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The Sound of Maybe


A visit to Harvard's Holden chapel, where William James once asked the question, "Is life worth living?"

Holden Chapel at Harvard University. Photograph by the author.

Holden Chapel at Harvard University. Photograph by the author.

Harvard University’s Holden Chapel always struck me as the proper home of a crypt-keeper: an appropriate place to die, or at least to remain dead. The forty-foot brick structure has no front windows. Above its entrance are four stone bucrania, bas-relief ox-skull sculptures of the sort that pagans once placed on their temples to keep away evil spirits. In 1895, when William James was asked to address a crowd of young Christian men at the Georgian chapel, it was already more than 150 years old, a fitting setting for the fifty-three-year-old philosopher to contemplate what he had come to believe was the profoundest of questions: “Is life worth living?”

For centuries, philosophers and religious thinkers, from Maimonides to John Locke, coolly articulated the belief that life, for any number of unassailable reasons, was worth living. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas argued that all things—be they amoebas or human beings—have a natural life cycle put into place by an intelligent designer. Far be it from any of God’s creatures to disrupt it. Kant’s argument, five hundred years later, was less theologically speculative. Rational beings, he said, have a duty not to destroy our own rational capacities. In Kant’s words, “Suicide is not abominable because God has forbidden it; on the contrary, God has forbidden it because it is abominable.”

James had pondered the abominable since at least his twenties. One of his early sketchpads contains what most scholars think is a self-portrait in red crayon—a young man, seated, hunched over, with an inscription over the figure: HERE I AND SORROW SIT. Most of the reasons his philosophical predecessors offered to persevere in life bored James to death. To him, they were little more than clichéd maxims, out of touch with the particularities of depression and crisis. Still, he was well aware that such arguments had served as the existential anchor for an untold number of happy lives. Indeed, during his lecture in Holden Chapel, he observed that his audience, a group from Harvard’s Young Men’s Christian Association, brimmed with what he often called “healthy-mindedness,” a psychological and moral disposition that all but affirmed the conclusions of Aquinas and Kant.

The Harvard YMCA was established in 1886 as an evangelical society. Many members of James’s audience believed that the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus is Savior and Lord. So the question of life’s worth, for these zealous believers, was settled in advance. Denying the value of human life was blasphemy, and the ultimate form of this denial—suicide—an unspeakable sin. But James suspected that this affirmation of human life, as emphatic as it was universal, ignored the experience of a growing number of people who weren’t so sure about life’s existential value.

James, by then quite famous as the father of American psychology and philosophy, was one of them—unequivocally “sick-souled,” as he put it. He knew something that the faithful often miss, that believing in life’s worth, for many people, is the struggle of a lifetime. He’d overdosed on chloral hydrate in the 1870s just “for the fun of it,” as he wrote to his brother Henry, to see how close he could come to the morgue without actually going there. James was not alone in his curiosity. A decade later, his colleague and founder of the Society for Psychical Research, Edmund Gurney, took the experiment with life and death too far, testing what turned out to be a fatal dose of chloroform. In response to Gurney’s death, James wrote to his brother once again. “[This death] make[s] what remains here strangely insignificant and ephemeral, as if the weight of things, as well as the numbers, was all on the other side.” The other side. As in: No. Life is not worth living. 

1The woman in the painting is believed to be the patient’s mother, but Eakins did not identify her as such.

“No,” as it turns out, is an answer that has much to recommend it in a place like Holden Chapel. Religious services were moved out of the building in the middle of the eighteenth century and, for the next hundred years, it served as a chemistry lab and classroom for the nascent Harvard Medical School, where cadavers were dissected. “The Gross Clinic,” painted by Thomas Eakins in 1875, gives some idea about the nature of surgery at the time. In it, several doctors perform an operation on a child, working without gloves as their patient’s insides fester in the open air. The patient’s mother, meanwhile, sits nearby in horror, covering her face in a futile attempt to escape what James understood all too well: at the end of the existential day, we are a bunch of smelly carcasses.1 (When Holden was renovated in 1999, workers discovered skeletal remains in the basement.) James would have been aware of the chapel’s gory medical history as he pondered life’s worth with the YMCA.

The aging philosopher was not there to affirm the sunny convictions of these Christian acolytes. But he’d also managed to avoid suicide for more than half a century. By the end of the evening at Holden, somewhere between Pollyanna optimism and utter nihilism, James discovered the answer to his question: Maybe. Maybe life is worth living. “It depends,” he said, “on the liver.”

The liver, three pounds of mushy reddish-brown wedged below the diaphragm, was once considered the source of blood and, therefore, the seat of life itself. Back in the time of the bucrania, people would gut an animal to get a good look at one. The liver was the sine qua non of many ancient forms of divination. Seers from Babylon to Rome examined the mushy organ—much like phrenologists would later study the shape of the skull—to divine a future that was still, at least partially, within one’s control. The liver, according to the ancients, was a way to negotiate the vagaries of chance. And so much depended on it. 


From a letter William James wrote in 1888 to his brother, the writer Henry James, upon learning that Edmund Gurney, the founder of the Society for Psychical Research, had died from a self-administered dose of chloroform. 

My Dear Harry—Your note announcing E. Gurney’s death came yesterday, and was a most shocking surprise. It seems one of Death’s stupidest strokes, for I know of no one whose life-task was begun on a more far-reaching scale, or from whom one expected with greater certainty richer fruit in the ripeness of time…We ran along on very similar lines of interest. He was very profound, subtle, and voluminous, and bound for an intellectual synthesis of things much solider and completer than anyone I know, except perhaps Royce. Well! such is life! all these deaths make what remains here seem strangely insignificant and ephemeral, as if the weight of things, as well as the numbers, was all on the other side.

When James suggested that life’s worth depends on the liver, he tapped into this particular, peculiar spiritual history. Most scholars continue to take James to mean that forming existential meaning is, in a very real sense, up to each of us, that our individual wills are the determining factor in making meaning in a world that continually threatens it. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. For some people, their livers portend truly awful circumstances, and no amount of effort can see them through. When asked the question—“Is life worth living?”—some livers are naturally inclined toward, and then can finally give, but one answer: “No.” James wasn’t resigned to this fact, but he also wasn’t blind to it. The worth of life remains conditional on factors both within and beyond one’s control. The appropriate response to this existential situation is not, at least for James, utter despair, but rather the repeated, ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities. The risk of life—that it turns out to be wholly meaningless—is real, but so too is the reward: the ever-present chance to be partially responsible for its worth.

James’s answer is not about the meaning of life in the abstract. His fundamental question at Holden Chapel was one that is necessarily personal, one that each of us, in our own time and way, can answer before we suffer the fate of all meat sacks. Indeed, I suspect most of us want to answer it rather desperately, but may lack the resources to make a meaningful go of it. Modernity has no shortage of self-help gurus—Joel Osteen, Stephen Covey, Eckhart Tolle, and Deepak Chopra—but on the whole they tend to skirt the precariousness and untidiness of James’s “maybe.” For a long time I too thought this answer was a cop-out, a way of kicking the existential can down the road. But a well-timed encounter with life’s possible meaninglessness led me to a slightly different conclusion, to think that James did something very right, and more than a little brave, on that evening in 1895.

In 2008, I watched my father die. His liver was in bad shape. His esophagus was shot to hell. Saying you have esophageal squamous cell carcinoma is often a very long way of saying you drank too much, which my father did. The same thing that beat up his liver and throat also destroyed his family. I didn’t much like him. So I surprised myself when I accepted my stepmother’s invitation to watch him die at a hospital in Buffalo in the middle of winter. But there he was, swollen hands, puffy face, no breath—something out of Dr. Gross’s clinic. It all seemed like a cruel joke. Maybe life was worth living. But maybe you would live only to die surrounded by a distraught wife and your estranged and dry-eyed sons.

At least James was honest. He could’ve told his audience that life was planned out in advance and that lasting existential meaning was ensured by a benevolent and all-knowing God; that, like Leibniz argued in the seventeenth century, we live in the best of all possible worlds; or that we have a moral duty to live even if it turns out that this world is rotten to the core. He could’ve tried to sugarcoat my trip to Buffalo, to tell me that, despite all appearances, life was necessarily meaningful. In other words, he could’ve lied.

But he didn’t. Instead he played it straight with the YMCA. There is nothing necessary about life. When faced with unshrinking hardships, he told the audience, we’re inclined to believe not in “the old warm notion of a man-loving Deity, [but] that of an awful Power that neither hates nor loves, but rolls all things together meaninglessly to a common doom.” Not even the bucrania can save us. “This,” he continued, “is an uncanny, a sinister, a nightmare view of life, and its peculiar unheimlichkeit, or poisonousness, lies expressly in our holding two things together which cannot possibly agree.” On the one hand, we cling to the hope that our world is both rational and meaningful; on the other, we may eventually come to see that it is neither. We have great expectations for our lives, but we get hacked up and stuffed into the walls of Holden Chapel.

When Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, the unheimlichkeit that James had articulated nearly five decades earlier hadn’t gone away. If anything, it had intensified. For Camus, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and unprecedented urban blight had done very little to mask what James had called the “nightmare view of life.” Unable to reconcile our irrepressible need to care for things in a universe that couldn’t care less, Camus concluded, when he was thirty-nine-years old, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” To face suicide seriously is to face the prospect that death might, in certain cases, be preferable to life. Such a prospect seems completely out of place in our culture. But James and Camus suggested that it shouldn’t be.

There are good reasons to come to terms with frightening questions. Before my trip to Buffalo, I’d often imagined—and occasionally fantasized about—my father’s demise. In my dreams, at the brink of death, he’d finally realize how definitive life actually was, how one could mess it up, squander the opportunity to be deeply and irrevocably responsible. The shadow of death, I imagined, had that sort of power. And so, at the end, he’d talk to me like a father to a son. He would tell me, convince me, that our brief life together hadn’t been a total sham. Of course, none of this happened. When I got to the hospital, he was already largely gone, as silent and unconscious as he’d been for most of my life. There was no great sense of closure, just the painful sense that life might be rather meaningless for some livers.

The scariest thing about death is not the being dead part. At that point, the doctors just roll the gurney out and unplug you. Death isn’t so bad, but the possibility of living a worthless life is beyond terrifying. And that is, I believe, quite possible. So the terror never fully leaves you. But maybe—just maybe—it can be melded into something a bit more hopeful.

For Camus, a philosopher of the maybe like James, the possibility of answering “no” to life’s most important question was omnipresent. He suggested that those who foreclose this fatal possibility tend to also foreclose other possibilities of life. That is, to affirm the meaning of life, without the doubt that James expresses at Holden, is, as Camus put it, “philosophical suicide.” It is to opt out of what the American philosopher John J. McDermott calls “the drama of possibility.”

Before they unplugged my father I’d had no idea how badly a life could go awry. But I also had no idea how much control I still had in its making. Before that point, I’d at least tacitly accepted that life had some intrinsic worth regardless of my actions, so I’d not given my decisions much thought. My father’s death disabused me of my belief in the best of “all possible worlds” but also saved me from a “philosophical suicide” that I’ve come to see as much worse than death.

I know they’re meant to ward off evil spirits, but Holden’s bucrania still haunt me. I’m drawn to them, like one who is drawn to an answer that is both unarguably correct and profoundly difficult to embrace. In the weeks that followed my father’s funeral, I adjusted my daily route so that I could visit the skulls more often. Holden Chapel—like so many ossuaries—is usually quiet and locked. But on a chilly spring morning a few weeks after my father’s death, it wasn’t. I could hear the faint sounds of singing coming from the old brick chapel—an echo, or perhaps a reminder, from James’s time.

Thousands of years ago it wasn’t uncommon to bury the bones of dead things in buildings—for example, in the floors and walls of early structures in the British Isles. It is believed that these remains not only served as safeguards against demons; they also had a very practical function. They were good for the acoustics. As churches became places to sing, the vibration of dead remains amplified the voices of the living. The bones in Holden hadn’t been placed there for the sake of acoustics. Plucked from jails, chopped up by disrespectful students, and pitched down a dry well with a bunch of other rubbish, they rang with a strange mix of the macabre and the spiritual—the sound of maybe.

Months later, I learned that Holden was the home of the Harvard Glee Club who, on that morning, were in the middle of practicing one of Palestrina’s motets, the opening lines of Psalm 42. “Sicut cervus desiderat, fonts, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus”: As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.

The small building practically quivered with the sound.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of the upcoming book, American Philosophy, A Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2016).

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