The nature of the beast: Yeats and the shadow' - Literator

The nature of the beast: Yeats and the shadow' - Literator

ISSN 0258-2279 LITERATOR 15 No. 2 Aug. 1994 N icholas M eihuizen The nature of the beast: Yeats and the shadow’ A bstract Y eais’s ‘rough heasi ’...

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ISSN 0258-2279


No. 2

Aug. 1994

N icholas M eihuizen

The nature of the beast: Yeats and the shadow’ A bstract Y eais’s ‘rough heasi ’ in “The Second Coming " emerges not only 'out o f Spiritus M undi, but oul o f an era that was especially attracted to various encodings o f the unconscious, a trope, so to speak, made famous by Freud an d Jung. I argue that certain p.syLnui^^icat atscourses are inherent in an era sceptical o f foundationalism, that Yeats's poem is a manifestation o f the m achinery o f this scepticism, and that, ultimately, aspects o f the poem foreshadow Postmodernist interrogations o f received ‘tntth



In attempting to establish Postmodern, anti-foundationalist elements in Yeats, this article contends that the sphinx-like beast in Y eats’s “The Second Coming” can profitably be viewed in tenns o f certain psychological discourses, the Jungian discourse in particular. 1 make this contention, firstly, because 1 feel that the Jungian reading has a literal value in the case o f the Yeatsian existential project, w hich, despite its em phasis on cyclicality, never lost sight o f the need for psycho­ logical integration. For example, at the centre o f the ceaseless flux o f historical and psychological forces in Y eats’s A Vision, is his conception o f “Unity o f Being”, an integrative state, where, within the limits o f “em otional”, “aesthetic”, “reasonable” and “ moral” frames, the “ Four Faculties” o f our nature are “reflec­ ted inward” (Y eats, 1962:73, 88). Y eats’s conception o f unity also incorporates archetypal figures related to the anima, shadow and mandala o f the Jungian collective unconscious (Meihuizen, 1992:101-3), and, by extension, to Jung’s own notion o f psychological integration, or ‘individuation’ (Jung, 1969: 40). The second reason that I turn to psychological discourses in attempting to cast new light on Y eats, is that the topology o f the unconscious seems particularly appro-

This articic is a revised version of a paper originally delivered at the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature conference held at Ain Shams Uni­ versity, Cairo, 18-22 July IW3 183

priate to the era in which “The Second Coming” w as produced. It w as an era that rested on the anti-foundationahst bases o f Postmodernism - the beginnings o f Freudian probings into the psyche, Paterian aestheticism, French Symbolism, the philosophy o f N ietzsche, to say nothing o f a less orthodr«v fín de siecle interest in mysticism and psychic research. As a follower o f M adam e Blavatsky, and later as a member o f the Golden Dawn, Yeats was, in fact, peculiarly alert to forwardlooking currents in m odem thought, rather than merely circum scribed by pseudoM agian paraphernalia, as our modem sensibility often enough perceives him to be. Psychological theories are important to the mythological machinery o f this period, whatever our final judgem ent concerning Freud’s psychoanalysis or Jung’s analytic psychology. James Olney, in his book on Yeats and Jung, The Rhizom e a n d the F lower (1980), indicates Y eats’s general familiarity, at least, with (to quote from a reported conversation which took place in October, 1916), “Freud and Jung and the Subconscious S e lf’ (H.W. N evinson in Olney, 1980:5). Al­ though Olney (1980;6) establishes that the poet exliibited no detailed know ledge o f Jimg, it seem s clear from the above-mentioned conversation that Y eats was certainly responsive to the seminal theories o f Freud and Jung. In Jungian terms, the shadow represents the instinctual level o f the collective unconscious, which often manifests itself in dream s and visions as a beast, demon or monster. This projection o f an aspect o f the psyche can be view ed as a func­ tion o f one o f the inherent contents, or archetypes - as the shadow is - o f the col­ lective unconscious. According to Jung, if the archetypes are integrated with the conscious mind, psychological healing or individuation can take place (Jung, 1969:288). Although Jung distinguishes between the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious, which Freud does not do, the shadow can also be seen in terms o f the Freudian libido (a label maintained by Jung in his earlier writings, as w e will see), underlining the presence, despite differences in em phasis, o f a shared contemporary trope.2 Y eats’s Spirilus M undi, although it originally ap­ pears much earlier in the poet’s thought as the “ great memory tiiat rcr.c’.'/s the world and m en’s thoughts age after age” (Yeats, 1908:89), brings to mind the Jungian collective unconscious, and it is significant, considering the p o et’s familiarity in 1916 with the ‘Subconscious’ o f Freud and Jung, that the ‘rough b east’ - as either shadow archetype or related libido image - em erges from ‘out o f this realm.

Freud objected to Jung’s early usage (1912) of the term libido in a blanket manner to mclude all the instincts In 1917 Freud msisted that "the name of libido is properly re­ served for tlie instinctual forces of sexual life" (Freud, 1973:462) 184

The approach adopted in this article privileges the realm o f the archetypes, those transcendental signifiers whose presence undermines the expectations attached to any rigidly adhered-to discourse. An archetypal reading thus accom modates the diverse but related images to be examined, accommodates the violence o f Reve­ lation along with earlier traditions and typologies, and is therefore in accord with the range o f Y eats’s historical cyclicality implicit in the gyre motions in the open­ ing lines o f the poem: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer” . (The historical imperatives inherent in this gyre motion are made clearer by the diagram o f the ‘historical cones’ in A Vision, which indi­ cates the proximity o f the present age to the area o f maximum expansion in a gyre cycle, and therefore to the beginning o f a new cycle (Yeats, 1962:266).) The ar­ ticle will draw upon related material in M adame Blavatsky, Oriental and O cci­ dental mythology, and Surrealism. It will conclude by positing, in a Lacanian manner - entirely compatible with the subject matter - , the supremacy o f the signifier in Y eats’s poem. In all o f the above explorations, the Sphinx remains a constant presence.


T he M iller vision

One o f Jung’s areas o f study that actually involves the sphinx image is based upon a Miss Frank M iller’s personal account o f certain o f her visions, dating from 1906. A copy o f this text appears in the Appendix o f Jung’s Sym bols o f Trans­ form ation, first published in 1912: Then I felt a great relaxation come over me, and I remained as completely passive as possible. Lines, sparks, and spirals of fire passed before my eyes ... Then an impression that something was on the point of being com­ municated to me ... The head of a sphinx suddenly appeared m the field of vision, in an Egyptian setting: then it faded away. At that moment my pa­ rents called to me, and I immediately answered them in a perfectly coherent way, a proof that I was not asleep (Jung, 1956: 458). Jung responds to the above passage as follows: The word ‘sphinx’ suggests ‘riddle’, an enigmatic creature who propounds riddles, like the Sphinx of Oedipus, and stands on the threshold of one’s fate as though symbolically announcing the inevitable. The Sphinx is a semi-theriomorphic [animal-shaped] representation of the mother-imago, or rather of the Terrible Mother, who has left numerous traces in mythology ... [T]heriomorphic representations of the libido ... are well known to the doctor from the dreams and fantasies of his patients, where instinct is often represented as a bull, horse, dog , etc. ... Hybrids and monsters ... are not at all infrequent. Bertschinger has given us a series of illustrations in which the lower (animal) half in particular is represented theriomorphically. The 185

libido so represented is the ‘animal’ instinct that has got repressed (Jung, 1956:179). Jung (1956:180) also claims that “the theriomorphic symbols always refer to unconscious manifestations o f libido”. Jung’s conflation o f beasts seems reason­ able considering other available views. Jorge Luis Borges (1974:77), for in­ stance, in The B ook o f Im aginary Beings, indicates that the four beasts o f the Apocalypse “come together in the sphinx”, and gives other variations commen­ surate with the creatures in Ezekiel and Revelation.


R elated beasts

These shadow-creatures are also manifested in a work whose linguistic patterns, it has long-since been established (Stallworthy, 1963:23), clearly underpin “The Second Coming”, a section o f Shelley’s Prom etheus U nbound (1968), with its terrifying Furies, snake-haired and winged (I. 338ff.). Related to the Furies is Echidna, who, like the Whore o f Babylon o f Revelation, is superimposed, as it were, on a dragon, and is the mother o f every hellish horror (Jung, 1956:216). Echidna mated with the dog Orthrus, and subsequently gave birth to the Sphinx o f Greek myth (Jung, 1956:182). Indeed, in Prom etheus U nbound Mercury ad­ dresses one o f the Furies as “Sphinx, subtlest o f fiends” (I. 347). Although Jung ignores the Egyptian focus o f Miller’s vision, his perception o f the enigma attached to the Greek sphinx is readily transferable to an Egyptian context, with its overtones o f an ineffable and mysterious culture. Madame Blavatsky, in a work familiar to the young Yeats, Isis U nveiled (Tuohy, 1976:33), draws upon precisely this context to suggest that which is ineffable, opposing it to the ‘hope­ less materialism’ o f the age: And so stand these monuments [sphinxes, propylons, obelisks] like mute forgotten sentinels on the threshold o f that unseen world, whose gates are thrown open but to a few elect. Defying the hand o f Time, the vain inquiry o f profane science, the insults of the revealed religions, they will disclose their riddles to none but the lega­ tees o f those by whom they were entrusted with the MYSTERY. The cold, stony lips o f the once vocal Memnon, and of these hardy sphinxes, keep their secrets well. Who will unseal them? Who o f our modem, materialis­ tic dwarfs and unbelieving Sadduccees will dare to lift the VEIL OF ISIS? (Blavatsky, 1988 vol. 1:573). In a sense, with his prophetic poem, Yeats responded directly to Madame Blavatsky’s challenge, unsealing the lips o f the sphinx to hear the chilling message from beyond the veil. But Blavatsky’s bias towards the East is well-suited, in fact, to an age that had seen over a century o f keen (albeit often misguided) Orientalist studies in the West, Quinet and Schlegel’s ‘Oriental Renaissance’ 186

(Said, 1984:253). And although the notion o f the enigmatic East w as a cliche even in the early Victorian epoch (cf. Said, 1984:272), Blavatsky and Y eats’s em pathy for their subject rescues it from the constraints o f the merely stereotypical.3


Y ea ts’s sphinx

Y eats’s sphinx has a gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun” ; in this regard it is pertinent that Jung (1956:202) should observe (in 1912), “The psychic life-force, the libido, symbolises itself in the sun” . According to Joseph Campbell, in the volume o f The M asks o f G od that deals with Oriental religion, the solar principle o f ancient Egypt, Sekhmet, associated with a lion or predatory bird, is one aspect o f Hathor. Hathor, as the moon, is mother o f the moon-bull w hose consort is Cwkiunet. The m oon-bull’s ‘ son by Sekhmet is the ruling pharaoh - symbolised in the human-headed, lion-bodied Sphinx” (Campbell, 1962:91). Thus Sekhmet is the destructive pole o f an ultimately harmonious cosmic configuration in which both destruction and creation are intricated. The pharaoh, as sphinx, is at the cen­ tre o f this configuration, and so has access to both poles. From this point o f view the antinomic comings o f Christ, the King o f Kings (a title Shelley imputes to the pharaoh in “Ozym andias” - one o f the precursor poems to “The Second Coming” (Stallworthy, 1963:22-3)), are compatible with Cam pbell’s pharaonic myth. H arold Bloom (1970:323) reads “The Second Coming” as a record o f Y eats’s exultation in the face o f the brute pow er o f the destructive pole. Bloom ’s po­ lemics here centre on his refusal to give credence to Y eats’s mythological frame­ work. While Yeats accepts the advent o f the beast in the context o f apocalyptic


What of Orientalism’s appropriation of the Orient, as is made clear in Said’s reading? Important for me is the suggestion that ‘appropriation’ is, as Julia Kristeva (1983:33) points out, inherent in any act of interpretation. There are, though, different types of appropriation. In simple terms, appropriation can be oppressive or enriching. Said’s quarrel is with the oppressive type. An enriching appropriation would benefit all parties. In South Africa elements of African music have been beneficially appropriated by white musicians, and European elements now surface in arresting ways in local black music. In the field of literature the appropriation (along with the transformation) of English by black writers is seen as politically empowering (Cronin, 1990:295). Now, does Yeats appropriate in an oppressive or enricnuig Tujliion? There is, no doubt, something cliched about his presentation of an Eastern image, but the cliche mobilises a strength entirely in keeping with the divine nature of the sphinx and its link with pharaonic power, as outlined by Campbell. Also, Yeats acts from the level of the autonomous discourse of the Great Memory, where rough beast is not limited to any one cuhure. Perhaps his assumption of this field of transcendental signifiers is questionable, but not his application of it. That is, in the context of the language game of the Spiritus Mundi, a context defined not arbitrarily by a single individual but by various traditions, including the Platonic, Yeats is justified in his utilisation in this particular way of the rough beast.


vision without apparent protest, unwilling to resort to suppression o f the libido (the vision, despite the fact that it ‘troubles’ the p oet’s sight (1. 13), is never in­ terfered with by him), he does so from the point o f view o f the integrated cos­ mogony familiar to the ancient Egyptians. Questioning the assumed pow er in the reference, Bloom (1970:318-9) sees any associations with Christ in Y eats’s text as false and unwarranted, the beast, in his view, having no clear connection with the Christian Second Coming. In a recent article, ‘“ The Second Coming” : Coming Second; Coming in a Second”, Seamus Deane (1992:94) makes a related point: “ [the beast] is, in a very specific sense, like the Beast o f Revelation, an Anti-Christ, a reverse image o f the First Coming but not a prelude to the Second” . But where Bloom can only see a perverse glo­ rification o f the “composite god” o f a “Gnostic quasi-determinism” projected onto an era (Bloom, 1970:324), Yeats, from the ftiller context o f an archetypal perspective - which includes the violent Christ M ilitant o f Revelation - , sees an inherent principle o f life. This principle is fully in keeping with the Jungian notion o f integration o f the shadow (also evident in a reference D eane m akes to the “therapeutic moment” o f the poem (Deane, 1992:94)), or the ancient Egyptian notion o f the collaboration among Hathor, the moon-bull and Sekhmet.'* Yeats does not exult in the Vision o f Evil here em bodied, as is apparent from the first section o f the poem with its em phasis on the horrors o f the age, but he does re­ cognise its inevitability ( c f Yeats, 1962:144).



M e r our scrutiny o f the more traditional elements o f “The Second Com ing”, we now trace an imagistic connection in the contem porary Surrealist arena, which brings us closer to the roots o f Postmodernism. I have in mind, in particular, an enigmatic collage by M ax Ernst, dating from 1934, w hich incorporates an Egyptian sphinx’s head (Ades, 1974:47). In the early 1920s, Ernst, along with other Surrealists such as A ndré Breton, found in Freud “a possible guideline for the liberation o f the imagination” (Ades, 1974:31), and, indeed, w as keenly sensitive to current psychological writings. Because o f this, it may be, he, as much as Yeats, w as alert to the significance o f certain images.

According to Yeats, Shelley "lacked the Vision of Evil, could not conceive of the world as a continual conflict" (Yeats, 1962:144). George Bomstein, in Yeats and Shelley, drawing on this passage, understands it to mean that "any vision of the triumph of the good, undertaken for any reason whatsoever, involvc[s] a misrepresentation of evil and consequent falsification of the good" (Bomstcn, 1970: 202). In Jungian fashion, an inte­ gration of good and evil is a necessary precondition of life.


The head in E rnst’s collage conveys a disturbing impression o f Otherness. But though, in establishing this impression, the head lies outside the w indow o f a train com partment, it is so prominent as to be virtually within the compartment, which is itself an analogue for a version o f the Romantic quest ( c f Bloom, 1971:13-35), whose goal is a heightened sense o f self, a reintegration o f the Other. And that the human figure in the compartment is as much o f a m onster as the sphinx, suggests the danger o f assimilation attached to repression o f the shadow. Pon­ dering on the above points, w e miglit construe in E rnst’s collage a macabre inter­ nalisation o f the quest romance (Ades, 1974), which localises various historical and psychological factors contiguous with the contemporary currency o f the sphinx image - including the projects o f the Romantic precursors o f Modernist and Postmodernist vision, and the findings o f Jung and Freud.


M od ernist and Postm odernist elem ents in Y eats

Thus, how ever traditionalist in substance Y eats’s prophetic poem is - drawing implicitly or explicitly on the range o f precursors and images examined in earlier sections o f this article - its particular mobilisation o f this substance, in the context o f the ‘Subconscious’ nature o f the Sp ih tu s M undi, well suits M odernist interest in psychology and the unconscious. And the strategy o f presenting the uncon­ scious as a shadow figure converges with the syncretic mythologizing widely practised at the beginning o f the M odernist period. Frazer’s Golden Bough is not unique in ternis o f its syncretic probings; and even M adame Blavatsky produces her own syncretic study in a book already mentioned, Isis Unveiled, first published in 1877. The Jungian proclivity tow ards theriomorphic shadow figures mirrors a general trend, as reflected in the Miller document, the Ernst collage, and Y eats’s poem. To judge from the preceding evidence, let alone the predilections o f the period, the instinctual and its concomitants w ere again assuming impor­ tance after a period o f neglect. For instance, in an excerpt fi'om The First Sur­ realist M anifesto, o f 1924, André Breton writes: It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part o f our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer - and in my opinion by far the most important part - has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries o f Sigmund Freud (Breton in Lippard, 1970: 12 ).

Jung and Freud both help to give psychological credibility to the instinctual, but in the end it is Jung who treats it with a respect akin to that o f the ancients for their libidinous theriomorphic gods, so resplendent in their Otherness. And Y eats’s poem , for all its apocalyptic terror, would promote a similar sense o f the numinous, in the way it suggests that the qualities o f an era are not simply linked


to external social and historical forces, but are also linked to interior, psychologi­ cal forces, as em bodied in the shadow-like rough beast. If Freud, with his emphasis on the necessity o f separation in the achievement o f subjecthood (W augh, 1992:201), reinforces the M odernist notion o f a self-contained, discrete subjectivity, Jung evokes an open-ended, perm eable subjectivity, more in keeping with tlie post-W orld W ar Two era. Thus, Y eats’s Jungian sense o f a multi-faceted self-hood, prone to cycles o f incarnations and the interventions o f the Spiritus M undi, can be seen as participating, through its fundamental po­ lyvalency, in certain Postmodern interrogations o f received ‘truth’.5


T he significance o f the O rient

The Yeatsian interrogation o f the rational imiverse is particularly evident in the poet’s relationship with the East. It w as no accident that the East played a prominent role at the close o f the Victorian era (Tuohy, 1976:32). The East was inscribed m the Occidental mind as a major source o f anti-foundationalist coun­ ter-rationality, and in a sense Y eats’s Eastern topography, and his insistence upon the viable functioning o f a visionary capacity beyond the limitations o f mere reason, encapsulate his appreciation o f the value o f the alterative discourse o f the East. On encountering M adame Blavatsky’s disciple, Mohini Chatterji in Dublin in late 1885 or early 1886, Yeats him self claimed: ‘“ It w as my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless’” (in Tuohy, 1976:35). Yeats, like M assignon, w as able to move beyond a superficial or merely scholarly engagement with the Orient, being pro­ foundly attracted from his youth by the non-materialism o f Eastern philosophy. So much so, indeed, that he devoted much o f his time to related pursuits spiritualism, mediumship, magic, and at the end o f his life, together with Shri Purohit Swami, translations o f the Upanishads and Patanjali’s yoga sutras (Raine,


The language game of the poet might be seen as comprising three areas of interaction: with self, the contemporary world and tradition. These areas can be further subdivided into, for example, categories of assimilation and rejection, the emergent and residual, oppositional and alternative, process and product, signifier and signified - the terms of whatever other language game it is that the critic is involved in While any one area or category might be emphasised, Yeats appears to combine them all. Self fits smoothly and easily into the areas of the contemporaneous and the traditional. Of course, this type of polyvalency incorporates the various binary oppositions of the categories, where self might, for exam­ ple, assimilate or reject aspects of contemporary life or poetry; pose an oppositional dis­ course on the one hand, as in Kathleen ni Houlihan, or an alternative one on the other, as in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree''; set up a dialectic between base and superstructure as in "Adam’s Curse", where the distinction between the two categories in this instance becomcs blurred indeed; unite the processes of the self with the products of tradition, as in "Sailing to Byzantium"; erect a monumental signified in A Vision, only to have it slip beneath the signifier, when all system is read as comprising "metaphors for poetry" (Yeats, 1962:8) 190

1986:332-3). In addition, for Yeats, the East is something o f an analogue o f the unconscious. In A Vision, Yeats accepts the Hegehan identification o f Asia with Nature, in a context that incorporates the Greek Sphinx in its capacity as the voice o f Nature, or the voice o f the instinctual (Yeats, 1962:202); Hegel identifies Asia with Nature; he sees the whole process o f civilisation as an escape from Nature; partly achieved by Greece, fully achieved by Christianity. Oedipus - Greece - solved the riddle o f the Sphinx - Nature compelled her to plunge from the precipice, though man him self remained ignorant and blundering. I accept this definition.


A L acanian perspective

Y eats’s observation, which is alert to the linguistic dimension o f the riddle, ties in with the Lacanian location o f the letter in the unconscious, "'•’’ch, in sv.ggertir.g that the unconscious is stnictured like a language, constitutes in itself a fairly early Postmodernist attempt at destabilising the logos (Lacan, 1977:159). In what sense can this notion that the unconscious is structured like a language be applied to Y eats’s project in “The Second Coming”? Anika Lemaire (1977:7) interprets this central Lacanian concept as follows: The repressed is o f the order o f the signifier and the unconscious signifiers are organised in a network governed by various relationships o f association, above all metaphoric and metonymic associations.

Thinking o f “The Second Coming” in this light one is struck by both the meta­ phoric and metonymic aspects o f the rough beast o f the unconscious. Lacan appears to em phasise metaphoric and metonymic process, or the substitution and displacement o f terms as inlierent mental acts, rather than the simple presence of m etaphors and metonyms. Nevertheless, Y eats’s rough beast implies the type of process Lacan has in mind. Bestial, it images a bestial age in a metaphoric sense; but it is the metonymic signature o f the age as well, in the same way that the cross is metonymic signature o f the Christian era. W e must bear in mind Jakobson and P eirce’s notion that symbols, as much as conventional language, incorpo­ rate signifier and signified. Paraphrasing Jakobson, Lemaire (1977:24) notes, “The Symbol acts through a learned, instituted contiguity betw een signifier and signified” . Y eats’s rough beast draws on a range o f ‘instituted’ relationships, a fact which contributes to the richness o f association attached to this signifier and its final autonomy from any single definition. In Lacan signified, or externalised concept, represents the conscious, and sig­ nifier, or autonomous sound-image, represents the unconscious. Considering the independent nature o f the vision as presented in the poem, the following soundimages in “The Second Coming” are autonomous o f both the conscious intention o f the poet and any limited range o f signifieds: 191

... a vast image out o f Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with hon body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun. Is moving its slow thighs .... Signified slips under signifier, as the realm o f symbol, incorporating metonymy and metaphor, is foregrounded. This is perhaps one w ay, at least, o f presenting the inherent polysemy o f Y eats’s mythopoeic vision as it is em bedded in his rough beast.

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