Home > James H., Literature, Philosophy, Prose > Practical solipsism

Practical solipsism

Is there, perhaps, some truth in solipsism? Beyond our basic ability to empathize with sensations (pleasure, pain, etc.) and basic emotions (happiness in the vulgar sense, annoyance, fear, etc.), do we not lack the ability others as persons, as possessing an open-ended self to which they might be honest? Must we not see them as Cartesian feeling automa­tons?

The unnamed narrator of Henry James’ The Sacred Fount experiences only a ring centered about himself, into and out of which other people, or at least bodies, move. Interaction within this ring is ineluctably hierarchical. Conversation, if it can be so called, is a sadistic power game: the narrator directs his captive in performing the socially acceptable number of somersaults before he lets her ago, or he attempts to keep a man within this ring as long as possible, while the man struggles to—and eventually does—escape.

This is solipsism, a practical solipsism that must be confronted head-on and not theorized away in some dark alley of thought. James’ narrator can no doubt empathize to the extent required for competence in basic etiquette—he does, after all, quite explicitly let his captive go—empathize in the sense described above—but there is no sense of others as they exist for themselves and not for him.

Such a solipsism must be overcome before any conversation is possible.

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This post was prompted by an image that dissipated almost upon arrival, leaving me only with a mood to which I have attempted to be honest.

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