me say now, is practically narrow, and my words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitae which is peculiar to reflecting men. Most of you are devoted for good or ill to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the scepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed. This is, indeed, one of the regular fruits of the over-studious career. Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life.(16)
William is describing the predicament of Hamlet, the archetypal reflective man, but he is possibly drawing upon sources much closer to home.1 As George Cotkin notes, “fin de siècle suicides and potential suicides suffered from a doubting mania akin to the type that had cast a shadow over [William]’s own life” (89). Elsewhere William describes himself as a “victim of neurasthenia and of the sense of hollowness and unreality that goes with it” (qtd. in Cotkin 77). William may also have in mind his sister’s enquiry to her father about the ethics of committing suicide. In September 1878, the year of Alice’s “hideous summer” during which she suffered her second serious breakdown, Henry James senior wrote to the youngest of the James siblings, Robertson, recounting the discussion: [End Page 93]
One day a long time ago [she] asked me whether I thought that suicide, to which at times she felt very strongly tempted, was a sin. I told her that I thought it was not a sin except when it was wanton, as when a person from a mere love of pleasurable excitement indulged in drink or opium to the utter degradation of his faculties and to the ruin of the human form in him; but that it was absurd to think it sinful when one was driven to it in order to escape bitter suffering, from spiritual flux, as in her case, or from some loathsome form of disease, as in others. I told her that so far as I was concerned she had my full permission to end her life whenever she pleased…. She then remarked that she was very thankful to me, but she felt that now she could perceive it to be her right to dispose of her own body when it became intolerable … she was more than content to stay by my side, and battle in concert against the evil that is in the world. I don’t fear suicide much since this conversation, though she often tells me that she is strongly tempted still.(qtd. in James, Death 15–16)
William may have seen the letter, been aware of the situation at the time, been told about it later, or even received the same advice, as there is an echo of the discussion in Is Life Worth Living?:
To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood on the assurance “you may end it when you will.” What reasons can we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again? Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be suicides, have little to offer them beyond the usual negative “thou shalt not.” God alone is master of life and death, they say, and it is a...