The Automatic Script
‘. . . this script has its origin in human life—all religious systems have their origin in God & descend to man—this ascends’
The account Yeats gave in A Packet to Ezra Pound in 1928, later prefixed to the second version of A Vision (see General Introduction), is borne out by the mass of Automatic Script and preliminary work that still exists. The nature of Automatic Writing in general and the source of the Yeatses’ Automatic Script in particular present special problems, which are considered below, however what is not in doubt is that the Yeatses assembled a huge amount of material during their sessions together, and some of these ‘documents’ have been gathered together in George Mills Harper’s Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers. Yeats noted that, when ‘Exposition in sleep came to a end in 1920, . . . I began an exhaustive study of some fifty copy-books of automatic script, and of a much smaller number of books recording what had come in sleep’ (AV B 22), but Harper has found only thirty-six notebooks of Script and three of Sleeps. Since the date for the end of the Sleeps is rather earlier than it should be (see below), Yeats’s other numbers may be inaccurate, but it is certain that the extant Script is not everything that was produced. The content of the Script also shows, through references in the sessions, that much had been already been discussed by the Yeatses or worked on away from the sessions in a form that has been lost, so that any estimate of how much work they expended on the System is inevitably a guess.
Statistical summary is a crude tool here, but it does give some preliminary indication of the labour involved, which can be considered in detail by looking at Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers or Harper’s earlier, narrative account The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’. The material in the first two volumes of Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers, the Script proper, takes up some 995 printed pages, with many of the diagrams omitted, and the notebooks of ‘sleeps’ and preliminary sorting in Volume 3, take up a further 380 printed pages. These represent thousands of hours spent in pursuit of an elusive understanding and totality.
The clearest general idea of this work is given by Harper and Hood’s summary in the Critical Edition of Yeats’s A Vision (1925) (1978; 1987), which is now all but unobtainable except in libraries. The following table is based upon that summary, which is organised by place; it is adapted, as far as possible, according to the revisions in Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers, and is inevitably based upon some approximations, but is still useful.
Once the Script was summarised into further notebooks, it seems that it was often just filed away and that Yeats worked from the notebooks rather than the primary Script. Yet A Vision was by no means a transcription of even these notes, so that although this might form the core or framework, it was pruned and elaborated to such a degree that, however uneasy a reader might feel about such unexplained matters as automatic writing, Yeats was hardly giving his name to something which was not in most respects the production of the conscious, creative artist. The Script may have been the inspiration, but the perspiration was Yeats’s and was considerable; if A Vision is sometimes difficult to understand, its clarity is amazing next to the inchoate fragments of the script. And if doubts or uncertainty remained in Yeats’s mind over certain details, this is hardly surprising given the tangle of the Script, the limitations of the question-and-answer method and the frequent reluctance of his Instructors to clarify matters for him; what is significant is that he had enough confidence in the general scheme, and its real importance, to attempt the book. The whole was not invalidated for Yeats by gaps and inaccuracies: when confronted with formulations of his Instructors which even he considers arbitrary Yeats is able to write, ‘I did not care to ask . . . I did not want another scene, and besides one cannot know everything. I accept his thought . . . being a symbolist and dramatist and not a dialectician. . . .’
What was really happening?
Through its provenance, A Vision takes its place among the sizeable number of nineteenth-century esoteric constructs which came through supposedly mysterious agencies, mainly mediumship and trance. These systems include: the revelations (by a living person) granted through a medium to Kenneth Mackenzie, whose papers were important in the origins of the Golden Dawn; the communications of the Theosophical Mahatmas, which were responsible for elements in Mme Blavatsky’s work, especially The Secret Doctrine, and for the substance of Mohini Chatterjee’s collaboration with the medium Laura Holloway, Man: Fragments of Forgotten History; and Anna Kingsford’s trances, which were recorded by her collaborator Edward Maitland, and assembled into their teachings on esoteric Christianity in The Perfect Way, then published after her death, in a form closer to the original, as ‘Clothed with the Sun’ (another site’s on-line text of ‘Clothed with the Sun’ is available here). An example closer to the Yeatses’ situation is that of Rev. William Stainton Moses, whose method involved writing down series of questions and then entering a state of abstraction rather than trance, in which his hand wrote the answers guided by a spirit on behalf of another spirit called ‘Imperator’, the problem of whose identity occupied not only Stainton Moses himself but Blavatsky, Sinnett and even the Mahatmas (see another site’s text of The Mahatma Letters, especially concerning ‘Imperator’). Stainton Moses was the author of numerous books, and was known to the Yeatses: his Spirit Identity and Higher Aspects of Spiritualism were in the Yeatses’ library in a combined version (YL 1397), and Harper also records a 220-page typescript of Moses’ script in the Yeatses’ collection (YVP 1 1 & note). Moses co-founded the spiritualist journal Light in 1881, which Yeats read and wrote to in 1889 (CL 1 204; see also CL3 206), and referred to in A Vision (AV A 240) (for another site’s text of Moses’ Spirit Teachings, go here or here in PDF form or go straight to its account of Automatic Writing). In all of these cases the purported origins of the material are awkward, not because they resist rationalist explanation but because rationalism may not be the most appropriate approach, and it is at least partly in such a context that the Yeatses’ Automatic Script must be viewed.
Virginia Moore puts the problem succinctly:
The spectrum of opinion about the Script largely reflects the extraneous attitudes and beliefs of the individual readers. At one extreme stands the supernaturally-minded, or credulous, viewpoint that accepts the account of the Instructors and their communications through George’s mediumship entirely at face value, while at the other stands the sceptical, or materialistic, interpretation in which George was a cunning fraud who discovered a very effective way of controlling her husband. In between, there lies a range of discrete variations upon trance personalities, voices from the Id, self-deception and, usually, some element of reserved judgement on the part of the reader. Critics have tended to avoid either extreme position and, in print at least, reservation of judgement has outweighed committed comment significantly; Phillip L. Marcus is relatively typical, however, in his preference for rationalism over supernaturalism: ‘Although I personally am willing to credit the possibility of supernatural events, I feel that in the case of the Yeatses the overwhelming implication of the evidence is that it was not supernatural beings or spirits but George herself who was the source of everything in the Script not contributed by her husband’.
In Per Amica Silentia Lunae, before his marriage and the ‘documents’, Yeats wrote that he had no ‘doubt those heaving circles, those winding arcs, whether in one man’s life or in that of an age, are mathematical’ (Myth 340), and in the System described in A Vision he was provided with the formulations which embodied his prior conviction. For, despite all its peculiarity, A Vision is peculiarly Yeatsian, and there is more continuity between Per Amica Silentia Lunae and A Vision than there possibly could be were A Vision the product of Yeats’s Instructors alone. He himself was never entirely certain about what his experiences meant and, though he usually speaks in terms of spirits, he was willing to speculate that these too may be mythic versions of more rationalist forms:
In this draft passage, he recognises both the roots of A Vision in his earlier thought and also that the accepted view would be that George’s unconscious had performed the transmutation and, though he rejected such explicit doubts before publication, he allows that possibly ‘the communicators are the personalities of a dream shared by my wife, by myself, occasionally by others’ (AV B 23) and he includes the sacred dead with other forms of myth. He therefore allows for a full range of possibilities with respect to the origins of the Automatic Script. George herself described the process in the 1950s as ‘writing after suspending the will’, that ‘aimed at evoking the “subconscious”, through which, it was believed, revelation was possible’ (Bachchan, 238-39).
Virginia Moore puts forward some possible hypotheses in The Unicorn: George Yeats perpetrated a deliberate hoax; she tapped her own subconsious; she telepathically read her husband’s mind; she received genuine spirit communications; she was expressing what they termed their Daimons. She discounts the first through her knowledge of George Yeats herself, seems lukewarm about the next three, and appears to come down for a ‘final and synthetic’ hypothesis:
Ann Saddlemyer, in Becoming George, has given perhaps the most comprehensive recent consideration of all the possibilities concerning George’s role (see esp. 124-133), and comes to a more open conclusion: ‘Although I am reluctant to claim what is commonly thought of as mystical powers for George Yeats, it would appear that, in her entranced state, something did indeed “grasp her hand”. That something was akin to the ecstatic state in which, as Northrop Frye describes it, “the real self, whatever reality is and whatever the self is in this context, enters a different order of things from that of the now dispossessed ego” and “all the doors of perception in the psyche, the doors of dream and fastasy as well as of waking consciousness, are thrown open”.’ She notes that such a state could not be attained all the time, so that in the ebb and flow of varying levels of consciousness and control, there will necessarily be different levels of separation from mundane reality (131).
Agnostic as I am personally about the survival of a human ‘self’ after death, uncertain about the nature that a spiritual survival might take, and more sceptical about the conventional ideas of ghosts, these appeals to levels of consciousness and idea of higher self certainly appear the most satisfactory conclusion. But as Saddlemyer comments:
Automatic writing therefore presents peculiar problems and, without any certain alternative explanation, it is probably best to treat the question as unresolved and to use the explanation literally, with the proviso that all readers should apply their own interpretation to the source of George’s material, and bearing in mind Yeats’s comment that, ‘At most séances there is somebody who finds symbol where his neighbour finds fact’ (Ex 364; VPl 968). As Northrop Frye remarks, ‘Not having any explanation of my own to offer of this account [in ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’], I propose to accept his at face value’.
The Authorship of A Vision
There is little doubt that George could perfectly well have constructed the System as it appeared in the Script had she wished, and there is enough apparent improvisation within the Script as it emerged to allow for her to have developed ideas as she went, without requiring her to have entered into the enterprise with everything fully formed before it began. Indeed much of the Script contradicts itself, with one session revising or completely rejecting an earlier one, and with a convenient culprit in the ‘Frustrators’, spirits antagonistic to the Yeatses’ enterprise, seeking to sow disinformation. There remains the question of whether she would have wanted to perpetrate such a fraud, pardonable as it might have been, or if she had done so, whether she might not have made it more compliant with the systems which both of them already knew. For each piece of evidence that might support her cheating, there is more that makes it unlikely. As one analyses the various possibilities through differing frameworks, however, it becomes clear that whichever version of events is chosen, George was no mere passive conduit. Certainly, the contribution that has probably been overlooked most significantly by critics throughout studies of the subject is the incontestable one made by George, whatever part external spirits may have played. Though Yeats may have been responsible for the final form and wording, much of the earlier background and much of the later revision was clearly from George, and while the Script represents a curious kind of dialogue played out on paper, the discussion of husband and wife beyond the sessions was obviously also vital.
If one chooses to ascribe the communications to George’s conscious fraud, then the authorship is simply dual, albeit founded upon major misapprehensions on Yeats’s part. If the sources are from the unconscious (that is, that the spirits were metaphors for parts of themselves or products of imagination), the situation is still one of joint authorship, and possibly one of shared delusion. If one allows the possibility of supernatural participation, given that Yeats held ‘it certain that every voice that speaks . . . is first of all a secondary personality or dramatisation created by, in, or through the medium’ (Ex 364; emphasis added), then George’s contribution still remains very significant. Even when the spirits are more than just secondary personalities of the medium, in this view they are still only temporary creations, partly derived from the medium, partly from a spirit, but akin to a meeting, taking place by virtue of the medium’s presence first and foremost.
In some ways, and ironically, one of the more useful, working frameworks in which to view the questions of authorship and originality may well be that of the English legal system, not noted for its nuanced spirituality. Although the issue is one of authorship rather than copyright, as Warwick Gould notes in Yeats Annual 11, the legal arguments used to establish copyright address the question of authorship, and while ‘an amanuensis is not an author’, the law recognises that this is not the situation involved in mediumship:
It can similarly be argued that the Instructors found not only their words but even their information from the brain of George Yeats; in one instance, when Yeats asked the spirit to ‘place Florence Farr from my mind’ it was unable to assign a Phase since the ‘Medium never saw her but twice & I cant place her from that’, demonstrating that it claimed to be using her mind rather than his, and certainly not its own (YVP 1 204). Although it is clear that the automatic portion of the script is George Yeats’s intellectual property, many of Yeats’s questions were very much leading, often formulating an idea for confirmation or denial, and since ‘prima facie the author of a literary work is the person who originates the language used’, the Script is a complex interaction of two speakers or writers at the very least. Legally ‘there is no copyright in ideas’ and if an idea is communicated, by whatever means, ‘the production which is the result of the communication of the idea is the copyright of the person who has clothed the idea in form’, and therefore, although if ‘A's manuscript is corrected and improved by B it will probably be a question of the amount and value of the corrections and improvements as to whether the author is A or B, or whether they are joint authors’, by the time that the script had been reformed into Yeats’s arrangement via the notebooks written by both husband and wife, and then redrafted and corrected, the only safe conclusion is that they were sole joint authors.
In fact the version given within the spiritualist context of the Script itself is not hugely different in the end, since the Instructors are said to be largely intermediaries, acting between the Daimonic creators and the human participants: ‘again and again they have insisted that the whole system is the creation of my wife’s Daimon and of mine, and that it is as startling to them as to us’ (AV B 22). As the Daimon can almost be said to be part of the human, so inextricably bound are the two beings, one to the other, the Instructors effectively act as facilitators or messengers between the discarnate and incarnate aspects of the one symbiotic entity. Whatever explanation one chooses to elucidate what Brenda Maddox terms a ‘folie à deux’, what is indisputable is that the initial stages were very much a collaboration between W. B. and George Yeats, and that the difference between the various interpretations is more a matter of percentages than anything else, with any other fractions shared between the spirits involved.
What did Yeats himself believe?
Yeats himself avoided discussing the source of his material in public for a number of years, but eventually did declare himself and laid himself open to the ridicule that he has certainly received over the years, though with increasingly less frequency or vehemence. He anticipated the situation with irony by addressing the first public declaration to the least sympathetic possible audience, Ezra Pound, who duly responded with the reaction that his theories were ‘very, very bughouse’.
Pound may have doubted Yeats’s sanity for his credulity, and Yeats himself allows for different interpretations, but he never appears to have been in any doubt about the existence of the spirits themselves, though their precise nature may perplex him, and despite whatever reservations he may sometimes retain about the communications they brought. McDowell contends that: ‘Ultimately, the extent to which it may be said that W. B. Yeats gullibly believed that external spirits were speaking through his wife is more interesting than that of whether his wife was perpetrating a fraud’, as also is Yeats’s paradoxical ‘scepticism continuing to operate within the constraint of the original suspension of disbelief’, and indeed both husband and wife show a very sophisticated interpretation of the phenomena which they had experienced.
In a draft of A Packet for Ezra Pound, Yeats writes that ‘When I try to understand the method of communication I am struck by all that it has in common with dreaming’, and in the published version, when he partly accepts and partly rejects the explanation that the communicators were the personalities of a shared dream (AV B 22-23), he is affirming the spirits’ existence, since he refers the reader to the explanation within A Vision itself, and here it is in dreams that the two worlds have daily contact. There is no implication of hallucination, because the dead are the people of dreams and inhabit a teeming, discarnate world or series of worlds, of which the living are largely oblivious, despite constant connections. However, nor do they have the relatively stable nature and character of the living, being sometimes, in Swedenborg’s terms, ‘plastic, fantastic and deceitful, the dramatis personae of our dreams’ (AV B 23), and undergoing a process of metamorphosis during their discarnate existence. But, importantly, both dead and living are spirits in the purest meaning of the word, although their powers and capabilities are constrained by their situation, and have far more in common than distinguishes them. Indeed when Yeats came to write the ‘Seven Propositions’, he expressed himself entirely in terms of spirits, disregarding accidentals such as flesh and blood.
In The Words upon the Window-pane, the eighteenth-century personalities of Swift, Vanessa and Stella appear, and the play, Yeats’s introduction to it, and George’s comments on the introduction also cast doubt on whether either of them should be viewed as subscribing to any simplistic theories of the nature of ghosts or discarnate entities, or whether despite their shared experiences they had the same explanations for them:
He allows for the fact that the experience exists as much in its interpretation as in its objective manifestations, so that what is fact for one participant is symbol for another; he also asserts that an invariable constituent of the manifestation is the medium’s own contribution to the dramatisation, as important as the actor is to the play’s effect. George, however, found this unconvincing and ‘so close to the old psychical research theory of the “subconscious”’ that she would take his argument to mean that:
This she found unsatisfactory, but the letter does not give her preferred interpretation, which she probably expected Yeats to know already. Certainly, within the context of the play and the System, the spirits that were Swift and Vanessa would probably have passed through several of the stages of the after-life by the time of the séance and there are elements of psychometry as well as mediumship in the scenario, since the words upon the window-pane are the physical evidence of the people’s presence, implying that a possible psychic trace has also been left.
Later in the play’s introduction, Yeats formulates related ideas in verse:
Emphasising the word ‘bodily’, he denies that spirits are ever directly manifested, being perceivable only through surrogates, which are themselves of ‘double nature’, of which he clarifies only one half, an amalgam of ‘accidental phantasies’ rather than coherent beings. Furthermore, the apparent spirit may be one of those ‘plastic, fantastic and deceitful’ beings of the shadow world (AV B 23), whose answers are untrustworthy, intoxicated by the pool of blood that Homer’s Odysseus used to summon Tiresias.
In fact, what is interesting is how effectively the System contains, within its own symbolism and formulations, explanations that are entirely self-consistent, however unsatisfactory to other people. Writing to Olivia Shakespeare in 1926 about Carmichael and the spirits who come to them, he indicates that in order to understand the state of their after-life she should read ‘The Gates of Pluto’ (AV A, Book IV), which, despite weaknesses does ‘reconcile spiritual fact with credible philosophy’ (L 711-12). That he regarded ‘Carmichael or any other spirit’ and their situation as ‘spiritual fact’ is clear, though whether he has succeeded in reconciling such fact with a ‘credible philosophy’ is the reader’s decision. In ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’, similarly, he refers the reader to ‘The Soul in Judgment’ for an explanation of what his view of the spirits is, and he evidently considered the majority of the communicating spirits to be between lives.
His attitude towards the spirits was influenced by the way in which the communicators could vary from being little more than ignorant messengers to authoritative teachers. He writes of an incident at Cannes, where the spirit was afraid of its psychic malleability and that ‘we may accept from you false reasoning’, which reminded Yeats of their mastery of the whole construct in contrast to his own partial view:
I had half forgotten . . . how completely master they could be down to its last detail of what I could but know in outline, how confident and dominating. Sometimes they had seemed but messengers; they knew nothing but the thought that brought them; or they had forgotten and must refer to those that sent them. But now in a few minutes they drew that distinction between what their terminology calls the Faculties and what it calls the Principles, between experience and revelation, between understanding and reason, between higher and lower mind, which has engaged the thought of saints and philosophers from the time of Buddha. (AV B 21-22)
For Yeats at least, such authoritative cutting through the Gordian knots of age-old imponderables was proof enough of something more than natural, and he, at least, was sure that the spirits were ‘as independent of [his wife’s] ignorance as of her knowledge’ (AV B 21).
Without the medium, the spirits would be bereft of language, and by association of thoughts. True spirits are as alien from and as related to our experience as an abstract work of art, since they seek ‘to enter at last into their own archetype, or into all being: into that which is there always’ (Ex 366; VPl 969). They are comparable to the sculpture of Pharaonic Egypt or Brancusi’s ovoids:
These sculptures are expressions of reality, but not realistic reflections in terms of the mundane eye. The particularity and accidental detail is withdrawn to reveal a form of essence, which is purer but less factual than the earthly, real in an authentic sense but not documentary of our quotidian experience. In this sense A Vision is a spirit vision, and an artistic one, stripped of local detail and the accidental colours that give individuality; Yeats again used the image of abstract art as typified by Brancusi, in the revised version of ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’, to explain his attitude towards the System as a whole and specifically towards the cyclical eras delineated in ‘Dove or Swan’:
If Pound had questioned Yeats’s sanity, Yeats here seems to be trying to reassert it. He acknowledges that they are not actual epochs but constructs used in order to understand them from a clearer, more generalised perspective, as the geometry of the cubist or abstract artist illuminates his appreciation of the forms of the natural world through simplification and the elimination of relief. Similarly the Phases of the Moon do not seek to explain all of an individual’s character and personality, so much of which is ‘accidental’, rather they express the soul’s bias and the inner core of being. And in this context belief is as inappropriate or irrelevant as asking Constantin Brancusi whether he believes that his sculptures are real or whether he really sees the world as he sculpts it.
An artist’s vision, such as Brancusi’s sculpture, is a reimagining of reality through the creative faculty, and as such is a form of myth, those creations of the human mind that explore the nature of the world and the human condition. In one of the drafts of this statement of belief for ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’, Yeats links his idea of belief to myth:
For Yeats the mythical evokes a kind of belief that is still possible for him in the modern age. The reason why he does not present argument or polemic is because he hopes to draw the reader further into the world-view and construct through the imagination. These themes are later drawn together forcefully in his 1934 introduction to The Cat and the Moon:
Although, therefore, Yeats is dubious about the value or possibility of belief in the twentieth century, he consciously uses the vehicle of expression which will in his opinion have the most radical and profound effect on his reader. Yeats wrote in a letter to Joseph Hone, which Wade dates tentatively to 1927:
How much Yeats believes that these beings exist and how much he rather regards them as useful fictions for the mind of man to comprehend reality is open to question, but an important consequence is that positing them vivifies the universe with varying perceptions of reality. In A Vision A Yeats significantly writes of ideas and schools of ideas as being embodied, created by Daimons, and that ‘there can be no philosophy, nation, or movement that is not a being or congeries of beings, and that which we call the proof of some philosophy is but that which enables it to be born’ (AV A 171). His mythic philosophy, is peopled like the ancients’ with the equivalents of ‘the Gods, the Sacred Dead, Egyptian Theurgy, the Priestess Diotime’, which are the spirits of the dead in the various different stages of the after-life, the spirits incarnated at the New Moon and the Full Moon, the spirits of the Thirteenth Cone, the Daimons and George’s mediumship. The System should therefore be the more believable because, within its framework, it postulates that ‘every condition of mind discovered by analysis, even that which is timeless, spaceless, is present vivid experience to some being, and that we could in some degree communicate with this being while still alive, and after our death share in the experience’, in the same way that a child can grasp at least fragments of the meaning of Milton or Shakespeare (AV A 252).
Through the mythical constructs of his System, he tries to create accessible images of the abstract principles, and just as ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it’ (L 922), the spirit after death may embody another order of truth, which can be partially, but only partially contacted by incarnate man. He wrote to Olivia Shakespear in 1933, asking ‘why not take Swedenborg literally and think we attain, in a partial contact, what the spirits know throughout their being. . . . His visions may be true Newton’s cannot be’ (L 807). What ‘the spirits know throughout their being’ is embodiment rather than separated knowledge since it permeates their being; it can be communicated, but can never properly be understood by us, because it is only ‘after our death’ that we may ‘share in the experience’(AV A 252); and when he says that ‘wisdom is the property of the dead’ (VP 482) he implies that it is a property of their being, their very nature, whereas the incarnate human mind must work through symbol or myth, the most adequate, but still an imperfect expression.
Within Yeats’s thought, most of us have contact with the spirit-world daily in dreams and such contact is what most dreams actually are; it comes only occasionally through the automatic faculty, the most common form of which is mediumship (viz AV A 244-49). George Yeats’s mind entered a hypnagogic state, between sleeping and waking, in an attempt to retrieve the truths of the world where the spirits have their being, where the archetypal ideals exist, and which lies in the subconscious of the waking human being (see Life and After). The point of contact between the living and the dead however must be in the inadequate language of symbol, which ‘has almost always accompanied expression that unites the sleeping and waking mind’ (AV B 23).
For an exploration of the Yeatses' collaboration in the Automatic Script, see the essay "Reflected Voices, Double Visions," by Margaret Mills Harper in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).