How the occult helps my faith

I have promised that as I go through my PhD program, I’ll post bits of my writing that are related to Charles Williams or the Inklings. Here’s a draft of a “reading notebook” entry I made for my class on Yeats & Joyce. Enjoy — and your comments are welcome. 

Thornton, Weldon.  “Between Circle and Straight Line: A Pragmatic View of W. B. Yeats and the Occult.”  Studies in the Literary Imagination 14.1 (March 1981): 61-75.

Short Summary:

In debate with other scholars on Yeats and the occult, Thornton critiques the narrow-minded “Western” epistemology that rejects such spirituality out of hand because it does not pass the test of reductive rationalism. Questioning assumptions about belief, Thornton encourages readers to take Yeats’s occultism seriously; without it, we lose the richness of his poetry.

Long Summary:

Most critics, Thornton laments, reject Yeats’s occultism as silly or irrelevant. On the contrary, he argues: it is absolutely central to Yeats’s poetry. Yeats was involved with many secret societies and hermetic activities from childhood through death, and he integrated its concepts into all his thought and work. In particular, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, and between this life and the next, were of crucial importance to Yeats.

Why, then, Thornton asks, have good scholars ignored or denigrated the most significant ideas of the poet they study? Because, he suggests, Yeats was in fundamental opposition to Western presuppositions about knowledge and belief. The occult does not fit into our narrow empiricism, and so it is jettisoned or ignored. But Thornton proposes that it is our reductionism, not Yeats’s spirituality, that is close-minded, parochial, and unrealistic. We only allow extremely limited forms of evidence or of experience to hold validity, and we prefer philosophical simplicity (à la Occam’s Razor) to rich experience and open-minded skepticism.

After establishing that broad philosophical basis for rejection of Yeats’s occultism, Thornton next surveys particular scholars’ dismissals, including Yvor Winters, Karl Shapiro, Austin Warren, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Richard Ellmann. All of them try to put distance between themselves and Yeats’s weird beliefs.

But were they beliefs? Did Yeats really believe in spirits, séances, reincarnation, etc.? Thornton presents this question, then comes at it from a different direction, questioning the limited definitions we have permitted the word “belief.” There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well. Yeats was different. He could tentatively try on a belief to see how it worked in a certain situation, treating it more like a thought experiment than like a quiz-question for getting into heaven.

Finally, then, Thornton considers what all this meant to Yeats as a poet. He was neither a philosopher nor (primarily) a mystic, using spirituality as an end in itself, but a poet who enriched his own life and work by lived experiences of the supernatural. He was the opposite of an escapist: he studied the other world in order to enrich this one, and did so with his poetry.

Response:

In this powerful article, Thornton raises profound questions about “Western” tradition’s limited epistemology. We are only allowed to believe a very narrow swathe of ideas, he points out, if they pass certain tests of empirical validity and philosophical simplicity. His ideas are refreshing and encouraging, not least because they are practical. They suggest ways that literature can live beyond the page and scholarship can thrive outside the academic. I have been challenged and heartened by his writing in ways that go far beyond my study of Yeats. For this one response, then, I would like to take a different approach than usual. Rather than reading a Yeats poem through Thornton’s lens, I would like to explore practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis as it relates to Christian belief and public intellectualism. Finally, I would like to close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. While I will not use these ideas as an approach to the poetry of Yeats per se, the broader concepts I will be exploring have to do with the practical and personal application of literature, and so they are reflexive back to Yeats and his work.

First, then, there are valuable practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis to Christian belief—to my own Christian belief. He points out that Western intellectualism puts a high value on “belief”—but has not adequately defined the term or delineated what does and does not count as belief. There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well (71). He implies several important questions: Is it doctrine that matters? Or feelings? Or a decision driven by will power? Or relationship? Or sensory events, such as voices or visions?

These questions are relevant in many contexts, including political, philosophical, legal, and scientific communities, but Thornton points out their application to religious, specifically Christian, creeds:

Can even an orthodox person say what it means to “believe” in the “existence of God,” or in the “resurrection of Christ”? Does one have any control over whether he believes any such assertions, and should one then feel pride or guilt about belief or lack of it? But in spite of how vague a category belief is, most Westerners inherently feel that they have precipitated something real when they ask whether a person believes something, for this constitutes a powerful intellectual shibboleth in our culture. (71)

Now, most orthodox people do say what it means to believe in the existence of God. Some will emphasize doctrine: it means intellectual assent to certain stated propositions about the nature of God, historical events, their spiritual significance, their application to the individual, etc. Some will emphasize subjective experience, such as an emotional feeling of love for Jesus or God’s love for oneself. Others will prioritize choice and commitment, pointing to a particular date on which they “gave their hearts to Jesus” or made a public profession of faith or were baptized, and so forth. And yet others will focus on actions as evidence of a heart change, looking for works of service and sacrifice in themselves or others as proof of saving belief.

I found Thornton’s questions refreshing and liberating. I am and have always been a member of the Reformed/Evangelical branch of the Protestant church, which requires people to attest to come kind of affective, relational sort of belief, usually articulated as “A relationship with Christ.” I find this sort of emotive metaphor difficult to manufacture in myself, and instead cling to a volitional form of belief—but even then, I am often stymied. I have made a commitment to follow Jesus, but I am often at a loss as to what that means at any given moment when I don’t feel something emotional about Him and when I even intellectually question the historical or propositional doctrines I am meant to be affirming. This often rises to an internal crisis right before participation in the Lord’s Supper, which is “fenced” by warnings about the danger of partaking without an appropriate kind and level of belief. Thornton reassured me that I am not alone in my questions about belief: wiser minds than mine have debated what belief actually is or entails, and he is confident in asserting that it is a vague category. My Calvinism agrees with his question about whether anyone has control over belief and forbids either pride or guilt at a subjective sense of having or not having achieved it. Perhaps it is all right, then, for me to have questions about the narrow ways in which any given denomination or congregation fences the table or defines emotive reactions to the reciting of creeds.

This is a significant way that his article lives outside the academy: It could be usefully read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, and Christian educators to encourage them to interrogate their assumptions about what constitutes belief. One need not be a scholar of Yeats to know that such questions are relevant and powerful. Narrow answers to them are terrifying.

This leads to my second point, which is that Thornton’s article could be performing a much-needed service as public intellectualism. I doubt that it has done so; it was published in a scholarly journal, after all, which is hardly ever read (and difficult to access) outside the academy. I don’t know, but I doubt, that Thornton ever turned any part of the contents of this article into, say, a blog post or a newspaper editorial. I doubt that it has ever been read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, or Christian educators unless they were studying Yeats as a hobby or side-field. And yet, “Western” culture is in dire need of public intellectualism. The very narrowness of popular concepts of proof, evidence, empiricism, rationalism, and philosophical simplicity are themselves symptomatic, I believe, of a deep disease of anti-intellectualism in our culture, often disguised as a kind of cheap intellectual savvy. I will not pursue this point in any depth, but I strong believe (believe!) that the current U.S. Presidential election debacle is a result of wide-spread intellectual weakness. This campaign season has revealed that the truth-content of claims is no longer valued. Facts are of little importance. Ethics have been discarded, as a candidate’s assertions of future usefulness are given more weight than his or her past dubious (possibly criminal) actions). A narrow and intolerant, even cruel, ethnocentrism has replaced an earlier over-application of political correctness. I believe that these are not only moral failures, but the results of poor education, under-education, and wrong-headed education. Public intellectuals are badly needed to foster an open-minded, ethically sound culture that is capable of detecting logical fallacies and courageous enough to reject rhetoric, whether hateful or suave, that does not align with facts and with historical wisdom. Thornton’s open-minded approach to belief could help to challenge the narrowness of the current American climate.

Finally, I would like to move back from broad questions about public intellectualism to more specific ones about the occult, and close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. My own a response to occult materials in writers I have studied has not been disbelief in it. I have not thought it silly or tangential or irrelevant. In fact, I have tended to believe that these writers (Blake, Yeats, Waite, Crowley, Underhill, Williams) meant what they said. They probably did have converse with spirits. But my response has been rather one of fear: They probably did interact with spirits, but which spirits? I do not doubt the existence of the spiritual world in which they believed, but I am afraid it is the wrong spiritual world. I have assumed they are talking to demons, rather than angels; that their afterlife is hell, not heaven. And I have never accused them of escapism from the “real world”: rather, the vice I have ascribed to them is a lust for power. I see dabbling in the occult not as an attempt to get away from this mortal life, but to control it—and to control the people in it. In my research, I have encountered high-ranking occult initiates who manipulated their families, friends, and coworkers into performing roles in their constructed myths. I have encountered those who have abused people, physically, emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. I have encountered those who have abused themselves, through neglect of their bodily needs or through active mistreatment of their bodies or minds as they were consumed by this lust to control nature, spirits, other people, or themselves. I have seen them worn out, used up, made ill, driven mad, and dying young because they drained their bodily energies to serve a creative genius. I have heard of the terrible deeds they have done, the terrible sins they have committed, in service of this other world with which they were in contact.

This ugly picture of the occult is quite different from the picture Thornton paints of the thoughtful, broad-minded sensitive Yeats whose “experiences deserve to be regarded seriously and sympathetically” (75). I understand that Thornton is correcting an error he sees in the scholarship, so it would be no surprise if he over-corrected. I am more surprised, however, and pleasantly surprised, to find that his investigation of an area I have feared and been repelled by has helped my own spiritual condition. I am not prepared to say that I have been wrong to fear and condemn occult involvement, but I stand by my claim that we need scholars like Thornton to come forward and serve as public intellectuals. Clearly, there are debates we need to have about the validity and value of the occult, about our assumptions regarding what constitutes belief, and about the place of spiritualit(ies) in “rationalist” Western culture.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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14 Responses to How the occult helps my faith

  1. Ann Ahnemann says:

    It’s all ‘occult’ isn’t it, until we meet the Presence face to face! Eyes to see, ears to hear hidden reality. We are too much fenced in by systems, no? Be they church, politics, culture. Nice article, Sorina!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. joviator says:

    This is an interesting topic. Loudly rejecting the occult is a policy of the established churches, perhaps intended to deflect the disdain of rational empiricists away from their own doctrines. Or it used to be. At least one church I know of uses the word “supernatural” approvingly now, which was decidedly not done in the mid-twentieth century.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark Sommer says:

    “Public intellectuals are badly needed to foster an open-minded, ethically sound culture that is capable of detecting logical fallacies and courageous enough to reject rhetoric, whether hateful or suave, that does not align with facts and with historical wisdom.” Sørina Higgins for President!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just read an interesting little address by Johan Huizinga (distinctly something of a public intellectual – even an international one – in his day) to the Royal Flemish Academy in 1925 on Grotius’s place in the history of the human spirit/mind, in which he notes that Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (George Herbert’s eldest brother) said it was Grotius who encouraged him to publish ‘De Veritate prout distinguitur a revelatione, a versimili, a possibili et a falso’ [‘Concerning Truth as it is distinguished with respect to revelation, to what is likely to be true, to what is possible, and to what is false’], which Huizinga describes as a sort of epistemological exploration.

    Reading this post, that title struck me as something interesting to set beside Thornton’s listing kinds of “belief” and your reflection here upon them. For example, how do kinds of belief relate to approaches to, and sources of, truth? And how can experiences and interpretations of those experiences be related to belief and truth? What, as you say, of “sensory events, such as voices or visions”? Or the interpretation or belief that one is in communication with an angel (like Dr. Dee) when one might conceivably be being buffaloed by a con-man (Edward Kelley?) – or a fallen angel (or both)?

    I don’t know enough about what several of those critics Thornton lists (ahem) ‘believed’, but Eliot was a through-going orthodox Christian ‘supernaturalist’ (and I have the impression Auden was some way along in that ‘direction’), which would mean a different interpretive context from, say, a convinced atheist, in approaching what Yeats did or did not ‘believe’ about various ‘occult’ matters: such an atheist might conclude the same thing as Eliot, but would be differently disposed to the ‘truth’ of the possibilities.

    Interesting here to consider what the Christian Lewis says in the preface to the 1050 reprint of Dymer about the not-yet-returned Lewis with respect to that earlier Lewis’s perception of Yeats (but what was the 1950 Lewis’s perception of Yeats’s ‘beliefs’?).

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  5. Stephen Barber says:

    There is a very good summary of the occult movement and Yeats’s place in it in F. A. C. Wilson’s Yeats and tradition. He himself felt he was in a tradition which went back through Blake to Neoplatonism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      This having (so far as I can recall) eluded me, let me be the first to chip in a note of thanks!

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I remember having read around in George Mills Harper’s Yeats and the Occult (1975) (and maybe even his Yeats’ Golden Dawn (1974)…) – but not in any detail what I learned there! I’m sure I never read Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult (1993).

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ” I doubt that it has done so; it was published in a scholarly journal, after all, which is hardly ever read (and difficult to access) outside the academy.” A very interesting broader point in its own right! I suspect it is very hit or miss whether your local public library would have this journal (or the books Stephen Barber and I mention), and that ‘something like that’ situation is often the case. Ditto, where internet is involved: sometimes it is surprising how much you can find online, say, in the Internet Archive or via HathiTrust, even of things modern or recent enough still to be in copyright – but it is also often disappointing how inaccessible something that sounds (or you know to be) very interesting, is, to your average “Middlesex village and farm”.

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  7. dorotheian says:

    Shoot, I wish I had been able to comment…

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  8. dorotheian says:

    ^ Wait, that worked. Try again.

    Many Christians have sincere belief, but since we labor to understand with divided hearts and minds, there are unacknowledged and unconscious parts of us that remain unconvinced. This leads to the thoughts you spoke of such as “I think, but do not feel,” or “I feel, but I don’t understand,” or “I know / I feel but I simply cannot accept because….” etc., etc. For me personally, understanding this and seeking healing for the miscommunication and isolation between the parts of my heart, and resolving the trauma that lay at the core of my disbelief (disbelief which surprised me!), was key to my forming a relationship with Jesus. Before that point I had felt aimless and disconnected when I thought about such a thing ever happening; I felt that everything I prayed was one-sided, and although I did have brief moments of clarity of God’s presence, I could not receive the reply. It was an all too intermittent communication. Without this relationship sense, Christianity does not make sense; and yet I think too often the church people for being unable to connect to this relationship as if the connection can be made by will or effort or wanting. And of course these things are good, but it is not usually will or effort that is at fault. We have a divided sense of self that blocks full connection. Thus we must go to Jesus to heal our unbelief and reconcile our parts to each other and to him, and listen to what he has to say. And sometimes we have to learn how to listen.

    … I should also probably add one more thing, which is that I relate a lot to the realization that knowing about the occult helps my faith. Realizing that the occult existed for real and had power made the spiritual world real to me. In shock, I recoiled from all hints of the supernatural, suspecting evil, but what was more important was that the realization confirmed for me that God was even more real, immediate, and relevant. I could no longer deny or doubt the presence and effect of this other dimension on life. It took me a while to realize that as a Christian I shouldn’t fear the occult (God is always with us, and we can always look to him to protect us), but now I am glad that I am aware of this struggle and sensitive to the ramifications of our everyday choices in the spiritual sense. Our struggle is not with flesh and blood indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I can imagine C.W. would delight in this:

    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/11/10/gold-mass-for-scientists-to-be-celebrated-for-the-first-time/

    On the Feast of Albertus Magnus, described here by another C.W. (the article’s author, Christine
    Williams) as “the patron saint of scientists, […] an alchemist who worked to turn base metals into gold”!

    Like

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