Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and the Reprobate Tradition (2008)

[Source: Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and the Reprobate Tradition, (Aldershot: Aldgate 2008), 220pp. - partly available at Google Books online.]

[Sect. 1:] “Yeats and Joyce Reading Vico”

[On Joyce]
‘Bergin and Fisch suggest that Joyce “read and digested digested Vico in Trieste about 1905 ...” [See T. G. Bergin & M. H. Fisch, trans., The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (Ithaca 1944), Introduction, p.97.] The first reference ot the Neapolitan philosopher in Ellmann’s biography is dated 1913. Ellmann also notes Joyce’s familiarity with Croce’s Estetica, which has a long chapter on Vico and, it has been argued, is based on Vico throughout. Joyce read Vico in the original Italian and - apart from the Estetica, which was published in 1902 - under little external influence. [Ellmann, James Joyce, rev. edn. 1982, p.340.]

Joyce discussed the Neapolitan philosopher with Paolo Cuzzi, one of his Triestino students, arguing tha “Freud had been anticipated by Vico”. It is interesting to note that this first recorded comment by Joyce on Vico is so similar to his last, which was an answer to the question of whether he believed in The New Science: “I don’t believe in any science ... but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jung. [Ellmann, 693; and note: Ellmann cites an interview with Tom Kristensen in 1956.] / Of course, Joyce’s interest in Vico did not reach its height until he came to write Finnegans Wake. [...]” (Cormack, p.23.)

Cormack adds that Joyce borrows the terminology of heroism for his bildungsroman [i.e., Stephen Hero] from Vico and cites Hazard Adams, The Philosophy of the Literary Symbolic, Tallahasee 1983; Cormack, p.23n.] Quotes Padraic Colum’s remembered phrase ‘I use his cycles as a trellis’ in respect of the use of Vico’s New Science in Finnegans Wake [Ellmann, 1982, p.554; Colum, Our Friend James Joyce, 1958, p.123] (Cormack, p.24).

‘The play of autobiography and cultural memory - of micro and macrocosm - is at the heart of Joyce’s appropriation of Vico. We have already noted that Joyce used Vico quite early in his career and it seems that he theorised his own artistic and personal development using a version of Vico’s account of historical progress through successive ages of gods, heroes and men. In a sense, this appropriation and personalisation of the theories reflects Vico’s epistemology, which equates the known with the made. [Also notes that Joyce’s habit of self-description - which follows Mr. Duffy’s ‘odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself in the third person with a predicate in the past tense’ - in turn reflects Vicos practice in the third-person Autobiography - and remarks: ‘Joyce’s repeated fictionalisation of his former selves forces a Vichian structure into his writing: he [24] finds his origin in fear of thunder, his former selves as monstrous and cyclopean and his final acts of writing the self as an ironic practice of citation.’ (Cormack, p.24-25.)

[Quotes Samuel Beckett writing of Vico’s debt to Bruno, ’he takes very good care not to say so.’ (Exag., p.21); cites Beckett’s answer to Joyce’s question whether a history of Idealism is possible as: “A history of representations”; and quotes Beckett again to explain the difference between Vico’s conception of signs as imaginative ideas attached to the physical apprehension of the world [the referent] and the term ’symbol’ in Pierce which have only ‘arbitrary relationshp to their referent; ‘an endless verbal germination, maturation, putrefaction, the cyclic dynamism of the intermediate.’ cites Hayden White, ‘The Tropics of History: The Deep Structure of the New Science’, in The Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore 1978).

[On Yeats]
‘Yeats’s encounter with Vico comes with a good deal more ideological baggage. Joseph Hone recalls a morning spent in Rome with Mrs Yeats in 1915 “searching the bookshops ... for works dealing with the spiritual antecedents of the Fascist revolution ...” (Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1962, p.368.) Through this interest, Yeats became familiar with Croce’s Estetica, and, in Collingwood’s translation, his Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, which he read and annotated. He also had his wife read and summarise for him Gentile’s La Riforma dell’ Educazione and Teoria generale dello Spirito come Atto puro. Thus, Hone could argue “his philosophic as opposed to his occult background was formed by the modern Italians, with a foundation of Plato and Plotinus, Boehme and Swedenborg.” (Hone, op. cit., p.368.)

Quotes Yeats: ‘Students of contemporary Italy, where Vico’s though is current through its infuence upon Croce and Gentile, think it created, or in part created, the present government of one man surrounded by just such able assistants as Vico foresaw.’ (Explorations, 1962, p.354.)

Remarks that Yeats did not know that Croce had distanced himself from Italian Fascism [Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism, Macmillan 1981, p.151] and adds that ‘Vico’s opposition to materialism and scientific positivism were analogous in Yeats’s mind to Mussolini’s opposition to Marxism.’ (Cormack, p.25.)

Cormack reproduces Yeats’s chart of differences between “Dialectical Materialism (Karl Marx and School)” and “Italian Philosophy (Influenced by Vico)” in which the metaphysical outlook in one (”Nature creates Spirit. Brain creates Mind”) is opposed to the metaphysical outlook in the other (”Spirit creates nature. Mind creates brain.”), each list respectively ending with “Final aim: Communism”, and “The proletariat justified because, having nothing, it can reject all”, and “Final aim: Fascism”, and “History, now transparent to reason, justified”. (Appendix in Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet [3rd edn., Dublin 1996, pp.325-26; here p.25.) [note: the list runs a) to e) under each heading with strictly parallel but antagonistic statements.)

Cormack goes on: ‘This aphoristic piece shows the limitations of Yeats’s understanding of fascism and, in particular in the case of the first part (e), his complete ignorance as regards proletarianism; the notion that fascism honoured the past and condemned hatred shows a gross blindness to political reality. However, this piece does give us an insight into his reasons for thinking fascism a valid realisation of the idealist philosophy, which, in his understanding, sprang from the version of nationalism that he espoused pretty much throughout his life. In fascism Yeats found a reality that he desperately wanted to be a proof for his eccentric theories. And the end, the philosophy expounded above, which includes a valorisation of positive contraries, a defence of particularity in the face of materialism and a notion of spirit containing nature, is closer to Blake than Mussolini.’ (p.26.)

Cormack further notes that Yeats adds to the above piece, “Fascism inadequate” [Jeffares, op. cit., p.326], continuing: ‘- an inadequacy stemming from its failure to treat itself with the irony that Vico applies to all epochs ... In the final version of A Vision the importance of positive contraries outweighs the allure of authoritarianism. / Thus, at first look, for Yeats, Vico offered a means of opposing Marx with an idealist philosophy that had a contemporary flavour. [...] After an equally superficial look at Joyce, we might argue that Vico offered a convenient means of schematising the uncontrollable data of history. It is interestig to note that the political implications of the New Science offered by Yeats and those suggested by Joyce’s work follow the patterns of its reception since the late eighteenth century. The children of 1789 and German counter-revolutionaries found lessons in it, as did the fascists Gentile and Marx himself; it seemed that the political implications of this highly polysemic work hae been undecidable.’ [Ftn. See Peter Burke, Vico, Oxford 1985, pp.3-9.]

‘[...] For Yeats, Vico provided a means of validating the approach to history he had begun to outline in the first edition of A Vision.’[Notes that Yeats wrote ‘I mock Plotinus’ thought [... &c.] immediately after his encounter with Vico.’ (p.26.)

Quotes Vico of ‘poetic imagination’:

‘the human mind is naturally inclined by the senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to understand itself by means of reflection. / This axiom gives the universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodied to signify the institutionts of the mind and spirit.’ (NS, 78.) [Cormack 32.]

first men and makers of language were ’entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body.’ (NS, 118.) The first thinkers were ’theological poets’ (NS, 109.)

‘The first wisdom of the gentile world, must have begun with a metaphysics not rational and abstract like that of learned me now, but felt and imagined as that of these first men must have been, who, without power of ratiocination, were all robust sense and vigorous imagination’ (NS, 116.)

‘Every metaphor is a fable in brief’ (NS, 129). ’[...] man in his ignorance makes himself the rule of the universe, for in the examples cited he has made of himself an entire world. So that, as rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them, this imaginative metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them; and perhaps the matter proposition is truer than the former, for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them. (NS, 129-30.) [Cormack, p.31.)

tropes ‘which have hitherto been considered ingenious inventions of writers, were necessary modes of expression ... But these expressions ... later became figurative when ... words were invented which signified abstract or genera ...’ (NS, 131.)

‘Irony certainly could not have begun until the period of reflection, because it is fashioned of falsehood by dint of a reflection which wears the maks of truth. Here emerges a great principle of human institutions, confirming the origin of poetry disclosed in this work: that since the first men of the gentile world had the simplicity of children, who are truthful by nature, the first fables could not feign anything false; they must have been ... true narrations.’ (NS, 131.) [Cormack, p.32.]

Note that the quotations given in consecutive order as they appear in Vico’s New Science are differently ordered in Cormack’s text.

‘The “true narration” of metaphor and fable exists within the reflective form of irony. The metaphoric trope becomes an ironic sign whose meaning now appears arbitrary. Culture in this theory is a perpetual process of self-translation. new cultures emerge by changing the nature of tropes citing them and at the same time distancing themselves from the former meaning that had once been created. / This approach to history also informs the use of what one might call “types” in the work of Yeats and Joyce. When Vico describes the journey from the “Cyclopes” to “Caligula, Nero and Domitian”, he is using them as “imaginative universals” rather than historical figures. This notion of the tropological nature of subjectivity informs Joyce’s use of Homeric metempsychosis in Ulysses and the many historical figures beneath whose costume we discern HCE, ALP, Shem, Shaun and Issy, and Yeats’s “The Twenty-Eight Incarnations” in A Vision. / This form of history offers an anti-hegimonic model for Yeats and Joyce. Mainstream, and in particular imperial, culture is figured by them as believed in the notion of rationality. In the thinking represented by Vico, Joyce and Yeats found a means of producing history that does not believe in an organically developing universal reason, and that rather traced the concrete modifications of language and trope in a spatial rather than a temporal sense.’ (Cormack, pp.32-33.)


‘They [Yeats and Joyce] abandon the latent positivism visible in The New Science, anachronising any teleology that might be visible in the work, and replacing it with a notion of palimpsest. There are obvious reasons for their reading. This form of history is typical of the modernist period; it also reflects their position as colonial and postcolonial writings. [...] Yeats and Joyce have been accused of abandoning or avoiding historical reality. It would be more true to argue that they attempt to approach history in a fashion that is not infected with an alienating positivism that both writers identify with colonialism and tyranny. They both try to appropriate history - to encompass it - rather than letting it encompass them. (p.33.)

Reflecting on Iasiah Berlin’s thoughts about Vico and the problem connected with the origins of his thought and that of Hegel in “the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and ... East Prussia, usually described as cultural backwaters” [Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, ed. H. Hardy, London 2000], Cormack writes; ‘The New Science - like Ulysses, A Vision, and Finnegans Wake - attempts nothing less than an encapsulation of all human culture. Yet, the residual of the dominant materialist ideology of its time and ours, places it outside mainstream thinking. this sort of ambitious, but heretical work seems to depend, in a snes,e on a degree of marginalisation, on a sense of being a minor writer. This needn’t be as literal as being in the backwater of Naples or in East Prussia, or indeed Dublin, but depends on a feeling of being at once inside and outside Western Culture. The global concerns of The New Science and the books of Yeats and Joyce that it helped inform, are also reflections of local realities. (p.35.)

[...] Yeats and Joyce need Vico so that they can forge a new historical consciousness that has none of the self-satisfaction of teleology [e.g., such as that which informs the waffling imperialist conversation of the Unionist Deasy in “Nestor”.] (p.37.)

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Joyce, Yeats and the Hermetic Tradition
‘When Joyce has Stephen read Yeats’s fiction in Stephen Hero, the response is certainly not ridicule [...] We know that Joyce had a soft spot for these stories from his comments in “The Day of the Rabblement”. In the passage quoted above [viz., “Their speeches were like the enigmas of a disdainful Jesus ... having chosen to fulfil the law of their own being.”] they seem to offer an alaternative tradition to whic he can attach his earlier self; one characterised by heresy - or a celebration of the “outlaws” of the spirit. / Although this admission of a taste for Yeats’s heretics did not survive the journey from Stephen Hero to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the defence of a new outlaw replaces it. [Goes on to discuss Joyce and Bruno in A Portrait and The Day of the Rabblement and cites Frances Yates (Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition) and Ellmann’s ‘canonical assessment’ that Joyce did not respond to the Hermetic side of Bruno.] Whereas the Hermetic enthusiasms of Yeats cannot be explained away [41] and are thus transformed into symptoms, in the case of Joyce, who never had any interest in magical ritual, a taste for the “tradition” can be more quietly excused.’ (pp.41-42.)