What is to be Done? The Mystical Nihilisms of W. B. Yeats’s Where There Is Nothing, The Unicorn From the Stars, and The Hour-Glass

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This essay explores the ‘mystical nihilism’ of three plays Yeats wrote in the first decade of the new century: Where There Is Nothing (1902), which was heavily revised with Lady Gregory’s help into The Unicorn From the Stars (1907), and The Hour-Glass (1903), written in the intervening period. I begin with the ‘nothing’ that is God in the story ‘Where There Is Nothing, There is God’ of The Secret Rose (1897); and then explore the submerged textual play upon the indefinite pronouns ‘everything’, ‘anything’, something’ and ‘nothing’ in the play Where There Is Nothing, relating this to religious thinking about the ‘nihil’. Next, I follow Yeats’s efforts in transforming the protagonist Paul Ruttledge of WTIN into Martin Hearne of UFS and connect this to questions about the nature of the mystical nihilist, and the ways in which their vision may be interpreted or misinterpreted as a practical political programme – an answer to the question of what is to be done? This involves Yeats’s first serious encounter with the thought of Nietzsche as well as with the dramatic art of J.M. Synge and the early controversies greeting In the Shadow of the Glen. It also converges with the Socialist-Anarchist circles of William Morris, and two plays by George Bernard Shaw: Man and Superman (1903), and John Bull’s Other Island (1904). In The Hour-Glass Yeats depicts the poverty of thought in rationalist nihilism and an alternative pathway to the mystical ‘nothing’ that is God. Finally, I explore questions of form, both in terms of stagecraft and philosophy, to delineate a tension between the ‘nothing’ of mysticism and the ‘something’ of magic, focusing upon the symbol of the white unicorn, which is the keystone of UFS and a symbol within the rituals of the Golden Dawn. As this is the period following Yeats’s disillusionment with the Golden Dawn, I place this tension between mysticism and magic at a crucial moment in his development.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Yeats Studies
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 14 Mar 2024


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