Gyres and waves: Bergsonian movement and multiplicity in the works of W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Meghan H. McGuire (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Anthony Cuda

Abstract: At the beginning of the twentieth century, French philosopher, Henri Bergson, unsettled the way people understood time and memory by suggesting that our representation of time as measured and linear is actually a discussion of space. For Bergson, real durational time cannot be quantified or delineated; it must be experienced through intuition. Central to Bergson’s philosophy is an emphasis on movement and multiplicity; we exist not as stable entities but as constant, complex processes of becoming. His radical ideas about time, memory, consciousness, and evolution pushed back against a mechanistic and deterministic world-view with a philosophy that not only acknowledged the reality of perpetual change but embraced it—turning threatening chaos into productive creative force. Wildly popular, Bergson’s ideas saturated the literary and artistic landscape of what we now regard as modernism, embracing fluidity and change as well as fragmentation. This dissertation explores the presence of Bergsonian philosophy in the modernist works of W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf, investigating how seemingly disparate writers—like Yeats and Woolf—navigate a rapidly changing and fractured world by implementing patterns and creating systems of order. Focusing specifically on each author’s use of gyre and wave imagery, my study argues that Yeats and Woolf employ Bergsonian images of multidirectional movement as a way of holding binaries in tension with one another without the need for unity or resolution. Rather than enforcing a dualistic system that chooses between order and disorder, progress and decline, Yeats and Woolf find a way to artistically circumvent stasis in favor of a Bergsonian model of mobility and multiplicity. Through this approach, each author is able to achieve a remarkable fluidity of scope, allowing them to move from the external to the internal, the objective to the subjective, and the personal to the national in a way that productively blurs delineations and constructively complicates dualities. This dissertation challenges the scholarly tendency to see Yeats and Woolf as antithetical representations of a monolithic modernism, where Yeats embodies tradition and structure and Woolf exemplifies experimentation and flux. By exploring the movement and fluidity in Yeats’s structured system from A Vision and the order and pattern in Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, I bring these authors into a new dialectic. After the introduction, the first two chapters of this dissertation break new ground by utilizing unpublished archival materials from Yeats’s personal library to explore the previously undiscussed influence of Bergsonian theory on the poet’s later works. After establishing this relationship between Yeats and Bergson, the last two chapters then discuss the unexpected similarities between Yeats’s mystical system in A Vision and Woolf’s novel The Waves. Through this focused comparative study, I contend that both authors, through their repeated use of gyres and waves, find a way to embrace Bergsonian fluidity and change while calling attention to the comforting artifice of perceived order; they concretize a pattern, but it is one that is cleverly and ironically generative rather than conclusive.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2017
Bergson, Gyre, Wave, Woolf, Yeats
Modernism (Literature)
Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941. $t Waves
Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941 $x Criticism and interpretation
Yeats, W. B. (William Butler), 1865-1939 $x Criticism and interpretation
Yeats, W. B. (William Butler), 1865-1939. $t Tower
Bergson, Henri, 1859-1941 $x Influence

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