American Literature Association

American Literature Association (ALA)

Chicago, Illinois

Panel: “Weird James I” (organized by the Henry James Society)

Date & Time: Saturday, 25 May 2024; 8:30–9:50am

Location: Salon 5

My Paper: “William James’s Anesthetic Reading:
 Open-ended Interpretation on Nitrous Oxide


William James’s corpus is bookended by nitrous oxide. One of his earliest publications was a review of Benjamin Paul Blood’s The Anæsthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy (1874), wherein Blood claims that the sensation of “coming to” out of nitrous oxide intoxication held ineffable truths for philosophy. In “A Pluralistic Mystic” (1910), the final essay published during his lifetime, James praises Blood’s ideas by stringing together open-ended readings of his various texts and correspondence. James also personally experimented with nitrous oxide, famously using it to mock Hegelian ideas in an endnote to “On Some Hegelisms” (1882). James scholars tend to treat this as a biographical curiosity: Gerald E. Myers calls it a “‘peripheral’ experiment” and James Campbell places nitrous oxide alongside a slew of other mind-altering substances with which James experimented. In this presentation, I argue instead that James’s use of nitrous oxide, especially as a method of reading, is central to his approach to interpretation more generally. Just as nitrous oxide allows users to experience new streams of consciousness, James encourages his audience to read creatively by pulling together otherwise disparate ideas. He models this in “A Pluralistic Mystic” with extended quotations that string together passages from discrete Blood texts with no signal stronger than ellipses. By reading this essay alongside the James family’s playfulness and “weirdness,” I suggest that nitrous oxide and other mind-altering substances reflect what can appear naturally in the best kind of reading: an expanded attention to diverse streams of thought coming creatively together.