Yeats, Otherness and the Orient

Aesthetic and Spiritual Bearings

by Nicholas Meihuizen (Author)
©2019 Monographs X, 352 Pages


Yeats’s relationships with Otherness and the Orient enabled him to develop his own creative abilities and spiritual understanding in expansive ways. Exotic versions of India, Celtic orientalism, the fervent psychological probings of the nineteenth century (which showed a deep interest in the paranormal), mystical studies aided by such figures as Mohini Chaterjee, Arabist ideas and images, the Japanese Noh, Zen Buddhism, Byzantium, Vedāntic philosophy – all helped the poet to examine and express human interactions with existence that were distinctive in their figuration and underpinnings. Facing Otherness with an extraordinary philosophical and spiritual intensity, he was able to uncover (though never fully or finally anatomize) aspects of the depths of his own being. The Orient also provided him with conceptual and intuitive means to broach humankind’s relation to cosmic order; this resulted in an exploration of the Otherness which underpins existence on quite a remarkable scale, still not fully appreciated by Yeats’s readers. This book seeks to help foster such appreciation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prologue: The Daimon and the Problem of Finitude
  • Chapter 1: Orientalism
  • Chapter 2: Style
  • Chapter 3: Indeterminacy, Otherness and Time
  • Chapter 4: The Daimon and Leo Africanus
  • Chapter 5: Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Derrida and Freud
  • Chapter 6: The Noh
  • Chapter 7: Byzantium and Spiritual Aesthetics
  • Chapter 8: India and Spiritual Discrimination
  • Epilogue: The Continuing Energy of Thought
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


A big thank you to the members of North West University’s Yeats Honours classes over the last few years, including Emile Barnard, Xanya Bester, Nerike Combrink, Walter Doubell, Bella du Toit, Ashley Hambly, Mercia Morris, Darius Sarakis, Elaine Schiel, Juléhan Strauss, Charike Swanepoel, Mishka van der Schyff, Nicole van Huyssteen, and Jansen Vermeulen. Your exciting explorations helped enliven my own thought. For the examples they offer and the inspiration of their conversations, my colleagues and friends engaged in Modernist studies – Etienne Terblanche, Michiel de Lange, James Phelps and François Hugo – a heartfelt thank you. The late Geoffrey Hutchings, poet, scholar and naturalist, was an early and enthusiastic reader of my work on Yeats; he is among those remembered with a glass of muscatel every All Souls’ Night. Also remembered is my mother, the late Phyllis Constance Titherley, who first nurtured my love of Yeats, with her chanting of ‘The Stolen Child’. Lastly, I thank my wife Elizabeth, for her selflessly given intellectual and emotional support.

Grateful acknowledgements are due to the editors of Literator and English Studies in Africa for allowing me to draw on material (somewhat altered) originally published in their pages. I also thank Brill Publishers for allowing me to use ideas which appeared in the first chapter of my Achieving Autobiographical Form (2016).

In recent years, the financial support offered by both the National Research Foundation of South Africa and the North West University Research Unit has enabled me to deliver papers on Yeats in Montreal, Komotini and New York; the experiences were, in different ways, of great value.

I dedicate this book to the memory of Norman Morrissey, inspirational poet and fellow South African Yeatsian (1949–2017). ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


The Daimon and the Problem of Finitude

This book on Yeats’s lifelong engagement with otherness and the Orient includes an exploration of a strange but (in certain of its elements) central Modernist relationship: that between conscious self and a force that lies beneath or beyond conscious awareness. It is an elusive agent, sometimes revealed in dream or semi-wakeful states, or glimpsed in aesthetic creation. Yeats called this agent the Daimon, and (in contradistinction to most contemporary psychological speculation) he believed it to be our autonomous opposite, which bore within itself the weight of all that we are not but desire to be. It is attracted to us through a concrete expression of our ‘lack’:

Because the ghost is simple, the man heterogeneous and confused, they are but knit together when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks, and it may be dreads, and of that only.1

This notion is later theorized in the first version of A Vision, where the Daimon is still accommodated by a mask, indeed, though now the Mask is one of the Four Faculties, or fundamental attributes of individual human life. The Mask is an ideal expression of individual want, chosen by the Will, the Faculty of pure choice; being crafted by such need, it is closely associated with the play of destiny, in accord with an earlier statement from Per Amica Silentia Lunae: ‘the Daimon is our destiny’.2 It contrasts with the ← 1 | 2 → Faculty of the Body of Fate, ‘all that is forced on us from without’, all that stems from chance, not choice.3

An early evocation of the Daimon in Yeats’s poetry occurs when the persona Ille in the poem ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ (proem to Per Amica) declares:

I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

And again:

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters, disclose
All that I seek.4

Yeats illustrates the antinomic influence of the Daimon in our lives by drawing on his actress friend, Mrs Patrick Campbell, in a humorous, but sharp-eyed delineation of character transformed by a mask, which is also, here, a sly disclosure of his and the audience’s projected need. Mrs Campbell achieves dramatic freedom through her anti-self mask; the audience, suspending disbelief, subscribes to widespread romantic vision and willingly deludes itself as regards the actual woman. Implicit in Yeats’s account, then, is the fact that the mask is a somewhat indeterminate mechanism, which might meet the needs of an authentic force from beyond ourselves ← 2 | 3 → that can bring balance to our lives, or which might simply be the product of a will to believe:

I know a famous actress who, in private life, is like the captain of some buccaneer ship holding his crew to good behaviour at the mouth of a blunderbuss, and upon the stage she excels in the representation of women who stir to pity and to desire because they need our protection, and is most adorable as one of those young queens imagined by Maeterlinck who have so little will, so little self, that they are like shadows sighing at the edge of the world.5

How do we tell the difference between the intervention in our lives of that which truly comes from beyond ourselves, and apparent intervention based on our need to believe in such a possibility? Yeatsian Daimons, Oriental mise en scènes (ranging from Fez to Mount Meru) and linguistic constructions (the last two of which might be seen as masks),6 and the problems associated with Daimonic presence,7 are the fine binding threads (sometimes explicitly noted, at other times not) running through this book.

This Prologue, for the sake of initial contextualization, outlines the important cultural and intellectual forces present at the time Yeats was developing his own cognitive, spiritual and aesthetic capabilities and interests. First, it looks at the hold of positivism over our very means of understanding the world. Perception and reason, denied access to a metaphysics premised on spiritual expansiveness, are confined within a conceptual area marked by repetitions of the same. One example of such is the unconscious, a contiguous yet totally foreign otherness (because beyond conscious awareness), which encodes within itself in differing ways (linguistic and imagistic) various salient inner elements of our lives, such as desires and fears. For Yeats, as for Jung, engaging with what seems to emerge from this ← 3 | 4 → most proximate otherness could lead, through defining differences, to a heightened understanding of one’s own existence. The topos of repetition manifests itself in other ways that are briefly discussed in two different sections, the first temporal in focus, the second spiritual. The temporal section contains references to the Foucauldian Other, the Nietzschean Dionysian alter ego, the Nazi reification of the Aryan ideal, Bakhtinian dialogism, the sense of otherness in nineteenth century Anglo-Irish auto-exoticism, the existential bifurcations of Modernism (where, as in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the permanent past exists in tension with the transient present), and the repetition of figures and experiences more generally apparent in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. The spiritual section relates Yeatsian preoccupations to the constructive contraries of William Blake, and to the phenomenon of nineteenth-century supernaturalism that fascinated philosophers and psychologists, William James prominent among them, and that also included, for example, Theodor Flournoy, Gustav Fechner and Jung. Yeats and his wife George, in their sessions with spirit Communicators and Guides which informed the writing of A Vision, were certainly a part of this world. As this book later examines in some detail, Yeats was earlier provoked into a gruelling, imaginative and ultimately beneficial ‘interchange’ by the Daimonic figure of the supposed spirit of Leo Africanus. A final section of the Prologue introduces a major related thematic strand of the book: in his agon with materialism Yeats also turns to the East, to explore Celtic Orientalism, Arab lore, the Japanese Noh, Buddhism, Byzantine culture and Vedic philosophy; he does so under the guidance of (and inspired by) such figures as Mohini Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, D. T. Suzuki and Shri Purohit Swāmi.


That Yeats engages with the Daimon at a time when Michel Foucault’s ‘analytic of finitude’ is at its height, is hardly an accident. This positivist analytic displaces the previously ubiquitous metaphysics of infinity attendant on earlier belief systems by situating ‘the discovery of finitude not within the thought of the infinite, but at the very heart of those contents that are given, by a finite act of knowing, as the concrete forms of finite ← 4 | 5 → existence’.8 The notion is captured in more immediate terms by another Irish poet, Louis MacNeice, in ‘Bagpipe Music’ (with its deliberately staged dismissal of Yeatsian Oriental esotericism):

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.9

The analytic incorporates an initial break with earlier patterns of belief based on spiritual continuity throughout existence; further, it breaks with Neoclassical linear representations of reality, where organisms are represented by, for instance, classificatory scientific tables, with their subtle imposition of apparently inevitable patterns of horizontal contiguity regarding our knowledge of the world. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Foucault affirms, horizontal representation loses its cogency as the principal means of understanding the world, or of acting as the episteme of that time. Instead, a new episteme emerges, based on a vertical incorporation of the very material of existence. It is as if the world is no longer understood in terms of a spiritual underpinning or Neoclassical representations of external resemblance and difference (with no sense of the gap between the power to depict such representations and the actual structure of the world), but, rather, according to active participation in the structure and growth of things in the world, organicism, as exemplified (most obviously) in the thought of Darwin. Its limits are the limits of existing structures themselves, hence Foucault’s emphasis on finitude. The wondrous microcosmos, akin to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, with arms outstretched and legs akimbo, which reflects within human form the very universe, becomes the corpse under John MacDonald’s sofa in MacNeice’s burlesque deployment ← 5 | 6 → of this analytic – a source of present materialist understanding, but confined to a limited area indeed, and epitomized by the grotesque commodification of body parts.

The analytic of finitude has as its first characteristic the fact of repetition, where ‘from one end of experience to the other, finitude answers itself’. Foucault writes of a ‘vast but narrow space’, indicating the immensity of the material universe but also its conceptual contraction in post-Enlightenment times. Materialism is self-enclosing, to the point where even experience previously associated with inwardness is seen to reiterate concrete expressions: ‘we shall see in succession the transcendental repeat the empirical, the cogito repeat the unthought, the return of the origin repeat its retreat’.10 If what is before us is all there is, it must inform everything that is (an existential position more painstakingly worked out earlier in the twentieth century by Emmanuel Levinas, as we will see when we examine his analysis of the relationship between self, time, and alterity in Chapter 3). Hence, our idea of the transcendental cannot be constructed from something beyond – the Platonic realm of ideas, say – but must repeat our experience of empirical existence.11

At one point Foucault discusses in more detail the ‘unthought’; this concept – surely allied to the Freudian unconscious (with one significant and very Yeatsian difference) and its development out of the suppositions of Fichte and Schelling12 – allows him to arrive at his notion of the ‘Other’: human existence has within and without itself ‘an element of darkness, an apparently inert density in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught’. The ‘unthought’ ‘is not lodged in man like a shrivelled up nature or a stratified history; it is, in relation to man, the Other’. This ‘Other’, in Foucault’s view, ‘is not only a ← 6 | 7 → brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality’.13 It is seen as ‘the blurred projection of what man is in his truth’, thus suggesting a potentially complete self, not quite yet in focus. But as an extension of this, it is also ‘a preliminary ground upon which man must collect himself and recall himself in order to attain his truth’. Is the ‘unthought’, again, the intuitive, unconscious self, who emerges partially in our dreams at night, or through unreflective behaviour, a shadow self, as in Jung, whom we might reintegrate with waking consciousness through a process of individuation? Once more, the suggestion is certainly present. A Yeatsian Daimonic engagement is also evident; Foucault writes: ‘though the double may be close, it is alien, and the role, the true undertaking, of thought will be to bring it as close to itself as possible’.14 In short, the sense of oneself as an existing being depends on the awareness of an autonomous force-field (and here is the Yeatsian link), centred in otherness so as to enable a proper estimation of self, not contaminated by preconceptions or idealizations, or anything else that might compromise the experience of authentic selfhood. This is a dramatic enough evocation of otherness, but is somewhat elliptical, and will need, again, in a later chapter, to be buttressed by Levinas’s more penetrating and detailed exposition.

It seems to me, then, despite the obvious differences, that the Yeatsian Daimon, also thought of as an autonomous agent, is a form of Foucault’s perceived Other, the ‘close’ yet ‘alien’ ‘double’, who charts the indefinable ‘unthought’ within and seemingly without us, conditioned by the inevitable ‘lack’ and ‘dread’ which must attend what is just beyond reach, but ‘upon which man must collect himself and recall himself in order to attain his truth’. The Daimon provides the same function. The most obvious difference is that the Yeatsian double is mobilized as a reaction against the analytic of finitude, not to confirm its inevitable presence through repetition. Yeats, though something of an empiricist in his approach to ← 7 | 8 → matters which interested him (he was, in his youth, ‘fascinated by biology and zoology’,15 and might well have turned to the sciences for a profession had he so chosen), came to experience an extreme anxiety in the face of scientific positivism, an anxiety he ascribed in particular to the sense of fragmentation – readily enough connected to the analytic of finitude – springing from the thought of the followers of figures such as John Tyndall and T. H. Huxley (whom he once admired).16 Daimonic philosophy, in the face of this fragmentation, offered him a promise of existential unity.

Through the agency of Daimonic need, for example, Yeatsian spiritual reciprocity does indeed repeat empirical existence. But in positing interaction that extends beyond the mortal limits of individual human life, Yeats denies the definitive, exclusive value of the finitude postulated by Foucault and Levinas. Thus, though this abstruse matter warrants more thought, let me point out for the time being that if Yeats, involved in a qualified way with a facet of the analytic of finitude, exhibits aspects of Modernism, he is what Fredric Jameson calls an ‘anti-modern Modernist’. Jameson tells of how the ‘various modernisms’ have incorporated ‘violent reactions against modernization’ as well as replicating its ‘values and tendencies’ through a ‘formal insistence on novelty, innovation, the transformation of older forms, therapeutic iconoclasm and the processing of new (aesthetic) wonder-working technologies’. This reaction has been against industrialization, rationalism, an over-emphasis on work-place efficiency, electrification, assembly line production, ‘parliamentary democracy’, and ‘cheap newspapers’. At the turn of the century anti-modern Modernism often involved ‘a new wave of anti-positivist, spiritualistic, irrational reactions against triumphant enlightenment progress or reason’.17 Yeats, however (to qualify any simple application of Jameson to his thought), does not protest against modernization in a superficial way, but questions its very foundations. He writes, for example, of authors ‘struggling all over ← 8 | 9 → Europe, though not often with philosophic understanding of their struggle, against that picturesque and declamatory way of writing, against that “externality” which a time of scientific and political thought has brought into literature’.18 It was Yeats’s initial enthusiastic support for Darwin and Huxley which did provide him with a ‘philosophic understanding’ of the basis of contemporary ‘externality’.19

In discussing the Daimon, then, it is appropriate, and consistent with a reading of Yeats, to do so from both empirical and spiritual perspectives. In the first case, as we have gathered, the Daimon can surely be understood as a manifestation of pressures within the zeitgeist (local and general). Yeats clearly incorporates stimuli at the core of contemporary theoretical and cultural speculations. Thus, in psychological terms, the Daimon might be viewed as an agent of individuation, enabling ‘the transit from a one-sided typological orientation to a state in which one’s capacities for introversion (thinking) and extraversion (feeling) become equipotentially developed’.20 Nietzsche might also be evoked; Patricia Waugh recalls Nietzsche’s reaction against the ‘grand narrative’ of the Enlightenment, which implied that the self was a stable centre of consciousness, readily able to accept such foundationalist loci of unimpeachable ‘truth’ as God, History, Science and Reason.21 Nietzsche launched two seemingly contradictory broadsides against the Enlightenment: his (significantly) doubling concepts of, first, the instinctual level of the Dionysian alter ego, and, second, of the aesthetic recreation of the self. As Waugh points out, these concepts are not, in fact, contradictory, because the new self that is aesthetically recreated cannot simply be willed into being by the monoglossic intellect,22 it has to emerge in an instinctual (Dionysian) way, as an embodiment of all that ← 9 | 10 → is opposite to the rule and measurement of the civilized self.23 Nietzsche’s privileging of aesthetic creation, according (for instance) with Pater and Wilde’s aestheticism, has a distinctively Yeatsian ring.

Nietzschean doubling also had less fortunate connotations, if we think of the crudely totalizing and monologic prescriptiveness inherent in the Nazi reification and commodification of the concept of the Nietzschean Superman (which might also be seen as Daimonic in nature).24 Fascist negative doubling is also apparent in the constitution of Aryan selfhood, which relies on the exclusion of the non-Aryan, transformed, in Adorno’s terms, into an ‘opposing race, the embodiment of the negative principle’.25 Yeats was once briefly attracted to what Roy Foster calls ‘para-fascism’, through the Irish Blueshirts.26 Yeats’s abstract, philosophical version of fascism had roots in Vico, Croce, and Gentile, where individualism was preserved, the past honoured, and hatred condemned.27 He supported this interpretation of fascism by observing, ‘there is something in man, which lying deeper than intellect, is not affected by the flux of history’. The philosophy of fascism does not, in the end, provide the appropriate masks. It is not ‘a solution of the antinomies which are insoluble by the human intellect, though they are solved in the heroic life, in the saintly life, in the work of art’.28 As those final phrases indicate, his fascination with Italian philosophical thought was for the sake of a different form of doubling ← 10 | 11 → altogether, to do with a Renaissance tendency to adopt the anti-self masks of Classical heroes or Christ.29 Fascist doubling, based on exclusion, is only interested in the single voice of a self-serving, bogusly affirmed elite. Yeats is always wary of excluding the Other; indeed, from the point of view of his esoteric studies, he cannot.

Yeats’s need to incorporate the voice of the Other links with Bakhtinian dialogism, and in this model a two-way traffic is involved.30 To look at one instance, despite the connotations of the title, ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’, the relationship between self and double is by no means a matter of the domination of the all too willing and frail self by the masterful Other; the Daimon depends upon the self to attain some sense of completion (‘for man and Daimon feed the hunger in one another’s hearts’). It is this fact that underlines the inherent dialogism in Yeats’s understanding of the Daimon (more fully examined in Chapter 4). Yeatsian dialogism is not simply a poetic device, subject to monoglossia; it involves a fundamental engagement with the voice of an Other, what Bakhtin would call, in the case of the disparate voices in certain novels, heteroglossia. In Yeats heteroglossia takes on a psychic significance, through which the completion of self depends on the opposition posed by a distinctly antithetical voice.31 Yeatsian dialogism, function of a multiplicity of possible selves – as the ‘Anima Hominis’ (the human soul) becomes permeated by the ‘Anima Mundi’ (the world soul, or collective unconscious)32 – is in essence, I would argue, also anticipatory of contemporary theoretical and philosophical positions which seek to counteract the notion of existential isolation. The Yeatsian cosmogony, ← 11 | 12 → it is true, is based upon a model of cyclicality, conditioned by repetition that could be linked to the limitations of finitude. But the combination of elements involved in each large cycle in this cosmogony, however often the cycle is repeated, makes it impossible for the specific contents to be merely duplicated. Yeats is committed to polyvalence, which undercuts the sense of mechanistic instrumentalism that might inform any simplistic reading of his neo-Viconian cyclicality. Yeats’s gyres, ‘turning and turning’, keep on passing through the same phases of the moon, but never in exactly the same way. Yeatsian cyclicality and the Yeatsian double (concepts which involve both repetition and opposition) are thus, with their continual shifts of perception, consistent with the type of interchange underlying Bakhtin’s notions. This is not to contest along with Richard Rorty an essentialist understanding of transcendent ‘truth’.33 For the Yeatsian eternal return, notwithstanding its debt to the forces of contingency, is yet qualified by the presence of the transcendental ‘Thirteenth Cone’, which, in terms taken from the poem ‘Solomon and the Witch’, represents that melding of ‘Chance’ and ‘Choice’ that can deliver us from the cycle of existence with all its fluctuations and imprisoning elements.34 However, the Thirteenth Cone’s operations, too, are not predictable or fixed.35

Also very important are the existential bifurcations apparent in the whole edifice of nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish occultism, as detailed by Roy Foster in Words Alone.36 The specifically Anglo-Irish nature of this phenomenon is due to various reasons, such as the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, a sense of ceremonial impoverishment in the face of what Foster calls ‘Catholic magic’ (the rituals and objects of the Catholic church), its offering a means of identifying with the deeper psychic reaches of a country that the Anglo-Irish felt was home despite their supposed ← 12 | 13 → ‘settler’ alienness,37 and the example of a tradition of involvement which included influential writers and thinkers such as Charles Maturin, William Allingham, Sheridan Le Fanu, William Carleton, and Lady Wilde. Seamus Deane, in Strange Country, offers a linguistic perspective on occultism as a means of affirming one’s link with the nation: ‘occultism is in Yeats especially closely intertwined with the rediscovery of an Ireland that, to a large extent, spoke a different language, the Irish he could never master’. Like the Irish language, it is ancient, mainly oral, belonging ‘to the world before the onset of print culture had been preserved’. Its orality made it conserve a ‘special knowledge, as arcane in its substance as in its mode of transmission’. Also, like Irish, occultism had nearly been ‘erased’ by modernity, ‘but still retained a vestigial existence, uninfected by Progress but not unaffected by it’; and, like the language, it had undergone fragmentation and loss. Yeats was among the few who ‘could speak this arcane language’, and of it, with authority. Deane adds, wryly: ‘Occultism is perhaps the only foreign language Yeats ever learned with any degree of fluency’.38 Nevertheless, the dual citizenship occultism offered was certainly empowering. Deane’s interesting conclusion (he thinks of the weight of tradition) is that when the few conversant with the ‘language’ did speak of it, it was ‘of a world that was haunted by permanence as much as was the modern world by transience and fashion’.39 Terry Eagleton sees this coexistence of two worlds as Modernist in nature, as (considering the implications of such works as Ulysses and The Wasteland) the time of Modernism ‘is a curiously suspended medium’, where ‘the laws of orderly narrative are lifted’, with the result that time ‘seems at once fantastically speeded up and fixated upon certain images dredged from the depths of some ancient collective memory’.40 In ← 13 | 14 → the above instances one term or quality of existence is shadowed, in antinomic fashion, by another.

That aspects of doubling are widespread in the field of literature is pointed out by W. J. McCormack, in his introduction to Uncle Silas. He shows how Le Fanu’s reference to the pale, perambulating father who emerges from the darkness in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre Tombe applies to both Austin Ruthyn and his apparent opposite, his brother Silas. McCormack notes that the ‘character in duality’ is found throughout the nineteenth century, as in the ‘warring values of history’ in Sir Walter Scott: ‘Saxon and Norman, Covenanter and Royalist, Jacobite and Hanoverian’. He also refers to the ‘character pairings’ in Dickens, such as Miss Havisham and Estella, and Jaggers and Wemmick, and, in Stevenson, the ‘drastic Manicheanism of Jekyll and Hyde’. McCormack calls this type of polarizing repetition ‘a central tenet and symbol of romantic psychology’.41 I would suggest, further, that ‘romantic psychology’ provides its own fictional versions of repeated Others as a subliminal reaction to a sense of pervasive finitude. Foucault too (if in a more rarefied way) considers doubling tendencies in fiction, but in Modernist fiction: literature, first with surrealism, ‘then, and more and more purely, with Kafka, Bataille, and Blanchot […] posited itself as experience: as experience of death (and in the element of death), of unthinkable thought (and its inaccessible presence)’.42 Modernist literature, in destabilizing accepted foundations, gives form to the ‘experience’ of otherness.

In Yeats’s own work the play of binaries underlying otherness is apparent in antithetical characterization. Among Yeats’s personae, Sheba’s centripetal intensity is the obverse of Maud Gonne’s centrifugal dispersion, both intellectually and sexually,43 while the aged crone Crazy Jane is the antithesis of Helen in terms of the latter’s beauty, youth and breeding.44 The persona of the credulous ‘Yeats’ himself, forever seeking the truth in ancient texts, is scorned by Owen Aherne and Michael Robartes, also ← 14 | 15 → anti-self figures, who laugh to see him burning the midnight oil in his Romantic tower (authentically antique, inauthentically self-conscious), while they, beggarly figures roaming the countryside, totally comprehend in all its alleged ‘simplicity’ the system he so laboriously seeks.45 In ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’, the dialogism between the personae Hic and Ille conflates dramatic dialogue with lyric form, in itself questioning to a small degree the rigid genre delimitations as posed in Bakhtin’s characterization of the monoglossic nature of poetry.46 But Hic and Ille appear to be two sides of the poet, are the poet doubled, in fact (though their ‘voices’ are distinct), and, through their antithetical viewpoints, dramatize a conflict between an ideal of sincerity and the assumption of a mask based on all one is not. Though the dialogue is dominated by Ille, who upholds the mask, his ascendance was not automatically conceded by Yeats. As a youthful poet, he had been much under the influence of Wordsworth, where no mediation between self and nature seemed necessary.47 But now, following Nietzsche, to adopt the Wildean mask seems a more appropriate strategy. Wordsworth’s creative powers, after all, had gone into decline in his old age. Had he cultivated a mask created by his desire for what was beyond his reach he would not merely have ‘withered into eighty years’,48 he would have been bolstered by a sense of otherness beyond the confines of his own settled understanding. Hic’s type of sincerity is based on a clearly demarcated (and delimited) sense of self; Ille, conversely, is poised for Daimonic intervention, is open to an influx of the Other – he anticipates at each moment the coming of the Other, and this in itself begins to destabilize centripetally located selfhood.49 In short, we cannot help but notice an intrinsic repetitive complicity ← 15 | 16 → among the components of the poet’s aesthetic universe, in keeping with the general tendencies noted.


Yeats’s supernaturalism was decried in his own era, and is in little better standing today, though critics are now generally taking his ‘system’ more seriously.50 How is this supernaturalism to be incorporated into a present-day appreciation of the poet? Must readers (as they have in the past) divorce their esteem for the poet from their awareness of the gullible believer? A bridge between material and spiritual concerns in Yeats is necessary, and an obvious initial figure to turn to is William Blake, who, in writing of ‘the Real Man the Imagination’,51 naturalized spiritual force in a way that deeply impressed the young Yeats.52 Together with Edwin Ellis, Yeats in his early twenties edited a substantial edition of the works of Blake, and provided detailed commentaries on Blake’s prophetic books. Though Yeats and Ellis’s interpretation seems at times almost as obscure as their author, it draws on Neoplatonic traditions of thought entirely compatible with an understanding of Blake, as Kathleen Raine has demonstrated.53 Yeats’s interest in Blake, indeed, also had an Anglo-Irish facet to it, through the notable presence of Swedenborg in nineteenth-century Ascendancy thought, apparent, for instance, in Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas,54 and also in Lady Wilde’s unfinished translation of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell.55

Blake thus became fused in Yeats’s mind with his study of theosophical texts, the cabala, spiritualism, mediumship, and magic, to emerge as ← 16 | 17 → his ‘master’.56 Later, filtered through Nietzsche, Blake was an analogue for a new self. Nietzsche had pronounced: ‘Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum “know thyself”, but as if there hovered before them the commandment: will a self and thou shalt become a self’.57 In similar vein, ‘Myself must I remake’, Yeats wrote towards the end of his life, ‘Till I am Timon and Lear/ Or that William Blake/ Who beat upon the wall/ Till truth obeyed his call’.58

Certainly, to play upon this notion of master and disciple (the disciple being one who would double the qualities of the master, and so become a new self), ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’, revisits through its premise the poet’s early relationship with Blake by transferring masterful agency to the Daimon. The phrase ‘Ego dominus tuus’ (‘I am your master’) is taken from Dante’s Vita Nuova, where it is uttered in the poet’s dream state by a visionary being who embodies his desire. On awakening, Dante, under the enlarging influence of this Other, finds himself in a suitable frame of mind to create his art, ‘for my soul was wholly given to thoughts of this most gracious person’.59 Similarly, as we have seen, the Yeatsian Daimon is a force that permeates the self, and, through the agency of desire, enables completion of that self’s partial mind.60 This rather neat conclusion, however, belies the fact that trying to understand the nature of the Daimon took Yeats and George many frustrating and baffling sessions working on the automatic script that underlay the writing of A Vision. One gathers that the exact nature of the Daimon cannot be plumbed by conscious intellect; it is grounded in the ‘unthought’. George Mills Harper quotes an ‘exasperated’ Yeats’s own ‘descriptive definition’ of the Daimon, written down after the spirit ‘Thomas’ – in the face of the rationalizations of psychology and, ← 17 | 18 → indeed, paranormal research61 – had denied that ‘the Daimon is the subliminal in man’: ‘Daimons are conscious with a consciousness distinct from ours, this consciousness is not spiritual & so not logical. Its expression is by sequence. Our instinct arouses that part of it which is in contact with our [Physical Body] by contrary & that portion which is in contact with [Celestial Body] by correspondence’.62 The ‘definition’, with its interplay of contrary and correspondent energies related to individual instinct, alerts us to the indeterminate nature of the matter at hand, of which we must always be aware – where expectations linked to categories of thought such as ‘subliminal’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘logical’ do not apply – and also prepares us for the subtleties involved in Yeats’s questioning of the Daimonic Leo Africanus, examined in Chapter 4; it is necessary to approach such manifestations of alterity by means of cautious questioning rather than deliberate affirmation. Yet caution should not entirely displace affirmation; as William James argued and Yeats was always to believe, ‘the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge […]. Be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true’.63

James, indeed, whose ‘philosophy and psychical research are equally committed to the reconciliation of science and religion’, offers us another bridge to Yeatsian supernaturalism.64 Matt ffytche, in The Foundation of the Unconscious, writes of the deep interest in parapsychology during the ← 18 | 19 → nineteenth century, an interest shared by James. He tells of ‘the sheer weight of recorded details of instances of prophecy or clairvoyance achieved in somnambulistic or magnetic trances emerging out of Germany’s rural hinterlands’. These materials were collected and discussed in various journals; their cumulative impact ‘left their mark on the study of psychology in Germany right into the mid century and beyond’. Of particular interest in relation to Yeats, who was familiar with his work, was Gustav Fechner. In 1836 he produced a book, The Little Book of Life After Death, which was reissued with an introduction by James in 1904.65 Referring to the thoughts and impressions which seem to come to us from beyond ourselves, Fechner unhesitatingly says, ‘These are the visitations of spirits, which think and act in [us] from another centre than [our] own’. Fechner observed that the influence of such spirits was most apparent in ‘abnormal conditions (clairvoyance or mental disorder)’, when people passively receive ‘what flows into us from them’. According to ffytche, ‘At the end of the century, such studies, which attempted to draw reports of the paranormal into the sphere of scientific psychology, received new impetus via figures such as Theodor Flournoy and C. G. Jung’.66 The Society for Psychical Research, comprising such prominent academics as Professors Henry Sidgwick and J. P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and James himself, was engaged in the diligent monitoring of all paranormal cases presented to it. It brought an open mind to bear on the subject, reflected in James’s words in his essay ‘What Psychical Research Has Accomplished’:

Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to […]. Repugnant as the mystical style of philosophizing may be (especially when self-complacent), there is no sort of doubt that it goes with a gift for meeting with ← 19 | 20 → certain kinds of phenomenal experience. The writer of these pages has been forced in the past few years to this admission, and he now believes that he who will pay attention to the facts of the sort dear to mystics, while reflecting upon them in academic-scientific ways, will be in the best possible position to help philosophy.67

The Society employed diligent researchers and investigators, such as Edmund Gurney, Richard Hodgson and Mrs Sidgwick. It was Richard Hodgson, in fact, who had exposed Madame Blavatsky to charges of fraud.68 Yeats, though hardly as credulous about apparent paranormal spirit visitation as is sometimes thought, was more inclined to believe in the various phenomena of the séance room than these investigators. One such visitation, related to the poet, enables us to introduce, very briefly, Yeatsian Orientalism, to be more extensively examined in Chapter 1.


X, 352
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Yeats Orientalism Otherness Alterity Aesthetics Spirituality
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 352 pp.

Biographical notes

Nicholas Meihuizen (Author)

Nicholas Meihuizen teaches English at North-West University in South Africa. Apart from Yeats, his research interests include Heaney, Camoes, South African fiction and poetry and the Romantics, as various essay and book publications attest. One of the top ten Humanities researchers on his campus over a number of years, he has received numerous travel and research grants from his institution and the National Research Foundation of South Africa and has supervised theses on topics as varied as Yeats, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Mary Oliver, online poetry, digital gaming, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Zimbabwean novels, and Peter Carey.


Title: Yeats, Otherness and the Orient
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363 pages