Four days after Georgie Hyde-Lees became Georgie Yeats, she sat down at a table in front of her husband and started receiving visions from the beyond. The sudden hieroglyphs she produced were not immediately decipherable, and to call them letters or words would be inaccurate. Whatever the symbols meant, the method of composition seized her new husband’s attention, exerted a strange force over him, and turned him, at least temporarily, into a careful, devoted student of his new wife’s work.1
Automatic writing is “writing apparently produced by a spiritual or psychic [End Page 81] agency, usually through a medium.”2 Typically, artistic attempts at visualizing automatic writing show a man or a woman being compelled by either a demon or an angel. Good or evil, the spirit sends waves of influence into the medium’s head via a touch or a glare. Through the hand of the medium, the spiritual communications are transformed into marks that range from recognizably orthographic shapes, to vaguely cursive loops, to glyphs that resemble phonetic symbols, to lines that are so overlapped and indistinct that they resist interpretation as being signs at all, entering the domain of impressionism, revelation, and pure shape. If you do a quick online search for “automatic writing,” you will find modern examples of the mystical transcription taking place as a sort of performance. One such image from 2011 is of a red-haired woman in the UK, lying on her back upon a large sheet of paper, a marker in either hand.3 The marker’s felt tip is pointed down towards the paper, where she has made some markings around her head. The markings, like her hair, are red. She is wearing a simple black dress. Her face and neck are flushed red. Her eyes are open. People are standing around her, watching. You get the sense that no one in the room is talking. The spectators look uncomfortable, as if they’ve intruded on something private. Even the quiet reverence of the photographer, hoping that his camera’s shutter doesn’t close too loudly, comes through in the image. [End Page 82]
Some 20 years after his initial excitement over Georgie’s revelation as a medium, Yeats completed A Vision, the work that he went so far as to call “my book of books.” In his vision,4 Yeats interprets Georgie’s years of automatic writing (an hour or two a day)5 as an explanation that life repeats itself, not in a linear sequence, but in a conical gyre, swirling around the eternal now. The idea isn’t especially original. The Sanskrit words “maya” and “samsara” both refer to the illusiveness of reality and reincarnation; the scarab is an Egyptian symbol for eternal reemergence; Nietzsche has his amor fati; Hawking has his multiverse; I, on the other hand, tend to like the ouroboros (also known as Jörmungandr, among other names), which is usually depicted as a snake devouring its own tail, the creature’s body coiled in the shape of an “O.”
In The Creation Myth, Eric Neumann has this to say about the serpent: “The uroboros, traceable in all epochs and cultures, then appears as the latest symbol [End Page 83] of individual psychic development, signifying the roundedness of the psyche, life’s wholeness, and perfection regained. It is the place of transfiguration and illumination, of finality, as well as the place of mythological origination.” And while most of its admirers would agree that the ouroboros is a striking representation of creation, destruction, rebirth, and life, I think it’s possible that they fail to recognize the tonal contradiction it poses.
On one hand, the cannibalistic, self-devouring image is magnificent: to think that time and space consume themselves is terrifying, and to see the process in a single, recognizable image is a thing of terrible beauty, a naughty little peek at infinity. On the other hand, a stupid and overly excited dog will engage in exactly the same sort of tail-chasing as the ouroboros, and there’s nothing mythical, illuminating, or transfigurative about it. What do we make of...