Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Yeats, Violence, and "The Second Coming"

Yeats was not at Paris, but maybe this would be a good time not only for me to get back on the line, but also to introduce the theme of a broader cultural critique of the age of the "The Peace."

As we have seen in the last post (pun accidental, but there it is, at least for all who are familiar with the famous British bugle call), the violence of the war had lessened in its horrifying intensity with the Armistice, but much, much more violence was in store. The very period of the Peace that we are looking at was a time in which our modern "left" and "right" were being more highly defined, and in which the murderous aspects of modern national identity began to take on more definition as well. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset was already writing the material that in the late twenties became The Revolt of the Masses, in which the liberal philosopher decried the rise of barbarism associated with "mass man." His idea was not that social inferiors were taking over the system, but rather that the modern high-tech, crude demagogue represented a great danger for civilization. Ortega y Gasset was thinking of what the nineteenth-century art historian Jacob Burckhardt called the "simplificateurs terribles" (terrible simplifiers), men who would use the technology of modern life to power over the masses, whose faith was their driving force.

If we consider that the period between 1917 and 1919 saw the foundation of the Bolshevik regime, the formation of the Fascist party in Italy, and Hitler's conversion of a tiny crackpot political grouping Munich to the NSDAP, the National Socialist Party--well, we have the true generation of the whole "totalitarian" triumvirate so to speak, and precisely during the later phases of the war and the time of the peace conference.

To make a long story short, much that was happening seemed to thinking contemporaries a kind of retrograde motion in terms of civilization. British war poet Wilfred Owen sensed this in his grim vision "Strange Meeting," in which he describes a "trek from progress." A trek not toward progress, but from it. Other poets, philosophers such as Ortega y Gasset, and cultural observers of all kinds could see aspects of the same trend.

Among them was the great Irish mystic, the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Already in January 1919--as the Paris Peace Conference was opening, a telling conjunction indeed--Yeats was writing one of the great poems of the twentieth century and a powerful critique of times out of joint in "The Second Coming." (For a very fine short analysis of the poem, see this essay.)

In the poem, printed just below, the poet becomes the prophet. It is well worth reading. It certainly discerns a design for a violent century.

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.