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.

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