BEWARE THE TOO-PERFECT LIFE:
CHAUTAUQUA AND WILLIAM JAMES
Originally published in Catholic New Times, 28 December 1997. Published on the web in 2003 in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.
I grew up in the fifties hearing stories about chautauqua. When Mom was a girl on the Colorado prairie, this travelling celebration of high culture, with lectures, concerts, and plays, had been a highlight of summer. It was like when the circus came to town, except instead of tricks and thrills, the chautauqua offered moral and intellectual uplift. Attending it was at once a civic and a Christian thing to do.
Only in the seventies, after moving to Ontario, did I learn that Chautauqua is a real place, a town in New York southwest of Buffalo. The travelling programs Mom reminisced about were pale reflections of the real thing: a teetotalling Victorian village that comes alive every spring with culture enough to make your head spin. My wife and I decided to go there.
Narrow brick streets, gingerbread on clapboard houses, blessed absence of cars, beds of pachysandra and petunias, symphony, amphitheatres, concert halls, tennis courts, marina: it was a city on a hill. Chautauqua looked to me like the quintessence of Protestant America, perfection beyond anything imagined by the Puritans at Plymouth Rock.
We spent Saturday night at a bed-and-breakfast, and packed next morning for the drive home to Canada. I went downstairs to pay.
You're not staying for church?" the owner asked.
"No, we need to get on the road."
"It's free, you know."
I didn't answer, just handed over the money and bid farewell, feeling a sudden urge to grab our bags and run.
Not everybody reacts to Chautauqua that way. Thousands vacation there year after year. Humans vary in their spiritual sensibilities. It took William James to make sense of mine.
For me, James was somebody I had read as an undergraduate, among other dead philosophers. I had vaguely liked him. His Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience made intuitive sense to me, but I had not read his work for years.
Then, after that visit to Chautauqua, I came across a book of James's essays and happened to read the one entitled "What Makes a Life Significant?" He had given it as a lecture at Columbia University in 1906.
In that essay I learned to my amazement that James had reacted to Chautauqua the same way I did, except seven decades earlier. On the one hand, he was enthralled by it, a town "equipped with means for satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man." James described it as a "middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear."
Yet, so he reported, he was astonished to feel relief on escaping from the place. He found himself craving something primordial and savage, the dark corners of human society. "This atrocious harmlessness of all things," he wrote, "I cannot abide with them. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings."
In this way I learned I am more Jamesian than I knew. Most people through history have believed in a God of Oneness, a deity who favours peace, order, good government, and people who behave themselves. James believed in a God of Manyness, a supreme being who enjoys watching human beings struggle within and among themselves, forever pulled between the way things are and the many ways they could be.
If ideals were enough to make a life significant, James wrote, then your average college professor, "with a starched shirt and spectacles," would be the absolutely most significant of men. Wrong, said James, a professor himself. The truly significant life consists in joining high ideals to the endless, painful, uncertain, grubby work of fighting to make them real. This sounds to me like more fun than strolling around a city on a hill.