Log in

No account? Create an account
the odor of sanctity and turpentine: a footnote for crowleycrow - joculum [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

the odor of sanctity and turpentine: a footnote for crowleycrow [Jan. 7th, 2008|04:15 pm]
"A strong smell of turpentine prevails


Unless someone finds me a better Original Citation, I have found, improbably, that the improbable, poorly documented reference I found online, ascribing the quotation to Oliver Wendell Holmes, is the correct one. To wit, "Mechanism in Thought and Morals, an Address, with Notes and Afterthoughts," London, 1871. pp. 54 - 55: "I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. ... The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear; a few words had lifted my intelligence to the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile, the wise will ponder): 'A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.'"

Now, it is possible (at least until we search further) that Holmes was cribbing the experience from William James, whose own experiences with nitrous oxide are quoted on the same page of Graces of Interior Prayer as the passage from Oliver Wendell Holmes cited above. But James' accounts of the mysticism of nitrous oxide in The Varieties of Religious Experience are far more sober, and don't quote anybody in particular: on pp. 387-388 of the edition I am consulting online (1902) he summarizes the views of "friends who believe in the anaesthetic revelation." "Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler. This truth fades out, however, or escapes, at the moment of coming to; and if any words remain over in which it seemed to clothe itself, they prove to be the veriest nonsense. Nevertheless, the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists; and I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation. Some years ago, I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print." [emphasis added]

Aha! James' conclusion in that unfootnoted reference was "that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."

The footnote for the reference, found in a book about James, is "Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide," Psychological Review 5, 1898, 194-196. But what we want to know is whether James reported any nonsensical revelations.

And yes, he did, in 1882, reporting on his own experiments sometime after his first published remarks on the topic in 1874 (a review of a pamphlet called The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy). Dmitri Tymoczko's essay "The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher," in the May 1996 Atlantic Monthly tells the whole tale (with no reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes), including (but with no footnote!) how James' own recorded sayings on emerging from trance were considerably less amusing than Holmes': "What's mistake but a kind of take? What's nausea but a kind of -ausea?" and it becomes Hegelian from there: "Good and evil reconciled in a laugh! It escapes, it escapes! But—What escapes? WHAT escapes?"

As I told John Crowley when he brought up the subject, "Now you've done it." This is more than you ever wanted to know about the origin of Bertrand Russell's funny story, with the rhythmically improved punchline "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout."

But I am feeling triumphant to find a digitally reproduced copy of the Holmes book that, unless someone went to the extraordinary lengths of faking antique format and typeface, constitutes evidence that, even if Holmes was lying or plagiarizing, this is the passage that Bertrand Russell misremembered. If someone finds that James somehow wrote about his own experience prior to 1871 and used the word "petroleum," I shall stand corrected.

[User Picture]From: crowleycrow
2008-01-08 12:47 am (UTC)
Enjoyed every line and word of it, and am gratified no end. I think Chris Beha will be too, even if he has to qualify his own site title. (Actually of course it's in some sense cooler to have the Chinese Telephone version of the story heading up one's site, given the evanescent things being described.)
(Reply) (Thread)