What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Varieties
of Religious Experience

by William James

Field-Tested by Jessa Crispin

in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Within an hour of landing in Buenos Aires, my already shaky relationship with a poet was over. His blog announced his sexual acts with a girl whose name was two letters different from my own, along with a declaration of his Looking For Love. And 48 hours after that, a bank error eradicated my checking account, and I was left in a strange country for a month with $300 in cash.

Suddenly, cute, little novels about cute, little 20-somethings with anxiety disorders did not feel weighty enough. I pulled out William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience and took it to Viejo Indecente, a dark bar in a sketchy neighborhood, where I would order beer and the beautiful bartender Ernesto would bring me limeade. James spoke to my distress: “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!”

I had expected something opaque and weighty, and instead I found an immensely charming, and readable, book. I certainly felt like one of James' sick souls. I started to curse my atheist upbringing for the first time, thinking at least if I had been raised Catholic, I could remember which saint was supposed to protect travelers and pray to him.

And so it is with most of us: a little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.

Nelson, Viejo's manager, asked me when I first pulled out the book, “Sasha” — as I was nicknamed because Jessa “is not a real name” — “why are you reading this book on your vacation?” “Because all of my money has disappeared and my boyfriend fucked someone else.” The next day, I showed up at my usual time, and Nelson presented me with a steak, bleeding all over the plate, and a pile of fried potatoes. That steak, or sausage with sauerkraut, or fried egg sandwiches, was there for me every night, and so, with the help of the bar staff and William James, I made it back to Chicago without losing my mind.

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut. She currently resides in Chicago.

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