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Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

Yeats and degeneration

Seamus Deane

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1We take Yeats's word for it that he and his generation were "the last romantics", but that still blinds us to the power of certain aspects of the romantic ideology or ideologies which he shared with his contemporaries. Even more so, it glamourises for us the applications of that ideology in his construction of the idea of Ireland and the very specific role it plays in his poetry. I am concerned here with only one aspect of this enterprise, although I would argue that it is central to an understanding of the modes of representation that dominate his mature work.

2It is clear that Yeats shared with many of his contemporaries the notion that the modern era was distinguished by a profound and pervasive degeneration in the quality of the social life and in the quality of the individuals who participated in it. We can find abundant evidence of this in the work of Conrad, Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and many others. The reasons given for this degeneration are various. We know that the tide of Hardy's novel, The Return of the Native could be taken as an epigraph for this period. The return can take the form of a retreat to the seventeenth century before men began to think and to feel in separate, even antithetical, ways. It can be a return to Christianity, or to pre-Christian Wessex or Ireland, or a return to the blood consciousness which rationality had effectively suppressed. At one level, the return is to that which is radically distinctive of the human person before the blights of civilisation had infected it and made it pallid. Some writers see that distinctiveness realised in the form of a particular civilisation. In T.S. Eliot, for instance, that civilisation is seventeenth-century Anglicanism; in Pound, it can be early Renaissance Italy; in Hardy, it is the always vanishing moment in time that his pre-modern Wessex strives to represent.

3All of these idealised moments in history are free of the mass populations, the bureaucratic systems, the forms of rational organisation that were even then being analysed by Max Weber and the first generation of professional sociologists. But ideal versions of civilisation do not easily accommodate notions of a radical humanness which has somehow been reduced or distorted. There is, coincident with the view that we were once at one with the universe, the belief that we were then also vital, alive in a way no longer possible within the complex modern world. Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge in Hardy's novel, yields his sovereignty to Donald Farfrae, a man of mild and equable temperament and of great efficiency. But Farfrae lacks that mysterious vitality that makes Henchard what he is. He is greater than Farfrae precisely because he has retained something of the uncivilised and barbaric in his nature. It is one of the contradictions of the then prevalent attitude towards civilisation. It may not exist any longer as it once did in the past; that is a matter of regret. But it may also be the case that mankind as such cannot become civilised without undergoing seme serious loss, a deprivation of instinctual, even savage, energies. Behind or within every civilised facade there is, phantasmally present, a Kurtz, that tragic figure from Conrad in whom the European imperial system questions its own nature and its whole future.

4The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has recently identified many of the racist features in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, showing how the black natives are constantly referred to as though they were not truly human. And of course the degeneration of Kurtz consists in his fall from Europeanism into Africanism. The narrator, Marlow, deals with this by telling a lie about it; this works in one way to uphold the system Kurtz has threatened, but it is quite ineffective in other respects. The question that is unanswerable within the fiction and yet is part of its meaning is a question about the very category of human nature itself. Is it, au fond, infernal? Is barbarism our origin or is that into which we fall when we lose the constraints of civilisation? In fact these questions are one question; the alternatives they propose are false. The relation between the civilised and the barbaric is one that imperialism was bound to read hierarchically. Barbarism is that condition into which we degenerate; but can we really be said to degenerate into that which we natively possess? Further, there were so many romantic theorisings about the purity and superiority of origin, childhood, natality, the natural, that it was difficult to see how these could consort with theories about origins that were degenerate. There were new narratives, indeed a new hermeneutic, created to answer the problem, in part by changing the question. The greatest of the new narratives was psychoanalysis. It was posited on the assumption that the telling of a story would bring one to a truth, not about something outside the self, but about the very formation of that condition called selfhood. The sophistication of these new narratives would seem to distance them from more vulgar accounts of the new phenomenon of degeneracy, but it is my suggestion that they were not only kindred narratives; they were interdependent and it is in Yeats, where both narratives are startingly combined, that we see their collusive function most clearly.

5The vulgar narratives to which I refer are those of the race theorists, the proponents of eugenics and the prophets of the coming degeneration. They include Sir Francis Galton, Max Nordau, Gobineau, Spengler, Lombroso and a host of others. Their common theme was the degeneration of the white races or of superior types within those races, the deleterious effects of miscegenation, the new salience of certain degenerate types – criminal types, decadent artists – and the need to overcome these problematic conditions by selective breeding, isolation of the defective groups and a restoration of moral as well as physical vigour in the predominant races. It is at this time – from the 1860s to the 1890s – that the old version of blue-blood aristocracy is reconstituted as the elite of the physically healthy and morally confident. The new vogue for physical health is as manifest in the different versions of the so-called muscular Christianity as in the first public body-building competitions, popularised by Sandow and the famous regime that he promoted. The pseudo-scientific basis for all of this was to be found in a vulgarised version of Darwinian evolutionary theory, adjusted by his son-in-law Galton, the inventor of the word eugenics, to prove that some races (white) were privileged to have an evolutionary destiny while others (non-white) were, alas, trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It was therefore the duty of the white man to realise that destiny and the fate of others to wittingly or unwittingly help him on his way towards this goal of global hegemony and bodily excellence.

6Ireland had its own peculiar version of this race theory in the writings of Standish O'Grady specifically and in the general clamour for a restoration of the energies – usually described as heroic – of the pre-Christian Celts. It is well-known that the Yeatsian dream of peasant and nobleman co-operating to produce a new Ireland was well-developed before he took it over, attracted by its apparent capacity to solve or dissolve sectarian religious divisions, to ratify the role of the ascendancy and to valorise the role of the peasantry as opposed to that of the middle classes. The homology between this Irish version of modern conditions and that of European race theory in the imperial era is interesting in itself and should be further investigated. But Yeats grafts this particular narrative onto another, also coincident with it historically, but apparently distant from it in its substance. This is occult theory. Europe's interest in the occult – then understood as an Eastern possession that had been lost to the West – seems to run athwart its preoccupation with degenerative tendencies and the threat to white supremacy. But it is in fact another example of Europe's insatiable search for a rejuvenation of its cultural energies, an ironic feature of its wish to reorganise itself as an integral culture even while it is experiencing the actuality of its having become a dispersed, global market economy. The one territory the East had retained, the West was now determined to conquer again for itself. The proliferation of occult societies in Europe, particularly in London, during the 80s and 90s, the steady stream of Eastern mystics and their Western interpreters – Madame Blavatsky being the best known of these – and the new fashion for "the wisdom of the East" are as much features of Europe's imperial anxieties as are the various theories of race and of types. Occultism is the East under western eyes. Yeats's famous remark, that Ireland belonged to Asia until the Battle of the Boyne, exposes the political nature of this act of imaginative repossession. If Ireland became a western country in 1690, it was now time for it to recover the eastern territory which had then been expropriated. The peasantry lived in the East; the ascendancy lived in the West; the middle classes lived in the condition of degeneracy that had afflicted the West because of its failure to incorporate the East. This is a metaphysical geography that conceals class, race and religious divisions at one level only to release them later at another and in a more apocalyptic manner. For Yeats, like Conrad, Lawrence, Eliot and others at the time, saw the situation in the light of an ultimate collapse, the decline of the West, the end of civilisation, the loosing of the blood-dimmed tide.

7The importance of occult beliefs does not reside in their ultimate truth only; it also derives from their function. However diverse their expression may be, they are all understood to have their origin in the Great Memory, in some species of essential spirit in which we and the world share. As a consequence, occultism is a bonding agency in the life of a people. It is communal, it is ancient, it exchanges the bewildering diversities of historical change for the recurrence of predictable cyclic patterns. It stabilises a community and – importantly in the Irish context – it is a religion that is not institutionalised.

8Because it is not susceptible to annexation by either Protestantism or Catholicism, occultism has for Yeats an immediate, collectivist function in Irish conditions. It provides a religious foundation free of sectarian rancour. In addition, it has the attraction of being a secret doctrine that is also a matter of common knowledge, esoteric and public; repressed in the advanced desacralised cultures, it is still a living force in the Ireland of the peasantry and a new discovery in the salons of the new mysticism. Yeats sees himself as belonging to both, to the Order of the Golden Dawn and to Sligo, to a spiritual ascendancy and a spiritual community. In trying to describe Yeats's situating of himself in this regard, I shall to some degree reinscribe the sectarian terms that he concealed in his sponsorship of the occult, and adapting for our present purpose Karl Kraus's dictum on psychoanalysis: "Occultism is that illness of which it believes itself to be the cure".

9First, though, I would suggest to you that the formal analysis of the modern condition that is closest to Yeats's is that of Max Weber – rather than Nietzsche. Nietzsche does indeed play a role, but it is Weber – especially the Weber of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of capitalism – who provides the anti-Marxian analysis that casts light on what Yeats was attempting to do. Despite obvious differences, both men affirm the nation, not class, as the source of communal values. Weber is famous, even notorious, for the dichotomous pattern of his thought, as is Yeats, although Weber's oppositions are quite different – bureaucracy versus charisma, asceticism versus mysticism, Realpolitik versus ethics, and so on. But it is his account of the passage from the otherworldly directed society of feudal Catholicism via Protestantism to the rationally organised, bureaucratic secular world that has its bearing on Yeats. In brief rehearsal, he says this: Luther destroyed the monasteries, the first rationally organized system devoted to otherworldliness; Calvin reorganized daily life, Christianizing it thoroughly, making it subject to a kind of monastic severity and so methodically organizing ethical conduct that social life assumed the aspect of a business enterprise. Despite the devotional intensity of the Protestant ethic, the sacred eventually disappeared as a category and all that remained was that system of organisation, based on the principle of deferred pleasure, that was adapted by modern capitalism. But, further, Weber associates this triadically phased movement with three figures – the magician, the prophet and the priest. The magician has what Weber famously called "charismatic power", but in a traditional society he exercised it as personal power. The prophet (like Luther) exercised his power for the sake of a doctrine; the priest, the inheritor of the prophet, is an official of the subsequently rationalised, institutionalised religion and is without charisma. He is the figure of the bureaucrat, in clerical guise.

10Here, in this description of the relationship of the world of modern capitalism to the historically precedent worlds of (a) non-institutionalised religion – magic, in other words and (b) mediaeval Catholicism, (c) Lutheranism and Calvinism, or protestantism, we see a European / German version of Yeats's reading of the Irish situation. More than that, we see too Yeats's reading of his own position as prophet, intermediate between the magician on the one hand and the priest on the other, the Protestant prophet dividing the pre-Christian world of magic from the drear Catholic-bureaucratic world of post-Famine Ireland.

11Degeneracy, then, is a phenomenon that accompanies rationalization, institutionalism. Yet in Yeats's case the phenomenon needed to be looked at carefully, because he saw it as a symptom of both the Protestant Ascendancy and the Irish catholic middle class. He wanted to rescue the ascendancy from its decline, to restore to it the charismatic (or heroic) leadership it once had by renewing its contacts with the peasantry, by making them possessors, not so much of the land as of the soil, the matrix of ancestral, magical beliefs out of which charismatic selfhood emerged. To do this as a programme, as O'Grady had tried to do, was beyond or beneath him. He had to embody as action, in the perfection of his own life and work, the process whereby the styles of prophetic, charismatic leadership could be reassumed by an exemplary repossession of magical / folk beliefs.

12It was a troubling, dramatic enterprise. Part of the trouble was to find an explanation for degeneracy, for the loss of charisma and the heroic spirit of leadership. This took a deceptively simple form. The triadic pattern remains. We may say it went from Violence to Civilisation to Violence. Within this, there are complexities and contradictions. The originary violence that is a prelude to the achievement of civilization, is natural, in the sense that it is fundamental to human nature and is joyous, as is the violence of the ancient Irish sagas. It is an energy that is radically creative. The latter, modern form of violence is not a radical energy, but something sterile, reactive, dispersive. Yet on many occasions Yeats queries this characterisation. Hatred of what is, of a civilization that has gone dead, is legitimate; the violence that accompanies it is perhaps productive as well as justified, for it might signal a return to origin, to the world where the mage and the hero dominate, to the charismatic power system he so admired in its later proto-fascist or fascist forms in Mussolini's Italy or the Ireland of Kevin O'Higgins and General O'Duffy. Through such violence, we might have a return to the occult, although his great fear is that we might instead have a reaffirmation of middle-class, catholic, bureaucratic power. The civilization itself, which Yeats sees almost entirely in terms of the Anglo-Irish Big House and eighteenth century Anglo-Ireland – contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, represented in the famous images of tower, house, fountain, bird and their ruined or ferocious extensions. In brutal terms, Yeats has to ask himself the same questions about originary Protestant as he does about terminal catholic violence. Is one creative, the other sterile? Is one the degenerate form of the other? Or is it a rebirth of the other, a kind of sacred violence that comes as a relief and rescue from the motley world of the fin de siecle ennui, despair and the religious laodiceanism of the commercialised society?

13In 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', we see Yeats observing violence under these two aspects, questioning its relationship to civilization, its legitimacy in governing a reading of Irish and indeed human history and finally, regarding himself as the daemonic prophet, caught between a world in which magic is re-emerging and from which civilization is disappearing. The question that dominates all others in the poem concerns degeneracy and inheritance. 'Ancestral Houses' asks if degeneracy is in fact the product of a civilisation that, by its very success, takes away our greatness by subduing our violence and bitterness. The following poem, 'My House', sees Yeats himself as the descendant of a man-at-arms, but refuses the charge of degeneracy for himself, since he too is a founder and an exponent of the "daemonic rage" of the secret sect along with "Il Penseroso's Platonist" whose light is visible from afar to "benighted travellers". The third poem, 'My Table' brings together the changeless work of art, Sato's sword, which is also a weapon of war, and envisages the poet himself as the inheritor of that changelessness now doomed to live in an era where change intensifies again and thereby becoming a prophet of doom, a crazed aristocrat in a plebeian world, a peacock that screams. 'My Descendants' sees Yeats now as father, the man whose inheritors may eventually become degenerate. If so, the poem pleads, may the tower become a ruin; even in its ruin, it will remain a monument to him and his children. "The Road at my Door' brings the poet-prophet face to face with modern violence, the participants in the Irish Civil War, the "affable Iregular" and the Free State soldiers. In broken weather and in a broken world, he reascends his tower, his prophetic voice frozen by envy – envy of their nonchalance, their vitality. 'The Stare's Nest by my Window' is a sequence of images of random violence, governed by the cry for something natural to begin again, for the process of rebuilding to resume in the ruins of the broken civilisation. Finally, 'I see Phantoms of Hatred ...', the seventh poem in the sequence, is, of course, a vision – specifically, through the figure of Jacques Molay, a hero of the occultists, of the destruction of the old world of magic by monarchy and church and the vengeful savagery of modern warfare that follows the death of the occult. The role of the poet-prophet is legitimised on the basis that, had he given himself to civilization, he would have felt its loss the more. Instead, having remained loyal to the "daemonic images", he can survive, speaking for the civilization destroyed and the one to come, identifying his poetic-prophetic powers with those energies of the occult and the violence which both produced and destroyed the civilization he laments.

14Out of the degenerate, the heroic may come. This is a theme in 'Easter 1916', in 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' and in many of the poems of the decade that culminates with the publication of 'The Tower'. Its coming is horrific as well as heroic; the great distorted images of the poetry of these years – phantasmal and nightmarish creatures, human and animal, – seem to represent a world that is being increasingly haunted by what it repressed. Ireland and Europe are plagued by violence and Yeats interprets it as the return of the repressed in the form of occult nightmare. It is at this point that contradiction occurs. Jacques Molay, Robert Artisson, the Rough Beast are all sinister figures, implying catastrophic change. The occult is a zone of terror. Is it out of this or in reaction to it that the heroic, charismatic figures, the new leadership, is to emerge? Are these also bitter and violent men? How are we to understand greatness, as he calls it? It would seem that greatness must be the faculty of controlling anarchic violence, fashioning out of it a civilization. But civilization is itself, as he repeatedly tells us in these poems, a dream, a vision of order that we dreamt. Greatness belongs to him who makes a dream out of nightmare, someone like Yeats himself who knows the daemonic and endures it and yet uses its fierce pressure to create the dream of order that is poetry. But it is surely evident that, as Yeats produces his great poems about history, as the specific actualities of the violent world of the early twentieth century become more immediate and present in his writings, the system of interpretation inside which these poems operate becomes more and more amorphous and apocalyptic. He spent much of his life creating heroic figures; they are numerous enough to form a litany. But with all their charisma, they are also tragic figures – Synge, Hugh Lane, Parnell, Maud Gonne, Swift, Robert Gregory – overwhelmed by the atrocious world they had been born to. Of course, the explanation given is that they were "born out of phase". But that is precisely the point. Yeats cannot envisage a future that does not have a terrifying aspect. His historical world is a closed cyclic system; yet this blunts what he wants to say about the specific character of modern violence. He can in one way absorb it into his system; but his images have a disruptive force, breaking the system and announcing the end of all peace, of all order. The occult is not the therapy for the modern world; it is, in these poems, the disease for which it thinks itself the cure. Its phantasmal appearances arc the product of a terminal degeneration that affects the West in particular. The prophet can only remember the future in terms of the past. Yeats, because he could not see the world as sacred any more saw it instead as demonic. But that demonic element seemed to him to be in a way preferable to the rational bureaucratic and soulless alternative – which he of course identified with Marxism, Socialism, Fabianism, Bernard Shaw. His alternative, charismatic, prophetic, heroic, and apocalyptic, was fascism. The dream of order had become possible only because, unlike Joyce, he could not awaken from the nightmare of history. Fascism was what magic became when it returned out of its deep occlusion to become politics.


University College Dublin

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1990

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