Slouching towards Bethlehem?! Get a Grip


. . . a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi /Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert. /A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/ A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, /Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it /Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. - from W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

“We are starting to wonder whether Congressional Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, or simply lack convictions,” stated a recent New York Times editorial. The editorial was displeased that the Democrats were afraid of standing up against the Bush tax cuts, due to expire by the end of this year. What with cowardly Democrats and outraged Republicans, we have a scenario best described by William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.”

In today’s post I return to the poem to see if it can give us other insights into the state of today’s politics. (You can read the entire poem here.)  The opening image certainly seems to apply:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

Many have the sense that America’s center also cannot hold—by which I mean not the political center but the ideals that hold the country together. Negotiating between the different classes, nationalities, races and ethnicities that make up the United States has always been our greatest challenge, and if we can no longer hear the falconer, if each group goes soaring off into its own concerns and demonizes every other group, then anarchy has indeed been loosed upon the world. The frequent invocation of the American Revolution (see my post on that here) indicates that there is indeed, in this complex world, a longing for an innocence that seems only possible in the past.

Having noted that, however, let’s also acknowledge that no blood-dimmed tide has been loosed. There’s been a lot of irresponsible acting out and a fair number of temper tantrums. But no rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem that I can see.

Magnificent though the poem is, my sense is that Yeats is indulging in the human penchant for melodramatic end-of-the-world scenarios. What in 1919, when the poem was written, would have set off his pessimism? World War II was still two decades away so it wasn’t that. Maybe it was the upsurge in violence that Ireland was experiencing. I mean no disrespect to the Irish when I say that that’s a fairly localized apocalypse. Furthermore, most of Ireland would achieve independence three years later.

Too many people these days threaten us with doomsday predictions. Often these visions seem to be some version of “the world is going to end if I don’t get my way.” It’s as though there are multiple apocalypses, which reminds me of a line from the series Buffy and the Vampire Slayer. Riley, Buffy’s boyfriend in season four, tells her that, until he met her, he didn’t know that “apocalypse” had a plural form. (In the series, the Hellmouth, located right under Buffy’s high school, is always threatening to empty its demons into the world—which is as good a description as any of what adolescence feels like.) Anyway, sometimes it seems that our politics are made up of teenagers who won’t stop screaming until they get their way.

Back to the best lacking all conviction and the worst filled with passionate intensity: if Democrats are pretending they didn’t just pass sweeping healthcare reform and Republicans are hollering about the onslaught of cataclysmic socialism, this does not mean that some revelation is at hand. It mostly means that people are trying to either lull you or scare you into voting for them (or tuning into their talk show).

The best antidote is to clear your mind, inform yourself on the issues, and in a reasonable and balanced way do what seems best for your country. Enough with the hysteria.

This entry was posted in Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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  1. By Misery Loves Poetry on March 29, 2011 at 5:21 am

    […] mentions some poems that I’ve written about, such as Yeats’s “Second Coming” (although I pooh-poohed the poet’s apocalyptic claims) and Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” rant […]


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