Excerpt: The Dead Ladies Project
from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries
Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
“You’re in Berlin because you feel like a failure.”
I had met this man all of ten minutes ago and he was already summing me up neatly. I made subtle readjustments to my clothing, as if it had been a wayward bra strap or an upwardly mobile hemline that had given me away. More likely it was my blank stare in response to his question, “So, what brings you to Berlin?”
He has had to do this a lot, I imagine: greet lost boys and girls, still wild with jet lag, still unsure how to make ourselves look less obviously like what we are, we members of the Third Great Wave of American Expatriation to Berlin. This man before me was second on the list of names that everyone gets from worried friends when resettling overseas: Everyone I Know in the City to Which You Are Moving (Not Totally Vouched For). I had lasted about a week before I sent e-mails tinged with panic to everyone on my list. He had been the first to answer.
I must have blushed at the accuracy of his remark, because he immediately qualified it. “Everyone who moves to Berlin feels like a failure. That’s why we’re here. You’ll have good company.” Still embarrassed, I scanned the menu for one of the four German words I had mastered and, failing, pointed helplessly to a random item when the waiter returned. It would prove to be a strange Swiss soda of indeterminate flavor. It tasted like the branch of a tree, carbonated. It was not unpleasant. I had been shooting for something alcoholic, but I was already too laid bare to have admitting to a mistake and reordering left in me.
At this moment it seemed unlikely this American could commiserate. My own failings were too grandiose, the depths to which I had fallen too abysmal. I was narcissistic in my failings, and he looked like he was doing pretty okay. He sat across from me confident, knowledgeable. He had ordered in German. The people in the restaurant had greeted him by name. He talked about artistic projects he was working on. He was certainly sweating less than I was on this hot July day. Later a tale would unravel, one that mimicked the stories of so many of the Americans who had flocked here over the last decade. Unable to survive financially in New York without having to abandon their writing, their art, their music, they came to a city of cheap rents, national health insurance, and plentiful bartending jobs that could cover a reasonable cost of living. He had an apartment. It had hardwood floors. A failure, my eye.
In contrast, there I was, ten days into my new city and still stumbling around like a newborn calf. I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere. It was not a death wish, not really. Not anymore. I was hoping something in the environment, some sturdier, more German atoms, would replace them.
Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with preexisting mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a café culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.
* * *
Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.
If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defenses, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it’s a city that should not exist. It can’t be any wonder that Berlin has for hundreds of years—no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that those who inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days of the people residing here who are now known to us only by some pottery shards and bronze tools—been a little unstable. It would explain the city’s endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.
Perhaps its unstable nature is what beckons the unstable to its gates. The Lausitzer. The Jastorf. The Semnonen. The name-less and the preliterate. A shifting bunch of conquerors and the conquered. On through invaders and defenders, and populations reduced by half in war, disease, and the destruction of whoever pulled the short straw for being the scapegoat this century. The process merely sped up in the twentieth, oscillating madly through world wars and grotesque ideas, crashing economies and blind eyes turned.
It plays out seasonally as well here in the northern reaches of Germany. The lush highs of summer, everything green and tangled with a sun reluctant to leave its post at night and overly enthusiastically trying to rouse you from bed in the very early hours of the morning, crash endlessly down toward the darkness of the winter solstice. The trees that had been blooming in a state of fecund glory when I arrived in the city lost their leaves, revealing that the only things behind them were the endless concrete boxes of Soviet midcentury “architecture.” The sun shunned us and rarely peeked out from behind its thick cloud cover. When it deigned to, it gave off all the glow and heat of a porch light. The gray of the sky matched the gray of the buildings matched the gray of the thick coating of ice that remained on the sidewalks all winter. I fell on it one night, or early one morning, I guess, a little worse for wear, accompanied by a man I met at a bar, whose entire seduction strategy was just to follow me home, despite the fact that I kept trying to shoo him away like a stray dog.
I was six months into my Berlin residence. And from my akimbo position I threw the holy tantrum of a sailor-mouthed two-year-old. “Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it.”
“You’re strange,” said the German man, still resolutely standing by.
“Help me up.”
* * *
That’s when I took my William James essays off the shelf. I found in his works of philosophy a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father. It was his works on the more mundane matters that I relied on—how to make changes in your life, how to believe you can make changes in your life, how to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning, how not to be a worthless slug—rather than his more important pieces about war or whatever.
James is now a bit of an odd fellow in philosophy. More widely influential than widely known, his theory of pragmatism and his groundbreaking work in the field of psychology make him something of a hidden mover. If you do seek him out, it’s not generally in the way one reads Descartes or Kant or Nietzsche, as a refinement of the intellect or in the pursuit of one’s studies. One finds James when one needs him. He makes quiet sense of the world in all its glories and deprivations, its calamities and its beauties. As a philosopher, James is able to hold all of the sorrow and violence and pain of the world in his mind and remain somehow optimistic. It doesn’t wipe out the goodness of the world, it just sits beside it. It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.
I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.
* * *
Here is how William James found himself in Berlin: a failure. He had tried and failed to become a painter, failed to become a doctor, failed to become an adventurer. He was not yet a writer, but he was almost certainly still a virgin. He was in his mid-twenties and painfully aware that he had failed even in deciding what it was he wanted to do. He stood there, absolutely calcified with indecision and doubt, while his soon-to-be-famous friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made decisions and started careers, and his soon-to-be-famous younger brother, Henry, started his literary apprenticeship with the Atlantic.
Whereas he—well, he fled. First to Dresden and then to Berlin. He arrived under the pretext of furthering his education, but that may have simply been a way to convince his parents to pay for the trip because, despite his advancing age, he had yet to make an income. At any rate, he failed to go to class, ever. Instead he holed up in his Berlin guesthouse, learning German, training his telescope on the legs of the occupants of the all-girls’ school across the street, and failing to figure out a way to flirt with the pretty woman who played the piano downstairs. All the while in his letters to his brother he was alluding to a daily battle not to do himself in.
James lightly fictionalized this time in his life in Varieties of Religious Experience, passing off the breakdown to someone he knows who told him about it. (He’s French, you don’t know him.) In that work he described the sensation of his suicidal idyll as “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.” And while his letters to his parents hint at some of this darkness, there he mostly chats about that other Berlin experience, the roast veal and the beer and the music and the philosophy.
Here is how Berlin responded to William James’s time in Berlin: they built a center in his name. At the place of his greatest misery and torment, they built a permanent structure. Although maybe at this point they couldn’t help it. After all the documentation they had to do of the horrors of the twentieth century, maybe now it’s an unconscious reflex to throw up a memorial on the site of every trauma.
Well, not really a structure, I guess. More like a small room. The minute I learned of the center’s existence, I sent off an e-mail to make an appointment. I expected a hall of philosophy on the university campus, maybe in that glorious red brick so many of the buildings in James’s time had been constructed with. I scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and I took the train to the outskirts, to the University of Potsdam campus. It’s situated next to Sanssouci and its gardens, the former playground of the Prussian king. While the main path through the gardens is still marked with magnificent elm trees, most of the grounds have been allowed to go to seed. It’s not a tourist destination on par with Versailles, and so it is kept in only middling shape. There is a lovely rose garden, but that is surrounded by tangle and bramble. It’s been let go in the Berlin way, all of those straight German lines blurring a little into chaos.
Past the garden gates, into the campus, into the main philosophy hall, up the main staircase, down a hallway, to the left and then right, I came to my destination. It was a small door. The William James Center proved, despite its authoritative name, to be the work of one man. Herr Doktor Professor Logi Gunnarsson. Or is it Herr Professor Doktor . . . I should have remembered to look up the proper order before I left. “It’s Logi, call me Logi.” Luckily Dr. Logi is Icelandic and not beholden to the German titling system. The center’s archives are really just the contents of Dr. Logi’s office. A desk, a computer, some bookcases. Dr. Logi is slight and sandy, and he has the wonderful awkwardness that comes with too many hours spent in the company of dead men.
He is, he tells me, attempting to re-create William James’s personal library as part of his administration of the center, so that he can be surrounded by the same books that surrounded James. It’s a devotional act couched in a scholarly one. It’s an act I can understand. Dr. Logi pours me a cup of tea, and we chat about our good friend William James. Up for discussion, a traumatic encounter with a prostitute, alluded to in letters to his brother and in a journal. He did, it seems, either lose his virginity to the prostitute or, perhaps even more traumatically, fail to.
“The poor dear,” I say.
“Yes, quite. He was hopeless with women. It seems, though, that after he married Alice Howe Gibbens, the physical ailments he was treating in Berlin, the bad back and so on, disappeared.”
“Were they caused by the burden of a protracted virginity?”
“Perhaps. The poor dear.”
I am keeping Dr. Logi from professional duties, but I don’t care and it appears he doesn’t either. I imagine it might be a relief for him, as it is for me, to have someone to converse with about our favorite person. Or willingly converse, as I’m sure he inflicts William James on the people around him like I do.
“What do you make,” I ask slowly, “of the fact that his first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine?”
Part of William’s freakout, Dr. Logi had mentioned earlier, sprang from an enormous need to be seen. By the public, by his friends, by his father. He wanted to “assert his reality” on the world, as he wrote in his letters, and it took approximately twenty years after writing that statement until he would.
“Surely not . . .” Dr. Logi starts, but then he does the math in his head. “I guess I knew that but had forgotten. I mean . . . And he could not have known he would eventually succeed.”
We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of the years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.
* * *
Whenever James was corresponding with a colleague or an inquirer, Dr. Logi told me, he would request from them a portrait. It was important for him to see the whole of the person, at least a bit of their humanity, and not only their written representation.
In that spirit, I have before me two images of William James. The first was taken around the time he moved to Berlin. He looks stricken, pale and withdrawn. It is as if he had recoiled into a permanent flinch. He looks off to the side, unable perhaps to meet the camera’s gaze. There is something fractured deep at the heart of him.
In the other, it is a few decades on. There is gray in his beard and his face is worn. He exudes charm, warmth, and wisdom. It is a William James in whose lap you want to sit and listen to stories. He is keeping some secrets, but he will share them if you draw near.
It is the distance between these two photographs that is so fascinating. Not simply in age but in substance of the man. Biographers are interested (I am interested) in the Berlin breakdown because of the distance traveled between the two Jameses and the quality of the end result. It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted. That is the territory where mean drunks and tyrannical bastards come from.
Not so with James. He may have always been a little hopeless with women (he sent a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to his Alice in the months before their wedding, in a vein that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever gotten a little sullen after a bottle of wine and decided to start texting), and the weight of depression did occasionally re-descend, but he walked out of that phase with dignity and great compassion. He used his experiences, both the good and the ill, for the base of his incredibly humane body of work.
So then what’s the magic formula? Can his transition be distilled down to a scientific protocol to be reproduced at home in your own basement laboratory? Could we use William James’s example to turn our respective chemical imbalances into alchemical processes?
* * *
There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zig-zags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles. Wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and an effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
It is difficult today to imagine the Berlin that James encountered in the nineteenth century. So much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash in the intervening years. I can look at photos and get a sense of who the city might have been. But when I’m out, actually walking around on the streets, it is an entirely different place.
Most of the surface of the city was bulldozed after World War II, and the unsalvageable and the unclaimed was dumped in Grunewald on the outskirts of town. The pile of junk that used to be houses, used to be bakeries and hat shops, used to be attached to human bodies, was covered in dirt, and the wild was allowed to reclaim it. Now it is something of a park or nature preserve, with hiking trails through the woods—the trees still looking suspiciously young—up and down this artificial hill. One of the only hills in this swamp-turned-into-a-city.
The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century. It still bleeds through in their songs and in their art. A few decades before James arrived, Bogumil Goltz wrote, “What the evil over-clever, insipid, bright cold world encumbers and complicates, the wood-green mysterious, enchanted, dark, culture-renouncing but true to the law of nature must free and make good again.”
So maybe that is where James’s Berlin still resides, out in Grunewald, buried in some sort of purification rite inspired by a mysterious calling from deep within the German DNA. The wood-green making all of those horrors good again. It’s a calm place, soothing. But also policed by territorial wild boar.
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.