February 3, 2006

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: February 3, 2006

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Dr. Ken Monteith
    Post-Doctoral Fellow, Fordham University.

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Abby Bender (Princeton University); Mary Butler Shannon (Bergen Community College).

“The Poet and the Pythoness: Yeats, Blavatsky, and Philosophy”
A copy of the paper that Dr. Monteith gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.
    Years after he was asked to leave the Theosophical Society for posing difficult questions, W.B. Yeats wote that theosophy was a “philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless.”  Dr. Monteith’s talk aimed to examine the thought processes that Yeats learned from his fellow theosophists and applied to his own early imaginative and critical writing.  Yeats not only used theosophy’s metaphysical worldview to provide a structure for his early poetry; he also used it so connect him to poets that he saw as proto-theosophists, Shelley and Blake.
    Theosophy empowered Yeats in two ways: first, the movement provided him with a community that trusted him to carry on the esoteric tradition; second, it suggested that the unseen world, including the world of the mind, could be controlled.  It also validated his political interests, suggesting that the people of Ireland were a people quite distinct from Britons; far more in touch with their emotions and with the spirit world.  Finally, the concept of a Master, a guiding force outside of the individual, was indispensable to Yeats, who found such a master in Swedenborg, Boehme, Blake, Shelley, and others.
    Central to Blavatsky and Yeat’s concept of theosophy is the idea of correspondence; they present analogies and corresponding ideas as evidence for their own arguments.  They not only argue by analogy, but incorporate the analogy in itself as evidence of their system of thought, disregarding the context of the thing compared.  This can clearly be seen in his critical writings on Shelley, and in his claims that Blake was an Irishman, and that no one but an Irishman can understand Blake.  By arguing through analogy, both Blavatsky and Yeats are able to argue a truth that appears to be all-pervasive and present in every system examined.
    Yeats’ relationship to Blavatsky was quite ambivalent, and can be summed up in his use, in the Boston Pilot, of the term “pythoness” to describe her, connoting simultaneously a constrictive influence, and, in borrowing the term from Isis Unveiled, a high priestess.  Furthermore, she was for him “an old Irish peasant woman,” portrayed in the same terms as the Pollexfens’ housekeeper, Mary Battle.  Rather than being the gullible novice worshipping at the feet of a cult figure, Yeats considers himself an equal to Blavatsky, treating her as an esoteric aunt who set him on the path of his own self-discoveries, not a figure to be worshipped.

Q.  Did you do much work on the automatic writing and its relationship to theosophy?
A.  When I began the project I wanted to write about everything, including A Vision and the automatic writing.  Ellman says A Vision was assigned for a time as a text for new theosophists.  The question of how theosophy filtered into auto writing is interesting, but it is not clear.  While G.R.S. Mead tutored Georgie Hyde Lees, and his ideas on Plotinus turns up in the writing, I have not yet found a clear connection between them.
Q.  The automatic writing began during their honeymoon?
A.  Yes.  Yeats proposed to three women, of course, and he was worried whether Georgie was the right one; she picked up a pen and wrote "You have married the right woman," which was a great relief to him!  She continued to write right up until the birth of their first child.
Q.  Although the automatic writing seems strange to us, we could think of it as finding muse.  That would make it more comprehensible for literary scholars.
A.  She certainly was a muse, and said that she was providing Yeats with metaphors, which do actually turn up in “Leda and the Swan” and elsewhere.
Q.  One thing I would like to think about is what sort of emotional and psychological truths came out for Georgie and Yeats in this writing, and how much of it made sense to them.  Surely it had some meaning for their lives? McDonagh and Pearse thought that Blake was a Celt, so Yeats was not alone.  I tend to think that Yeats was onto something when he wrote of the connection to Blake, but he didn't know what he was onto.  My question, really, is this: did his delusions reveal a psychological or cultural reality, or was he just crazy?
A. There is definitely a pragmatic side to his occultism, and he thought that what he was doing was pertinent to political and cultural questions.  The automatic writing would bring up marriage advice, or suggest that they should have sexual relations in order to have a child.  The more he and Georgie got into it the personal mythology they were developing for their family, the more it began to take over.  They thought their first child would be a saviour figure for Ireland.  The writing said you will have a boy, and they end up with a daughter.  The go back again and the writing suggests that the son was not ready yet, which is why a daughter had been born.  There was always a ready answer for every question.  The occultism was a trap--once you got involved there was no way out, because you could devise an answer for any possible question.  They started putting everything into a system—such as the phases of the moon as an explanation of character traits—but could never understand how it worked, or explain it.  Was it the phase of the moon at birth that determined your personality, or was it the phase at which the soul entered the body?  The explanations they gave never seemed to hold water.
Q. Was it a reading of that person's character, with an occult justification post hoc?
A. Yes.  Of course, he placed himself in the same phase as Shelley and Blake.
Q. Very often in bad Yeats scholarship there are efforts to pair his poetry with his philosophy, which is a dead end; it's interesting to think about the philosophy on its own.  Is occultism your way of thinking about Yeat’s relations to Blake and Shelley?  There are many other models for thinking of this relationship, so why do you think occultism is particularly pertinent?
A. My interest is in the disgust that most critics have for the occult.  Roy Foster, unlike most, says it must have served some need, and I want to think about what that need was.  My initial idea was to look at it as a cultural moment.  Why did these people, who seemed rational, go in for this?  Yeats was trying to bring a rational side to something irrational, which was fascinating to me.  I didn't find any clarity in the way that the occult relates to Yeats.  When he is pushed on the issue he won’t even say he believes or doesn't believe in it; he points to Plato and Plotinus and their writings on the nature of belief.
Q.  Have the parapsychologists discovered Yeats?  I think of Yeats and Mesmer as fore-runners of parapsychologists.
A.  Not really, and perhaps because of what happened to Blavatsky.  Theosophy became an apocalyptic ideology and lost a lot of credibility.  People who were involved in testing this system moved to other systems and other organisations, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn and the Society for Psychical Research.  Yeats would go to investigate séances and other phenomena.