An editorial in the Chautauqua Assembly Herald on July 29, 1896, acknowledged the admirable lecture that Professor William James, the psychologist from Harvard, gave the previous week on July 24.
It was titled “Psychology and Relaxation,” and it asserted that Americans, maybe Chautauquan Americans more than others, needed more relaxation than did other people.
The editor’s synopsis of James’ talk indicated that “we do not know the psychology of letting go and resting. We die in harness, ‘worry through things,’ perhaps die young when we ought to live long and happily.”
The editor’s purpose was not just to praise James but to praise Americanized Delsarte culture, a system of education and expression originated in France by François Delsarte and adapted for Chautauqua by Emily M. Bishop.
“To understand this and to see how the control, use and expression of the body is a means of gaining and keeping health, we must observe that Mrs. Bishop employs gymnastics as a means of health as well as a mode of expression,” the editorial reported.
Bishop’s system taught a most economic use of the body, using it in everyday life with ease and grace and precision.
While ostensibly of benefit to men and women alike, the editor indicated Delsarte to be of special importance to women.
“There is no reproach in charm, in grace and beauty,” the editorial read. “Your trained girl, mistress of herself, queen of a cultured body, she whose every step is grace and every gesture beautiful, is and may be the sweeter, finer woman, the saner spirit, the more lovely soul, because of her trained body and not in spite of it. She may be charmer and saint, scholar and athlete, Minerva and Diana all in one — and be yet a woman.”
If, indeed, Bishop’s school of expression had special importance to women, it did not deter William James from participating in it. In his Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion and the Arts in America, Theodore Morrison wrote that “James gave himself a sufficiently thorough dose of Chautauqua,” including Delsarte.
Drawing on James’ letters to his wife, Morrison reported that, one day, James went to four lectures, one of which was on breadmaking.
“ ‘One was on walking, by a graceful young Delsartian, who showed us a lot,’ ” James wrote.
He also took a lesson in roasting, in Delsarte, “and I made with my own fair hands a beautiful loaf of graham bread with some rolls, long, flute-like, and delicious.’ ”
In the Oliver Archives resides a photo of Bishop in the expression of what she called harmonic gymnastics. She is bent at the waist a clean 90 degrees, her legs and back straight, her right arm touching the outside of her right buttoned shoe, her left arm behind her, poised just above the slant of her back. Her head tilted up slightly and in profile, but her face toward the ground, her eyes aimed just ahead of herself; she wore a modest, satisfied smile. Harmonic gymnastics was a kind of Victorian tai chi.
James would have approved of Bishop’s measured and disciplined pose. In his talk on psychology and relaxation, he cited Clouston, “a trained reader of the secrets of the soul as expressed upon the countenance,” a mad-doctor, some called him, otherwise known as an asylum doctor. He was from Scotland.
“You Americans wear too much expression on your faces,” Clouston said. “You are living like an army with all its reserves engaged in action.”
Clouston thought the reserved countenances of the British more healthy, suggesting “ ‘stores of reserved, nervous force to fall back upon, if any occasion should arise that requires it.’ ”
Opposed to Clouston, James said many Americans, far from deploring it, admired the “wild-eyed look upon the faces of their compatriots, either of too desperate eagerness and anxiety, or of too intense responsiveness and good will.”
James called it a “bottled-lightning quality, in us Americans.” It might have had to do with the dryness of the climate, and the “acrobatic performances of our thermometer, coupled with the extraordinary progressiveness of our life, the hard work, the railroad-speed, the rapid success, and all the other things we know so well by hearsay.”
Whatever its source, James thought the American character was weakened by this “over-tension,” and people must begin to change themselves.
“We must change ourselves from a race that admires jerk and snap for their own sakes, and looks down upon low voices and quiet ways as dull, to one that on the contrary has calm for its ideal, and for their own sakes loves harmony, dignity and ease,” he said.
James recommended a return to the psychology of imitations: “some of us setting an example which the others may pick up and imitate.”
In New York there was a society for the improvement of our national voice. In Boston, Annie Payson Call had developed a gospel of relaxation and published a book on it titled Power Through Repose.
The Chautauqua audience, and the Chautauqua students with whom James had had contact, were of a particular intensity, indeed. Morrison expected it was a frame of mind natural to an institution “that began as a Sunday school training center and put a heavy premium on self-improvement and the pursuit of culture.”
James thought the very thing that energized such a mind, might also cripple it.
“I’ve been meeting minds so earnest and helpless that it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to its immediately adjacent neighbor,” he wrote to his wife. “And when they’ve got to the next idea, they lie down on it with their whole weight and can get no farther, like a cow on a doormat, so that you can get neither in nor out with them.”
But what could James do to help his audience relax? Toward the end of his lecture on psychology and relaxation he said he feared that, “some individual here amongst you, my fair hearers, may be making an undying resolve to become strenuously relax, cost what it will, for the remainder of her life.”
Instead, the thing to do was paradoxical. Better “genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.” And in such not-caring, “you may all at once find that you are doing it”: Relaxing. Reposing. Releasing the cap on the bottled lightning.
As for James, he himself had had enough relaxation and repose. He had come to Chautauqua for a day, out of curiosity, he had said, and he had stayed for a week.
But in the end, he wrote to his wife that “this Chautauqua week … has been a real success. I have learned a lot, but I’m glad to get into something less blameless. … The flash of a pistol, a dagger, or a devilish eye, anything to break the unlovely level of 10,000 good people.”
So much for relaxing the bottled lightning.
Postscript: In the July 25, 1896, “Drift of the Day,” a Herald reporter wrote the following: “At the close of Prof. James’s lecture yesterday his audience instantly forgot what had just been said about ‘bottled lightning’ and a ‘too strenuous relaxation.’ Those who wished front seats promptly unbottled their lightning and rushed down the aisles, while the speed of those departing was strenuously relaxed, so Prof. Baskerville was introduced amid a scene of needless confusion.”