Title

“Man is Nothing Till He is United to an Image:” On Truth, Lies, and the Nietzschean Mask in the Works of W.B. Yeats

Subject Area

Comparative Literature

Abstract

With its densely layered symbolism and array of thematic concerns, W.B. Yeats’s The Player Queen continues to bewilder scholars even a century after its first performance on an Irish stage. While any sort of categorical interpretation of the play remains unlikely, this paper will reveal how the play is largely a philosophical allegory of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the Mask. Nietzsche’s theory problematizes deeply seated western understandings of empirical truth and consensus reality and proposes that the metaphorical nature of language inherently “masks” meaning. Nietzsche therefore holds that a society’s collective intellect paradoxically develops by embracing lies as necessary means of communication and understanding; for Nietzsche, masks are, of course, the most blatant of lies. This paper will demonstrate how many of Yeats’s early poems, such as The Two Trees and Never Give All the Heart, represent a fondness for the sort of romanticized notions of truth that Nietzsche contends are illusive. As his career progresses, though, poems such as The Mask reconfigure these depictions in ways that begin to adopt Nietzschean characteristics. And in The Player Queen, Yeats constructs a world in which characters supplant a desire for concrete meaning with a stringent demand for mere representation, imagery, and metaphor. While there is cogent evidence for Yeats’s engagement with Nietzschean thought, little attention has been given to the informative role of the Nietzschean Mask in reforming his literary foray into questions of truth and identity. This paper therefore illuminates this pattern of development and shows how, within this context, the enigmatic The Player Queen grows a little less obscure.

Brief Bio Note

Dr. Adam Roberts received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Leeds. Currently, he teaches Composition, World Literature, and American Literature at the University of Alabama. His research interests include Comparative Literature, New Historicism, Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, as well as the Intersections of Philosophy, Literature, and Film.

Keywords

Literary criticism, Yeats, Nietzsche, fin de siècle, philosophy, comparative literature

Presentation Year

October 2020

Start Date

10-22-2020 2:05 PM

End Date

10-22-2020 2:45 PM

Embargo

11-13-2019

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Oct 22nd, 2:05 PM Oct 22nd, 2:45 PM

“Man is Nothing Till He is United to an Image:” On Truth, Lies, and the Nietzschean Mask in the Works of W.B. Yeats

With its densely layered symbolism and array of thematic concerns, W.B. Yeats’s The Player Queen continues to bewilder scholars even a century after its first performance on an Irish stage. While any sort of categorical interpretation of the play remains unlikely, this paper will reveal how the play is largely a philosophical allegory of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the Mask. Nietzsche’s theory problematizes deeply seated western understandings of empirical truth and consensus reality and proposes that the metaphorical nature of language inherently “masks” meaning. Nietzsche therefore holds that a society’s collective intellect paradoxically develops by embracing lies as necessary means of communication and understanding; for Nietzsche, masks are, of course, the most blatant of lies. This paper will demonstrate how many of Yeats’s early poems, such as The Two Trees and Never Give All the Heart, represent a fondness for the sort of romanticized notions of truth that Nietzsche contends are illusive. As his career progresses, though, poems such as The Mask reconfigure these depictions in ways that begin to adopt Nietzschean characteristics. And in The Player Queen, Yeats constructs a world in which characters supplant a desire for concrete meaning with a stringent demand for mere representation, imagery, and metaphor. While there is cogent evidence for Yeats’s engagement with Nietzschean thought, little attention has been given to the informative role of the Nietzschean Mask in reforming his literary foray into questions of truth and identity. This paper therefore illuminates this pattern of development and shows how, within this context, the enigmatic The Player Queen grows a little less obscure.