London, 1922.

The Great War was over.

The guns across Europe were silent. The killing fields had been replanted with apples and wheat. Yet still Virginia Woolf could not find peace. In her redbrick room at Hogarth House, she was experiencing flashbacks: “These fine December nights… keep sending through me such shocks from my childhood.” And on the gray-paved walks of Bloomsbury, she was caught in runaway feelings: “A certain melancholy has been brooding over me this fortnight.… The feeling so often comes to me now.”

Woolf confided these facts to her diary. It would be better for her husband not to know. If her husband knew, he’d take her to see the doctor. And Woolf loathed the doctor. He was ‘tyrannical.’ He was stone hearted. He had provoked Woolf to bitterly remark: “Really, a doctor is worse than a husband.” The doctor in question was George Savage, a friend of Woolf’s father, and a most eminent psychiatrist. He was the cofounder of the Journal of Mental Science. He was profiled in Vanity Fair. He was knighted by the king.

When Sir George Savage had first examined Woolf, he’d instantly diagnosed the source of her mental turbulence: it was a classic case of ‘nerves.’ Nerves, in the doctor’s view, were common ailments in women. Women had fragile nervous systems that were easily overstimulated, and such overstimulation, as the doctor had explained learnedly in many an asylum, was routinely caused by just the sort of ‘useless book learning’ that Woolf insisted on doing: If a… girl is allowed to educate herself at home, the danger of solitary work and want of social friction may [cause] insanity. It is in this manner that the results of defective education become often apparent in the case of the weaker sex now-a-days.

Reading. Writing. Thinking. These were risky activities for the ‘weaker sex,’ and there could be no doubt in George Savage’s mind that Virginia Woolf’s troubles resulted from her incessant intellectual activities. She had frayed her nerves with literature; she had overexcited her brain with novel writing. To Dr. Savage, the cure was thus obvious: Woolf must rest. She must be confined to bed. And in bed, she must have nothing to do with books: “You shant read this… You shant write a word… You shall lie still and drink milk.”

So, Woolf was forced to lie still, for day after day. Yet no matter how much Woolf rested, the flashbacks and the runaway emotions persisted. Until at last, she decided to escape George Savage and invent a new cure.

The First Step Toward Woolf’s New Cure

On a warm Sunday evening in May 1924, Virginia Woolf delivered a lecture to the Cambridge Heretics Society on the scientific revolution underway in modern psychology. The revolution had first caught Woolf’s attention as a way of innovating ‘character in fiction,’ and her interest had been piqued further by a conversation she’d had recently with another Cambridge heretic: the flamboyant British logician Bertrand Russell. Russell had taught at Cambridge University’s most distinguished college, Trinity, until in 1916, at the height of the Great War, he’d been publicly expelled for pacifism.

After the war, Woolf and Russell became acquainted through mutual friends. The two peace seekers sat together at dinners, chatting about ‘the Spirit of the Age,’ and prompting Woolf to note the contrast between Russell’s impressive intelligence and his rather-less-so physique: His luminous, vigorous mind seems attached to a flimsy little car, like that on a glinting balloon.… He has no chin.… Nevertheless, I should like the run of his headpiece.

Among the many vigorous luminosities running through Russell’s headpiece at that time, there was one that could not fail to interest Woolf, for it put a liberating spin on modern psychiatry. Modern psychiatry had begun its emergence in the eighteenth century when the English physician William Battie had walked into the asylums of London and stared in horror at the two main treatments being meted out. The first was to shackle patients in foul-smelling rooms where they were visited by a daily slop bucket and the occasional priest. The second was a regime of vein slicing, hellebore, and antimony, a combination that compelled patients to bleed, vomit, and defecate until they fainted from dehydration and shock.

These ‘cures’ were motivated by the archaic medical belief that mental illness was caused either by malignant spirits or by imbalances in the humors, four bodily fluids that doctors had blamed since antiquity for depression, mania, and other psychic ailments. The malignant spirits could be treated only by locking up patients and hoping for a visitation from God; the imbalances only by forced expulsion of the offending humors, via leechcraft and emetic toxins.

Battie thundered against this outdated physic in his 1758 manifesto A Treatise on Madness. The true cause of mental illness was not, he scoffed, mystical spooks or mythical liquids. It was the physical nerves that made up the human brain. To cure madness it was therefore necessary to treat these nerves, which could be done, Battie suggested, by prescribing small amounts of wine, or mineral waters, or mild narcotics such as henna flower— or even just waiting for the patient’s nerves to calm down over time.

Battie’s ‘nerve theory’ improved the lot of the mentally ill. It gave hope to patients who’d been chained up in dark holes as forever incurable. It eliminated the bleedings and the medieval drugs. Yet as Woolf was to discover, Battie’s program of reform had its own ugly consequence. By emphasizing the physical treatment of nerves, it failed to acknowledge that there was more inside the patient’s head than just a nervous system. There was also hope, and pain, and love, and memory, and fear. There was, in short, a mind.

Nerve theory’s neglect of the mind meant that the suffering mental patient found herself attended by physicians who cared for her body while disregarding her psyche. Psychiatry had forgotten the root of its own name, and it was this memory lapse that led in the later decades of the nineteenth century to the rest cure. The rest cure literally reduced patients to inert piles of flesh, lavishing all its nursing on the body, which was plied with endless medicates of butter and milk, while the conscious mind was forced to surrender in silence. The result could only be dehumanizing. The old, sadistic psychiatry had at least acknowledged that patients had minds —even souls. The new, kinder psychiatry dispensed with all that ennobling fluff. The brain was a tub of nerves; the mind an accidental attendant to the gut.

So it was that in 1908, the renowned rest-cure advocate Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell could remark offhandedly in America’s premier medical journal: “You cure the body and somehow find that the mind also is cured.” It never occurred to the good doctor that the ‘somehow’ might be relevant to psychiatric treatment. No, to Silas Weir Mitchell, the somehow was just a somehow, so, like his patients’ volitions, it was briskly ignored.

The disturbing effects of this clinical attitude were graphically evidenced in 1887 when Mitchell imposed the rest cure on American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Never touch pen, brush, or pencil,” the doctor warned her ruthlessly, “as long as you live.” This prescription failed to heal Gilman. Instead, her ‘mental torment’ deepened to the point that she felt herself losing her mind: “I made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob, and played with it.… I would sit blankly moving my head side to side.” Woolf’s experience was similarly grotesque. “I resent,” she informed her husband, “being kept with my head on a platter, like some gigantic sow.”

Woolf’s husband registered her complaint — and sighed. He had no desire to force his wife to rest. He had no desire to force her to do anything. But what else could be done? Woolf’s nerves were clearly overagitated. They needed to be calmed. Physical rest was the only solution.

Yet as Woolf was to learn from Bertrand Russell, there was, in fact, another solution. It had been devised many years earlier, more than a decade before Silas Weir Mitchell imposed rest on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Mitchell himself might have learned it if he’d had a curious mind. But Silas Weir Mitchell did not have a curious mind. The doctor who did was William James.

William James and the Problem of Nerves

William James was born amid the human bustle of a New York City hotel in 1842, and from a young age, he was fascinated by the cosmopolitan diversity of people’s minds. The fascination was one shared by his younger brother, Henry, who’d go on to author novelistic character studies such as The Turn of the Screw. But William James’s interest in the variousness of human psychology wasn’t the only reason that he would invent an alternative to the rest cure. There was another, even more personal reason: James had his own long struggle with mental health.

When James was in his twenties, he suffered bouts of depression that included thoughts of suicide. Seeking help, he saw a psychiatrist and was informed that he had ‘neurasthenia,’ the medical term for nerves. The treatment prescribed to James was the more masculine version of the rest cure: physical exercise. Work the body, rest the mind. Take a break from school, the doctor advised. Go to the Amazon. Go to Europe. Get fresh air and athletic stimulation. Stop reading so many difficult, mind-buzzing books.

James tried to follow the treatment. He postponed his medical studies. He traveled. Yet against the doctor’s orders, James continued his reading. And in April 1870, while James was perusing a quirky philosophical essay by the French recluse Charles Renouvier, he discovered the inspiration for his own psychiatric innovation: “I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second ‘Essais’ [including] his definition of Free Will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts.’ ”The moment that James read this ‘definition of Free Will,’ he felt better. By inspiring him to believe in his own psychic liberty, it lightened the symptoms of his neurasthenia. So, James decided to see whether he could eliminate his symptoms entirely by continuing down this mental path: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will… voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it.”

With this promise to himself, James flipped the old psychiatry of William Battie and Silas Weir Mitchell. That old psychiatry had been mechanistic —and deterministic. It had insisted that our mental life was dictated by the outside power of the attending physician. It had refused to countenance the possibility that we might use the inside power of our mind to participate in our own recovery.

James opened himself to this alternate possibility. He decided to see if his mind could heal itself by making healthy choices. And to encourage those choices, James committed to stocking his library with books that were ‘favorable’ to his belief in his own volition. Books, he concluded, weren’t the menace that his doctor had told him. No, books were part of the remedy.

So it was that James became his own psychiatrist. He discontinued the rest cure. And he prescribed himself a dose of positive reading.

James Develops His New Medicine

There were many reasons to doubt James’s new medicine. But the main one was that it seemed more mystical than scientific. James’s therapy had no basis in scientific experiment, and neither did the idea of free will. Unlike nerves, which were physical things with measurable electric charges, free will was a vaporous, undetectable entity that might as well have been a spook or a spirit. So, surely, free will was a matter for priests, not physicians. Otherwise, medicine was doomed to lapse back into the theological superstitions that had made earlier generations perceive mental illness as a demonic visitation.

James agreed with these cautions. He agreed that free will fell under the purview of metaphysics, not science. He agreed that psychologists and psychiatrists had no tools in their labs or their medical kits for probing the mystery of human volition.

Yet even so, James was certain that his new treatment was scientific. After all, his treatment didn’t depend on the existence of free will. It depended merely on a belief in free will. That belief could be ascertained empirically; you simply needed to ask patients whether they held it in mind. And the effects of that belief could also be scientifically evaluated: if the symptoms of neurasthenia were alleviated in patients who believed in free will, then that would show that the belief’s power was real, regardless of whether or not free will was too.

The first experimental trial of this new treatment could be conducted by James himself. He could adopt a belief in his own mental power and see whether his psychic health improved. So, that’s exactly what James did. He consumed a steady diet of books ‘favorable’ to his own volition, and gradually he felt his dark emotions lift. By 1872, the lift was so complete that James declared his “soul sickness” gone. And becoming increasingly confident in his self-made medicine, he changed careers. Leaving behind the old asylum training of Battie and Mitchell, he joined the faculty of Harvard University, where he helped found the new field of modern psychology. At Harvard, James promoted his psychiatric innovation through his own favorable writings, one of which was the best-selling The Principles of Psychology. Published in 1890, this groundbreaking textbook noted that our mind experienced a ‘feeling of effort’ when making certain logical decisions. Was that feeling free will? It was impossible to know, but the feeling suggested that our mind at least believed in its own volition.

Six years later, James then wrote another book, encouragingly titled The Will to Believe. In its lucid pages, he pointed out that in order to empirically test the power of a belief, we first needed to believe in that belief. Which was to say: if we wanted to see whether we could be our own doctor, we had to take a leap of faith. We had to will ourselves to believe in our power of self-healing, kick-starting our return to health with an act of free-willed positive thinking.

Over the first decade of the twentieth century, this empowering new approach to mental health was embraced with growing enthusiasm in America. In Europe, the interest in James’s ideas developed more slowly, but the tide began to turn after the psychologist’s death. In 1921, eleven years after James had passed away, one of England’s leading philosophers published a short textbook titled The Analysis of Mind. And in its next-to-last chapter, the textbook casually assented to James’s psychological definition of free will: James, in his Principles of Psychology, chapter 26, maintains that the only distinctive characteristic of a voluntary act is that it involves an idea of the movement to be performed.… I see no reason to doubt the correctness of this view.

The distinguished author of this passage was forty-nine-year-old Bertrand Russell, the man who was so impressing Virginia Woolf with his ‘headpiece.’

Woolf Aligns Herself with William James

The same year that Bertrand Russell published his textbook, George Savage died. He was seventy-eight, and he went to the grave a wealthy, lauded man. The British Medical Journal published a long obituary declaring that Dr. Savage might be departed, but his work endured: “His textbook, Insanity and Allied Neuroses, was deservedly popular with students and practitioners, and is now in its fourth edition.”

George Savage’s death should have been a relief to Woolf. But unfortunately for her, the British Medical Journal was right: the doctor’s influence lived on. His view of Woolf as a mindless lump of tissue led her melancholy to be diagnosed as a symptom of dental bacteria, and she was duly strapped into a chair to have her offending teeth removed. Yet to the amazement of the attending dentist, the treatment failed. As Woolf bleakly observed on June 11, 1922, “I have lost three teeth in vain.”

Woolf’s ups and downs would remain with her for the rest of her life.

Unlike William James, she never felt like she’d discovered the deep secret to alleviating her soul sickness. Four summers after her tooth operation, she would record in her diary: “everything insipid, tasteless, colourless… no pleasure in life whatsoever.” But over those four years from 1922 to 1926, Woolf would nevertheless make a breakthrough. She would invent a new literary style that provided peace to other suffering souls. And she would do so by embracing two of William James’s beliefs.

The first belief was that our mental health could be improved by favorable books. In the summer of 1926, Woolf observed that her return to health originated with a mental spark: “sense of physical tiredness, but slight activity in the brain. Beginning to take notice. Making one or two plans.” Among those plans was a trip to the poets on her bookshelf: “Read some Dante & [Robert Seymour] Bridges, without troubling to understand, but got pleasure from them.” Woolf was now certain that George Savage had got it backward: bookishness wasn’t the source of her mental distress. It was the cure.

The second belief that Woolf came to share with James was seemingly more obscure. But in short order, it would produce a revolution in the therapeutic power of literature. It was the belief in ‘the stream of consciousness.’

The Stream of Consciousness

In January 1884 William James was forty-two. He was still just an assistant professor of philosophy. But he was soon to earn a promotion, both at his university and in the eyes of the world. James earned that promotion by publishing an article in the international psychology journal Mind. The article began with the startling claim that the great English psychologists had all mangled their object of study. They’d taken the special essence of human psychology—that mysterious psychic experience known as consciousness—and crudely “chopped [it] up in bits.” This chopping had never been admitted by the great English psychologists, but it was nevertheless evident in the way that they’d described consciousness as a “chain” of ideas or a “train” of thought. These metaphors, which were everywhere in psychology journals and textbooks, suggested that consciousness clattered along in discrete chunks, like railway cars upon a track. When, in fact, as James observed, consciousness was something else entirely: It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

After James made this declaration, the great English psychologists scratched their heads. What was the assistant professor going on about? Why did it matter whether consciousness was a “train” or a “stream”?

It mattered a great deal. As James pointed out, if our consciousness wasn’t a stream, then our ideas would be painfully disorientating to us. They’d arrive suddenly in our awareness —and then vanish— with no indication of why they’d arrived or where they were going. Our whole mental experience would consist of disconnected jolts, or as James later termed them, ‘nervous shocks.’ Like a soldier in a battle trench, we’d be bombarded with constant pops of light and sound that came and went without any greater logic, leaving us in rattled bafflement.

This was not how our brain worked at its best. When our brain was focused on a good book or some other business of life, it operated calmly and fluidly. It was the opposite of a wartime trench. It was at peace.

That neural feeling of peace revealed that our consciousness was more than a train of ideas. It was also the connections between ideas. Those liquid connections conveyed the origins and purpose of our ideas, helping us understand why each one arrived in our awareness—and where it was carrying us. As James described poetically: Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra.

This was a stunning new way of thinking about the mind. But as James pointed out, it was not really original to him. It had already been discovered by literary authors. Literary authors? The English psychologists were now really scratching their heads. What did literary authors know about human consciousness? Yet James was right. When authors picked up their pens, they did so to share something that they had in mind. They wrote, that is, to communicate a piece of their own consciousness. And to succeed in that communication, authors had learned long ago that they couldn’t just write out a train of ideas, one after the other, separated into atomistic sentences by the plunking down of periods. They had to include the transitions between ideas. Those transitions could be crafted in all sorts of ways, but on a basic level, as James noted, they took the form of linking words such as and and but that established the “relation” between each idea and the next.

So, thousands of years prior to James, authors had noticed the importance of the stream of consciousness. And soon, authors [Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce] would go further. Picking up James’s belief in the stream, they would incorporate that belief into a new kind of novel.

stem: Angus Fletcher
titel: Find Piece of Mind (chapter 17)
perspectief: Literatuur is een technologie, een oplossing voor allerlei problemen waar de geest mee te maken krijgt, zoals rouw, angst, eenzaamheid, depressie, pessimisme. Angus Fletcher werkt die hypothese uit door allerlei boeken, schrijvers en hun literaire uitvindingen te bespreken. Veel nadruk op psyche.
bron: Wonderworks (2021) – Literary Invention and the Science of Stories
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie