Yeats: Self and anti-self

The 13th of June is Yeats Day, the anniversary of Yeats’ birth. Best known as a poet, Yeats had philosophic interests. He admired idealism, and was well known for reading neoPlatonists such as Plotinus. In his essay Bishop Berkeley, he extols the imagination that underlay philosophy from Spinoza to Hegel.

Yeats was not a pure idealist (a term that to him evoked Kant, rather than Berkeley who was “idealist and realist alike”.) Yeats also rejected “the new naturalism that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind”, quoting Nietzsche’s Zarathustra “Am I a barrel of memories to give you my reasons?” (Bishop Berkeley).

As mentioned previously, Yeats and Wilde knew each other and Wilde made a strong impression on Yeats. In The Parting of the Veil (1922) Yeats tells of Wilde’s attempts to copy (wear a mask) opposite to the natural self or the natural world.

By 1918 in Arnica Silentia Lunare Yeats has developed his view and says,

The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.

It is tempting to see this as a parallel to Wilde’s thoughts in In De Profundis, rejecting illusion and moving towards seeking self-realisation. But unlike Wilde after Reading Gaol, Yeats does not see meaning in pain. It is the openness to reality regardless of pain that is important. Yeats also points to the importance of sacrifice, but it is the sacrifice of the old self via the deliberate adoption of the mask of the antithetical self and striving actively to become something one is not. For Yeats, this struggle is an expression of strength and creativity.

This is reminiscent of Nietzsche, and Zarathustra’s endless transfiguration from the suffering camel, to the rebellious lion, to the creative child, and back again. Yeats sees this development as an ongoing struggle against an old self always requires transcending. The ultimate identity is neither the primary self nor the anti-self but a balance (or more correctly a synthesis) between the two. Yeats finds an end to Nietzsche’s circle in Hegel’s synthesis of two opposites.

There are further parallels to Hegel in Yeats’ thoughts on development of nations. In Per Amica Silentia Lunae Yeats had already made a connection between the antithetical self and the development of nations. Nations for Yeats fluctuated from one type to another in a cyclical way. In The Parting of the Veil (1922) he cites Ireland turning from “bragging rhetoric and gregarious humour” to “offer herself to the solitary and proud Parnell as to her anti-self”.

The system takes a more radical and obscure turn in A Vision (1925), where Yeats weaves a symbol-rich mystical tapestry in which types of personality and phases of history move in constant interlocking cycles, constantly advancing and retreating. Built on gyres, and underlying poems such as The Second Coming , Yeats’ system is explored here, which also touches on Georgie Yeats’ pivotal role in its creation.

If any single idea can be taken from this complex and esoteric system, it is that all things, from the human personality to history… (Duddy, 2004, p. 380)

…must move in cycles, running the whole gamut of conflicts and reversal, shuttling back and forth between contraries, between subjectivity and objectivity, between will and fate, between chance and choice, between thought and passion.

Yeats had always taken pride in the philosophers in the Anglo-Irish tradition, but from 1924 he started to read philosophy more extensively. He developed a particular affinity with Vico, whose theory that myths are historical even though they do not refer to real people, since they reflect the thought and concerns of Primative Man appealed to him. Vico, too, theorised that history was cyclical. It was after reading Vico that Yeats wrote these words emphasising that life is rooted in passionate lived experience (“The Tower” (1928))

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

Yeats also became more interested at this time in the Irish 18th century philosophers, developing an particular affinity with Swift, about whom he wrote the play, “The Words upon the Window Pane” (1934). He argued for a revival of this tradition of Irish thought, without notable success.

Yeats died in France on 28 January 1939. His body was moved to Sligo and reburied in 1948.


Featured Image: Monument to Yeats in Sligo Town (c) CoolMel/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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