From my old web site.
1. Iseult's Letters
I have just stumbled across review of a little historical oddity, a collection of the letters of Iseult Gonne, and since I read it I have not been able to stop thinking. Iseult was the daughter of Maud Gonne, famous Irish nationalist and the great, unrequited love of W.B. Yeats. Iseult's life was haunted from the very beginning: she was conceived at the marble tomb of her dead brother because her mother thought that this way she could give birth to the reincarnation of her dead child. The father was Maud's French lover, cast aside not long afterward. The child grew up amid her mother's social circle, a group of nationalist agitators, artists, and spiritual questers always pursuing new forms of expression and new ways of approaching the divine. She wanted to be an artist but had no real talent, so she drifted through her youth as a hanger-on of artists and a minor presence at seances. She was Ezra Pound's lover, and Yeats proposed to her twice. She eventually married Francis Stuart, a now-forgotten poet, but in 1939 he decided that Nazism was the political expression of eastern spirituality and went off to Germany to help the fascist cause. Iseult retired to an English country house where she ruled over a dwindling circle of admirers, except for the two years she spent in prison for helping German spies.
Iseult's story is fascinating in its own right, but it gains a deeper meaning for me because of her connections with Irish nationalism, spiritualism, and Yeats. Yeats is my favorite poet. I can recite hundreds of his lines, from "I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree" to "Under bare Ben Bulben's head in Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid." I love the singing rhythms, the words that flow like water. But I also love Yeats because in his poetry I can be moved by spiritual insights that I find hard to take in bald prose.
Though grave-diggers' toil is long,What does it mean? I'm not sure that I can put in simpler words what it says to me–that death is not just an ending, that we are more than flesh, that humanity has created something together that is more than any one of us and lives on beyond any individual life. It speaks to me of hope, and permanence. As a person with spiritual longings who can't endure any organized church, I find a power in these verses that comes as close to religion as almost anything in my life.
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
And yet Yeats, one must admit, was a nut. He used spirit mediums to contact the ancient Irish gods. He belonged to several different spiritual societies–the theosophists, the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, and the Dublin Hermetic Society–not seeming to care that the professed beliefs of these orders contradicted both each other and other things he claimed to believe. He laid out one version of his personal philosophy in a strange work he called The Vision, which I have found impossible to read, let alone understand. Ezra Pound called it "absolute rot." If he were not such a great artist, most of us would dismiss him as a crank.
Is there a way to reach the place of meaning and beauty that inspired Yeats' art without succumbing to his occult obsessions, his mad eclecticism, his complete indifference to logic, his airy contempt for the notion of "truth"? I wonder, and so I write out my musings here.
Yeats and his friends were nationalists as well as spiritualists. To me these interests are connected, and my response to occult spiritualism is colored in some ways by the politics of its practitioners. I find nationalism to be an especially troublesome expression of unreason. To me nothing is more stirring than Irish revolutionary music, and the rhetoric of freedom touches something very deep in me. But the line between patriotism and savage tribalism is hard to draw, and the one can easily slide into the other, as the Irish revolution slid into decades of hatred and terrorism. The wars of nations have been by far our deadliest. What is a nation anyway, and what does it mean for a nation to be free? In the case of Ireland, where most of the people did want independence from Britain, there is surely something to it, but the usual situation is much more muddled. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, the United States supported the independence of Croatia from Yugoslavia but not the independence of the Serbian part of Croatia; why does one deserve to be free but not the other?
I believe that freedom is a concept we should apply to people, not nations, and that human rights are more important than national liberation. All too often, wars of liberation have led only to oppression by native tyrants instead of foreigners. Yet the songs and stories of revolution move me, and I hold to that feeling. I love to read about the American Revolution and the Civil War, to ride with Paul Revere, to converse with Benjamin Franklin, to stand with the Minute Men at Lexington and the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. There must be a kind of patriotism that holds its country to the highest standards; that is built from love of home, not from hatred of enemies; that provides us with a solid base for understanding the wider world rather than blinding us with provincial scorn. Even though I fear and scorn the excesses of nationalism, I love my country, and I derive great solace from our shared stories, symbols, and dreams.
A nation exists when enough people believe that it exists, and it operates through the expectations and beliefs of its citizens. We will our countries into existence. Yeats and his friends were not the only nationalists with distinctly unpractical outlooks; many modern nations were created by dreamers and prophets. A nation is both a bureaucratic reality and a spiritual entity. The political realm is a place where what people imagine can become real, where how people feel about something can determine whether it exists or not. If enough people believe themselves to be a nation, they can make their beliefs true. There is something hopeful and empowering in this realization. And yet, the dismal results wrought by some of the ideas that have gotten loose in the modern world should caution us that our beliefs can have real and terrible consequences. Perhaps the trenches of Verdun and the smoking craters left by suicide bombers should make us careful about what we believe.
In the 1920s and 1930s, spurred on in some mysterious way by the immense slaughter of World War I, European nationalism mutated into fascism. Fascism is essentially militant nationalism elevated to a mystical plane, or a feverish pitch. Its advocates sought to harness the full power of human emotion and energy for the advancement of the state, especially the powerful impulses of brutality, sexuality, and spirituality. A fascist identified entirely with his nation, its tradition, and its leaders, loved its friends, hated its enemies, celebrated its victories and mourned it defeats no matter how long past. Yeats himself was not especially interested in fascism, but in this he was somewhat unusual for his circle. Not just Pound and Francis Stuart but many other people who shared their interests ended up on the Nazi side during World War II. Julius Evola, the Italian "traditionalist" much admired by Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and other fathers of mythical spiritualism, was an ardent fascist who scorned all talk of liberty or democracy. Some of my favorite German historians, the ones interested in peasant religion, Indo-European myth, and the ancient roots of medieval culture, were fanatical Nazis. People with my historical, artistic, and spritiual interests, I have to admit, were strongly drawn to fascism, and that sometimes gives me pause.
If I feel ambivalent about nationalism, I hate fascism. I hate the exaltation of the nation over the individual, the crude dismissal of all pleas for rights, the worship of violent action. "Let us," said Mussolini, "have a bomb in our hands, a dagger in our teeth,and infinite scorn in our hearts." And yet I have to admit that modern liberal beliefs cut us off from much that I find beautiful in Europe's ancient heritage. War and nobility have been woven together for millenia, and many of our ancestors would have trouble even imagining a secular society. Freedom of religion, which I cherish, destroys the religion of the community. We may have the right to think whatever we want, but we will never know the joy of seeing our whole neighborhood join in a ritual to honor God together. As free individuals, we belong to nothing. Fascism provided its adherents with an identity, a purpose, something to belong to much bigger than themselves. By promoting war and genocidal hatred of outsiders, fascism worked great evil in the world, but a fascist's life did have something that mine lacks.
4. Learning and Feeling
As I think about Yeats and his circle, I run these themes around each other, braiding and knotting them and then separating them again: nationalism, fascism, the beauty of art, occult obscurity, the pursuit of spiritual light. How, I ask myself, does one seek spiritual understanding without either bowing to the dictates of some authoritarian church or becoming the kind of person who can't distinguish between Nazism and yoga? The horrors wrought by fascism, communism, and other theoretical systems say something to me about the necessity of staying grounded in the real, of not letting ideas carry us away from what we know to be so, and know to be right.
How can a rational person with a commitment to truth and sanity seek an experience of the divine?
To begin with I suppose I should say something about what I mean by the spiritual. It was Aristotle who remarked, about the Eleusinian mysteries, that people did not attend them to learn something, but to feel something. I take my start from this text. The intellectual path is rooted in knowing, the spiritual path in feeling. To explore the spiritual is to seek a sense of the world and our place in it beyond the bare facts of our existence. The mind investigates the world, but faith incorporates our understanding into our souls.
I do not mean by this that a spiritual approach means believing what makes us feel good, or what we feel to be right. We can, perhaps, change the rules of politics or the structure of our societies through our efforts, but I do not think we can change the laws of physics or the structure of the atom. Certainly our knowledge is very limited and our ignorance vast, but there are things we do know and do understand. Living things evolve whether you like the idea or not; walking on hot coals is a stunt, and levitation is impossible, no matter how enlightened you are; there is a world out there, and it is a certain way. Politics is one, but not the only one. Even more important is what happens inside us. We live in our minds, and our inner lives we can, to some extent, shape to our liking. Whatever the world is like, how we perceive it and how we feel about it are at least as important to us. Within our thoughts and feelings we do shape the world. We do understand through symbols and metaphors; we can choose what some things are to us. The realm of relationships is very much about how we perceive things and what we feel, and relationships define our world as much as physics does. Not just nations but friendship, love affairs, and marriages are things we imagine. We make them real, experience them, and destroy them entirely within our minds. When it comes to what we sometimes call the big question, I think the spiritual has less to do with what we believe than how we feel about what we know and believe. Cosmology and quantum physics are our best guide to what the universe it, but what should we do with the information they provide? To contemplate the immensity of the universe in space and time, and how insignificant our little lives are to the whole pageant, fills some of us with awe and others with despair. It is a spiritual approach that helps us understand which is right for us. Reason can sort our what we are, but only faith can teach us whether we matter.
5. The Rational Spiritualist
I am by nature a rational, skeptical person, and I delight in dismantling the fabrications of untruth. I love to feel my brain working, to study the world, to analyze, to comprehend. I have enormous respect for the powers of the human intellect, and I think our science is one of our most glorious and beautiful achievements.
To me, though, the world of intellect is not enough. It does not answer the questions of meaning and purpose; it cannot tell us how to live, or why to live at all. Our secular art is a shabby scarecrow compared to the art made by earlier ages to exalt the divine and probe the demonic. To me, that says something about the role of spiritual understanding in human life. Yeats, the mad prophet of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, gave more beauty to the world than any of the millions of sensible writers who have lived since then. Science tells us much of the biochemistry of sex but little of the part we should give to love in our lives; evolutionary theory can lay out the mathematics of kin selection but not explain what kind of loyalty we owe our friends or help us find right mixture of patriotism toward our nations and mistrust toward our governments.
As I said, I cannot tolerate organized religion, because to be handed answers only provokes my skepticism. That leaves me searching for my own answers, along a path I clear largely by myself through dense thickets of confusion, worry, and doubt. As I seek my own understanding, I think about risks involved. I worry about being ridiculous, about losing my grounding in what we know about the world, about being suckered by sweet words, about giving up my independence of thought and the free working of my mind. I want to find a way to relate to nature and to history that does not distort the truth of either. I want to understand the important relationships in my life in ways that uplift me while staying true to who I and my friends are and to what we want and need. I want to be a loyal citizen of my country but also a good citizen of the world. I want to feel that I have a place in universe, in my community, in my own family. I want to know who I am and to feel satisfied with that knowing. I want to explore both the world of things and the realms of feeling, to be a person of good sense and mystical enthusiasm. Perhaps I am asking too much; perhaps I will never find any satisfactory answers. Yet I have no trouble enjoying Gothic art and paleontology, physics and symbolist poetry, Leonardo and Richard Feynman, and so far I am enjoying my attempts both to learn about the world and to transcend what I know. Can I ask for anything else?
September 17, 2004