Henry Adams on the Bundled Mind

Of all forms of pessimism, the metaphysical form was, for a historian, the least enticing. Of all studies, the one he would rather have avoided was that of his own mind. He knew no tragedy so heartrending as introspection, and the more, because-as Mephistopheles said of Marguerite–he was not the first. Nearly all the highest intelligence known to history had drowned itself in the reflection of its own thought, and the bovine survivors had rudely told the truth about it, without affecting the intelligent. One’s own time had not been exempt. Even since 1870 friends by scores had fallen victims to it. Within five-and-twenty years, a new library had grown out of it. Harvard College was a focus of the study; France supported hospitals for it; England published magazines of it. Nothing was easier than to take one’s mind in one’s hand, and ask one’s psychological friends what they made of it, and the more because it mattered so little to either party, since their minds, whatever they were, had pretty nearly ceased to reflect, and let them do what they liked with the small remnant, they could scarcely do anything very new with it. All one asked was to learn what they hoped to do.

Unfortunately the pursuit of ignorance in silence had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim [i.e., himself] into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost. He failed to fathom the depths of the new psychology, which proved to him that, on that side as on the mathematical side, his power of thought was atrophied, if, indeed, it ever existed. Since he could not fathom the science, he could only ask the simplest of questions: Did the new psychology hold that the νΧή–soul or mind–was or was not a unit? He gathered from the books that the psychologists had, in a few cases, distinguished several personalities in the same mind, each conscious and constant, individual and exclusive.

The fact seemed scarcely surprising, since it had been a habit of mind from earliest recorded time, and equally familiar to the last acquaintance who had taken a drug or caught a fever, or eaten a Welsh rarebit before bed; for surely no one could follow the action of a vivid dream, and still need to be told that the actors evoked by his mind were not himself, but quite unknown to all he had ever recognized as self. The new psychology went further, and seemed convinced that it had actually split personality not only into dualism, but also into complex groups, like telephonic centres and systems, that might be isolated and called up at will, and whose physical action might be occult in the sense of strangeness to any known form of force.

Dualism seemed to have become as common as binary stars. Alternating personalities turned up constantly, even among one’s friends. The facts seemed certain, or at least as certain as other facts; all they needed was explanation.

This was not the business of the searcher of ignorance, who felt himself in no way responsible for causes. To his mind, the compound νΧή took at once the form of a bicycle-rider, mechanically balancing himself by inhibiting all his inferior personalities, and sure to fall into the sub-conscious chaos below, if one of his inferior personalities got on top. The only absolute truth was the sub-conscious chaos below, which every one could feel when he sought it.

Whether the psychologists admitted it or not, mattered little to the student who, by the law of his profession, was engaged in studying his own mind. On him, the effect was surprising. He woke up with a shudder as though he had himself fallen off his bicycle. If his mind were really this sort of magnet, mechanically dispersing its lines of force when it went to sleep, and mechanically orienting them when it woke up–which was normal, the dispersion or orientation? The mind, like the body, kept its unity unless it happened to lose balance, but the professor of physics, who skipped on a pavement and hurt himself, knew no more than an idiot what knocked him down, though he did know–what the idiot could hardly do–that his normal condition was idiocy, or want of balance, and that his sanity was unstable artifice. His normal thought was dispersion, sleep, dream, inconsequence; the simultaneous action of different thought-centres without central control. His artificial balance was acquired habit. He was an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly breaking his neck.

By that path of newest science, one saw no unity ahead–nothing but a dissolving mind-and the historian felt himself driven back on thought as one continuous Force, without Race, Sex, School, Country, or Church.

The Education of Henry Adams
Chapter XXIX
“The Abyss of Ignorance” (1902)
pp. 432-434

(Credit to Ron Pavellas for bringing this passage to my notice.)

2 thoughts on “Henry Adams on the Bundled Mind

  1. One of his concerns was losing the sense of shared humanity we all take for granted and almost never talk about, same as the assumptions of one generation might not necessarily translate to the next, for example when the polio vaccine came out nobody made a fuss and it was considered more than normal to take the vaccine, as if it was commonly agreed and no debate was necessary. (One can make the point that debate was had but reading the timeline from our perspective is skewed)

    Now come to the assumption we all have that we never speak about which is choice, we choose to rise with our thoughts to heavenly highs or descend down to earth with the dirt and mud, we must not confuse “non-thought” with “thought”, chaos is not the yin to the yang of order.

    It is not hard to see why the author was suffering so much back then considering the context he was born into, to people of power who are not necessarily bad at heart but do bad things often, and one day they wake up and forgot who they were before power corrupted their souls, and alas, they become what they make of themselves.

    • There was also the larger context of mass social change. Industrialization was in full swing, including the industrialized diet with its malnutrition. And there was the strain of mass urbanization and the emergence of middle class office workers.

      All of this fed into moral panic about neurasthenia and a crisis of identity (class, gender, and race). This piece was written in 1902. There is an interesting book about that era — it’s American Nervousness, 1903 by Tom Lutz.

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