Ronald Schleifer, ‘Yeats’s Postmodern Rhetoric’, in Leonard Orr, ed., Yeats and Modernism (Syracuse UP 1991), pp.16-34.

An examination of a complex, double conception of rhetoric in Yeats is neither universal nor accidental, but it arises at a particular historical moment within the limits of particular discursive possibilities. It arises within the rhetoric of modernism, yet points to the related phenomenon of postmodernism. In the famous definition of the “mythical method”, T S. Eliot describes and exemplifies the complexity of the modernist rhetoric that I am examining. “In using the myth” Eliot writes, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him ... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which 1 believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. ... It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.” [1] What concerns me here is less Eliot’s understanding of Joyce’s achievement than his description of the “panorama” of contemporary life and its articulation in language. For I contend that the mythical parallel described by Eliot is, in fact, what he explicitly denies that it is in his review of Ulysses - simply a kind of scaffolding that Joyce uses, then discards, after contemporary history, with its futility and anarchy, rises up and is represented in language.

In this, Eliot repeats a recurrent gesture of modernist rhetoric: he delimits a phenomenon that is not capable of being reduced to “order”- that is not even susceptible to linguistic order - and he asserts [16] that, nevertheless, it is “parallel” to the classical order of myth that somehow underlies its “surface” disorder. Robert Langbaum offers the standard narrative account of this when he suggests that the “’mythical method’, as Eliot calls it, allows the writer to be naturalistic, to portray modern chaos, while suggesting through psychological naturalism a continuing buried life. ... The mythical method gives a doubleness of language to parallel our own doubleness (doubleness between the apparent and buried) of consciousness and selfhood.” [2] The problem with such an account, as Langbaum himself suggests, is that it naturalizes the terror and disgust inherent in Eliot’s response to contemporary history. [3] But more than this, it naturalizes the important antinaturalistic impulse in modernist language. In fact, as Langbaum argues, modernism may replace the naturalism and realism of late nineteenth-century literature with its own “psychological naturalism”; but a more interesting way of examining modernism - especially in light of the postmodern phenomenon that follows it - is to see its continuity with the antinaturalism of the symbolist movement of the 1890s. Daniel O’Hara recently called this antinaturalist, antiromantic impulse in Yeats the “demonic sublime”; and tracing Yeats’s treatment in criticism since the end of World War II, O’Hara sees the culmination of Yeats’s profound influence on criticism in Paul de Man’s distinction between natural “image” and esoteric “emblem” in Yeats. [4] Most important, then, the antinaturalism of the symbolist movement is antirepresentational: it treats language, as Clive Scott argues, no longer “as a natural outcrop of the person but as a material with its own laws and its own peculiar forms of life.” [5] Such treatment, as I note elsewhere, focuses on the syntactics of literature, the signifier rather than the signified, syntax rather than semantics. [6]

In other words, the apocalyptic antirepresentation of modernism “marks” what Jacques Derrida describes in Mallarmé’s work as the articulation or circumscription of the “ideality” of nothingness. Here idea and intellection are without content or the representation of determined content: spirit transcends any content, any material determination, any taint of representation in an operation which is

not a unified entity but the manifold play of a scene that, illustrating nothing- neither word nor deed-beyond itself, illustrates nothing. Nothing but the many-faceted multiplicity of a lustre which itself is [17] nothing beyond its own fragmented light. Nothing but the idea which is nothing. The ideality of the idea is here for Mallarmé the still metaphysical name that is still necessary in order to mark nonbeing, the nonreal, the nonpresent.... This “materialism of the idea” is nothing other than the staging, the theater, the visibility of nothing or of the self. It is a dramatization which illustrates nothing, which illustrates the nothing, lights up a space, re-marks a spacing as a nothing, a blank; white as a yet unwritten page, blank as a difference between two lines. [7]

It is the antirepresentational impulse in modernism, its symbolist focus on the play of signifiers and the concomitant positing of “the nothing” behind this play that, I think, most closely connects modernism with postmodernism.

The great difference between modernism in its symbolist moment and postmodernism is the difference between the “metaphysical name” described by Derrida and the “staging” of that name. In fact, in this passage Derrida describes the antirepresentational metaphysics of modernism-its turning away from the immense panorama of futility and anarchy of the contemporary world by turning to another world that Yeats called in 1893 the “subtlety, obscurity, and intricate utterance ... of our moods and feelings [which] are too fine, too subjective, too impalpable to find any clear expression in action or in speech tending towards action.” [8] This turning away, as Derrida says elsewhere, “is a departure from the world toward a place which is neither a nonplace nor an other world.... This universe articulates only that which is in excess of everything, the essential nothing on whose basis everything can appear and be produced within language.... Only pure absence - not the absence of this or that, but the absence of everything in which all presence is announced -can inspire, in other words, can work . [9] Such work is the “metaphysical” work of symbolism: it includes Eliot’s (and Conrad’s and Yeats’s and even Lawrence’s) visceral abhorrence of the material plenitude of the world (the futility and anarchy of the Congo or Irelands filthy modern tide or apeneck Sweeney’s animal movements) and a concomitant, antirepresentational aesthetic that implies the possibility of inscribing and discerning ideality beneath and behind the ruined fragments of experience.

But if Derrida describes the metaphysical “name” of symbolism and its “turn” toward some other he also describes the fully [18] immanent “operation” that creates that metaphysics as a “theatrical” effect - the immanent relationship between naming and turning.” [10] In these terms, the difference between postmodernism and modernism is the difference between the articulation or “staging” of nothing in discourse and the hypostatization - the metaphysical naming - of the nothing as a kind of transcendental “object” of linguistic appropriation. For the postmodern, the articulation of “nothing”, in one way or another, is hardly a crisis; it hardly imagines, as Yeats said, that “where there is nothing, there is God”. For the postmodern, the crisis of representation that symbolism addresses and the further crisis of materialism - the “body of that death” described by Mallarmé (in Symons’s translation) [11] - in relation to the spirit and language is old hat, hardly news, simply something else. It has none of the social and political programmatics - what Fredric Jameson calls “the proto-political vocation and terrorist stance” [12] of the older modernism.

That crisis was most starkly expressed (not self-consciously “staged”) in the symbolist movement in literature, of which Arthur Symons said that Yeats was the chief representative in English ( Symbolist Movement, xix). It was so because the crisis of modernism is best understood as predicated on a conception of the inadequacy of language to experience - the inadequacy, that is, of any “natural” signifier to the transcendental signified of an hypostatized nothing (what Yeats variously called the “immortal moods”, “the Divine Essence”, or simply “perfection”,) [13] that symbolism attempts to delineate. Its method, however, is the elaboration of the signifier, the development of intricate syntactic strategies to circumscribe and thus negatively represent the unrepresentable, the unspeakable.[14] But remove the transcendental signified from this project - the “perfected emotions” that Yeats speaks of early in his career - and we are left only with the “theatrical” play of signifiers, a radical version of the “pastiche” that Jameson sees as characterizing the postmodern. “Pastiche”, he writes, “is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry ... devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists.” [15] Postmodern pastiche speaks a “dead language”, while the “modernist” symbolist gesture responded to the futility and anarchy of the contemporary world with its antithetical language of parody, disdain, and vision. Its rhetoric was predicated on [19] the “mythical” “depths” of antinatural vision and intuition: in de Man’s description of Yeats’s articulation of “emblems” discovered within natural “images”, this poetic discourse “substitutes ‘names and meanings’ for the thing itself and, in gnostic fashion, searches for Being not in the divinely created thing, but in language as the vessel of divine intellect” (”Image and Emblem”, 170). Remove such “depths”, such transcendental signifieds as “divine intellect” - make “the nothing” simply “nothing” - and the linguistic strategies of modernist representations seem remarkably postmodern, remarkably close, not to the “celebration” of futility and anarchy that postmodernism sometimes seems to be, but to their quiet acceptance that the postmodern always also - always already - is.

Of course, the transcendental signified, the “metaphysical name”, cannot be “removed.” It can only be shown not to have been there in the first place. Such a showing is what Derrida means by the “staging”, and “dramatization” of the antirepresentational “play of a scene that ... illustrates nothing.” The mode of the “staging” of modernist discourse leads to the larger question of rhetoric, and more specifically to “postmodern” rhetoric.

Hugh Kenner examined the rhetorical power of modern poetry - especially the symbolist rhetoric described by Derrida - in terms of the strategies developed by modernists to set words “free” from the historical occasions of their enunciation. Kenner argues that symbolism creates its meanings and effects by “imitating” or “counterfeiting” the way in which the passage of time erases the occasion of enunciation, the “vehicles” bearing its metaphoric “tenor.” The example that Kenner narrates is from Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimneysweepers, come to dust.” After describing the “magic” that “irradiates the stanza” so that “we, the heirs of Mallarmé and Valéry and Eliot, do not simply pass over ‘golden’ but find it richly Shakespearean”, he notes that in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, “golden boy? is the name for dandelions, and they are called “chimney-sweepers” when they go to seed. The modernist or symbolist strategy, then -its postmodern rhetorical “staging”- is to turn linguistically to the other world, the “nonplace” described by Derrida. “We may want to say”, Kenner argues, “that Shakespeare wrote about happenings in the world, the world that contains mortal men and sunlight and dandelions, and that a post-Symbolist reading converts his work into something that happens in the [20] language, where “golden” will interact with “dust” and “wages” and “lads” and “girls” and “chimney-sweepers”, and where “dust” rhymes with “must”, mortality with necessity. Thus the song seems to us especially fine when we can no longer say what the phrase “golden lads” was meant to name. [16] By means of this narrative, Kenner can situate the linguistic representation or suggestion of a “depth” of transcendental significance too fine and impalpable to seem to have material embodiment within an historical context of enunciation.

In this way, the question of representation in language - the question of rhetoric - hangs over modern studies of literature and modernism in general in terms of the occasion of enunciation. Moreover, it does so in Eliot’s terms of mythical “depth” as opposed to linguistic and experiential “surfaces”. Such a conception -a “metaphysical naming”- of “depth” allows the world and its materialism - Conrad’s imperialism, the religious politics of Ireland, the sheer multiplicity of the America from which Eliot fled - to fade away and reveal beneath the “body of that death” transcendental value, what Yeats describes in “Michael Robartes Remembers Forgotten Beauty” as “the loveliness / That has long faded from the world.” But it does so only by repressing its own rhetoricity.

In other words, the difference between depth and surface that I am suggesting characterizes the difference between modernism and postmodernism in terms of rhetoric. This difference is based upon two seemingly incompatible senses of language and rhetoric. Language presents what O’Hara calls the symbolic and “unselfconscious linguistic formations” of “the great narrative myths of the culture”, [17] and rhetoric studies linguistic strategies to articulate the pre-existing significance that it unself-consciously describes - the immaterial transcendental signifieds that inhabit Yeats’s vision. But language also creates or “stages” the “effects” of meaning themselves, the felt, “given”, sense of meanings beyond the complete control of its users, or what O’Hara calls the “semantic innovation” of metaphor in “self-reflective” discourse (Tragic Knowledge, 170). In this context, rhetoric studies the staging of meaning as a linguistic effect created by the scaffolding configurations of language; created, that is, by its play of signifiers.

This opposition is of great urgency because it suggests two ways of reading. We can choose to understand both literature and our world in terms of myth and symbol, in terms of the causation, as Eliot says, [21] of a controlling order analyzed, quite literally, in “depth”, where “depth” itself does not call for rhetorical analysis - the analysis of what Derrida has recently called “the rhetoricity of rhetoric.”[18] Or, as I will suggest, we can stay on the surface of things in a kind of “postmodernism” to discover scaffolded topographies and configurations of textual play in situating our understanding- including understanding the “effect of depth” itself to which language gives rise - in terms of a postmodern rhetoric of modernism. For what is “scaffolded” in modernist literature after all is the particular discourse of modern rhetoric, the panorama that Eliot describes in his original title for The Waste Land : “he do the police in different voices.” That is, the discourse of literary modernism at least partially articulates the so-called “anarchy” of history, not in terms of human intentions, “buried” or “parallel” orders of shape and significance, harmonies of voice and base - in other words, not in terms of the emotions of monumental secret and originative causes behind things -but in terms of palpable, rhetorical effects residing on the accidental surfaces of discourse.

In any case, this is where postmodernism - in criticism as well as in literature, and in the problem of this hierarchical distinction between parasitical and superficial criticism and profound and original “1iterature” - draws our attention: to the surface of things, to what Richard Rorty calls “textualism” rather than “idealism”- the pragmatics of asking how things work and what effects they have, rather than what they mean”. “Pragmatism,” Rorty writes, “is the philosophical counterpart of literary modernism, a kind of literature which prides itself on its autonomy and novelty rather than its truthfulness to experience or its discovery of pre-existing significance. Strong textualism,” he concludes, “draws the moral of modernist literature and thus creates genuinely modernist criticism.” [19] In another essay, Rorty contrasts pragmatism to an earlier tradition that “thinks of truth as a vertical relationship between representations and what is represented.” Pragmatism, on the other hand, “thinks of truth horizontally.... This tradition does not ask how representations are related to nonrepresentations, but how representations can be seen as hanging together;” [20] that is, as effectively and pragmatically functioning rhetorically.

It is in this sense of the pragmatics of the momentary, repetitious configurations of meaning that Jameson defines postmodern rhetoric. Postmodernism, he notes, contains two important features. “First,” he says, “the falling away of the protopolitical vocation and the terrorist stance of the older modernism and, second, the eclipse of all of the affect (depth, anxiety, terror, the emotions of the monumental) that marked high modernism and its replacement by what Coleridge would have called fancy or Schiller aesthetic play, a commitment to surface and to the superficial in all the senses of the word.” [21] Such a conception of superficial “pragmatism,” although Rorty does not say it, characterizes “postmodernism” beyond Jameson’s description. In postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard notes that the narrative function is “dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements - narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on,” a dispersal that Lyotard goes on to describe as “a pragmatics of language particles” or “valencies” intersecting; that is, “hanging together.” Arthur Kroker and David Cook define the pragmatics of the “postmodern scene” more hyperbolically, figuring the postmodern scene as a “disembodied eye” that “is nothing less than a pure sign system: it cannot be embedded in a chain of finalities because the floating eye as a sign-system signifies the cancellation of vertical being.” In a different idiom, Charles Newman characterizes the pragmatism of postmodernism as an “inflation of discourse, manifesting itself in literature through the illusion that technique can remove itself from history by attacking a concept of objective reality which has already faded from the world, and in criticism by the development of secondary languages which presumably ‘demystify’ reality, but actually tend to further obscure it.” [22]

What these descriptions share is a definition of understanding in which cause gives way to effect as the mode of explanation; how phenomena work, how they are configured (that is, how they hang together), rather than their secret cause, is the nature of explanation. Like symbolism, this rhetoric focuses on the signifier rather than on the signified, but it does so not in the service of the recovery of the signified somewhere else - what Yeats called “the abundance and depth of Nature” ( E&I, p.87), but which is, as de Man demonstrated, the locus of “terror and annihilation, apocalyptic rather than eschatological” (‘Image and Emblem’, p.177) - but rather in the service of simply that “play” on the surface.

This is apparent in another “modernist” writer contemporary with Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats who describes and exemplifies the pragmatic, “postmodern” play of the surface in modernist discourse - Ferdinand [23] de Saussure. In the last chapter of The Course in General Linguistics, Saussure argues against the causal explanation of descriptive linguistics in favour of a kind of Darwinian chaos and accident, the purely accidental nature of any particular language form. “No characteristic” of language, he writes, “has a right to permanent existence; it persists only through sheer luck.” [23] “Mere phonetic modifications,” he adds, “which are due to blind evolution, result in alternations. The mind seizes upon the alternations, attaches grammatical values to them, and spreads them, using the analogical models which chance phonetic developments provide” (231). The mind seizes phonetic accidents retrospectively, not as causes but as superficial phenomena to be put to some use, to be made to hang together “superficially” and to function linguistically.

While such a pragmatics characterizes postmodernism, the moment of literary modernism is characterized by the intersection of these two different concepts of explanation and significance, the intersection of naming and staging, or, in de Man’s later terms describing “Among School Children,” the intersection of grammatical and rhetorical meaning. [24] Eliot’s anxious need to find a grounding method in the chaos of Joyce’s vision and that of his own, like Yeats’s need to articulate a visionary, transcendental resolution of experience not only in the apocalyptic, “symbolist” poetry of the 1890s but even in a high modernist poem such as “Among School Children,” seems to encompass the tension between the old concept of metaphysical meaning and the new concept of pragmatic function. Perhaps it is the enabling tension of modernist practice. But the transformation from cause to effect, from causal to functional explanation, or, in Saussure’s terms, the transformation from a mode of understanding based upon the diachronic discovery of the origin to one based upon a synchronic apprehension of relationships between and among phenomenal data, is at the heart of what I call the postmodern rhetoric of modernism.

This is most clear in Yeats’s “high” modernism, and again, Eliot is instructive. In 1940, with characteristic generosity, Eliot came to praise Yeats after his death and described in his work another version of the mythical method, a kind of “impersonality” of the lyric poet “who,” Eliot writes, “out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol.” [25] In becoming more Irish,” he says of Yeats, “he became at the same time universal” (301). This is high praise indeed; and by the end of Eliot’s essay, he himself is mythologizing Yeats, [24] marking him as “one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them” (308).

Now, certainly, Yeats participates in this kind of “mythological method,” what Auden calls more modestly the transformation of the occasional poem into “a serious reflective poem of at once personal and public interest.” [26] But the “method” of this mythology is horizontal rather than vertical, despite all of Yeats’s talk of “the deeps of the mind,” of the Shakespearean ideal of “depth only,” of vision and trance. In “Among School Children,” for example, Yeats certainly “universalizes” his experience in much the same way that Eliot universalizes his wife’s neurotic discourse in “A Game of Chess.” But like Vivien’s language -”Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.” - Yeats’s situation in the classroom questioning is altogether accidental, provided by the chance developments of the Irish Free State. Moreover, below the scaffolding of his myths and vision, is the sheer phenomenal power of the poetry hanging together, discovering coherence in what he calls “the Path of the Chameleon,” the bewildering incoherence of his particular experience. Thus, more important than the aesthetic questions at the end of the poem is the order of love the mind finally seizes upon (its shape and significance), which Yeats stages throughout his poem, configuring the accidents of his experience - the nuns, mothers, and lovers imagined in the classroom - into the transcendental discourse of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. In this, Yeats, like Leopold Bloom before him, articulates a kind of female discourse of nun, mother, lover in what he imagines to be a “universal” male philosophic voice. He devises an “antithetical” language in which the accidents of a schoolroom filled with girls and women can transcend that situation to give rise to “representative” human values figured in male philosophers and artists. But more generally, he makes the surface of his experience, like the Surface discolorations of the lapis lazuli about which he writes, create his rhetorical effects - the effects of (transcendental) meaning.

Take, for instance, what most critics understand as the centre of the poem, the apostrophe at its end:

O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows
And that all heavenly glory symbolize -
O self-horn mockers of man’s enterprise.

The passion, piety, or affection that knows the object of the apostrophe, “Presences,” corresponds to the occasions of desire described in the poem-the lover’s passion, the nun’s piety, and the mother’s affection. But it is even more interesting that the apostrophe itself is a representative example of - a rhetorical strategy in - the antirepresentational mythologizing force of modernist discourse. Apostrophe, Jonathan Culler argued, offers “a poetic presence through an image of voice.... the pure O of undifferentiated voicing.” [27] As such, apostrophe is radically antinatural; it is against narrative, time, and history. As Derrida said, it cannot be assimilated to the accusative case of speech or to language in general: it is “not a category, a case of speech, but, rather the bursting forth, the very raising up of speech.” [28] In these terms, it is, in A. J. Greimas’s structuralist analysis, a “surface” linguistic phenomenon approaching- signifying- the “deep meaning” of the “primal cry” of undifferentiated language. [29]

That is, apostrophe substitutes what Culler describes as “a temporality of discourse for a referential temporality.” “In lyrics of this kind,” he says, “a temporal problem is posed: something once present has been lost or attenuated; this loss can be narrated but the temporal sequence is irreversible, like time itself. Apostrophes displace this irreversible structure by removing the opposition between presence and absence from empirical time and locating it in a discursive time” (‘Apostrophe’, 150). The temporal problem of “Among School Children”, of course, is the problem of temporality itself, the poet’s aging, and what Yeats calls in his diary note for the poem, “the old thought that life prepares for what never happens.” [30] Instead of absences, its apostrophe posits and addresses - it names - Presences that give shape and significance to history. In “Among School Children” apostrophe transforms images begetting fresh images, on and on, and on, in the furious complexity of postmodernism, into transcendental presence. It does so, as Culler says, by creating not “a predicable relation between a signifier and a signified, a form and its meaning, but the uncalculable [sic] force of an event” (‘Apostrophe’, 152). Such an “event” is the “occurrence” of a symbol or a myth, situated, as O’Hara describes symbolism, “on the border between the realms of language, dreams, and the sacred” ( Tragic Knowledge, 170). just as Yeats figures the disappointment and anger at approaching death in terms of birth in the almost archetypal gesture of modernism of stanza v - a gesture of asserting “vital” depths below the [26] meaningless surface of experience figured in the “representation” of a child as a “shape” upon its mother’s lap -so apostrophe delimits transcendental, unpresentable Presences as the object of situated address.

It does so in an “antithetical” discourse: death is articulated by describing birth in a language that makes life itself - “that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape” - a vast chaos whose only virtue is as a naturalistic storehouse of images that can be transformed into symbolist emblems of the unarticulable. Such an apostrophic discourse is remarkably violent: it includes the object of address only by violating it in ways that Yeats’s rhetorical question violates the affection of mothers and mothering:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed, ...
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

The violence here is borne by conceiving “compensations” for affection only in terms of a logic of cause and effect - the same logic that governs the paradoxes of the final stanza and Yeats’s symbolist project more generally. The bitter furies of complexity that children (and lovers and other images) occasion might well be answered by an image of skipping on waves rather than fighting them, or a conception of the sea as buoyant rather than “dolphin-torn” and “gong-tormented.” They might as well be answered by reading postmodern stagings in Yeats’s modernist discourse.

Still, like Langbaum’s reading of Eliot and Yeats, most of the critics of “Among School Children” describe the ending of the poem in terms (if symbol and depth rather than in terms of surface and buoyancy: Cleanth Brooks speaks of “the vision of totality of being and unity of being” in the last stanza of the poem; Richard Ellmann suggests that the poem at least hints at “an escape from mortality”; and Frank Kermode describes the final image of the poem as “the work of a mind which is itself a system of symbolic correspondences, self-exciting, difficult because the particularities are not shared by the reader.” More recently, George Lensing asserted that the poem’s ending creates “a powerful [27] truce with time”; Douglas Archibald notes that the Presences at the end become “the poem’s only conceivable audience”; and David Young suggests, in his own narrative interpretation, that “the ‘sixty year old smiling public man’, haunted by memories and imaginings, evolves into the defiant, exultant speaker of the poem’s close.” [31] These understandings of the poem share Culler’s sense of the nature and function of apostrophe, its ability to control and order and shape experience verbally, creating discursive mastery over the bitter furies of complex temporality by positing a depth beneath the surface of time and history. Even de Man, in his controversial use of “Among School Children” to assert that the opposition between grammatical questioning and rhetorical questioning - an analysis which, were it brought to the questioning of youthful mother, would betray an analytic energy that disregards the human cost of Yeats’s vision - even de Man suggests that the apostrophe at the poem’s end is a transcendental, universalizing touchstone of understanding.

These interpretations point to what Lyotard calls the “sublimity” of modernism - its attempt “to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible. [32] This, I think, describes Yeats’s own sense of “depth,” his sense that “Shakespeare’s people make all things serve their passion ...: birds, beasts, men, women, landscape, society are but symbols, and metaphors, nothing is studied in itself, the mind is a dark well, no surface, depth only.” [33]

But here, Yeats is also describing the pragmatics of his own symbolism, the fact that poetry, as he understands it, finds its symbols at hand in the same way that language, in Saussure’s description, seizes upon the accidents of phonetic development and attaches meaning to them. The poem, as already noted, began, as Yeats himself wrote to Olivia Shakespear, as a “curse upon old age,” [34] an articulation of the impossibility of the transcendental, universalizing apostrophe with which it ends (or even de Man’s thematizing of that impossibility): its curse simply articulated a broken heart. Of course, such a recourse to origin” - to a “cause”- is precisely what I am arguing that postmodern rhetoric eschews, but it is instructive in Yeats’s case. As Lyotard says, the postmodern is “that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; ... that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart -a stronger [28] sense of the unpresentable” (‘What is Postmodernism?’, p.81). Yeats’s apostrophe attempts to transform the images of experience into a symbol of unpresentable Presences. In this attempt, however, he presents the unpresentable in presentation itself; namely, the arbitrary nature of his signs. The poem presents the accidents of experiences - mothers and birth, nuns and children, aging lovers - as occasions for an apostrophic speech about unpresentable, blossoming labour.

The postmodern in Yeats’s modernism is the radical contingency of the images that he hangs together in his poetry. The examples of apostrophe offered by Culler, besides that of the ending of “Among School Children” (Blake, Shelley, Rilke), are contrasted with narrative and historical description. “If one brings together in a poem a boy, some birds, a few blessed creatures, and some mountains, meadows, hills and groves,” Culler writes, “one tends to place them in a narrative where one thing leads to another; the events which form ask to be temporally located. . But if one puts into a poem thou shepherd boy, ye blessed creatures, ye birds, they are immediately associated with what might be called a timeless present but is better seen as a temporality of writing.” (‘Apostrophe’, p.149). “Among School Children” does both: it offers the historically located description of the “images” that nuns, mothers, and remembered lovers worship - all of which, as Kermode says, are very difficult because they are accidental, famous, so to speak, for fifteen minutes, unpresentable “particularities not shared by the reader” ( Romantic Image, 83). The poem also offers the apostrophe to the transcendental and “timeless” “Presences” somehow buried “beneath” these accidents of history, implied by these accidents as a primal cry implies some inarticulate “deep” meaning, because otherwise - postmodernly - all that would be left would be material accidents subject to the meaningless changes of time.

In this way, modern and postmodern, the poem narrates its own “mythological method” of transforming historical occasion to symbolic event. The specific method of this apostrophic mythologizing, however, is the local violence of transforming the subjects of desire from female to male, so that in stanza vi the figure of Plato - itself assumed from the “accidental” simile in the second stanza of Plato’s parable - becomes the figure of piety, Aristotle the figure for the mother, and Pythagoras the figure for the passionate lover. Moreover, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras are linked signifiers in -a linguistic chain. In other [29] words, Yeats seizes upon the accidents of his experience, imposes the hierarchical order of sexual difference (marked in the “universalization” of the neutral male terms), and transforms the chaotic metonymies of female life - mother, child, nun, lover - which mix spiritual and material existence indiscriminately, into the transcendental synecdochic order of male philosophic discourse. “Image” becomes “Presence” as female becomes male, and with this transformation, the metonymy of “nuns and mothers” becomes the activity of symbolization, “Presences,” symbolizing the unpresentable, “all heavenly glory.” Such glory, like the transformation of schoolgirls of the poem sewing and reminding Yeats of Maud, to the “son” of stanza v, creates a male preserve as its “universalizing,” “mythical method”: it makes the world possible for art by making experience male experience, even as Maud’s “present image floats into the mind” as formed, not by the accidents of the experience that she chose for herself and had thrust upon her, but by quattrocento finger. It makes it possible by articulating the accidental materialism of metonymy into the ideal order of synecdoche and, even more, the hierarchical metaphoric order of material female signifiers functioning as “forgotten” vehicles for transcendental “neutral” (i.e. male) signifieds.

Here, then, is an apostrophe of modernism not unlike Eliot’s mandarin definition of the mythical method. The apostrophe itself, as Culler argues, “makes its point by troping not on the meaning of a word but on the circuit or situation of communication itself.” (‘Apostrophe’, p.135). Apostrophe, he continues, proceeds by “deflection”; that is, it moves horizontally, even though, as he says, critics turn aside from apostrophes with embarrassment and attempt “to repress them or rather to transform apostrophe into description” (‘Apostrophe’, 13). Like Yeats, modernist critics repress rhetoric and transform the stagings of apostrophe into metaphysical namings. Greimas, as I have mentioned, describes this process in technical semiotic terms - which are themselves postmodern terms - as the nature of poetry; namely, “the shortening of the distance between the signifier and the signified ... to reachieve the ‘primal cry’”, which is, he argues, an “illusory signification of a ‘deep meaning’, hidden and inherent in the plane of expression”. (‘La linguistique structurale’, p.279). Modernism traffics in deep meanings, while postmodernism locates meaning itself - including “deep” meanings - on the contingent, configured surface of experience and discourse. This is why, I believe, recent literary criticism - heirs to the “structuralism” of [30] Saussure and his followers (including Greimas and the various stripes of “poststructuralist” criticism, many of which are cited in this essay in an attempt to define postmodernism) - only achieves Rorty’s “genuine modernist criticism” in its focus on the postmodern moment of modernism and on the effective play of discursive surfaces rather than on the search for adequate “causes.”

”History is necessity,” Yeats wrote in a late diary entry, “until it takes fire in someone’s head and becomes virtue or freedom.” [35] Such fire, however, is a discursive effect residing on the surface of things. In just the way “Among School Children” seizes upon the language of experience to create a discursive effect suggesting a “truce with time”, “an escape from mortality,” or a vision of unity, so modernism makes a virtue of necessity and creates at least the illusion of coherence within futility and anarchy. The futility and anarchy of modernism, however, are measured against the depths of mind and meaning and against what is lost, just as the pain and uncertainty of child-rearing are measured against images and promises of “what never happens.”

With a twist of the wrist, however, modernism eschews depths for surfaces and thinks of truth rhetorically, playfully, and phenomenally; with a postmodern gesture, the panorama of contemporary history becomes “fun”. As Nietzsche says in The Gay Science, “all people who have depth find happiness in being for once like flying fish, playing on the peaks of waves; what they consider best in things is that they have surface: their skin-coveredness” [36] Yeats never quite conceived of the sea as a surface, preferring always to imagine what its depths threw forth. Yet his shells and gods and dolphins, like the children and nuns and philosophers of “Among School Children”, take their place within a topology of figures and an edifice of surfaces constituting modernism. What I have done in situating these figures within the poem - and within the modernist enterprise - is to read the surface rhetorically, as not only Saussure but also his postmodern (poststructuralist) readers have taught us, as a configuration, a way of making, not finding, sense in the world and making it, perhaps, possible for art.


Notes
1. T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in Selected Essays, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Harcourt 1975), pp.177-78.
2. Robert Langbaum, The Mysteries of Identity (NY: OUP 1977), pp.89-90.
3. For an examination of Langbaum’s “naturalizing” reading of modernism, which more extensively contrasts the “positive impulse” that he sees in Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, and others with the “terror” and “despair” explicitly described by Yeats in his poetic project, see my review dealing with The Mysteries of Identity in MLN, 93 (1978), pp.1052-59.
4. Daniel O’Hara, “Yeats in Theory,” in Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris (Cambridge UP 1987), pp.349-68. O’Hara traces the “sublime” in Yeats, a “vision of power” (350) becoming “wholly demonic, a desperate ‘evasion of dying- (358), as a model and impetus of twentieth-century literary theory. Yet his final description of this Yeatsian sublime seems to be a description of postmodern sensibility: “the sublime,” he concludes, “discloses the essential nature of all literary ideas-the fundamental groundlessness that makes every effort to theorize on their basis in the manner of academic philosophy a ridiculous enterprise at worst and at best a diverting work of literary art. ... An elaborate literary artifice produces an apocalyptically ironic vision destructive of all device as its own irrational self-representation as rhetoric. What else could result from this comically hollow affirmation of an annihilating prospect of descent to first principles but such a ‘purely’ literary conception of the sublime?” (p. 259). See also Paul de Man, “Image and Emblem in Yeats,” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (NY: Columbia Univ. Press 1984), 145-238; this source is cited in the text as “Image and Emblem.”
5. Clive Scott, “Symbolism Decadence and Impressionism,” in Modernism: 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarland (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1976), p.212.
6. Ronald Schleifer, “The Pathway of The Rose: Yeats, the Lyric, and the Syntax of Symbolism,” Genre, 18 (1985), pp.375-96.
7. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago UP 1981), p.208.
8. W. B. Yeats, “Nationality and Literature,” in Uncollected Prose, Vol. 1, ed, John Frayne (NY: Columbia UP 1970), p.271.
9. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago UP 1978), p.8.
10. For a penetrating discussion of the “theatrical” element in modernism, see Stephen Melville, Philosophy Beside Itself (Minneapolis UP 1986), esp. Chap. 1.
11. Cited by Symons in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (NY: Dutton Books 1958), p.70.
12. Fredric Jameson, “Foreword,” in Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington & Brian Massumi (Minneapolis UP 1984), xviii.
13. W B, Yeats, Essays and Introductions (NY: Collier Books 1968), p.148. This source is quoted throughout the text as E & I.
14. See Ronald Schleifer, “The Pathway of The Rose,” esp. pp.383-94.
15. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in New Left Review, 146 (July-Aug. 1984), p.65.
16. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1971), pp.122, 123. See also Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (NY: Dutton Books 1973).
17. Daniel O’Hara, Tragic Knowledge: Yeats’s ‘Autobiography” and Hermeneutics (NY: Columbia UP 1981), p.170. This source is cited in the text as Tragic Knowledge .
18. Jacques Derrida, Memoirs for Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler & Eduardo Cadava (NY: Columbia UP 1986), p.109.
19. Richard Rorty, “Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth-Century Text”, in Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis UP 1982), 153.
20. Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” in Consequences of Pragmatism, 92.
21. Fredric Jameson, “Foreword” The Postmodern Condition, xviii.
22. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiv; Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene (NY: St. Martin’s Press 1986), 79; Charles Newman, The Postmodern Aura (Northwestern UP 1985), p.10.
23. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (NY: McGraw Hill 1959), p.229.
24. Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in Allegories of Reading (Yale UP 1979), pp.11-12.
25. T S. Eliot, “Yeats,” in On Poetry and Poets (NY: Noonday Press 1961), p.299.
26. W. H. Auden, “Yeats as an Example,” in The Permanence of Yeats, ed. James Hall & Martin Steinmann (NY: Collier Books 1950), p.313.
27. Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe,” in The Pursuit of Signs (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. 1Q81), 142. This source is cited in the text as “Apostrophe.”
28. Writing and Difference, 103.
A. J. Greimas, “La linguistique structurale et la poétique,” in Du Sens (Paris: 1070), 279 (cited in the text as “La Linguistique structurale’). (my translation). For an account of Greimas’s structural analysis of poetry, see my A. J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning (Nebraska UP 1987), pp.151-54.
30. Cited in Thomas Parkinson, Yeats: The Later Poetry (Berkeley: California UP 1964), p.93.
31. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (NY: Harvest Books 1947), 185; Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (NY: OUP 1954), p.229; Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (NY: St. Martin’s Press 1957), p.83; George Lensing, ‘”Among School Children”: Questions as Conclusions”, in College Literature, 13 (1980), p.7; Douglas Archibald, Yeats (Syracuse UP 1983), p.222; David Young, Troubled Mirror: A Study of Yeats’s “The Tower” (Iowa UP 1987), p.91.
32. Jean-François Lyotard, “What Is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition, trans. Regis Durand, p.78.
33. The Autobiography of W. B. Yeats (NY: Collier Books 1965) p.194.
34. The Letters of W B. Yeats, ed. Alan Wade (NY: Macmillan 1955), p.719.
35. W. B. Yeats, Explorations (NY: Macmillan 1962), p.336.
36. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (NY: Vintage Books 1974), p.217.

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