The White Nightgown Mindset (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 180)

William James warned his students that a certain kind of mindset was approaching the West—it could hardly be called a way of thought—in which no physical details are noticed. Fingernails are not noticed, trees in the plural are mentioned, but no particular tree is ever loved, nor where it stands; the hair of the ear is not noticed. We now see this mindset spread all over freshman English papers, which American students can now write quickly, on utterly generalized subjects; the nouns are usually plurals, and the feelings are all ones it would be nice to have. The same mindset turns up on the Watergate tapes, and working now with more elaborate generalizations, in graduate seminars in English, in which all the details in Yeats’s poems turn out to be archetypes or Irish Renaissance themes. It is the lingua franca, replacing Latin. The mindset could be described as the ability to talk of Africa without visualizing the hair in the baboon’s ear, or even a baboon. Instead the mindset reports “wild animals.” Since the immense range of color belongs to physical detail—the thatness—of the universe, it is the inability to see color. People with this mindset have minds that resemble white nightgowns. For people of this mindset, there’s not much difference between 3 and 742; the count of something is a detail. In fact the number they are most interested in, as James noted, is one. That’s a number without physical detail.

WIlliam James observed this approaching mindset and associated out from it sideways. He noticed the mindset resembled the upper class of Boston. They too disliked the sordid details—the hair in the ear of religion, the smells of the Irish entryway—and preferred the religion of the One. Naturally, they became Unitarians. If the “cultured people” move into this mindset, a curious thing happens; the upper (spiritual) half of life and the lower (sensual) half of life begin to part company. One part ascends; the other part, no longer connected to the high, sinks. The gaps between grom wider and wider. The educated class has the Pure One, the working class people are left with nothing but the crude physical details of their lives—the husband’s old pipe and the spit knocked out of it, the washing tub, the water and slush from the children’s boots on the entry floor, the corns on the feet, the mess of dishes in the sink, the secular love-making in the cold room. These physical details are now, in the twentieth century, not only unpenetrated by religion, but they somehow prove to the unconscious that “religion is a nullity.” James emphasized that perception, and Stevens grieved over the insight all his life. For the working class there’s nothing left but the Emperor of Ice Cream. The middle class is now the working class, and so the majority of people in the West are worse off than they were in the Middle Ages.

A Little Book on the Human Shadow

Robert Bly          1988

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