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.
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
moved by spiritual insights that I find hard to take in bald prose.
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.
And yet Yeats, one must admit, was a bit of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
scarecrow compared to the art made by earlier ages to exalt the divine
and probe the demonic. To me, that says something about the
of spiritual understanding in human life. Yeats, the mad
of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, gave more beauty to the world than
of the millions of sensible writers who have lived since then.
tells us much of the biochemistry of sex but little of the part we
give to love in our lives; evolutionary theory can lay out the
of kin selection but not explain what kind of loyalty we owe our
or help us find right mixture of patriotism toward our nations and
toward our governments.
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
understanding, I think about risks involved. I worry about
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
to relate to nature and to history that does not distort the truth of
I want to understand the important relationships in my life
that uplift me while staying true to who I and my friends are and to
we want and need. I want to be a loyal citizen of my country
also a good citizen of the world. I want to feel that I have
in universe, in my community, in my own family. I want to
I am and to feel satisfied with that knowing. I want to
the world of things and the realms of feeling, to be a person of good
and mystical enthusiasm. Perhaps I am asking too much;
will never find any satisfactory answers. Yet I have no
enjoying Gothic art and paleontology, physics and symbolist poetry,
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
The Spirituality Quiz
Just when you think you might be inventing problems and
not giving the world enough credit, along comes Time
magazine to remind you that things are every bit as bad as you feared.
This week their cover story is "The God Gene," and the whole
section is full of nonsense, silliness, and insults, reminding me of
why I feel so alienated from the spirituality industry. I
particularly scorn a quiz titled "How Spiritual Are You?"
This little item fits perfectly with the theme of my latest
because it assumes that you can't be spiritual without being some kind
New Age flake. There are twenty statements you are supposed
True or False, including:
October 23, 2004
Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.
Whatever else it might be, the divine is certainly the
thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being alive.