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.
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.
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.
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.