William James on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906

Though strictly speaking there is no precedent for the earthquake that has devastated Port-au-Prince, reflection on past natural disasters may help provide terms of analysis for the events that are unfolding now.  This might involve re-reading archival texts –  from journalistic reports to philosophical treatises to literary renderings – that have something to tell us about what we are experiencing in the present, whether as distant observer, witness, or victim.  Heinrich von Kleist’s story “The Earthquake in Chile” presents itself as one example; both Kant and Rousseau went on record about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that shook Europe and the so-called “Enlightenment,” and we have easy access to their writings – in fact, the easiest access ever.

Closer to home, both geographically and historically, is a North American event that remains a reference point for discourse on natural disasters:  the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

While the images of that event, or sequence of events, are familiar to most of us, the eyewitness account of the philosopher William James, who was a visiting professor at Stanford University when the earthquake struck, is perhaps less well-known.  You can read the full text of “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake” online at http://grammar.about.com/0d/classicessays/a/WJamesEarthquake._4.htm (See what I mean about easy access?)

James experienced the earthquake as it took place, and recounts what happened to him at around 5:30 a. m. on April 18, 1906 in his little “flat” on the Stanford campus:

Sitting up involuntarily, and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face as it went fortior shaking the room exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.  Then everything that was on anything else slid off to the floor, over went bureau and chiffonier with a crash, as fortissimo was reached; plaster cracked, an awful roaring noise seemed to fill the outer air, and in an instant all was still again, save the soft babble of human voiced from far and near that soon began to make itself heard, as the inhabitants…sought the greater safety of the street and yielded to the passionate desire for sympathetic communication.

The thing was over, as I understand the Lick Observatory to have declared, in forty-eight seconds.  To me it felt as if about that length of time, although I have heard others say that it seemed to them longer.  In my case, sensation and emotion were so strong that little thought, and no reflection or volition, were possible in the short time consumed by the phenomenon.

James goes on to recount his own “personification” of the earthquake as a “permanent individual entity” that 

had been lying low and holding itself back during all the intervening months, in order, on that lustrous April morning, to invade my room, and energize the more intensely and triumphantly.  It came, moreover, directly to me.  It stole in behind my back, and once inside the room, had me all to itself, and could manifest itself convincingly.  Animus and intent were never more present in any human action, nor did any human activity ever more definitely point back to a living agent as its source and origin.

All whom I consulted on the point agreed as to this feature in their experience.  “It expressed intention,” “It was vicious,” “It was bent on destrction,” “It wanted to show its power,” or what not.

He then shares the interpretation of an “informant” in San Francisco itself:

One informant interpreted it as the end of the world and the beginning of the final judgment.  This was a lady in a San Francisco hotel, who did not think of its being an earthquake till after she had got into the street and some one had explained it to her.  She told me that the theological interpretation had kept fear from her mind, and made her take the shaking calmly.  For “science,” when the tensions in the earth’s crust reach the breaking-point, and strata fall into an altered equilibrium, earthquake is simply the collective name of all the cracks and shakings and disturbances that happen.  They are the earthquake.  But for me the earthquake was the cause of the disturbances, and the perception of it as a living agent was irresistible.  It had an overpowering dramatic convincingness.

I realize now better than ever how inevitable were men’s earlier mythologic versions of such catastrophes, and how artificial and against the grain of our spontaneous perceiving are the later habits into which science educates us.  It was simply impossible for untutored men to take earthquakes into their minds as anything but supernatural warnings or retributions.

James made his way to San Francisco later in the day, on one of the few trains to arrive in the city – he escaped that same evening by the only train that left it.  He returned again eight days later.  Toward the end of his essay, he turns from personal experience and material descriptions to “more generalized reflections.”

Two things in retrospect strike me especially, and are the most emphatic of all my impressions.  Both are reassuring as to human nature.

The first of these was the rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos.  It is clear that just as in every thousand human beings there will be statistically so many artists, so many athletes, so many thinkers, and so many potentially good soldiers, so there will be so many potential organizers in times of emergency.  In point of fact, not only in the great city, but in the outlying towns, these natural ordermakers, whether amateurs or officials, came to the front immediately.  There seemed to be no possibility which there was not some one there to think of, or which within twenty-four hours was not in some way provided for….

The second thing that struck me was the universal equanimity.  We soon got letters from the East, ringing with anxiety and pathos; but I now know fully what I have always believed, that the pathetic way of feeling great disasters belongs rather to the point of view of people at a distance than to the immediate victims.  I heard not a single really pathetic or sentimental word in California expressed by anyone.

The terms “awful,” “dreadful,” fell often enough from people’s lips, but always with a sort of abstract meaning, and with a face that seemed to admire the vastness of the catastrophe as much as it bewailed its cuttingness.  When talk was not directly practical, I might almost say that it expressed (at any rate in the nine days I was there) a tendency more toward nervous excitement than toward grief.  The hearts concealed private bitterness enough, no doubt, but the tongues disdained to dwell on the misfortunes of self, when almost everybody one spoke to had suffered equally.

Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from their character of loneliness.  We lose our health, our wife or children die, our house burns down, or our money is made way with, and the world goes on rejoicing, leaving us on one side and counting us out from all its business.  In California every one, to some degree, was suffering, and one’s private miseries were merged in the vast general sum of privation and in the all-absorbing practical problem of general recuperation.  The cheerfulness, or, at any rate, the steadfastness of tone, was universal.  Not a single whine or plaintive word did I hear from the hundred losers whom I spoke to.  Instead of that there was a temper of helpfulness beyond the counting.

It is easy to glorify this as something characteristically American, or especially Californian.  Californian education has, of course, made the thought of all possible recuperations easy.  In an exhausted country, with no marginal resources, the outlook on the future would be much darker.  But I like to think that what I write of is a normal and universal trait of human nature.  In our drawing-rooms and offices we wonder how people ever do go through battles, sieges and shipwrecks.  We quiver and sicken in imagination, and think those heroes superhuman.  Physical pain, whether suffered alone or in company, is always more or less unnerving and intolerable.  But mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance.  At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.  At San Francisco the need will continue to be awful, and there will doubtless be a crop of nervous wrecks before the weeks and months are over, but meanwhile the commonest men, simply because they are men, will go on, singly and collectively, showing this admirable fortitude of temper.

“On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake” was originally published in the magazine Youth’s Companion, June 7, 1906.  It was reprinted in William James, Memories and Studies, ed. Henry James Jr. (Longmans, Green & Co., 1911).

  

 

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