Henry James:
Meditations on Life after Death

Reflections by Adelais Mills

Adelais researches and teaches late-nineteenth-century, modern and contemporary literature. She is currently writing a book on Henry James and responsibility.

In the summer of 1909, seven years prior to his own death, Henry James wrote the compelling but seldom read essay “Is There a Life after Death?” The essay formed a part of a collection of pieces called In After Days, Thoughts on the Future Life (1910). Other contributors included the novelist William Dean Howells; Elizabeth Phelps Stuart, a popular author who specialised in fictional tales of heaven; Emily Dickinson’s first editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; and the poet and suffragette, Julia Ward Howe. 

Known for novels intently concerned with the significance of the minutest social interaction, the slightest movement of consciousness, “Is There a Life after Death?” is one of very few statements James made on the topic of spirituality. It is not surprising that James should have shied away from speaking to the subject. Already the grandson of a stern Presbyterian, his father, Henry James Sr., experienced a religious crisis (a “vastation,” he called it) the year before Henry Jr. was born, and was to devote the rest of his life to advancing the ideas of the Swedish religious mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg—as well as his own unconventional views on family life, marriage, and sexual morality. These latter views resulted in a few well-publicised disputes between James Sr. and other American writers and philosophers. Such affairs were embarrassing for the James children, and perhaps partially responsible for Henry’s commitment to withholding his private self from the public. In “Is There a Life after Death?,” however, James describes the question he has set himself to discuss as “the most interesting…in the world.” It may have been too interesting a question for James to pass up the opportunity of posing—even if his answer was to be a public one. 

‘our faith or our hope may to some degree resist the fact, once accomplished, of watched and deplored death, but […] they may well break down before the avidity and consistency with which everything insufferably continues to die’

From the beginning of his essay, James sets aside as highly improbable the prospect of one’s “physical outfit” (body), finding life beyond the point of death. In fact, he devotes the first half to airing the many sensible reasons for conceding the “unmistakable absoluteness of death.” What evidence to the contrary is there? It is, after all, only a very few who claim to have been contacted by the dead; for most of us, our dead are vanished and silent—our “ex-fellow-mortals,” James lightly remarks, appear to have taken up some considerably more exciting pursuit than attempting to inform us of their present whereabouts. Yet the reticence of our loved and lost can only contribute the more to our “awareness of extinct things as utterly and veritably extinct.” All our sensory experience of life, James acknowledges, appears to press upon us the unqualified finality of life’s end. 

Given how firmly the world would seem to disabuse us of dreams of an afterlife, James invites us to imagine that a mature approach to death would entail putting aside such visions in order to “more and more…reckon with reality.” But this undeviating trajectory from youth to maturity, from illusion to reality, has not, James admits, been his own experience. He has sometimes held that the cut death makes in the thread of life is sheer only to find such a view “displaced by another,” only to find it “reappear again and once more give way.” James’s confession has the effect of lending a contingency to the final set of ideas with which he will leave readers of “Is There Life After Death?”: perhaps the fate of these speculations is also to “give way.”                                      

‘Living, or feeling one’s exquisite curiosity about the universe fed and fed, rewarded and rewarded—though I of course don’t say answered and answered—becomes thus the highest good I can conceived of, a million times better than not living (however that comfort may at bad moments have solicited us); all of which illustrates what I mean by the consecrated ‘interest’ of consciousness.’

In the second half of his essay, James’s tone becomes cautious, exploratory. Yes, like flowers and other animals, humans are simply “stuff of the abject actual.” Ostensibly, there is nothing of us sufficiently refined to “create a claim to be disengaged” from a world that informs each of us that “I and my poor form of consciousness [are] a quantity it could at any moment perfectly do without.” But it is at this point that James gives an arrestingly intricate turn to his essay: it is, he proposes, in the very act of meditating upon the finitude of consciousness, that it is possible to glimpse the claim of consciousness to immortality.

Lovers of James will know well that, while the author was not a reclusive man, he was an intensely inward-looking one. In “Is There Life After Death?,” James confirms that he has lived much in his mind. Yet in choosing to dwell there, he writes, he also undertook to take “the measure” of his consciousness. Assuming that it is finite, where precisely are its frontiers? At what point is consciousness unable to “accep[t],” “appropriate,” and “consume” what experience offers? As his survey of the threshold of consciousness progressed, however, something strange began to be revealed. It seemed, for James, that “the more and more one asked of it [consciousness] the more and more it appeared to give,” as though there were no limit to the mind’s capacity to “people and animate and extend and transform itself.” Bounded in a nutshell, Jamesian consciousness yet could count itself king of immeasurable space. 

The mind, it seems to James, has not the same dimensions as the actual world, nor its possibilities; it has rather the dimensions and possibilities of the universe. That is to say, “in proportion as we do curiously and lovingly, yearningly and irrepressibly, interrogate and liberate, try and test and explore,” consciousness has the capacity to attain to the infinite and so to transcend the finite. There is, James concedes, a “spiritual” or “theological” quality to his perspective on consciousness. And occasionally it does seem as though he is writing of it in the same way that his father once wrote of the “spirit” or the “soul.” From the perspective of our own time, however, James’s appreciation for the “so mysterious and complicated” substance of consciousness bears resemblance less to religious ideas than to an understanding of what philosophers of mind and neurologists now call the “hard problem” of consciousness: to the theory that the “how” and “why” of consciousness is ineluctably enigmatic.

Cognitive scientists are increasingly able to point to specific areas of the brain that are responsible for the performance of certain functions—discrimination, for instance, or attention. But these functions are distinct from, and not necessarily dependent on, what we mean by “consciousness”: the capacity to be self-reflexively aware that one is discriminating or paying attention. Some philosophers and scientists believe that consciousness arises as a consequence of brain biology; a majority are of the opinion that we will never discover the grounds of, or the reasons for, consciousness. One radical conclusion of such a thought is that consciousness may as well be spiritual for all that we will ever know of its materiality. Such a thought can be said to contribute to the final turn that James gives his essay. 

It is what he calls “a question of desire” as to whether one thinks of consciousness as a product of the “laboratory-brain,” destined to succumb with the rest of our “highly appreciable and perishable matter,” or as the basis of one’s immortality. For those who “long to lay down the burden of being and never again take it up,” death absolute and total is life’s saving grace. For those who, while not quite “in love with life,” are at least “in love with living” (among whom James counts himself), to hold that one’s share in the infinite variety of the universe is prolonged by virtue of the irreducibility of consciousness to the body is a position forcefully desirable. 

‘I reach beyond the laboratory-brain’

Posted: 9th March 2020

Categories: Reflections