Stepping into the tornado
This afternoon, I was reading Yeats. There are weird things that surround my peculiar fascination with him. It started with a mistake.
I was living in California, married and at an impasse. I felt like I was going in circles, repeating the same dull round. Then I struck up a correspondence with a woman from Arkansas which turned into love like a quick summer storm. But I couldn’t throw out my principles, and lie and deceive. My wife found out by accident, and I just couldn’t lie about it. She didn’t want to end things, especially over someone I hadn’t even physically met. A bargain was struck. My wife flew to Florida to visit her grandmother on the day that my new love arrived. We spent a week together, to see if things were real.
It couldn’t have been more real. It was as if a tornado had touched down in my life shredding everything in its path. I dropped her off at LAX to go home, and I had a few hours wait before my wife arrived home, before I had to tell her that our ten-year marriage was over. I was looking for a book to read, and I’d been talking with a guy I worked with who was doing his master’s thesis on Keats. At the time, I was not a literature student. I was a photographer. So my brain saw The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats and read it as Keats. Oops.
I bought the book, and really enjoyed it. There was just something so strangely appropriate, because many of the poems were concerned with growing old. I suppose I was at a crossroads, wondering where I wanted to be as I grew old. The poems were also a strange vortex to me, drawing me in and making me want to know more.
I left them unconsidered for several years after the new relationship fell apart. It was too painful a memory. But then, four years back at school studying literature, I had the opportunity to take a seminar on Yeats taught by Russell Murphy, who edits the Yeats-Eliot Review. Suddenly the twisting gyres of Yeats’s universe filled my head. I had a much better sense of what they meant. Dr. Murphy offered to publish my final paper, but I still haven’t revised it. It was high praise, but there is just so much pain wrapped up in the poems and my feelings about them. The paper was about Blake and Shelley, and what they meant to Yeats. One day, I’ll have to go back to it.
But that is all just prelude, to what I was thinking today.
Harold Bloom sees Yeats’s A Vision as a failure, a failure based on an attempt for closure. Without going into two much detail, Yeats was also trying to revise dialectic. He saw the forces of the universe as opposing gyres, the objective and subjective twisting and turning in opposite directions while interpenetrating each other. He borrowed from Blake’s notions of contraries and negations, and evolved it into a closed system based in the phases of the moon, but the driving force is like two tornados intersecting. Bloom claims that Blake’s notion of vortices is a more workable system, also built in a rebellion against the encroachment of dialectic.
For Blake, there are two limits: ultimate expansion and ultimate contraction. The ultimate in contraction is opaque, dark, lightless, Satan. The ultimate in expansion is God. Man sees the world from a perspective in the midst of a vortex stretching from the contraction of Satan to the expansion of heaven. The goal of life should be to reach higher in the vortex, up to a world of infinite expansion, reaching out to God. That was the problem, as he saw it, with reason and abstract reductionism. The spinning of the vortex, for Blake, never stops. Even in heaven.
Shortly after arriving in Arkansas, my brother told me about his tornado experience. He was sitting in his little guard shack in the middle of the night when a tornado picked him up and sat him back down, unharmed, about a hundred yards away. He claimed that he just hasn’t seen the world the same since.
I could say the same thing, except the tornado that caught me took me around 1500 miles. There has been no completeness, no phases, no movement toward perfection. Just endless mental fight to try to make the circles a little wider. To get away from ground zero of the thing that tore up my life.
But Yeats still provides a compelling, and comforting case:
‘But such as you an I do not seem old
Like men who live by habit. Every day
I ride with the falcon to the river’s edge
Or carry the ringed mail upon my back,
Or court a woman; neither enemy,
Game-bird, nor woman does the same thing twice;
And so a hunter carries in the eye
A mimicry of youth. Can poet’s thought
That springs from body and in body falls
Like this pure jet, now lost amid blue sky,
Now bathing lily leaf and fish’s scale,
WB Yeats, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” 55-66
At the very least, I think Yeats refutes Plato quite nicely.