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Wes and Erin continue their discussion of W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” In Part 1, they analyzed the first stanza of the poem, in particular Yeats’ use of “gyre”; the meaning of the phrases “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold”; and the conflict between aristocratic and revolutionary values. In Part 2, they discuss — with a little help from Nietzsche — the anti-redemption of the second stanza, and the meaning of Yeats’ vision of a “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem.
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Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes Alwan: All right, so here we are on the second stanza. The poem doesn’t quite take its final turn yet, right? So it evokes the possibility of a Christian second coming and something hopeful. And then it will take its dark turn towards his strange vision of Sphinx. There’s a kind of quality of satire or parody here. It’s a send-up of the very idea of a second coming which in some ways might not be surprising if we reflect on the poem. We’ve seen hints even though he’s talking about things falling apart. And what’s not going to be called for is a revolution, right? And the way they’re falling apart is the– what he’s reacting to in the first stanza– is all the revolutionary fervor and the chaos and disorder that it’s created. So if we think of a second coming or the hope for a second coming as a variation on the revolutionary spirit then we might not be so surprised that he’s gonna end up rejecting it. That’s what he dangles before us as bait at the very beginning of the second stanza.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Mhm. Yeah. And I like that idea of satire because as we said frequently in the previous episode, he’s working a lot in Christian imagery. And the devil is often called the ape of Christ. It’s a mimicry of Christ. But it’s sort of backwards turning things upside down. And so in this idea of The Second Coming, of course, we think of the Book of Revelation, the second coming of Christ. And the content here is actually going to be kind of an aping of that, or a turning upside down, or a satire as you say. But before we get into it, I just want to talk a little bit about the form of the poem because this is I don’t think we talked about that very much last time. So in the previous episode, we covered the first eight lines which made up the first stanza. And now the second part is actually a sonnet. It’s kind of a sonnet. It’s 14 lines long. So the whole poem together is sort of a sonnet plus an addendum in a way. And so this sonnet form which traditionally a sonnet has eight lines of one idea and then a volta turn and six lines of a competing idea and that’s sort of what’s going on here. So there’s a bit of a sonnet feel to it in addition to the fact that it’s 14 lines long. And then also there is sort of an iambic pentameter going on here is it’s so loose that it almost is an iambic pentameter and there are some rhymes, some slant rhymes, but they almost seem to be accidental. And they don’t really occur in any kind of pattern so that we have hold and world, Falconer and everywhere, or dire and everywhere. So there’s a suggestion of a lined ghost of a rhyme, but doesn’t seem to have any particular pattern which I think sort of fits with the whole theme and which is working of this mere anarchy, and it kind of has one foot in the world of form and one foot in free verse, and it’s sort of spanning the bridge between the two. Yeah, so he starts with surely some revelation is at hand. He’s seeing all of this chaos and anarchy happening in the first stanza. And now he’s saying, “Okay, there’s going to be some revelation that’s coming. Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” So I think here he’s referring to the ideas in the Book of Revelation which is, of course, the final book of the New Testament written by St. John of Patmos. And there’s a struggle between good and evil that happens in Revelation and it reaches a fever pitch. The evil is growing stronger and stronger. And there’s this climax in which God finally comes down to earth to intervene. He destroys evil, performs the Last Judgment, and then basically establishes heaven on earth in which there is no more death and the world kind of returns to prelapsarian state. So yeah, it is assuming that with all of this anarchy, destruction, and chaos that there is going to be this restorative coming, this revelation, the second coming of Christ, and then there’s kind of a turn that happens in line three.
Wes Alwan: I love this twist. As I’ve said before, I like a poem with a good twist. And I love the way it goes sideways here. Although no, it’s not such a nice vision that he’s having. It’s really powerful, so hardly are those words out when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight. So we get this idea here that something out of the collective unconscious has actually inserted itself into his imagination. So what’s going on is he’s describing his own inspiration to us as a poet, but it’s described as a kind of mystical vision that comes from this. Again, I think the best way to phrase it as collective unconscious although the use of the phrase Spiritus Mundi seems like an opposition to me to the idea of the Holy Spirit and I think of the role of the Holy Spirit and Mary’s conception of Christ. And here he is having his own conception.
Erin O’Luanaigh: As a side note, I just want to say that I love the fact that you have the proper classical pronunciation of Spiritus Mundi. And I’m saying Spiritus Mundi which is bringing out my Ecclesiastical Latin background. So we’re kind of the personifications of the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian traditions just in our pronunciation of that term.
Wes Alwan: I keep my pronunciation very Roman. [laughter]
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yes, you’re very good.
Wes Alwan: As Marcus Aurelius put it; one ought to strive to be a real Roman. So I do that every day. [laughter] As with Yeats, I like those aristocratic Roman values, you know?
Erin O’Luanaigh: There you go.
Wes Alwan: You get to run around in togas and sandals very kind of leisurely outfit and yet you’re conquering the world at the same time. It’s great.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I prefer very heavy robes, ridiculous hat, sticks that you could beat people with if you want now.
Wes Alwan: That’s another form of power. So it just depends on which kind of power you want.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I’m into this whole sword and sandal thing, too. So this image comes out of this collective unconscious, this world soul or whatever from which we get all these archetypes and everything. And he has this vision of the sands of the desert in which this shape with a lion body and the head of a man is moving. And this is obviously supposed to be reminiscent of the sphinx.
Wes Alwan: And I think in particular right of the Great Sphinx of Giza, that actual monument that was discovered at the end of the 19th century.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, because there’s an implication here that it’s been awoken from a stony sleep. So we know that this is a stone sphinx so we can assume that it’s the Great Sphinx perhaps. And this is a time in which I mean–
Wes Alwan: Maybe I’m wrong about that. This is the way I’ve always thought of it.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, that kind of makes the most sense. I ignoring stony sleep, I was thinking that this was an animal that sort of been Benjamin buttoning or something like it resurrects and then it’s kind of living its life backwards because at the end of the poem, we have it slouching towards Bethlehem to be born which makes one wonder what constitutes of birth if by waking up and moving around for the first time in 20 centuries, it’s not being born it has to go elsewhere to do so.
Wes Alwan: So thinking of the Sphinx as a statue essentially that becomes animated and gets up which is a great image moving it’s slow thighs although I think because it’s a cat. Essentially, I think of it as maybe stretching before it starts moving on. That’s, of course, not what really happens. But as many critics point out, there seems to be an evocation of Shelley’s Ozymandias here, right? So the idea of a great monument sitting in the sand and being a symbol of power but having been ruined and defeated by time, but here the twist is that instead of being a symbol of the way power is subjected to time, the power comes alive and reinserts itself into the world.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, and that’s where we get this idea that perhaps this power– First of all, we know that the image is troubling his sight which is an interesting term. So we know that this can’t exactly be a benevolent force, perhaps it’s a malevolent one. And in the connection to Ozymandias too, you know Ozymandias has the pedestal beneath him on which is written look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. So we get this idea that this guy he has a wrinkled lip and a sneer of cold command. And so we have this idea that Ozymandias was kind of a dictator like not a particularly nice dude. So the same sort of idea is evoked when we have the Sphinx coming to life, that it has a gaze that is blank and pitiless as the sun. And there’s something of that coldness and perhaps that evil and malevolence that’s being brought about here with this animal’s resurrection.
Wes Alwan: And the other part of that, I think of that as a byproduct of some things being a statue. So I think of ancient Greek and Roman statuary where often there’s a blankness to the eyes. And the same thing goes, I think, for this Giza statue and the blankness just is a product of the fact that I think the eyes were often painted on, right? There might have been good reasons for not trying to sculpt the eyes. I’m not sure, but I don’t know if it was technically too difficult or what other reason maybe it would have looked creepy that may have some influence over our relationship to the ancients. The way in which these statues seem ethereal or otherworldly, there’s a kind of power to that it enhances the timelessness these sculptures have survived over time and–
Erin O’Luanaigh: There’s a strange sort of revival of Egyptian culture that’s happening at this moment in time that Yeats’ writing. I mean, it really starts in the earlier part of the 19th century, but Egyptian revival architecture continues to thrive up until the late 30s maybe especially because of this renewed interest in Egypt with the search for King Tut’s tomb. And I think it’s actually found in 1922, maybe? A lot of Egyptian symbols I think are being evoked at this time. For instance, I looked up if there was a connection because I sensed that there was between masonry and the Sphinx because I know that with the societies in which specifically the Golden Dawn, that secret society that we talked about in the previous episode that Yeats was a member of the founders of that society were actually masons and they used a lot of masonic imagery and symbols and one of them was the Sphinx. And the Sphinx was actually seen as a symbol of mystery and also a symbol of initiation. It was always placed at the entrance to various masonic temples. So I think that’s kind of important here. The idea too, that this is an amalgam creature is really interesting. I think first of all, we get this creature in flashes basically. We see that it’s a shape with a lion body and the head of a man. It has this blank and pitiless gaze, it has these slow thighs, but we don’t really get this long view. We get flashes of individual cut up parts which is kind of nightmarish, it’s dreamlike in that sense but because of that, there’s this real emphasis on the idea that this is an amalgam animal. It’s not a shape of the Sphinx, it’s a shape with lion body and the head of the man. And I was thinking about this in terms of– I looked up again the Book of Revelation there’s, of course, the great beast in Revelation. Well, there are actually two beasts. So there’s the sea beast which has this amalgam quality to it as well. So in chapter 13 of Revelation, the beast which rises up out of the sea has seven heads, and 10 horns, and on its horns, 10 crowns. The beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion. So he also has this cut up kind of quality to it. There’s the second beast as well which we could talk about in a minute. But this is a sort of hint that we’re getting that this is maybe supposed to be like the Antichrist, not really sure. But it’s something that is reminiscent of this evil creature that comes out of the Book of Revelation. So it’s not Christ which is coming, but it’s this evil malevolent force.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, I think we were meant to wonder that from the very beginning. The way the poem will end it’ll become a question I think of what we’re supposed to think of it. Is it evil? Is it good? Does it transcend good and evil maybe? But yes, the first side of it that we get is really frightening. And I think you’re right, it’s sinister malevolent.
Erin O’Luanaigh: And then we have the most interesting part to me besides the sloth eyes moving which is just a great– I mean, I just love that line and that image. Then we have these shadows of the indignant desert birds that are reeling around it. This is one of the frustrations of the poem for me actually because just like we get these flashes of different body parts of the Sphinx creature, but not the whole thing together. We also don’t get the actual indignant desert birds, whatever those may be. We just get their shadows that are moving around it which is really strange. And we can imagine that these desert birds are perhaps vultures, or something that eats carrion, and they are indignant. And maybe we could talk for a second about why that word is used indignant.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, it’s really interesting that we get the reeling shadows, so we’re put in the position of looking down towards the ground, right? Instead of up at the birds, we’re looking down. And maybe we’re in the position of the birds at that point. Because if this were a movie, right, the camera shot would be looking down and we’d be seeing the shadows around the Sphinx and not the birds themselves and we might be as high up as the birds.
Erin O’Luanaigh: That’s a really good point.
Wes Alwan: When I read this poem, I wonder, “Well, what are they indignant about?” My first association is to the possibility that they were actually sitting on the statue so that their perching place they’ve lost it. So as soon as the Sphinx becomes animated and starts moving, they fly off and now they’re reeling above it. And then if they are vultures, if they are carrion birds, then you have something here that is going in the opposite direction so that usually they’re oriented towards things that are animated and alive dying so that they become carrion for them so that they can perform their function as altruism go down and eat. And here is something that’s doing the very opposite of that. And we can make a further association to that if we think of redemption or salvation as involving something like a metaphorical kind of eating. This is not like the body of Christ where one can partake of it. This is not a type of beast that’s here to meet any kind of need.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I mean, the birds don’t necessarily know that the statue is not a dead thing, they might actually have the impression that it is like a dead animal so that could potentially allow for this parallel between these birds wanting to feed on the animal and Christians who partake of the body of Christ. So there’s, I think, some kind of parallel there but rather than Christ who dies and is resurrected and who allows himself to be the food of his followers, that the Eucharist is initiated from him. So he allows people to eat of his body and blood. On the other hand, we have this inversion of that in which these desert birds are indignant because the thing that has come to life has not allowed the birds to feed on it, or that desire has been somehow subverted or inverted where they can’t eat. I think there’s also supposed to be a parallel here with or at least it brings to mind for me a parallel here with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit which is often seen as a dove. So you have the dove versus the vultures. And then the vultures create these shadows on the ground, like you say, and it actually makes me think of the wording of the Annunciation from the Bible. So when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive Christ in her womb, she’s going to conceive of the Holy Spirit, it’s worded as the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee so there’s this idea that when she actually becomes pregnant with Christ, when the Incarnation happens, it’s when the Holy Ghost sort of like flies or hovers over her head and casts a shadow down upon her in a sense it’s not quite literal. This is kind of making it more literal. But it’s also then the fact that it’s a vulture that’s indignant and the shadows are reeling around to this animal. Certainly, that use of the word shadow is evocative of that portion of the Bible.
Wes Alwan: Interesting.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah. So then the image is over. He says, the darkness drops again, the vision that he had has ended. But now he knows something. And what he knows is really hard to say. But we’ll try. But he says; now I know that 20 centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle. So there’s a lot to unpack here and a lot that’s kind of confusing. But okay, so 20 centuries of stony sleep, so we know that this animal has been asleep for 2000 years. And we know because we talked about his dryers and everything in the previous episode that he believes that this 2000-year cycle is about to come to an end and this Sphinx creature is going to come and supplant this.
Wes Alwan: It’s been asleep for longer, but it’s been because this monument was built 2500 BC or something like that. But for 20 centuries of that Christ was born 20 centuries before, for 20 centuries of that it’s had to worry about, I think we’re meant to think that it’s been fixed a nightmare the rocking cradle has something to do with Christ.
Erin O’Luanaigh: So the implication here is that this paganism or whatever force that we want to associate with his fangs has not been put to death by Christianity. It was just sleeping meaning that it could wake up and return at any time. So Christianity has not completely supplanted this, it’s just been kind of filling the void while the Sphinx was asleep. And it seems as though this rocking cradle of the baby Jesus rather than keeping it to sleep the way that a rocking cradle normally would and this satisfied, happy nightmare with sleep, instead, it has angered this Sphinx creature. It’s caused this pagan force to maybe be angry or to cause it to have nightmares and to wake up in kind of a foul mood.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, I love that reversal in this. Yeah, where you think of a rocking cradle. So the Sphinx is not in the cradle obviously for where it in the cradle, maybe it would be soothed by that. Maybe it would have been a better sleep, but the rocking cradle is off somewhere else. And the Sphinx is tormented by its very existence. And so then we have to think about what has it been vexed by? What is it about Judeo-Christian values that’s so vexing? We can think of a few different things. One of them is just that the war, the anarchy that Yeats talks about in the first part of the poem is not actually historically unusual. It’s not historically unusual if we take it to mean war and disorder. And Christianity has been a significant source of war and destruction. So for a long time the church, right, was also a powerful political entity. And there were crusades and wars over religion and eventually Protestantism and disintegration into two factions. So one might think on one level that this is part of what’s vexing, but I’m not sure that would be entirely right because I think it has something to do– We read the portions from a vision where Yeats’s talking about a transition from an age of necessity, and truth, and goodness, and mechanism, and science, and democracy all these things that he associates together to one of freedom, and aristocracy, and war. So I wouldn’t take this just as a critique of the horrors of the last 2000 years and the extent to which they might have something to do with religion, I would take it as a critique of these sorts of values. So it really does parallel the Nietzschean critique of the ascetic and the ways in which, and I think here even of our Keats episode, there’s a lack of negative capability and the sort of irritable reaching after truth the asceticism of science, and the repression of instinct, the self-denial involved in both a scientific frame of mind and in a Christian frame of mind. So maybe there’s something sinister about these ceremonies of innocence, maybe they’re lies, maybe they dampened down the imagination. These aristocratic values and virtues are compromised by them. Excellence, let’s say an ancient Greek conception of excellence and maybe some other conception of excellence as strength and domination and so on. So those could be the some of the things which are vexing to the beast. The beast could be a representative of that sort of critique. And for nature at the very bottom of this critique, is the fact that he thinks they lead to nihilism. He thinks they lead to a sense of meaninglessness. It’s not sustainable. First of all, they’re actually Christianity and morality in general. It’s actually motivated by nihilism. It’s a nihilism predicated upon the inability of powerlessness on being a slave. For instance, he calls it slave morality. And their logical endpoint is explicit nihilism, the death of God. And then the question is what comes next? So that’s the sort of critique I see at work here will not mention in particular, but just this to the general idea. My question really is, how do we explain the being vexed? So I’m thinking out loud there. I’m just I think there might be some other ways to think about this.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Not to completely undercut that and retreat immediately back into the religious, but as I promised earlier there are two beasts in Revelation. The sea beast is the one without amalgam quality, but then there’s a dragon beast which actually gives the sea beasts its authority. And this beast is the one who in Revelation is standing before the woman who it’s pretty much agreed upon represents Mary who’s the Queen of Heaven. She’s pregnant and she’s ready to be delivered of a baby. And this dragon beast is actually waiting before her ready to, as it’s put in the Bible, devour her child as soon as it’s born. I think that we’re actually kind of like with the shadows of the desert birds and the idea of Revelation, the use of that word revelation as of course having for Christian society a particular kind of meaning of reverence to the Book of Revelation. And I think we’re also maybe supposed to think of this nightmare of the rocking cradle as reminiscent of this Antichrist who wants to eat this child. And we have some hints of maybe the meaning of what eating this child is the indignance of the desert birds because they can’t feed upon this evil force or this Sphinx spores. I don’t want to say evil. So there’s anti-force, I mean, even if we don’t say ascribe value of good and evil, there is this anti-christian idea here which is best exemplified by images of the Antichrist, the thing that is annoyed by the rocking cradle, the force that wants to eat the baby so that it can’t come into the world and bring Christian values and all of those implications even if we don’t think of it as a redeeming for us just whatever this gyer and its Christian society has produced in the world. And so this other force which is going to take its place, we are imagining that now at the end of this question lifecycle, this gyer it’s now successfully going to, in a metaphorical sense, eat this baby and produce this new Christ lists anti-christian world which is, subjective rather than objective which has that list of qualities that you read rather than the collective, the individual et cetera. And so by saying that that’s– I think for some people like the Antichrist, that’s obviously a bad thing. But I think what he’s doing is he’s using these images to just describe whatever is not Christian as a way to just say that this is going to be whatever the opposite of that forces in terms of the values of the success of idea system and what rough beast it’s our come around at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? Do you know another interesting and sort of complicating element of this is, again like I said before, what does it mean to be born? What does it mean that this animal which has woken up or become resurrected in Egypt and is now walking toward Bethlehem? What does it mean for that thing to be born? Well, perhaps in a sense its being born again, this is again, reminiscent of the idea of baptism. But this baptism rather than being the ceremony of innocence in the first stanza, it’s that drowned that upside down version of that maybe this is the ceremony of evil or if not evil, then this anti-christian ceremony which is creating chaos, anarchy, dispersion or propagating that rather than creating this holistic, collective Body of Christ.
Wes Alwan: So this is part of the problem of what the ending means. Does the new age that’s coming upon us is that a continuation of anarchy and chaos or is this a restoration of order?
Erin O’Luanaigh: Right, that’s one of the things I struggled with.
Wes Alwan: Here’s another list of adjectives from a vision. You know, he says where the primary error of Christ is, quote, dogmatic leveling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace, its means an end. The antithetical era of the beast will be expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical. Is that a solution? Is he endorsing that? It’s unclear. I mean, another way of reading this is you could straightforwardly critique it without getting into his whole system of different ages as a critique of the revolutionary ethos or the progressive ethos, right. So you might say there’s no way for us to fashion a conception of a better future if that involves some sort of rapid transition. Look what happens. The as soon as you start talking about second comings or revolutions, this is what happens. This is what is actually visited upon the world. This is the unconscious reaction that will inevitably be, so I don’t know that that’s necessarily the right reading. But that’s another angle to take with this. I think if the stuff we’ve read from Yeats’ vision gives us some more comprehensive way to look at this but on first splash, one might read that and I think there are obviously anti-revolutionary elements to this poem. So what is the slouching about? I love this use to the slouching as a verb from movement here.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah. It’s great. As an active verb, it makes me think that the animal is wounded. Is that the wrong association to make?
Wes Alwan: No, I hadn’t thought of that. But that’s really interesting.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I always thought of this wounded, loping the cat in the desert or whatever. It’s like I keep wanting to make Lion King Associations which is just like really, really stupid. I’m like, “Oh yeah, it’s like Scar and the Lion King or something.” It seems wounded to me, or it seems like it’s not happy to be traveling, or it’s not able to travel effectively.
Wes Alwan: It’s definitely pissed off.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, it’s not pissed off in a way that’s kind of speeding it towards Bethlehem. It’s pissed off like it doesn’t even want to bother, but it’s going anyway. Oh, no.
Wes Alwan: And that’s the interesting thing about the movement of cats, right? There’s an ill-defined line in cats between their indifference and their laziness on the one hand, and their stealth and prowling and subterfuge on the other, right? They move in this very expert way but there’s a kind of casualness to it as well. And the other contradiction here is between we think of slouching as involving poor posture and there’s kind of a slouchy and sorry to keep reducing the Sphinx to a cap, but this is the most important for the movement purposes, part of it. We think of slouching as involving poor posture, but in a way a cat can move as it’s crouched down. That’s their kind of expertness to that sort of posture. And finally, this association between the slouching posture, and human beings, and kind of lack of discipline, or even poor moral character, I think these are natural associations, but were not meant to think of the beast as disciplined or an expert in its movements but we are supposed to wonder about the moral implications of this. So slouching is just such a perfectly ambiguous word for all of this. It’s part of what makes it hard to tell what the beast actually is exactly. Is it a low life? Is it criminal? Or is it more like a beast of prey? Let’s say is it more human than suffer from the evaluations that attend upon the human the kind of moral evaluations that we make or if it’s more like an animal, does it transcend those evaluations? And so the sorts of things that we might blame a human being for sociopathy, for instance, criminality, and a cat that natural sociopathy is just impressive and powerful and even admirable.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Wow. All I can say is that you are no slouch in your analysis of that slouching. [laughter]
Wes Alwan: Thank you very much.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, so maybe we should talk about just what it all adds up to, or did we already?
Wes Alwan: So it certainly has conservative sympathies and in earlier drafts of it, there’s mentions of Burke and Pete the two denouncers of the French Revolution. But I think the very first draft celebrated the fact that the German free corps went to Russia in an attempt to end the revolution there and that’s a sort of proto-fascist and the free core was itself proto-fascist. So you could read this as Yeats endorsing the reactionary and endorsing counter revolutionary violence and to the extent that he does that, and endorsing fascism, but he hates himself maybe in a kind of self-serving way wanted to see this as a premonition of coming fascism and a rejection of it. So in a letter to Ethel Mannin, for instance, he said, “As my sense of reality deepens and I think it does with my age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater. Communist, fascist, nationalist, clerical, anti-clerical, all are responsible according to the number of their victims. I’ve not been silent. I’ve used the only vehicle I possess .Verse, if you have any poems by you look up a poem called The Second Coming. It was written some 16 or 17 years ago, and foretold what is happening.” So you could call that a revisionist and self-serving reading by Yeats, but I don’t think it’s necessarily inconsistent. There’s nothing in here that necessarily says he’s prophesying a new age. But that doesn’t mean he endorses it or every element of it. It just may be what he thinks is going to happen. As he got older, he was more willing to moralize. I think that’s something he was against in a way when he was younger, but he became more political and more willing to moralize as he got older so.
Erin O’Luanaigh: So what that adds up to basically is this idea that no matter what age it is, people have a propensity for violence. And I don’t want to say anarchy because now that’s a loaded term. They have a propensity towards evil whether that be in one system of beliefs or another. And yet Yeats is saying that there’s a rejection of the Christian system which has this understanding of that evil nature inherent within all people, but also the potential good, the need for salvation, and Yeats himself seems to indicate that there is this need for salvation. But how do you become saved from Christianity perhaps or how do you have the idea of salvation then even outside of a Christian system? So there’s something rather, I don’t know if we put this in religious terms, which I don’t really want to, it’s almost as though Yeats has this Deistic idea of how the world works that whatever forces are in control are not necessarily good or bad. As I’ve said before, they are just operating on a cyclical system independent of the needs or the requirements of those people in any given circumstance. This is where if I could just interject my opinion of this poem here which is not any kind of indictment of its quality, or its canonical status, or the reasons why it is justly famous. To me, it’s just so convoluted, and so contradictory, and paradoxical. You know, this idea of this anti-christian society coming about which provides salvation from the Christian society the fact that he uses all these Christian images and ideas in order to describe the supplanting of Christian images and ideas it’s very difficult for me. It’s hard to kind of get your hands around it. And I think that frustration that I feel when I read this is probably common. I don’t know if it’s common to you.
Wes Alwan: This gets us back to the Nietzschean critique of morality and Christianity and then also to the anti-revolutionary conservative critique. So it’s hard not to be ambivalent about such critiques even if you’re not a Christian, for instance, or not prone to progressivism, or the revolutionary. So Nietzsche’s critique is just that, look, morality is actually the problem. Morality, there’s something fundamentally hypocritical and inhumane about morality. It just suppresses and keeps hidden all of these darker impulses. And in many ways, they come out in the system of morality so they come out as sadistic punishment or even the conception of heaven and hell might be read as Nietzsche read it as kind of vengeful and sadistic. And for Nietzsche, the interest in morality is actually ultimately predicated in will to power. And there’s a lot of psychological insight to this. It’s not hard to find the very sinister elements of morality. Violence itself is highly moralized sociologists and psychologists know this. They know that when people engage in mass violence, or even second degree murder that they are thinking about these things in moral terms, the other person did something wrong, the other person is evil, the other person deserved to get what they got. The only way to rectify the moral order was to punish the other. And then with the revolutionary critique, look at all the horrors that revolutions lead to, look at what it means to elevate certain ideals above the well-being of actual physical human beings. So those critiques are well taken but what does it leave you with? Nietzsche himself must be operating according to a system of values. And you could actually end up saying actually Nietzsche is a great moralist. He just has a more refined sensibility or you could even say despite the fact that he seemed there anti-democratic or anti-liberal elements there, you could just say he’s the ultimate classical liberal. He’s defending a concept of justice which is prior to and higher than the good although he would probably reject that characterization himself. But if that’s not the case, then what are you left with? What direction are you left with after such critiques? We can’t go back to being what Nietzsche called blonde beast, right? We can’t go back to being sociopathic monsters who murder each other at will. We can’t dismantle civilization, we’re stuck with it. We can’t deny that Christian values and the secular versions of those values that still predominant, so whether you’re Christian or not, those sorts of values actually predominate in society, you can’t deny them in a way that they are necessary. So they have their downsides, but they can’t be abandoned. That’s the problem. That’s why this is so unsatisfying. There’s no answer to be given here. There’s that there’s no better system to be proposed. Nietzsche talks in very vague terms about a gay science as a way of unifying and synthesizing the instinctual and the more aesthetic trends in our nature, a way of elevating the aesthetic, and the artistic, and the imaginative making that the basis of our ethics or even a return to ancient Greek virtue ethics. And there’s tons of insight into that and tons of practical application, but it’s not complete. And then the darker side of nature is an embrace of elitism which is entirely unsatisfactory. It’s entirely it comes across as juvenile. Most people can’t do that or live up to that. And even people who think of themselves as living up to a doubt, we’re all just human. In the end, we’re all vulnerable and flawed. So conceiving of ourselves as Uber mentioned, I think it’s an unhelpful vision of the world. And it arguably lends itself to fascism even though Nietzsche was anti-fascistic and anti-nationalist and to the extent that he thought romanticism led to this sort of thing anti-romantic despite an earlier flirtation with romanticism. So I’m sorry to talk too much about Nietzsche, but I do think it sheds a lot of light on this. These sorts of critiques are important, but they always leave you confused and not knowing where to go exactly. So where do we what do we do at the end of this poem when the rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem? What are we supposed to think? He leaves it as a question which is the only way you can leave that. I don’t know if it’s a critique of the poem to be dissatisfied with that or if it’s just a critique of our human condition.
Erin O’Luanaigh: One of the tenets of incarnational theology the idea that Christ actually takes human form is that that isn’t a noble in philosophy that Christ is human like us. And therefore if God can become man then man made in the image and likeness of God can become sanctified can become holy so that God had to eat, and even go to the bathroom, and all these things which are considered sort of like ugly necessities of being human that these things are therefore sanctified in a sense, or made better made holy so that it’s not such a terribly ugly thing all the time to be a human. And so that idea of what being a human means. I think that in Christianity anyway though there is all of this violence, religious wars, et cetera, there is something ultimately compelling and satisfactory about this reconciling the evil of humanity with the grace of God and the potential for growth, enlightenment, sanctification, change, redemption. I think Yeats can help it operate under this idea even as he’s describing this anti-christian force. So certainly the condition of humanity remains the same. I don’t just want to give a pro Christian polemic and say that the result of all this should be that Christianity should remain in place and it’s a bad thing when we lose Christianity, of course, I’m going to believe that to a certain extent because I am a Christian but–
Wes Alwan: You’re describing a very live important possibility that we just can’t reject that of hand where’s there’s Christianity or some sort of religious orientation that’s the big question then we can’t simply even as someone who’s fond of Nietzsche as me I can be very presumptuous just too. Nietzsche was anti-atheist as well actually so this is atheism would be a sort of presumptuousness and it’s not itself a solution.
Erin O’Luanaigh: And I don’t mean to say this just in terms of Christianity exclusively any kind of great world religion any of the great religious traditions say Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism whatever there may be, they all give us something outside of ourselves. They all try to ennoble humanity or lift up humanity or give humanity something greater than themselves to strive for and also to unite people and whether that is for good or for ill, yeah, I don’t know. I’m losing it at this point because I just don’t want to say that Yeats is wrong.
Wes Alwan: Oh, why not?
Erin O’Luanaigh: Cuz I don’t necessarily think that he’s wrong or that Nietzsche is wrong cuz I don’t know enough about it to be able to dismiss Nietzsche out of hand or Yeats out of hand or something. But yeah, I think the objective forces that Yeats is saying are being supplanted by subjective forces. I think those objectively speaking are better than the subjective in a sense and better for humanity.
Wes Alwan: I agree.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Okay. That’s the most blunt way I can put it without upsetting people or undermining myself.
Wes Alwan: Most people I think would obviously agree although they are more prone to circular in the naturalistic or to the Christian cuz they all get tied together not just by nature but by Yeats and that first objective phase. So it’s important to understand the critiques but it’s difficult to know what to do once one is comprehended the critique. It’s easy to criticize but what’s the solution other than to reform, and improve, and refine what we already have.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Right. And it seems as though we have no choice anyway I mean we’re all going to be carried away in the blood-dimmed tide [laughter] we just going to have to lie back and let ourselves flawed but—
Wes Alwan: All right.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Is that a good place to end?
Wes Alwan: Yep. Thank you that was a lot of fun.Erin O’Luanaigh: Thank you.