Notes to myself on William Butler Yeats: a terrible beauty is born

“Terrible beauty” is the signature oxymoron in William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” I am not particularly a Yeats scholar, but it seems to me that this is also the signature oxymoron of Yeats’s poetic landscape in general.

If I were to presumptuously set up a one-session primer on Yeats, I would include “Easter 1916,” “The Second Coming,” and “Leda and the Swan.”

All three have to do with rupture, paradigm shift, or, to wit, the moment in which some “terrible beauty is born.” In “Easter 1916,” numb Victorian complacency shatters with a revolutionary eruption, beautiful in its sudden move from deadening complacency toward freedom, passion, and authenticity, but terrible in its violence.

On a personal level, the rupture may recall for some the Romantic move from Innocence to Experience (explicit in Blake but implicit in all six canonical Romantic poets). For Yeats, this may be best marked by his sudden, disruptive passion upon meeting Maud Gonne, whom he loved unrequitedly for decades.

On the level of cultural history, the vision is one not of gradual evolution but of long ages punctuated by violent eruptions/paradigm shifts. Although the paradigm shift in “Easter 1916” is political, a spiritual world view infuses Yeats’s vision. Look at “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming” and you see supernatural eruptions every 2000 years that determine the next historical cycle (Helen of Troy is conceived in “Leda and the Swan,” Christ is born about 2000 years later, and in “The Second Coming” Yeats sees forces gathering at the beginning of the 20th for another supernatural explosion). This sense of paradigm shift was shared by Yeats’s younger contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. And indeed it was a cultural paradigm shift that cut across all disciplines. The modernist style of Joyce and Woolf and Eliot broke radically from the Victorian style of Dickens and Tennyson. Cp. Picasso in painting (sense of depth yields to colliding surfaces), Stravinsky and DeBussy and the sudden rise of atonal, impressionistic music that would have been utterly nonsensical a few years earlier (and indeed was still nonsensical to many contemporaries), Freud, Einstein, the rise of existentialism. Not to mention the drastic review of the “meaning” of life precipitated by the trench warfare of World War I and then the rise of Hitler.

You can see this stuff all over in our selection – “Leda” begins with a “sudden blow” and drives forward with a swirling mix of beauty and terror, a power both gigantic and indifferent, richly sensual but cosmic as well. This is not a rational, Newtonian universe. And it applies on all levels – personal growth, political/cultural history, cosmic/mythological history. (For an exquisitely personal sense of this alien omnipresence indifferently driving our fates, you might see Emily Dickinson, also a contemporary of Yeats though a cultural world away.)

“The Second Coming” starts with an almost pure physics approach to the same kind of break, “turning and turning” toward the rupture point when all hell will break loose. It’s a combination of the Book of Revelation, trench warfare, the premonition of Hitler, the obliteration of innocence, etc., etc., all delivered in richly concrete terms.

Much more could be said about particular word choices and image patterns, but I’d close by saying that, for me, the key things to look for in Yeats are suddenness, fracture, power, terrible beauty, and the three primary levels to frame them with are cosmic/mythic, historical/political, personal.

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

When Sirens Call

Review of Paul David Adkin’s When Sirens Call. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014.

When Sirens Call finds its center of gravity in the romantically charged meeting between Belinda Babchek and Robert Aimard on a Greek island, but this is not your dime store romance novel. Paul Adkin tackles something much more ambitious, something that picks up on the modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, using the framework of odyssey and romance to explore the nuances of intersubjective separation and contact.

True to the expectation created by the setting, Adkin’s descriptions are finely crafted, from the Greek island scenery to the stream-of-consciousness flow of associations within the young Aussie traveler and photographic artist, Belinda, and the English ex-pat writer and island hotelier, Robert. Indeed, the travelogesque descriptions often clothe the philosophical points of the novel. Belinda notices early on, for example, before leaving Madrid, that “the megalopolis … seen from without, seems nobler,” while seen from within it is “chaos … vulgar, bitter, sharp, filthy” (37). This, in a way, encapsulates the novel’s whole point about human identity and the world we live in. The island scenery, the “tiny fishing trawler … the setting sun … gleaming yachts” (130) that form the outer shell of our protagonists’ experience, are beautiful and real, but equally real are the messy subjective interiors struggling anxiously, hopelessly, “absurdly” as both our protagonists like to say, to define a self and a place in the world. The same doubleness reads as a critique of the “romance” genre into which the novel might faux fit, a genre that typically achieves an outer shell of dreamy idealism, even in tragedy, but does so only by obfuscating the messy interior of bodily functions and psychological disturbances. Adkin doesn’t spare us the messy interior, but rather lifts the veil on the genre itself. The romantic island “paradise,” as Aimard suggests, is a poor cover for a “wasteland” within (186).

The two principal characters do not meet until the second half of the novel, and this may make for a slow start for some readers. The first half, with little or no plot, develops subjective and intersubjective spaces, building up a sense of human identity and a modernist force field of themes – alienation, dislocation, loss of meaning, the individual adrift. Separately, we bob along the interior currents of Robert and Belinda, following their inner lives as they daily reconstruct an identity built upon fears, hopes, lost loves and missed connections, percepts in the immediate environment, nuggets of philosophy and social criticism, literary and archetypal allusions that float in and out of their minds. Each character marks out an identity by a mental repetition of fence posts – cultural, historical, personal, and archetypal reference points that stabilize the frame. But the real pressure points are the points of intersubjective contact – the string of ghosts, shadows, substitute antecedents for the missing him or her, the compulsive desire for, and destabilizing fear of, human contact. The “traps” and “tricks” of Belinda’s photography, of Robert’s novels, might be seen in this light as the traps and tricks we register in all our past relationships and with which we inexorably color our future relationships in advance.

Despite differences in age and background, Robert and Belinda share much when it comes to the struggles of identity construction and sense of loss and emptiness in their lives. Indeed, as we oscillate between their streams of consciousness before the meeting, one wishes that Adkin had done more to differentiate the two, had given a more unique prosody and rhythm to each of these interior monologues, had more sharply distinguished the laws of physics governing these respective psyches. But these are the flaws of highly ambitious writing, and it is difficult not to appreciate what Adkin has accomplished as we stumble into and explore the interior landscapes he has given us.

Once the two meet, this modernist base, this malaise of intersubjectivity, is coupled to a plot with an arc, a tension, a sense of anticipation that pulls the reader into the story by the buttonhole. The plot does not have the intricacy and complexity of a classic Dickens plot, but comes rather in the mold of a D. H. Lawrence plot, where the objective sequence is simple but the subjective dynamics foster ample suspense and expectancy to drive the reader forward.

We do get our plot resolution in the end, and I for one like the novel best when the plot becomes superimposed upon the subjective arena at its base, but this is finally not a novel about plot. It is a novel about subjective spaces, lonely spaces, and moments of separation and contact. Like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it is a novel not exhausted by the plot, but rather a novel one can return to over and over, expecting with each reading the discovery of new layers of flora and fauna in those fluid spaces between the archetypal and the everyday, where “fishermen’s beards become philosophers’ beards” (21), where all lines converge toward Greece, the cradle of our collective unconscious.

Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

Thanks to fellow blogger, Manja, for the following:

In 1932, renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote a largely critical piece for Europäische Revue on the subject of UlyssesJames Joyce‘s groundbreaking, controversial, and famously challenging novel. From Jung’s essay:

“I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way. The incredible versatility of Joyce’s style has a monotonous and hypnotic effect. Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter […] Yes, I admit I feel have been made a fool of. The book would not meet me half way, nothing in it made the least attempt to be agreeable, and that always gives the reader an irritating sense of inferiority.”

In September of that year, Jung sent a copy of his article to Joyce along with the following fascinating letter.

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

C. G. Jung


Gary to Manja:

Thanks, Manja, for that gem of cultural history. I often hear lavish praise or contemptuous disregard or sheer mystification from readers of Ulysses, but Jung captures the comprehensive experience best of all. The frustration, the admiration, the resentment toward Joyce, the moments of humorous tit-for-tat between reader and text – this is remarkably close to my own experience with Ulysses. And despite my large range of reactions, like Jung I feel the dominant one is that I have been fooled or defeated. For a more unambiguously satisfying experience with that modernist stream-of-consciousness style, I prefer Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I think it is the most successful expression of that style/period and one of the four of five best novels ever written in English. It unfolds into a wonderfully rich modernist novel without the maturbatory antics or readerly frustrations of Joyce’s prose. It too is a difficult novel, but while reading To the Lighthouse, I never once doubted that the difficulty was worth it. With Ulysses, I’m still not sure it was worth it.


The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet

To the lay literati, fiction writer and theorist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, is no longer a household word, though he may have come close to that in the 1950s and 60s. The essays in For a New Novel are a kind of manifesto for the “objective” or “imagist” type novel. At the center of this collection is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, Robbe-Grillet seems a heady recruit for my army of Fashion Anarchists, attacking all normative criticism by saying that every novel must create its own genre and cannot be measured against a pre-existing standard (e.g., the Balzac novel). On the other hand, he makes his own work into a norm, suggesting that only an inferior writer today could write in that “Balzac” genre based on psychological depth and storyline nuance.

Thus when Robbe-Grillet speaks of a “new realism,” I can see the connection to Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and all of the stream-of-consciousness writers whom he praises, but I don’t see the loss of depth as an absolute. To be sure, older centers of meaning like religion no longer provide a deep and fixed anchor as we move into modernist culture. One response to this is to allow oneself to be absorbed in the surface play. Robbe-Grillet, says structuralist icon Roland Barthes, describes objects as mere optical surfaces, which have “neither function nor substance” and are “susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever.” One might recall in this light the imagist poems of William Carlos Williams and the sliced surfaces of Picasso – perhaps even the fascinating, glassy world of Richard Brautigan’s adult fairy tale, In Watermelon Sugar. (My more intrepid readers might wish to plot my stories [e.g., The Clown and the Tiger] or small poems [e.g., Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco] against these aesthetic coordinates.)

But it seems that other responses to a vanishing ground of meaning might be just as valid. The colliding surfaces and subjectivities of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse stir up all kinds of interesting undercurrents at the psychological depths. I myself have much enjoyed what I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet’s prose art, and I can read Brautigan all day long with sheer delight, but I don’t see why an appreciation of these essentially non-psychological, non-plotted, descriptive prose artworks can’t exist alongside an appreciation of novels that locate meaning at a depth or at an external distance from the objective markings of the prose.