The Secret of the Lanterns

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R.R.: Perhaps somebody will read this, perhaps not, for now you are gone. I’d not looked you up in a while – life gets in the way. Nevertheless, perhaps the energy, for what it’s worth, will connect to you in some manner in the spirit of “authentic tidings of invisible things.” We corresponded for a time beginning just before your 84th birthday. Our subject was mythology. You provided a letter of recommendation on my behalf to a grad school, such was your graciousness and intuition. I didn’t attend the grad school. Instead, I returned to writing novels and I’m now an indie author (publishing under the pen name Carnegie Olson) and an independent scholar, work which is fueled by myth studies. “I have a feeling you are going to be doing fine things,” you wrote, “and I wish you joy as well as success.” One’s life is motivated, in the end, by a handful of essential guides and you are one of those for me. I will carry your inspiration as a lantern working its magic within me until I, too, encounter the threshold of eternity. All the gods speed to you, Mr. Richardson. Thank you.

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I had not known that Robert Richardson had passed away. I posted the above to his website contact form, the place I first sought him out. Then, bothered that nobody would ever read it, I passed it along to his agent (whose email is listed on R.R.’s website) only to receive an automatic reply and a different email address. I tried that. Undaunted and determined to do my best to get my sentiments into the world in whatever small way I could manage, I looked up his agent’s apparently current workplace (agents are always changing jobs these days) and forwarded it there, too.

Anyway, I was inspired to look Richardson up again by way of a Goodreads reader who wrote, “you intrigued me with the myth and literature book by Richardson and i look forward to any reviews.” I surprised myself at never having written one. But life at that point two years or so ago when I read it was perhaps too entangled with other things. In any case, I posted a review today on Goodreads which is there for anyone, especially my new friend from Vancouver to peruse. It’s the least I could do for a man who, unbeknownst to him, stood as my only living guide in regard to my particular angle on mythology. We all have our guides and living ones are fundamentally different that dead ones mostly because living ones have a greater opportunity to disappoint us. As such, it’s usually best to never meet our guides because they can’t reasonably hope to ever live up to our inevitably impossible expectations, our mythologization of them. Nonetheless we reach out because we have to, damn the risks. So it was with Richardson. One of my journal entries from Wednesday, August 29, 2018 is entitled The Secret of the Lanterns which references and quotes a talk he gave in Richmond, Virginia in 2007, near the time when his William James book was appearing. I’m tempted to cut and paste the entire talk but this will due for now. Says Richardson:

I’ve been working for the last ten years on this biography on William James. And I should say right at the start, the more I learn about him, the more I like him. His great interest in life was trying to figure out how people can get to and use their own best energies. And his test for anything was to ask if it helped a person to reach and utilize the deepest energies that he or she possessed. His work for that reason is useful, actually useful. And his ideas are applicable all the time.

Now the common idea, that’s shared by James the psychologist, James the philosopher, and James the writer on religion is the importance of human, personal, concrete, actual experience. His interest in psychology was in consciousness as we actually live it, experience it. In philosophy, he thought that something was true or not depending on how it played out in actual circumstance, actual experience. And in religion, he recognized real religious authority to be only in the experiences of individuals taken one by one, but all decant.

Now many of these beliefs arose as one might expect from his own experience, which included a good deal of illness, and especially long periods of terrible depression, particularly when he was young. Well, young—between twenty and thirty, and utterly unsure about what he was to do in life. He was one of these people that took a long time to grow up, a long time to figure out what he wanted to do. And later, he wrote about this period in his life, and I have written about this partly because that I think it’s encouraging to know that somebody who was as bad off as William James was as a young man could amount to something later on. I mean, this is nice, it’s like reading the earliest poetry of Walt Whitman, which is about as bad as verse gets. It’s very encouraging to know that you can go from the terrible doggerel of Whitman’s earliest poetry to what he was eventually able to write. Same with James. And this is a piece that he wrote about himself and he stuck it in the book, The Varieties, as an anonymous Frenchman. But his translator tripped him up on it and said, where’d you get this? And he confessed to the translator in a private letter that it was him. He doesn’t parade it in the book. But the experience goes like this:

In this state of philosophical pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects in life, I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly it 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 the mind the image of an epileptic patient that 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 walls, with his knees drawn up under his chin, and the coarse, gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them, enclosing 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 had 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 solid within my chest 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 had never known before. And for months I was unable even to go out into the dark alone.

Toward the end of the book… [h]e says that there are two things in which all religions seem to meet. And the first of these is a conviction that there is something wrong about us, as we naturally stand. It’s one of James’s great strengths, I think, that he doesn’t gloss over or underestimate what’s wrong. At the end of his discussion of the sick soul in the book, he says the normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings, and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the slaughterhouse, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait ’til you arrive there yourself. To believe in the carnivorous reptiles of geologic time, it is hard for our imagination. They seem too much like mere museum specimens, yet there is no tooth in any of those museum skulls that did not daily through long years of the fore time hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim. Forms of horror just as dreadful to their victims, if on a smaller spatial scale, fill the world about us today. That was all written in 1901.

James’s own life was marked, as all lives are, by losses. But he had an astonishing ability to draw strength from depression to get the possibility of starting again when he was down. He had a kind of amazing resilience. It was Emerson who said that you watch your children fail at school or fall in the playground or get hurt by a playmate, he said, and you pray for their resilience. Because it’s not what happened to them, it’s what they then do, whether they can bounce back. James’s resilience was astonishing. Things that would have taken most people down somehow woke him up. His life was marked by losses, but he had this astonishing way of turning the losses to something. And it was by facing them, not trying to find a way around them. “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent,” he wrote, “the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all of life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.” I love that; I think it’s terrific. I’ve sent that to several people who’ve lost either a child or a parent or something; it’s a great, great statement.  It doesn’t matter whether life at bottom is immaterial or material. If it’s immaterial, if it’s material, it cooperates with life’s purposes. Here we are.

The second thing that James says about all religions that they agree about is a sense that we can be saved from the wrongness by making the proper connection with the higher powers. Now what exactly the higher powers may be is not specified: they may be gods; they may be a life force; they may be the powers of nature; they may be a community; they may be a very small community. The higher powers, at least one good friend told me, is just others, anybody—others— on that. What James is clear about is that his access to anything like a higher power is through our own mind’s experience, and nowhere else. So, one of the great turning points in his own life came after he had realized that there is evil in the world, or bad. In a flash of insight, he decided if he could accept that, he could accept his own will as real. So he read a treatise on free will by a French philosopher named (Charles) Renouvier, who nobody reads anymore, and he wrote this in the diary he kept for his frequent crises. “Hither to,” he said, “when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally without waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into. Now, I will go a step further with my will, and not only act with it, but believe in it as well, believe in my own individual reality and creative power. My belief can’t be optimistic, to be sure,” he said, “but,” he said, “I will posit life, the real, the good, as the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.” Eric Erickson jumped on that phrase, the “self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. And Erickson said, the whole psychoanalytic enterprise is right in that one phrase, which is trying to give the power of choice back to people who have lost it.

But this self-governing resistance of the inner self to the world was the point. And it’s in little places like this where James is so powerful, where he jumps from his time to ours with no translation necessary. In facing the bad along with the good, and in practical strategies for getting on with things, and I’ve always loved this next bit of James for making it possible, for me anyway, to believe again in heroism. “We measure ourselves,” he said, “by many standards, our strength, our intelligence, our wealth, and even our good luck are things which warm our hearts and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice without them is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth. He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”

James was a warmhearted and much-loved man. He had a very keen sense of the positive sides of life, which he usually tried to put as stories, rather than abstractions. And here’s one of his best. It occurs in a piece called “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and the “blindness is that with which we are all afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” James takes it for granted that we each see things from our own point of view. He extends the idea to suggest how hard it is to really see things, to see anything from another person’s point of view. And he consciously proposes that wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to the person living it, that that’s where life becomes significant. To understand others, you need to understand the hot spot in them, the habitual center of his or her personal energy.

So to illustrate, he then tells a story taken from Robert Louis Stevenson in which Stevenson describes a curious little game that he and his school friends used to play as the long summers ended and school was about to begin. “Toward the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally forth from our respective houses, each equipped with a tin bulls-eye lantern.” You know, a little, small kerosene lantern, with a bulls-eye of glass in front of it, an old 19th century style of portable lantern. “We wore them buckled to the waist, upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned topcoat. They smelled noisesomely of blistered tin. They never burned right, though they would always burn our fingers. Their use was naught, the pleasure of the merely fanciful, and yet a boy with a bulls-eye lantern under his topcoat asked for nothing more. When two of these boys met, there would be an anxious, ‘Have you got your lantern?’ and a gratified, ‘Yes!’ It was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern bearer, unless, like the polecat, by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a fishing boat or choose out some hollow of the golf course where the wind might whistle overhead, and there the coats would be unbuttoned, and the bulls-eyes discovered in the checkering glimmer of the huge, windy hall of night, and cheered by the rich steam of toasting tin ware. These fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or the scaly bilges of the fishing boat and delight themselves with inappropriate talk. But the talk,” said Stevenson, “was incidental. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself on a black night, the slide shut, the top coat buttoned, not a ray escaping, a mere pillar of darkness in the dark, and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your heart to know that you had a bulls-eye at your belt and to exult and sing in the knowledge.”

“The ground of a person’s joy,” said James, “is often hard to discern, for to look at a person is to court deception, and to miss the joy is to miss it all. In the joy of the actors lies any sense of the action. That is the explanation, that is the excuse: to one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless.”[1]

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His great interest in life was trying to figure out how people can get to and use their own best energies. How very Campbellian. Likewise, the idea that It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all of life’s purposes. And that Richardson is himself enlivened and inspired by James’s assertions, that the idea of heroism is in fact rekindled for Richardson by James’s pre-Campbellian insights, perhaps speaks to what I humbly regard as the intuitive connection between James, Richardson, Campbell and therefore me, despite my inability to draw forth any Campbellian acknowledgements from Richardson within our correspondence. He just wouldn’t bite, which indicates of course that he’s holding his tongue on my behalf, which is generous of him for the same reasons I find it generous that Kripal doesn’t voice his full analysis of Campbell; that is, they both know I wouldn’t want to hear it. Academics at heart and all that, I suppose. So be it, the wisdom is the same wherever one is convinced they’ve discovered it. Me included.

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Inspired by the image, the symbol of the secret lantern, I had tracked one down at an online antique dealer soon after reading Richardson’s reference and splurged on it at $260 or so.

Then, so as not to leave the thing buried in a closet, to keep its symbology in plain sight and its mythology active, as it were, I further splurged on framing it. Hence, the image at the front of this post. I dedicate this post, then, to Robert D. Richardson, in memoriam.

[1] Robert D. Richardson, “A Talk by Robert D. Richardson,” Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts, Spring 2007, Vol.6, No.1, blackbird.vcu.edu.