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Explorers of the Human Psyche

ISSUE:  Summer 1981
The Rhizome and the Flower: The Perennial Philosophy—Yeats and Jung. By James Olney. California. $20.00.

Yeats and Jung, two explorers of dark corners of the human psyche, are brought together in this study as exemplars of the “main track of thought and expression” in the Western world (p. 240). Eschewing the occultist impulse of much recent scholarship on the two figures, Olney connects Yeats and Jung to the tradition of Platonism, the perennial philosophy of the title. This book will probably be read mostly by specialists in Yeats and Jung, who will doubtless be disappointed that more space is not devoted to their special interests. Its ideal audience, however, should be students of Western intellectual history, who will be fascinated by the complex pattern of recurring ideas that Olney presents.

Olney begins The Rhizome and the Flower by stating the obvious affinities between Yeats and Jung. Though the two men never corresponded or read each other’s work (Jung did own a copy of A Vision with the pages uncut), they would have both agreed to the same statement of philosophical principles, united as they were through their presumed contact with the collective unconscious or Yeatsian Great Memory. Describing similar phenomena, whether in seances, dreams, or alchemical rites, both scientist and poet deduced a single philosophy: that images function as eternal symbols and archetypes, that we learn of them instinctually through our vital relation to the memory of the dead, that the individual soul is in contact with a supernatural daimon, and that all history moves in perpetual cycles. Yeats and Jung claim that this ancient philosophy, reappearing unheralded in every age, deserves our credence because it describes the basic configuration of the human psyche. Their underlying appeal to the historical authority of the race is also implied in the strange title of Olney’s book. The remarkably similar thought of Yeats and Jung is like the late-blooming flower of a root-system, or rhizome, first consciously planted in ancient Greece by the four most important pre-Socratics: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles, and grafted together by Plato, especially in his cosmocentric Timaeus. For Olney, Plato’s work represents the supreme synthesis of the opposed perspectives of Being and Becoming, a dialectic to which all later systembuilders like Yeats and Jung must inevitably return.

A major portion of Olney’s book explores the dialectical relationship of the pre-Socratics to one another, though this argument is familiar in histories of Greek philosophy. His more original contribution is a detailed explanation of the pre-Socratic elements in the thought of Yeats and Jung. These modern philosophies, like Pythagoras, subscribed to a belief in mystic numbers as the ground for a systematic apprehension of the universe. Like Heraclitus, they adopted the principle that though our world of oppositions is in perpetual flux, it nevertheless manifests one invariable law: “mortals and immortals dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” Like Parmenides, who argued that only one eternal being exists, making our world of time and becoming simply illusory, both Jung and Yeats posited a realm beyond time and change, Jung, in his Gnostic Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, and Yeats, in the Thirteenth Cone of his Vision, described in his poem “There”:

There all the barrel-hoops are knit,
There all the serpent-tails are bit,
There all the gyres converge in one,
There all the planets drop in the sun.

Finally, using Empedocles’ vision of the warring principles of Love and Strife, Yeats derived his self-perpetuating whirling gyres; transposing Empedocles’ cosmological system to the individual psyche, Jung built up his own binary and quaternal system of the roots of all psychic behavior.

According to Olney, the greatness of Plato can be seen in his restoring Greek philosophy to the ideal of Parmenidean logic (sub specie aeternitatis), without releasing his hold on myth or humanity. Because the ideal forms have their visible counterparts below, man, the creation of the demiourgos, must necessarily have an inward correspondence to his immortal original. Olney demonstrates that both Yeats and Jung adhered to the Platonic mythos of a divine creator with links to an inner daimon, the messenger of the godhead whom we come to know symbolically, and with whom we must unite in our therapeutic/spiritual quests for Jungian individuation or Yeatsian Unity of Being. In one of the loveliest passages in the book, Olney shows that the Greek word for happy, eudaimonas, derives from the union with one’s inner daimon, itself an act of therapeuein, literally to do service to the gods (and etymologically, the source of Jungian “psycho-therapy,” p. 218). Olney finds greatness in Yeat’s poetry especially where he celebrates such moments of eudaimonic happiness, as in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” and “Vacillation.”

Generally, Olney prefers Yeats to Jung, because Yeats had greater courage to affirm his religious convictions in everything that he wrote. As Olney sees Jung, he was too much the scientist in his Collected Works, trapped by his chosen empirical framework, and separated from the believing self who speaks in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. Olney apologizes for Jung as a natural scientist, preferring the poet who, in uniting with his ghostly self, “offers to us an example for symbolic imitation” (p. 229). In thus contending that belief in any system is a “noble risk” (p. 368), Olney betrays an obtrusive personal bias, which may prevent skeptics and rationalists from giving a fair hearing to the patterns of thought he presents so sympathetically.

Had Olney done more to dissociate himself from the thought of his subjects and presented it more critically, there are many more dimensions of the relation between Yeats and Jung that could have been explored. For instance, the Yeats treated in the book is generally the purposefully humble man who casts out remorse and feels that everything he looks upon is blest. The other, hating Yeats who wrote marching songs for the Irish fascists is consigned to a footnote, where Olney notes the drift of Yeats and Jung toward fascism as one of the “the more ironic” ties between the two men (p. 175). Yeats and Jung may have manifested in the 20th century a perennial spiritual genius with laudable ancient roots, but they were also pseudo-aristocratic reactionaries, consciously isolating themselves from the main currents of their time in their pursuit of the one spiritual truth about humankind.

Yeats and Jung emerge from The Rhizome and the Flower as latter-day Platonists who can serve as our guides and interpreters in the dark realm of the unconscious self. In constructing their systems, they preferred mythic elaboration and source-hunting to the more central Platonic questions about the nature of the good, which motivated Plato’s system-building in the first place. Without articulating a convincing humanist vision, their artistic and psychological models of unity seem only beautifully wrought artifices of eternity. Serious students of Yeats and Jung, lured by the beauty and simplifying design of their thought, will themselves understand the risks and rewards of becoming fellow-travelers.


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