Saturday, November 3, 2018

An Astrology of A Vision I

A Vision is grounded in the esoteric and occult traditions. For many literary scholars and readers of Yeats, it is their only acquaintance with this complex area of thought and publishing. For quite a few occultists it is their only brush with the work and life of W. B. Yeats, though most read a little further into his work and interests.
The problem for both groups is that A Vision is a highly atypical work — atypical of occult writing and atypical of Yeats — but quite characteristic enough of whatever is "the other side" to be weird and off-putting. Literary students who are out of sympathy with this aspect of Yeats's interests can generally get by with a limited understanding of the gyres and the cycles of history, drawn from digested summaries and extracts. Those with occult interests are quite likely to meet the material in digested form too, as a diluted form of lunar astrology and, if they broach the original work, to find that it does not really present the system they expected, at least not in a way that they are familiar with. It makes few connections with other occult traditions, and anyone who pays attention to what Yeats says will realize fairly early on that, for all its talk of sun and moon, there is no actual link with the movements of sun and moon in the heavens.

If we are looking at A Vision's affinities with other more traditional areas of occultism and possible applications of its system in other fields (astrology, tarot, Cabala, oracles, I Ching, etc.), the book itself offers few leads. The automatic script gives a few brief possibilities—an exchange about the Cabalistic Tree of Life on the wheel, mention of the Mansions of the Moon, a question about numerology, a possible reference to the tarot—but these do not lead much further.

This should be surprising. The Yeatses had both been involved in the huge syncretic enterprise of the Golden Dawn / Stella Matutina with its emphasis on bringing all aspects of magical knowledge into a single system with elaborate schemes of correspondence, linking all fields particularly through the central symbol of the Tree of Life. Yet the Yeatses do not seem to have spent much time seeking associations between the system that was emerging from their collaboration and the traditions they had studied. It is not as if such links didn't matter to them: Yeats went so far as to invent two elaborate contexts that his system derived from, one in Renaissance Europe and another in the Caliphate of Baghdad. And the revised edition of A Vision opens the book proper ("Book I: The Great Wheel") with appeals to more than twenty different names within the space of three pages.

Some of those who study A Vision become convinced that there must be lost or destroyed material, and it is certainly possible that some schemes have disappeared. What the automatic script also makes very evident is that the Yeatses talked about many aspects of their system between themselves, and it is possible that some things were so evident to them that they did not bother setting them down. There are enough tantalizing comments and references to indicate that they had a far broader range of applications than appears in the published book, or in their papers — planetary, talismanic, and ritual references, comments on scents, tarot, horary charts of the heavens. It is also clear that they treated astrology in particular as a parallel system—there were numerous points of intersection but this did not mean that they sought to make their system into a form of astrology.

Yet Yeats himself notes that his instructors:
insist that a man of, let us say, the seventh cycle married to a woman of, let us say, the sixth cycle will have a certain type of child, that this type is further modified by the phases and by the child's position in time and place at birth, a position which is itself but an expression of the interaction of cycles and phases. Will some mathematician some day question and understand, as I  cannot, and confirm all, or have I also dealt in myth? (AVB 213)
This "position in time and place at birth" is of course expressed in the birth chart, implying that Yeats (or his instructors) foresaw a more complete system where everything was integrated. The mathematician, then, might be the one who would discover the patterns underlying the apparent whimsy in the Yeatses assigning people to their phases. So Yeats himself definitely foresaw that there should be some way of creating a more complete picture, but he could not do it.
 Image result for bob makransky great wheel
Indeed, the Yeatses saw the position of the planets and heavens at birth—the horoscope—as providing the character or temperament of the person, while the symbolic "phase of the moon" was a more fundamental bias of purpose or what the soul was seeking in a particular lifetime. They even drew distinctions between the horoscope of conception and of birth, devised a way of aligning an individual birthchart with the phase of the moon, and set up a more permanent alignment for examining mundane astrology. They went to significant lengths to try to find astrological patterns behind the Moments of Crisis, part of the system that they decided was too personal and too imperfectly understood to include in A Vision. (Colin McDowell examined some aspects of these in his essay "Shifting Sands" in Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts and I shall be looking at them further later on.) But the fact that they don't seem to have expended much energy on finding an astrological way of assigning the phases probably indicates that they saw it as a non-starter.

However, there are at least five books that have applied the descriptions to the moon phase at birth and based an exploration on these correspondences. The debate between the various books has been on how exactly to calculate the divisions between the phases, but none has seriously questioned the premise of using the moon's phase at birth. I'll examine these in the next posts on astrology, but I want to deal here with the implicit attitude of dismissal towards, or decision to ignore, the Yeatses' astrological abilities in order to explain why they ignored such an obvious application of the system. To suggest that this couple would not have twigged fairly quickly if a person's Phase in the system could be ascertained by a glance at their birth chart shows ignorance of the Yeatses or unwillingness to drop a pet idea.

Up until twenty, even ten years ago, the mathematics involved in drawing up a birth chart was astrology's first hurdle. The arithmetic was rather convoluted, usually involving logarithms, sexagesimal calculations, and benefited from having sense of which operations were appropriate. From what we can see in his papers, Yeats seems to have had problems with all of these. Yet he did do them, and in the end the astrology is often quite forgiving of minor inaccuracies.

George meanwhile went far further, assembling a broad collection of astrological material and charts, and drawing up spreadsheets of data on planetary positions for various professions and skills, relying no doubt on Alan Leo's 1001 Notable Nativities, which included a large selection of data for precisely this kind of study. GY's plotting of the planets by zodiac sign may seem rather simplistic to more modern researchers, but she was persevering and skilled in her approach, and it is the type of research seen in Charles Carter's Encyclopaedia of Psychological Astrology.

Yeats may not have been a great mathematician, but his comments do indicate that, if there is a way of connecting the system of A Vision with traditional astrology, it is not going to be an obvious one. And even if neither of the Yeatses had had the wherewithal to do some basic checking or analysis, they had a friend, Frank Pearce Sturm, who searched through some three hundred charts to see how they related to the Yeatses' phases (again no doubt resorting to 1001 Notable Nativities). Sturm wrote to Yeats in disappointment and confusion because the phases he calculated didn't match the ones that he'd seen Yeats use, and he was told that the "phases of the Moon in the symbolism I told you of have nothing to do with the horoscope, but with the incarnations only" (April 1921; FPS 80). Sturm obviously would not let the matter drop entirely, since Yeats was still writing five years later: "You will get all mixed up if you think of my symbolism as astrological or even astronomical in any literal way. . . . [Sun] is a symbol of one state of being, [Moon] of another, that is all" (January 1926; FPS 88).

These books all speak to a desire to find a way to allot phases to people not included in the Yeatses' select group—A Vision gives no mechanism beyond intuition. Those with a psychological bias might prefer a form of questionnaire or analysis, such as those used to type people in various pseudo-scientific systems such as Myers-Briggs or Enneagram, or the slightly more respectable Big Five or Hexaco. People with a bent for astrology are liable to choose something related to the heavens and take the "lunar metaphor" as an actual fact.

However, these books are the introduction to A Vision for a significant number of readers, and the authors have invested more time and effort in understanding the system than almost any other readers, so I aim to look at them seriously, as a group and individually, in a series of posts over the next months.

Friday, October 5, 2018


I was reading a review of a new book on Pamela Colman SmithPamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, by Kaplan, Greer, O'Connor, and Parsons (2018)—which comments that: “W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked 'exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.' ” Maybe because I remembered reading it before or because the name Nannie struck me as strange, I went to check. Checking online only repeats the same attribution in the majority of cases, but the odd online source does give the correct source of a letter to W. B. Yeats from his father, J. B. Yeats, as do most of the book sources. But it reminded me of how easily attributions can drift or be misremembered either by proximity or just the jumbling of memory. And how these jumblings are all too easily propagated across the web.

For many years witty quotations have been attributed to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to give them some parentage when we are unsure, but careless attribution is becoming more and more common as attributions are simply copied and pasted. Quite a few of the quotations attributed to W. B. Yeats are not really his—sadly, perhaps, because they are among the most widely quoted of his supposed formulations. For instance, out of a supposed Top Ten Quotes published this year for Yeats's birthday, I think only four are authentic:

1. X “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (see below)
2. X “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” (see below)
3. X “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.” (see below)
4. √ “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”)
5. √ “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.” ("Ephemera")
6. √ “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” (“The Municipal Gallery Revisited”)
7. ? “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” (source uncertain)
8. √ “Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.” (“The Stolen Child”)
9. X “People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.” (John Butler Yeats to his son, W. B. Yeats, in 1906)
10. X “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.” (John Butler Yeats, again; this time writing to Miss Grierson in 1909, slightly adapted: “And happiness . . . what is it? I say it is neither virtue...” etc.).

The first example—“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” or sometimes “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”—seems to derive from someone reading a passage which gave two quotations together—one by Yeats and one by Plutarch—and somehow eliding the name associated with the second one:
In other words, the key to a lively and a vital appreciation of the arts in the fields of collecting and criticism is the willingness to keep doors open, an eagerness to venture into new fields for the sake of the enjoyment which a work of art can bring.
William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” and Plutarch in “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing, James Johnson Sweeney, 1968)
Sweeney was in fact reformulating the traditional translation of Plutarch's Greek, making it a little more pithy: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but wood that needs igniting” or in the translation of Philemon Holland, which Yeats read: “For that the minde and understanding of man is not of the nature of a vessell that requireth to be filled up: but it hath neede onely of some match (if I may so say) to kindle and set it on fire” (Plutarch, “Of Hearing”, Moralia). The full story is set out in The Quote Investigator and is also examined in an article from the Irish Times.

The Quote Investigator also tackles a few more Yeats attributions:–

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking” is slippery in terms of precise wording, but a similar phrase seems to come first from the pen of Benjamin Franklin in 1782. 

“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't met” appears to have its origin in the words of the popular American poet Edgar A. Guest, who published a poem titled “Faith" in 1915, which includes the lines: “I believe in the purpose of everything living, / That taking is but the forerunner of giving; / That strangers are friends that we some day may meet..."

Changing the author can change the meaning, and the fuller context often sheds a slightly different light on the words. Looking at the Yeats quotations investigated, there is one that I remember first seeing as part of an informational film at a National Park: “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. Attributed to Yeats, it hints at “nature's finer forces” and devas or nature spirits, which we may perhaps discern if we subtilize our natures and refine our perceptions through spiritual practice. Yet the quotation (or its original version) comes from the playwright and essayist Eden Phillpotts and actually refers to the use of scientific instruments such as telescope and microscope:
The fimbriated flowers [of the buckbean] are a miracle of workmanship and every blossom exhibits an exquisite disorder of ragged petals finer than lace. But one needs a lens to judge of their beauty: it lies hidden from the power of our eyes, and menyanthes must have bloomed and passed a million times before there came any to perceive and salute her loveliness. The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.  (A Shadow Passes, 1919).
It becomes therefore a paean to scientific observation and the senses' need for technology to sharpen them.

Of course, given the frequency with which one or other line of “The Second Coming” is quoted nowadays, two or three of the authentic Top Ten list would probably come from that poem: perhaps “The centre cannot hold,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”.

What else should make that genuine Top Ten?

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Yeats's Occultism

Although I have looked at the subject on the website, and it deserves far fuller treatment than I give here, the following examination of the implications of the term occult was enthusiastically commented on by one of the people who read the uncut manuscript of the forthcoming book, so I have rescued it from the off-cuts, with a little modification

When writing about his favourite Yeats poem, John Banville observes that Yeats's “occult and alchemical preoccupations, collected in that dotty compendium A Vision, are entirely risible”, before going on to note that “they served to inspire magnificent poetry”.[1] More positively, promoting Catherine Paul's and Margaret Mills Harper's edition of A Vision (1925), the publishers declared that “One of the strangest works of literary modernism, A Vision is Yeats's greatest occult work”.[2]

Yeats very seldom uses the word “occult” in connection with any of his own thought,[3] and he would probably have rejected it as a label for A Vision, yet to many readers it seems the most appropriate single-word description. But it is a problematic word, as it is used in a wide variety of ways by different people and applied to a range of ideas and fields.
"All things rest connected by hidden knots" 

At its simplest it refers to hidden aspects of reality and historically it included such phenomena as gravity and magnetism, forces that operate through unseen means. More generally, it includes an element of the supernatural, and many understand it to indicate something outside the accepted supernatural of religion, often dubious, even dangerous. It can include studies and techniques, ranging from methods of divination and traditional practices to New Age themes and heterodox science; the term can also encompass beliefs and philosophies, particularly when influenced by Eastern religion, paganism, or magic. Many aspects are incompatible with each other, or at least inconsistent, so there is no single meaning to the term, except where it is used negatively to refer to all forms of contact with supernatural or hidden reality outside a particular religion or church. In this context it is usually a condemnation and seen as sinful and, potentially at least, diabolic.

Also related to these terms is the concept of secret or “esoteric” doctrine, communicated to the initiated and hidden within or transcending the commonly understood exoteric forms of religion or thought. Esotericism deals with essences and truths are hard to apprehend, so suitable only for those with the correct mind or preparation.[4] In this sense, Yeats makes A Vision openly available to all readers, but it “is intended… for my ‘schoolmates only’” (E&I xi, CW5 219) from his Hermetic or Theosophical training.

Similarly, “mysticism” is frequently mixed up with “mystery” in general and “occultism” or “magic” more specifically, and Yeats himself used the term for his interests, stating that “the mystical life is the centre of all that I do” (CL1 303). Yet when carefully used the word denotes something largely alien to Yeats, and as more strictly defined it indicates a search for union with the ultimate reality or godhead, rather than the engagement with the manipulation and understanding of creation.

In his biography of Yeats, Terence Brown explicitly shifts the language from Yeats's "mystical" in that letter to a possibly more accurate or more current "occult":
When Yeats wrote to John O'Leary in 1892 that "the mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write...." (CL1 303), he was identifying what had been his principal preoccupation since he had left the High School: the occult. And the occult was to remain a controlling, energizing obsession throughout his life. (The Life of W. B. Yeats, 32-33)
James Webb described the occult as “rejected knowledge” and, though the definition may have limitations in other contexts, it applies well to Yeats’s interests.[5] Tracing the nineteenth-century “flight from reason,” Webb suggests that there is “a perennial Underground of rejected knowledge,” one “comprising heretical religious positions, defeated social schemes, abandoned sciences, and neglected modes of speculation, has as its core the varied collection of doctrines that can be combined in a bewildering variety of ways and that is known as the occult”.

This rejected knowledge includes science that has been superseded by the advances and discoveries of later periods, and Brian Vickers notes that in the Hermeticism of the Renaissance, “one is confronted with a tradition in which nothing has been abandoned, all ideas have been absorbed into ever more comprehensive syntheses”.

Nineteenth-century European “occultism”, while rejecting Enlightenment rationalism, followed in the wake of earlier freemasonry and a surge of interest in Egyptian religion and theurgy, focusing on the rejected knowledge of the ancient world and the Renaissance. The Theosophical Society was eclectic in the influences and religious traditions it used, while the Golden Dawn
George Pollexfen's notes on The World (tarot trump 21)
is arguably the zenith of such syncretic thinking, bringing Christian Rosicrucianism together with a panoply of elements including Jewish Cabala, Egyptian religion, Indian practices, Neoplatonism, sacred geometry, alchemy, various divinatory techniques, and the writings of John Dee. The process of synthesis is made easier by the frame of mind through which “the occult imposed traditional thought categories onto the world and read nature in the light of them,” so that observed phenomena are read through the construct, rather than the construct being derived from observed phenomena. They work through correspondences that are simple in principle and complex in application, where number and “signature” are the keys to “matching” categories.

Yeats’s thought deliberately appeals to the authorities and modes of pre-scientific thought familiar to such fellow students, particularly the spiritual or mystical strain of metaphysical philosophy that can be traced back to Pythagoras and the Plato of Timaeus and the Myth of Er. Plato’s followers such as Plotinus and Porphyry developed this Platonism to the verge of religion, and Iamblichus and Proclus incorporated elements of Egyptian religious thought, including the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Chaldean Oracles. Along with strains of Gnosticism, Cabalism, the Christian thought of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, these strands all feed into what was relabelled “Hermeticism” with the renewed awareness of the Corpus Hermeticum through Marsilio Ficino’s translation.

The question is whether a modern thinker can deliberately eschew the intervening centuries and write in the form and mindset of previous age. Yet Yeats sees himself as jumping ahead and returning to the order that existed before Descartes and the Scientific Revolution.

A series of drafts of A Vision opened with the observation that “it resembles nothing of philosophy from the time of Descartes but much that is ancient”.[11] The Cartesian or scientific revolution comes at a particular point in the cycles that his system envisages, starting a period dominated by what he terms the primary impulse, including “All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre” (VP 825, CW1 650), but one that lasts only five hundred years or so from the Renaissance, giving way to a revivified form of the ancient in the imminent new millennium, “the mummy wheat” of the new antithetical. In “The Gyres”, he looks to “Old Rocky Face”, the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece to validate the return to the old that is also new, so that “all things run / On that unfashionable gyre again” (VP 565, CW1 299).

[1] Irish Times, 10 June 2015 Our favourite W. B. Yeats poem: John Banville and Colm Tóibín on 'Byzantium'.

[2] Simon & Schuster, The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume XIII: A Vision The Original 1925 Version, 2013.

[3] In Yeats’s usage, “occult” or “occultism/occultist” usually refers to specifically to the Theosophical Society or similar concerns. See, for example, Mem 281–82; his letter to Joseph Hone, 22 June [1915], CLInteLex 2681; or a note for Augusta Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, CW5 270. The OED gives the first citations for “occultism” and “occultist” as 1881, from the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World.

[4] Except for matters of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section (Mem 281–82), Yeats’s usage of “esoteric” tends not to refer more commonly to the limited or rarefied appeal of certain things. See, for example, letter to Ruth Pollexfen Lane-Poole, 2 September 1914, CLInteLex 2509; “A Canonical Book” (1903) UP2 301.

[5] James Webb, The Flight from Reason (London: Macdonald, 1971), in the USA, The Occult Underground (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), 191–92. The idea has been widely taken up, see, for example, W. J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[6] James Webb, The Occult Establishment (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1976), 10.

[7] Brian Vickers, “On the Function of Analogy in the Occult,” in ed. I. Merkel and A. G. Debus, Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, Part 3 (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespear Library, 1988), 266.

[8] Though "occult" meaning hidden or mysterious exists earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the first citations for “occultism” and “occultist” as 1881, from the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World.

[9] See Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).

[10] Brian Vickers, “On the Function of Analogy in the Occult,” 266.

Monday, September 24, 2018

A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision"

One of the reasons for the dormancy of this blog over the last few years has been my focus on writing a book on A Vision. This is not a crowded field and relatively straightforward introduction to A Vision is one of the gaps in Yeats Studies, so I hope that A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision" will be a genuine aid to readers new and old.

The book will be published by Clemson University Press, in association with Liverpool University Press in the UK, and should be out at the beginning of 2019.

The cover art is by Jaff Seijas, whose Vision-inspired art I've featured on the blog here before.

It's divided into four sections of three or four chapters each (plus a coda).

1 Overview: The Book of A Vision
2 Genesis: Making and Remaking A Vision
3 Background: Antecedents and Assumptions
4 Presentation: Gyres and Geometry
5 Spirits: Determinism and Free Will
6 Being: Human and Divine
7 The Faculties: Action and Pursuit
8 The Principles: Reality and Value
9 The Daimon: Opposition and Essence
10 The Divine: One and Many
11 The Circles of Life: Wheels and Rebirth
12 The Twenty-Eight Incarnations: Lives and Phases
13 After Life: Understanding and Preparation
14 History: Cycles and Influx
15 Reframing A Vision
Appendix: People in Phases

Background starts off looking at the writing and printing history of A Vision's two editions; then the automatic writing and the questions that raises; and then examines the ideas and baggage that the Yeatses brought to the enterprise and what belief meant to Yeats.

Foundations outlines the fundamental framework of A Vision in its duality, the gyre and the wheel; it continues with a consideration of what Yeats saw as the nature of spiritual and human existence, then looks at the human beings and their relationship to the divine and Unity of Being.

Structure devotes a chapter each to the three major elements in Yeats's anatomy of the human being: Faculties, Principles, and Daimon, and then moves on to the divine, including the Thirteenth Cone.

Process then looks at these elements in action, the cycles of individual lives and recurrent lives, the pageant of the incarnations represented by the phases of the moon, the process of the afterlife, and the processes of historical cycles.

The epilogue is a brief assessment of A Vision's significance, its implications, and its meaning for Yeats. An appendix gives a table summarizing the phases that the Yeatses assign to various individuals in A Vision and the automatic script.

The book is quite a bit thinner than the draft that I finished back in May, having lost almost half of its material to reach the agreed length and to be useful as a guide—it might have been rather daunting and less usable. The good news is that I hope to work up some of the bits that I cut to become entries for this blog. The better news is that I was allowed 40 figures and illustrations. Bad news is that it will be almost as hideously priced as A Vision was when it came out in 1925. A Vision A was priced at 3 guineas (this was the fancy way of pricing a privately produced edition, meaning 3 pounds and 3 shillings, just over $15 at that date); this was roughly equivalent to £180 today, around $240. Incidentally, the 1937 edition was 15 shillings, roughly a quarter of the price. So this could be seen as a bargain at half that price (at current exchange the UK edition is looking cheaper). It will, however, be accessible through universities and libraries, and at least partially through search online, and I hope that eventually it will reach a cheaper format.

I shall give updates when I have them, but will start with some new blog entries from unused material.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

One of the side effects of studying the material of W. B. Yeats's A Vision is that you do notice echoes of its categories in some fairly unexpected places. These may have nothing to do with the Yeatses' system, yet they show how elements of it are natural distinctions.

Reading David Brooks's column "Does Decision-Making Matter?" in the New York Times last Saturday, I was struck at the end by how clearly he had described the role and importance of the Mask, and then looking back through the article saw elements that corresponded to Body of Fate, and then to Will and Creative Mind.

I'll summarise the article here, even though it's brief, but I'd recommend that you read it—maybe even read it first. The article starts as a preview of a forthcoming book by Michael Lewis The Undoing Project (2016), which examines the life and work of the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman's book outlining some of their research Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) has been a recent best seller, and Lewis has previously written such books as Moneyball, The Big Short, and Flash Boys). Brooks then moves on to some thoughts provoked by this double biography.

After describing Kahneman's background in France under Nazi occupation and then Israel, and Tversky's childhood in Israel, and their meeting, the article notes the intensity and closeness of their partnership and how their research "revolutionized how we think about ourselves". Kahneman and Tversky showed that, rather than being the rational creatures of traditional economics,  we are biased and in predictable ways.

Though their research has analysed decision-making, Brooks pauses to ask how much of these two men's lives depended upon decisions that they made:
The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions.
....Their lives weren't so much shaped by decisions as by rapture.
....when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
....Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Tversky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves. 
Brooks's subject here is the Mask, the goal and focus of desire, what beckons us onward. Yeats's approach is mythic and symbolic, not the scientific and psychological study that Brooks asks for, but it is the same drive and compulsion that they identify. This is how I summarised Yeats's descriptions of the Mask in an essay a few years ago:
The Mask is... the ‘object of desire or moral ideal’ and ‘idea of the good’ (AVB 83), ‘the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence’ (CW13 15, AVA 15), ‘the Ought (or that which should be)’ (AVB 73), and ‘in the antithetical phases beauty’ (AVB 192). It is chosen but involuntary, taking ‘a form selected instinctively for those emotional associations which come out of the dark, and this form is itself set before us by accident, or swims up from the dark portion of the mind’ (CW13 24, AVA 27), so that it is the object of willed choice but comes before us without conscious selection. It is intrinsically at the limit of reach, ‘that object of desire or moral ideal which is of all possible things the most difficult’ (AVB 83), and vulnerable to chance and external reality.
("The Mask of A Vision", Yeats Annual 19) 
To follow through with a Yeatsian anatomy, the circumstances and historical events that Brooks notes might be seen as connected to the Body of Fate, while decision-making is the function of the Will—the natural bias (cf. AVB 171; CW13 85; AVA 105)—presumably with input from Creative Mind in more rational aspects.

One could even speculate on Phases for the researchers, but there is such a thing as taking the Yeatsian approach too far.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower, IV

Previous posts have considered the symbolism of the unicorn, the tower and the lightning flash within Yeats's work and in the system of A Vision, but the most immediate source in many respects is, of course, the Tarot card of the lightning-struck tower. This card is labelled "La Torre" in most Italian packs, such as the one that W. B. Yeats himself had, and "La Maison Dieu" in the older French packs, such as George's Marseilles pack. The majority of designs show a lightning flash, often coming from a cloud, striking the top of a crenelated tower, dislodging its crown, and with two or more people falling, along with a hail of particles.
In the Golden Dawn's specific iconography, the card is named the "Blasted Tower" and titled "Lord of the Hosts of the Mighty". In the Order's syncretic system, the Tarot trumps were identified with the paths connecting the sephiroth on the Tree of Life, and these in turn had correspondences with astrological principles. In their system, The Tower corresponds with the path on the Tree of Life joining Hod and Netzach, one of three horizontal paths on the Tree, identified by the Hebrew letter Peh (פ)  and the planet Mars. In many ways both these attributes have some appropriateness for George: Peh means "mouth" and her work as medium for the automatic script gave words to the communicators, and she was strongly marked as a Scorpio, both by her astrological rising sign and her cycle sign in the system, ruled by Mars (Pluto had not been discovered, and the Yeatses generally used the traditional rulers anyway). George was also said to have a Mars Daimon (YVP3 292) as did WBY.

The symbolism may well extend further. The Golden Dawn's Outer Order was not involved with magic—that came later in the Second Order—rather, it was designed to provide a grounding in the basics of occult knowledge and to help balance the temperament of the aspiring initiates by a series of elemental initiations, Earth, Air, Water and then Fire. In this structure, Water and Fire were associated with Hod and Netzach, respectively, so that the path joining them is the last one that is wholly within that elemental world. Beyond that came the Portal Ritual, after which the successful aspirant would pass to the Second Order. This ritual symbolically involves crossing the "Veil of the Paroketh", separating the lower sephiroth from the central ones.

The lower four sephiroth on the Tree of Life, with some of the Golden Dawn correspondences. For Mathers' diagram of the whole Tree in relation to the GD, see
W. B. Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in March 1890 and, by the time he stood as a candidate for the Golden Dawn's Portal Ritual in January 1893, he had passed through the four initiations of the Outer Order. There was a minimum period of three months at each grade, so Yeats's progress was not unduly fast.

After induction into the Order as Neophyte (0=0), preparation for the grade of Zelator (1=10) focused on elemental Earth and the sephirah of Malkuth; next came Theoricus (2=9), elemental Air and the sephirah of Yesod; then Practicus (3=8), elemental Water and Hod, followed by Philosophus (4=7), elemental Fire and Netzach. These processes focused on exploring and balancing the 'lower' personality, represented by these four sephiroth, preparatory to advancing towards actual magical workings and raising of the consciousness towards the Higher Self in the Second Order, Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis. The Portal Ritual does not have a specific grade related to it, representing a liminal level: the fifth element of Spirit or Akasa, the culmination of the Outer or First Order and an induction into the Second Order.

George followed the same steps, over twenty years later, inducted into the Stella Matutina in August 1914. Her advance through the grades seems to have been a little rapider, with initiations into the next grades in September and then November or December (as far as can be told from astrological charts she drew up that seem to indicate the times of initiations, see Becoming George 69-71). She probably advanced to Practicus (3=8) in May 1915.  At the end of that ritual, the Hierophant congratulates the newly made Practicus, and confers "the Mystic Title of 'MONOCRIS DE ASTRIS', which means 'Unicorn from the Stars' and I give you the symbol of MAIM which is the Hebrew Name for Water" (Regardie, The Golden Dawn, 2:118; see also the earlier version in Equinox 1:2, 274, where the title is "MONOKEROS DE ASTRIS").

Three or more months later, the aspirant might be ready to undergo the initiation to Philosophus. In this ritual he or she is addressed by the title of "Monocris de Astris", and symbolically approaches the sephirah of Netzach via the three paths that lead to it from the lower sephiroth already mastered:
· first from Malkuth by the path of Qoph, identified with the Tarot card of The Moon and the zodiac sign of Pisces;
· then from Yesod by the path of Tzadi, identified with The Star and the zodiac sign of Aquarius;
· and finally from Hod by the path of Peh, identified with The Tower and the planet Mars.

The ritual of the Philosophus, approaching Netzach via the horizontal path from Hod, shows the card as conceived by the Golden Dawn:
          And the Sixteenth Key of the Tarot:
It represents a Tower struck by a lightning-flash proceeding from a rayed circle and terminating in a triangle. It is the Tower of Babel. The flash exactly forms the Astronomical symbol of Mars. It is the Power of the Triad rushing down and destroying the Column of Darkness. The men falling from the tower represent the fall of the kings of Edom. "On the right-hand side of the Tower is Light, and the representation of the Tree of Life by Ten Circles. On the left-hand side is Darkness, and Eleven Circles symbolically representing the Qliphoth."

Aleister Crowley notes that this card "which we have seen in the 4°= 7° Ritual represents a tower struck by a flash of lightning, symbolising the Tower of Babel struck by the wrath of Heaven, and also the Power of the Triad rushing down and destroying the columns of darkness, the light of Adonai glimmering through the veils and consuming the elementary Rituals of the 1°=10°, 2°=9°, 3°=8°, and 4°=7° grades" (Equinox 1:2 293). This underlines that this stage is the true final stage of the elemental levels, associated with a breaking down of the Tower of selfhood that was built before, so that a new one can be constructed consciously to lead to the Higher Self.

A new Tarot pack, coming from the Golden Dawn tradition, actually includes a unicorn in the symbolism of the Tower card.
This Tarot is designed Harry and Nicola Wendrich, painted by Harry, in association with Nick Farrell and the Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea, a successor to the Golden Dawn. The tower seems to have been constructed out of letter blocks, with the base constructed from the twelve so-called simple letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the middle tier from the seven double letters, and the highest level from the three mother letters. (These categories come from the Sepher Yetzirah and correspond in turn with the twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven ancient planets, and the three elements—excluding earth.) The arrow that strikes and topples the crown of the tower issues from a circle in the form of the symbol for Mars, the card's astrological counterpart, and connected to the red colours that dominate this card. The circle is in fact a complex geodesic form of sphere, patterned on the "flower of life". This widespread form of sacred geometry can in turn be used as a matrix to generate the cabalistic Tree of Life: the patterns of the two sets of discs or globes that fall on either side of the tower, as noted by Mathers in the ritual description of the card.
The brightly coloured, positive tree is on the viewer's right and the muddy coloured negative tree on the left, with an extra eleventh sphere at its base, symbolizing imbalance. Over the stormy left side the rainbow arches, recalling the rainbow that came after the Flood that destroyed almost all human and animal life on earth. If the tower recalls the destruction of the Tower of Babel, it is testimony to the less fatal punishment that the promise of the rainbow symbolizes. The Hebrew letters letters for "bow", Q-Sh-Th, also correspond to the three lowest paths on the tree \|/ that meet in Malkuth, which Yeats linked to his vision of the Archer: the arrow is the path of Samekh, which crosses that of  Peh.

"On the right hand side of the Tower is Light and the Tree of Life. There is also the Unicorn of the Stars which is a reference to the 3=8 ritual and the Archangel Uriel. Uriel is the angel of the Mysteries, who overthrows the false perceptions" (Farrell and Wendrich). Traditionally also, Uriel is the angel who warned Noah about the coming flood, so the card brings together many aspects of emerging from an experience in which the old order is swept away to be replaced by a new one. "In fact if you cross the path from Hod to Netzach you are looking at the pulling apart of your existing universe, however if you travel the path from Netzach to Hod you are seeing your higher self creating a new Universe out of the letters it sees. The path of Peh is therefore a destruction and construction" (Farrell at the Wendriches' website).

It seems that the Yeatses must have been thinking about something very similar, and made the connection through study, or more likely through vision. In an e-mail, Nicola informed me that "The inspiration to include the unicorn in the Tower image came from a joint meditation wherein my husband and I met with the Tower archetype, who requested that Harry paint a unicorn in the image to represent the Archangel Uriel.  Uriel is the Angel of the Mysteries, who overthrows false perceptions".  Farrell also made the same connection, independently: "At the time I was inspired by the fact that the Unicorn was a symbol of the Archangel Uriel whose energy tends to unsettle and destroy in this way.  Unfortunately for the life of me I do not know where I got this association from. When I said to Harry I think we should should stick a unicorn in, he said 'oh good we have been getting that in our meditations too' " (e-mail). (See further considerations of the path and the card on Nick Farrell's blog for June 2011.)

With symbolism that is both different and strikingly congruent, the Wendrich card of the Tower bears out much of the passage that was quoted at the end of the "The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower, III":
In the same way that the external divine of the Thirteenth Cone sends the revelatory shock of the new era in a lightning flash, the Daimon's contact with its human counterpart marks turning points in an individual life. The crises are a form of constructive destruction.
He expresses through a system of images a harmony of related aims and we should discover in this harmony of aims, in this unity of being not the mere intervention of the thirteenth cone but the sphere itself. . . that which only contradiction can expressnot “the  lone tower of the absolute self” but its shattering*; that whi unknown reality painted or sung by the monks of Zen.
* When my Instructors talk of the shattering of the tower they seem to [depend on?] the old symbol. I am thinking of the Tarot trump [of the?] tower struck by lightning.
       (NLI MS 36,272/22, p. 29)
The shattering of "the lone tower of the absolute self" comes through the Daimon's lightning flash and frees the inner being. George's bookplate is thus a symbol of contradiction, a Daimonic moment of crisis, of freedom, connection with "the sphere itself", and Beatific Vision.
It may seem a strange emblem to choose as a bookplate, but it is a constant reminder that the initiate is remaking herself, shattering the tower of self that has been constructed largely unawares in youth, and that part of building a new structure of self and life comes from the words, letters, and speech of the books she reads.