By: Julia Lee Barclay-Morton
August 18, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, delivering brief remarks on mottos, mantras, speeches, slogans, and other words to live by. Series edited by Adam McGovern.


Image by Hilma af Klint; photo by the author

In Praise of the Unadapted

“There are infinitely more things ‘unadapted’ to each other in this world than there are things ‘adapted’; infinitely more things with irregular relations than with regular relations between them. But we look for the regular kind of thing exclusively, and ingeniously discover and preserve it in our memory. It accumulates with other regular kinds, until the collection of them fills our encyclopaedias. Yet all the while between and around them lies an infinite anonymous chaos of objects that no one ever thought of together, of relations that never yet attracted our attention.” — William James

As if to illustrate his point, I found this quotation in an obscure collection of James’ essays on Pragmatism in a used bookstore in Brockville, Ontario where I was browsing while working on a stage text based in part on his Varieties of Religious Experience.

James was part-philosopher and part-psychologist, something possible in the Gilded Age before everything was siphoned into distinct subcategories, so his insights are grounded in both intellect and experience. While here he is focused on what he is referring to as “objects” and “things,” I think it is possible to extrapolate past mere ways of categorizing the material world into how one categorizes one’s own life and experiences, including emotions and ideas.

If you scroll through your phone, you are given headlines based on an algorithm of what you have searched for before (and also what you say and email to people in theoretically private conversations that only the most naïve among us can believe are actually private). Your experience is curated, so you have to actively intervene to find something outside whatever narrow box has been delineated for you, but the chances of happening upon something random, that never yet attracted our attention, are slim to none.

While James is talking about encyclopedias and traditional education and would probably be aghast at the level of curation now, the principle remains the same. (Incidentally, Thoreau was concerned about the distraction of receiving mail and reading newspapers.) I think what James’ insight from the turn of the last century offers is a suggestion to become aware of how limited our experience is when systematized by programming and standardization, so we can be open to, and see, a vast array of relations that have never before captured our attention.

I created a personal website inspired by this quote ( before I had even discovered one of the drivers of my desire to hear and amplify voices and experiences that are usually overlooked, ignored, misunderstood, suppressed or unloved (within or without): I am autistic. (Surprise!) I was diagnosed last year at age 57. The diagnosis has been the most liberating event of my life. I now understand why I have always experienced the world askew from the norm, processing sensory experience, feelings, and thoughts in a very different way, which made me feel like a broken toy with a wonky viewfinder and missing heart.

Of course it is now tempting to see everything within this new frame, which can become its own system. I point to my neurodiversity here because it’s a reason this quotation resonated so strongly with an artistic mission which, even before this knowledge, was engaged with seeing what is not obvious. A common attribute of many autistics is seeing patterns in what appears to most people to be random chaos. This is most likely because we retain all the synapses in our brains; they are not “pruned” as we get older, which is the so-called normal pattern. This unpruned garden of synapses can create both chaos when overwhelmed, and also the recognition of such intense beauty of connections in nature, art or sometimes simply ideas, that it can make me cry with joy.

Some believe James might also have been autistic, but it’s generally a dicey proposition to diagnose people in retrospect. Regardless, he did have an insight that implies the possibility of seeing outside the narrow parameters of codified, accepted knowledge, which can offer a view of the world that is more layered and beautiful and rich than one can possibly imagine when scrolling through our phones seeking to find a way to fit into increasingly smaller boxes to lasso acceptance or safety. For this, I am grateful to William James. In the parlance of our day I feel so seen.


BLURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Adam McGovern | Ran Xia on BLACK CROW BELIEFS | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons on LEFT-CORNER BRICK | Andrea Diaz on JOY IS RESISTANCE | Lynn Peril on TO THINE OWN SELF | Miranda Mellis on THE FUTURE IS PASSÉ | Bishakh Som on LET THE WEIRDNESS IN | Lucy Sante on FLAUBERT’S PERFECT WORD | Stefene Russell on CRYSTAL SETS | Crystal Durant on LIFE IS A BANQUET | Adam McGovern on EVERY MINUTE AN OCEAN | Josh Glenn on LUPUS LUPUM NON MORDET | Heather Quinlan on SHUT UP, HE EXPLAINED | Adrienne Crew on WATCH YOUR PENNIES | Art Wallace on COME ON AND GIVE A CHEER | Julia Lee Barclay-Morton on WILLIAM JAMES, UNADAPTED | Christopher-Rashee Stevenson on TO EACH HIS OWN | Nikhil Singh on ILLUMINATE OR DISSIPATE? | Mimi Lipson on CHEAP FOOD TASTES BETTER | Kahle Alford on NOT GONNA CRACK | Michele Carlo on YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT | Marguerite Dabaie on WALKING ON WATER | Raymond Nat Turner on TRYIN’ AND TRANEIN’ | Bob Laine on WHEN YOU GROW UP | Fran Pado on THE SMILEY EMOJI | Deborah Wassertzug on PLACING YOUR BETS. PLUS: BLURB SERIES CODA by Lisa Levy.