Friday, May 10, 2019

We Die into Our Imaginations

I recently came across a provocative speculation about the growing literature on near-death experiences, their relation to "vision", and the relationship of vision to art. This is from a professor of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, reflecting on such a near-death experience recounted by Elizabeth Krohn. This seems to me particularly relevant to Yeats's A Vision and his art in a number of ways, so that I will quote at greater length than I normally would.
The modern near-death accounts are made possible in their increasing number and depth by the advances of biomedical technology, which can “pull us back” from further and further into the death process. This might look like a minor observation, but it has major implications for how we think about the near-death literature as a whole. What we have in the near-death stories, after all, is essentially a new mystical or visionary literature made possible by new biomedical technology....
     The English expression “to have a vision” is very helpful here, as it can mean two very different things. First, it can name a more or less passive process. “To have a vision” in this sense is to be given something, as in a dream. But the same phrase can also name a process that is much more active, that is about creating and projecting something and then working toward actualizing that projected vision in the future. Here, “to have a vision” is to make something actual that was previously only potential. As such, it is more akin to writing, directing, and then projecting a movie. When I refer to the modern near-death literature as a visionary literature and write of our vision-work here, I intend both meanings: something is received or revealed, and then something is created out of the gift. I mean to suggest that these revelatory visions of our own deeper nature are also projects that we must engage with and act on; that these need our attention and intention to fulfill their purpose; and that they are finally about us changing us.
     We can think of the entire history of religions in this way. We can think of it all as a long series of science fiction movies—with the scenes painted on the walls (of the caves, of the churches, of the temples), and all of it inspired by countless and quite real supernatural special effects (like precognition and auras). For thousands of generations, we have been born and then died into these running science fiction movies, changing the scenes and stories as we go, largely unconsciously and gradually, but sometimes dramatically and, seemingly, all at once.
     Not surprisingly, the religions have always known something of this, if in a largely implicit, unconscious, or at least unexpressed way. This is why they have so richly supported and funded the arts, not for art’s sake, but for the vision’s sake. They understood very well that it is the image and the story that ultimately define a community’s worldview and religious experience. We do not have to share any of those values or beliefs (that is, we do not have to believe their movies) to see that they may well have been on to something very important, namely, that it is the image and the arts that largely determine what we see and what happens to us in the death process and in the afterlife, at least in the “near-death” zones from which we sometimes return.
     In short, we die into our imaginations, be these psychological, cultural, or religious. We die into our own personal and collective art....
     If any of this is close to the truth, and I think it is, the conclusion is as obvious as it is shocking: if we want better death experiences, it would do us well to make better art. If we want to be in a better science fiction movie “there,” it would serve us to make better science fiction movies “here.” Toward this same end, we might even decide to take up the modern near-death literature and create new art, i.e., new meditation and prayer practices out of it. We might use this literature and these reports to imagine what death might be like for us, or better, what we might want it to be like. By doing so, we could take more responsibility for our own visionary displays and work with them, as in a lucid dream, here and now before we die. We could not just “see visions.” We could also “have a vision”; that is, we could possess a vision of the future and consciously act on it as our project. We could decide for ourselves which paintings we want to die into.
     If we were really smart, we would also create practices that taught us that none of these forms of the imagination are literally true, that they are all “ours.” We might then seek the artist behind all the art, the projector behind all the movies. We might even wake up from our own dreams of life and death, however real they might seem at the moment.
Jeffrey J. Kripal, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University,
Elizabeth G. Krohn, Changed in a Flash (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2019).
     Yeats's descriptions of the "bardo", the states existence between death and rebirth, in A Vision include differing levels and kinds of dream state, particularly in the first part where the soul deals with understanding the foregoing life. One in particular, which he calls the Phantasmagoria, is connected with "those among the dead who imagine themselves 'surrounded by flames and persecuted by demons'" and to the ghost in a Noh play who cannot stop believing herself "surrounded by flames" (AVB 230–31, CW14 168). All, however, take place within a construct where the enveloping dreams are created out of the soul itself and the community it is part of, both the "timeless and spaceless community of Spirits which perceive each other" ("Seven Propositions"), and also the community of our earthly life, particularly at the level of culture, art, and religion.
     Kripal suggests that artists contribute to the afterlife experienced by their society by forming the individual and collective imagination, which Yeats also suggests in poems such as "The Tower", where he states:
I mock Plotinus' thought
And cry in Plato's teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul, 
Aye, sun and moon and star, all, 
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise, 
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream. (VP 415, CW1 198–99, 2nd ed. 202)
Plato bans the artists from his republic because they create only lies or imitations of the true forms, but Yeats sees the artists as giving access to those forms, even if what is created is "a superhuman / Mirror-resembling dream" that reflects ourselves back to ourselves. Life and death are both included in the human visionary act, created from the imagination of the "bitter soul". In A Vision A, Yeats goes as far as to suggest that "time and space [are] the work of our ancestors", in the sense that the souls of the dead who do not reincarnate and "have found an almost changeless rest" are responsible for the "least changing things" in the universe, represented by the "Fixed Stars" (AVA 158, CW13 128) or the translunary world of traditional thought, while the living and the reincarnating dead create together the sublunary world. But Yeats's thought is fixed on the "Translunar Paradise" he will create through the art of Renaissance Italy and classical Greece, love poetry and memories.  
     In "Sailing to Byzantium" his inspiration is Byzantine mosaics and he asks the "sages standing in God's holy fire" to "be the singing masters of my soul" and to help form his existence once he is no longer "fastened to a dying animal" (VP 408, CW1 193, 2nd ed. 198). He asks them to "gather me / Into the artifice of eternity", recognizing that eternity is experienced through the artifice created by the soul and its song.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision"—Update and Discount

 A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision" is available now from Amazon in the US and in the UK, with slight savings, but also with good previews of the early chapters. They use the e-book version, which includes colour in a few of the diagrams. 
Click here for a link to the full flyer
Discounts of 30% are available by ordering directly from—
Liverpool University Press, with the code: LUP30
or Oxford University Press (in the US and the Americas), with the code: ADISTAS

Thursday, February 14, 2019


My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

Robinson Jeffers

Friday, February 8, 2019

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

A Reader's Guide to Yeats's 'A Vision' has just been published.

JUST PUBLISHED by Clemson University Press
a new introduction to the context and system of A Vision


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

The cover art is by Jaff Seijas.

With 39 diagrams. An associated glossary of terms and a bibliography are available here.

A Reader's Guide to Yeats's 'A Vision' by Neil Mann is published by Clemson University Press.
Orders are already shipping from Liverpool University Press for Europe—copies have arrived in Limerick!—and will shortly be available in North America through Oxford University Press.

There is also an e-book available through Liverpool University Press and, at current exchange rates, the sterling price is lower than the dollar equivalent in the United States, though still ridiculously high. The format is PDF and some of the diagrams contain colour for added contrast. Unfortunately the endnotes are not hyperlinked.

Amazon lists the book, but apparently does not have any stock and will not ship for some time. For Europe, copies are best ordered from Liverpool University Press.

An essential book for anyone starting out to read A Vision .... a must-have book for the serious reader of A Vision.     —    Colin McDowell

This is research-led teaching at its very best. As the "one deep student" of A Vision, Neil Mann is the perfect companion, and his is a lucid, patient, and uncompromising guide to Yeats's book of such strangeness, candor, and compelling dignity.     —    Warwick Gould

Neil Mann provides here a long-needed companion to W. B. Yeats's strange and fascinating text A Vision, to which he will bring a much-deserved wider audience. That for each subject addressed, Mann provides an overview followed by an array of further detail means that A Vision will become more luminous both to new students of Yeats and lifelong devotees. We are fortunate to have such a skilled and knowledgeable Vision scholar as Mann elucidating both the workings of Yeats's system itself and its centrality to his poetry.     —    Catherine E. Paul

One hundred years after the first months of the "miracle" that led W. B. Yeats to write A Vision, one of the twentieth century's most difficult treatises has found its first thoroughly reliable and enjoyable guide. In Neil Mann's elegant and comprehensive book, Yeats's "unexplained rule of thumb that somehow explained the world" is explicated without having its essential wildness tamed. Mann is one of the world's most knowledgeable scholars of A Vision, and he has given us a clear and readable book that is a model of balance and erudition. Specialists and general readers of Yeats will turn again and again to this guide with relief and pleasure. Thanks to all spirits that it is here!     —    Margaret Mills Harper

Sunday, January 6, 2019


Today is the Feast of Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the "wise men from the east" in Bethlehem, bearing gifts of "gold, and frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:1–11). This story is given in the Gospel of Matthew, while most of the other elements—no room at the inn, the manger, and of the adoration of the shepherds—are drawn from Luke (the ox and the ass are later additions to the legend). Though many of us have become used to the fusion of the two—mainly through the hymns or readings associated with Christmas and the tradition of the nativity scene or crèche—in art, most of the old masters represent the adoration of the shepherds and the adoration of the Magi (kings or wise men) separately.

Sandro Boticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1480, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
Yeats takes these two adorations as archetypes. In the notes to The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), he characterizes three speakers of the collection's poems:* "'Michael Robartes' is fire reflected in water", "Hanrahan is fire blown by the wind", "Aedh ... fire burning by itself". Yeats then goes on:
To put it a different way, Hanrahan is the the simplicity of an imagination too changeable to gather permanent possessions, or the adoration of the shepherds; and Michael Robartes is the pride of the imagination brooding upon the greatness of its possessions, or the adoration of the Magi; while Aedh is the myrrh and frankincense that the imagination offers continually before all that it loves. (Variorum Poems, 803)
The Wind Among the Reeds (London: Elkin Matthews, 1899)

Yeats says that "It is probable that only students of the magical tradition will understand" the elemental attributions, and it is clear that he is drawing upon symbolism that includes the astrological fire, associated with intuition and imagination, while water is associated with emotion and air with intellect. He links Hanrahan and Robartes further to the idea of possession—a more earthy association, but imaginatively as much the possession of learning—and to the idea of two different revelations: the unexpected angel appearing to the shepherds in their fields, opposed to the studied revelation of the star that leads the wise men to Judea, where it is then related to written prophecy. Neither revelation is better, and though the unburdened spontaneity of the airy imagination might seem superior, the dedicated mission of the Magi is an important part of the mystery too. What the shepherds may have gained by simplicity of heart, the Magi have gained through great learning, but both have arrived at the same truth.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1668, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Yeats wrote his own story "The Adoration of the Magi" at much the same time (1897), and his three old brothers from the western islands of Ireland have qualities of both the shepherds and the Magi. Simple countrymen, they are inspired by a voice to visit Paris, in search of a place where they finally find a dying prostitute. The god Hermes speaks through one of them and tells them to bow down and hear “the secret names of the immortals” that “the immortals may come again into the world” (Variorum Secret Rose 168var; see Mythologies 2005 424n13), and the dying woman appears to give the secrets of religious mysteries, such as those Yeats was attempting to create at Lough Key: “she told them the secret names of the immortals of many lands, and of the colours, and odours, and weapons, and instruments of music and instruments of handicraft they held dearest; but most about the immortals of Ireland and of their love for the cauldron, and the whetstone, and the sword, and the spear, and the hills of the Shee, and the horns of the moon, and the Grey Wind, and the Yellow Wind, and the Black Wind, and the Red Wind” (VSR 170var). When Yeats revised the story in the 1920s, while he was writing the first version of A Vision, instead of these revelations of these ancient secrets, the dying whore gives birth to a unicorn, though the birth is unseen and supernatural and recounted by Hermes.
Georges Lallemand, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1624, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

The revelation comes differently, but the import is ultimately the same—the advent of a new religious dispensation, which is first glimpsed by those who have the gift of grace or the result of preparation.

When Yeats looked back on his days in the Golden Dawn of the 1890s, he recalled:
We all, so far as I can remember, differed from ordinary students of philosophy or religion through our belief that the truth cannot be discovered but may be revealed, and that if a man do not lose faith, and if he go through certain preparations, revelation will find him at the fitting moment. I remember a learned brassfounder in the North of England who visited us occasionally, and was convince that there was a certain moment in every year which, once known, brought with it "The Summum Bonum, the Stone of the Wise." But others, for it was clear that there must be a vehicle or symbol of communication, were of the opinion that some messenger would make himself known, in a railway train let us say, or might be found after search in some distant land. (AVA x–xi, CW13 liv)

*Four names actually feature in the poems' original titles—Mongan is the fourth—alongside "the Poet"; these were later changed to a generic "He..." or "The Lover...".