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1 COMPABATIVE i ama Volume 28Summer 1994Number 2 Ecstasy and Peak-Experience: W. B. Yeats, Marghanita Laski, and Abraham Maslow Natalie Crohn Schmitt In a world beset by realism, science, and the workaday, W. B. Yeats set about inventing a dramatic form to induce ecstatic experience in his audience and dedicated his long dramatic career to that effect.1 He thought of his art, he said, as but the putting of his faith and the evidence of his faith in words or forms, and his faith was in ecstasy.2 He was, he felt, never so alive as "at the moment when a room full of people share [that] one lofty emotion."3 Ecstatic experiences, as represented in Yeats's plays, their attendant imagery, and their import, are here examined in light of the phenomenological studies of such experiences provided by novelist and critic Marghanita Laski and by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Marghanita Laski, in a frequently cited 1961 study, examined accounts of 1 14 ecstatic experiences provided her by friends and acquaintances and in published literary and religious works. In her examination, which was confined to those ecstatic experiences recounted as "extraordinary to the point of often seeming as if derived from a praeternatural source," she observed that the experiences were generally described in highly imagistic terms. She also noted that there was a limited range of objects, events, 167 168Comparative Drama and ideas that served to trigger them, and that such triggers were usually a necessary though not a sufficient cause of ecstatic experience .4 She observed that what were felt to be qualities of many of the triggers and the experience were causally connected —for instance, that being on the top of a mountain could serve to trigger ecstatic feelings of upliftedness. Following Laski's lead, I wish to look at Yeats's plays—and particularly at their repeated imagery—as such triggers in order to make clear relationships between the images themselves and between images and the ecstatic experience Yeats sought to evoke. The strong correlation between Yeats's representations of ecstatic experience and descriptions provided by Laski's subjects is not surprising. Laski relied on European, primarily English, subjects. Yeats drew his inspiration from a wide range of sources both Eastern and Western, but in the end he chose descriptions and images that seemed both true to him and, he hoped, moving for his English-speaking audience. The principal difference between the accounts of Laski's subjects and Yeats's plays is of course that Laski's subjects were actually in situations that triggered their experience—on top of a windy mountain at sunset, for instance—whereas Yeats only provided images of such experiences. Yeats hoped that if he could intensely realize a state of ecstasy—that is, provide a vision or fable representing the experience of it—he could induce it. Just as "an emotion produces a symbol," he believed, "a symbol produces emotion."5 Seeking always to intensify the realization, what appears in the early plays as mere verbal description often reappears in the later ones in character, action, and setting—which of course are also images. But it is not only Yeats's means that we may question: his very interest in mystical experiences is often regarded as a considerable embarrassment. R. P. Blackmur's response to Yeats's mysticism continues to prevail: "the supernatural is simply not part of our mental furniture," he said, "and when we meet it in our reading we say: Here is debris to be swept away."6 To counter such response, I want to set Yeats's project not only within the context of Laski's study but also within that of one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow (190870 ). Maslow, strongly influenced by Laski's study, conducted his own interviews and surveys and came away convinced that ecstatic experiences are more common than our society and, more particularly, psychology acknowledges. Mystic transcendent experiences , he argued, "lie well within the realm of nature," and Natalie Crohn Schmitt169 study of them like that of any other human experience is well within the realm of psychology.7 Like Laski, then, Maslow sought to naturalize ecstatic experience...

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