Friday, April 4, 2014

The Invisible Molecular Moral Forces of William James, Or, The Hunt for the Misquotation.

This is a random story about a (mis)quotation of William James.
So, I was flipping through Jean Wahl's Vers le concret: ├ętudes d'histoire de la philosophie contemporaine : William James, Whitehead, Gabriel Marcel (and, side note, why is Jean Wahl basically not translated into English, or out of print?), and he had a quotation from William James that I had not seen before. Here is the quotation in French:
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However, the footnote was a little wrong, and so when I went to check the suggested text of James, I didn't find it. So, I rendered the French into English (poorly, I might add), and googled it. When I did, I got several pages that suggested this:
"I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride." You can see one of the many examples here.
So, cool, now I have a quotation, no problem, we're off to the races. Except, of course, when I put this quotation into google, I got a bunch of weird hits. Besides a lot of those quotation aggregator type sites, there were a whole bunch of new age books, alongside Christian self-help books, and Arianna Huffington posted it to her facebook page once. And honestly, many of those books just randomly slotted that quotation with no reason why. It was weird. Also, needless to say, these fine books of scholarships had no citations to help me find the original. So, then I decided to just google William James alongside a shorter, unique phrase of molecular moral forces. And then I was rewarded with the actual quotation. From a letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899: "As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself."
There isn't really a point to this story. I don't know how the quotation first drifted. And I find it really odd that the strange quotation has ended up in so many different, and awkward, places (not as weird as the Beckett fail again quotation, but still). Also, we need more Jean Wahl in translation. You can see other tracked down misquotations here, and here.