Yeats’ “Magic” is Jung’s science

Mage and spirits

Illustration by Moina Bergson Mathers

Early Carl Jung bookplate

Early Carl Jung bookplate

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a pioneer in psychology, trained in medicine, who firmly grounded his scientific work in empirical and clinical observation. Yet Jung’s ideas about synchronicity, the collective nature of much of the unconscious, his technique of “active imagination,” his investigations of spiritualist seances, the I Ching, astrology, alchemy … in a few words, his lifelong fascination with the occult and integration of occult-friendly concepts into his scientific work, mark him as an unusual scientist. In contrast, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the Irish writer and Nobel laureate in literature, immersed himself in the occult, unconstrained by scientific aspiration or self-identification.

This posting introduces a brief 7500-word essay, entitled “Magic,” that Yeats wrote in 1901, while Jung was still working at his first job as a psychiatrist. The full essay, reformatted and annotated, may be downloaded from the blog’s Unlinks page. Yeats anticipates several of the then as yet unknown Jung’s later ideas and methods.

 “Magic” offers a study in the synchronicity (“the coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same meaning,” as Jung would define his term) that surrounded the substantially independent emergence of parallel insights in two great thinkers of the last century.

 An acausal connecting principle

 There is little or no direct literary influence between Jung and Yeats. The landmark academic treatment of their parallels is now a generation old, James Olney’s 1980 The Rhizome and the Flower: The Perennial Philosophy – Yeats and Jung. Olney argued that their shared ideas were rooted mainly in Plato and his predecessors. Olney’s book is available for free reading online at

 Olney reports that Jung did own a copy of Yeats’ A Vision, a dense 1925 book based on automatic writing and channeling of spirits by William’s wife, George. Jung’s copy did not appear much used, and was shelved in the alchemy section of Jung’s library. Olney cites a paper ( R.J. Wall and R. Fitzgerald, Yeats and Jung, an ideological comparison, Literature and Psychology 13(2), 1963) which reports that when Jung was asked in January 1960 (that is, about the time of Jung’s letter to The Listener on God), Jung said that he was “not acquainted” with Yeats’ work and had “never read a line of his.” In 1901, when “Magic” was written, there would have been no work of Jung’s for Yeats to have read.

 Any relationship between their ideas, then, was not based on any simple causal influence of an older writer on a younger one. Nevertheless, based on his survey of their respective voluminous collected works, Olney identified a long list of specific shared views. While Olney’s hypothesis of a common reading of Plato and earlier philosophers explains some of these parallels, it fails to account for the distinctiveness of the two thinkers’ ideas. Many people read Plato, not so many get out of their reading what Jung and Yeats both did.

 It is also possible simply to explain away or minimize the parallels. Colin Wilson, in his popular 1984 book C.G. Jung: Lord of the Underworld, offers a passing remark in chapter 5 about what he sees as a fundamental contrast between Jung and Yeats. Speaking of the post-Freudian Jung circa 1927,

 Jung … was reaching out towards an intuition that there can be a fruitful harmony between the mind and the powers of the universe. In ancient cultures, this tradition is known as magic, and Jung’s thinking was becoming increasingly ‘magical’. Yet he was not concerned with ritual or ceremonial magic — as W. B. Yeats was; he was concerned with the ‘natural’ magic of the unconscious: the ‘magic’, for example, that produces synchronicities.

 If that were so, then the coincidence of their ideas would be less remarkable. Is it so?

 There is no question that Yeats was heavily involved in ceremonial magic. There is a splendid online virtual exhibition of Yeats artifacts hosted by the National Library of Ireland,

 Navigate on the exhibition’s map to “The Celtic Mystic” and click on the nearest display cabinet on your right, or search on its label, “The Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn.” There you’ll find images of mystical paraphernalia alongside notebooks with vibrant hand-colored illustrations of ceremonial vestments, as if the Freemasons had hijacked an Eastern Orthodox church. You are not in Switzerland, that’s for sure. The closest Jung got to playing dress up was his signature “Gnostic” ring and the mason’s work apron he wore when pursuing his hobby of actual real-life stoneworking.

 Nevertheless, maybe because “Magic” was written while Yeats was caught in the political intrigues of the Golden Dawn schisms, his essay carries little costumed ritual baggage. Imagination casts enchantments, sometimes unbidden, at their best “invoking visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed.” Spirits ( “though I do not know what they are”) come when they are called, in service of a collective unconscious, as the “one great memory, the memory of Nature herself,” of which “our memories are a part” will one day be called. And when expert consultation is needed, it is not the robed and talismaned lodge brothers and sisters with the faux Latin names, but the ordinary country folk and native seers of Lapland, Sligo and the Aran Isles whose counsel is sought.

 Fair enough to say that the unconscious natural magic of “Magic” is atypical of Yeats, whether Yeats of the magicians’ lodge or the older Yeats whose elaborate sacred geometry was imparted by his wife’s channeled instructors in the privacy of their own home. The Yeats essay’s magic seems eerily typical of Jung, a version of Jung that fully emerged only after his break with Freud. “Magic” was published five years before those two giants had even met.

 Meaningful coincidences

 The first of the eight sections in “Magic” is literally a credo. The boundary between consciousness and the mind’s depths is shifting and labile. The depths connect the individual to one great mind and its memories. Symbols evoke the shared unconscious memories. These, in Yeats’ view, are “the foundations of nearly all magical practices,” which have ” been handed down from early times.” These are also the foundations of the collective unconscious and its relationship with the conscious ego in the Jungian theory, hints of which linger in ancient myth and exotic artifacts.

 The next two sections recount an “evocation of spirits” session for Yeats and an acquaintance that was conducted by a Golden Dawn founder and his wife. The participants’ conscious attention was maintained as two symbolic narratives were allowed to develop by small group interaction under the hostess’ guidance. The resemblance to Jung’s “active imagination” is unmistakable.

 Almost at once my imagination began to move of itself and to bring before me vivid images that, though never too vivid to be imagination, as I had always understood it, had yet a motion of their own, a life I could not change or shape.

 Yeats would discuss a “solo” form of “evocation” in his 1917 Per Amica Silentia Lunae, in the second part of the Anima Mundi section, which Yeats attributes to Goethe, whom Jung thought was one of his ancestors.

 There is a letter of Goethe’s, though I cannot remember where, that explains evocation, though he was but thinking of literature… One must allow the images to form with all their associations before one criticises. ‘If one is critical too soon,’ he wrote, ‘they will not form at all.’ If you suspend the critical faculty, I have discovered, … images pass rapidly before you… If you can suspend also desire, and let them form at their own will, your absorption becomes more complete… Those who follow the old rule keep their bodies still and their minds awake and clear…

 The fourth and fifth sections of “Magic” are devoted to anecdotes and conjectures about enchantments, where one person’s imagination makes itself felt in the thoughts and behaviors of others. Yeats thinks that breaches of the boundaries between individual minds have played a role in history, a theme Jung also discreetly speculated about.

 In the sixth and seventh sections, Yeats makes a number of empirical observations about the role of symbols in imaginative thought. Just as Jung would be astonished to find images created by his patients in arcane books that the patients hadn’t read, Yeats makes the same observations about ordinary people in non-clinical settings. Yeats adopts an experimental approach to his investigations, although with no pretense of being “scientific.” One resource for his work is journals he kept of his own dreams and mystical experiences, another parallel to Jung’s practice, both for himself and his patients.

 The final, brief section describes the tension between a wish to write openly about these extraordinary things versus a sense that much of it should remain private. The source of that need for discretion is less than clear. Yeats suggests that some of the experiences are too private for comfortable disclosure, and it is well known that Jung was reluctant to participate in the revealing memoir that became, with Aniela Jaffe’s collaboration, his quasi-autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

 Yeats concludes that he may already have written more openly about the hidden things than he should. Jung, who would also have the practical concern of maintaining a scientific reputation when discussing some aspects of his teachings, might agree that he, too, was sometimes indiscreet.

 It is a cliche that science in general grew out of magic; astronomy from astrology, chemistry from alchemy, engineering from a desire to control Nature by knowing her ways. The situation here seems different. Psychology, or one version of it, may have emerged from magic because its subjects may be natural magicians, or magicians by nature, as people are sometimes inclined to be, or to try to be.


Top pictures: Left: a book illustration drawn by the hostess of the “evocation” seance which Yeats describes in the second and third sections of “Magic.” Right: An example of the bookplate used by Jung early in his career. For an example of his later “coat of arms” bookplate, see the lead of this story.

Update: For a look at what ordinary some Americans were doing in the way of magic or psychological science in the early Twentieth Century, see this story.


Filed under Psychology

2 responses to “Yeats’ “Magic” is Jung’s science

  1. Pingback: Astronomy Vs Astrology | Astronomy News

  2. Barbara Morrison

    “A physician without a knowledge of Astrology has no right to call himself a physician” Hippocrates (ca. 400 BC).

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