In 1919, the world seemed to have descended into anarchy. World War I had killed millions and profoundly altered the international order. Four empires, along with their aristocracies, had disintegrated. Russia was in a state of civil war, and Ireland was on the verge of its own. It’s these events that helped inspire William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which famously tells us that “things fall apart,” that “the center cannot hold,” and that a new historical epoch is upon us. Just what rough beast is it that slouches, as Yeats has it, toward Bethlehem? Wes & Erin give their analysis of the first stanza of the poem.
Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes Alwan: So Erin, I have a confession to make.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Oh, gosh, do I want to know what this is?
Wes Alwan: [Laughs] The confession is that I associate this poem with I was going to say a stupid movie, but actually, I think it’s a great movie. Maybe it’s both stupid and great, but Ghostbusters.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, sure. You mean in the sense of a disaster of biblical proportions coming and coming on the city fire and brimstone, dogs and cats living together that sort of thing?
Wes Alwan: Right, exactly. I think of two things. One of them is the end of the movie where there’s a Sumerian god that appears, goes through the Gozerian and goes there to destroy the world. And then the second part of that is just after an initial showdown with Gozer, I think the Ghostbusters have a small Pyrrhic victory for a while, but then Gozer says she will come back by taking the form of whatever one of the Ghostbusters thinks of first. And so the form she ends up taking is the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. And the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and I can’t think of an apocalypse without thinking of that figure marching through New York so.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, moving at slow thighs down Fifth Avenue or whatever street that was.
Wes Alwan: Exactly.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah.
Wes Alwan: I’m reminded of that also by the fact that the second part of this poem takes such a turn. And Yeats says that he has a kind of vision. And in a way the vision seems to intrude upon the poem so that it’s not just that he’s imagining a second coming or conjuring it up himself, it’s a prophecy and it’s prophetic in the sense that it’s it somehow comes from outside of him and is given to him so.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I was trying to describe this poem to someone when I was talking about the discussion that we were going to have today. And they were asking me, “Well, what is this poem about?” And it’s rather difficult to say, I mean, I really I could barely even come up with the summary. I think I finally came up with one, but it’s a strange poem. It’s an abstract poem. It’s kind of in the ether. It doesn’t really seem to have a foot in real life because it’s so ritualistic in its language. Maybe we could try to give a summary of it once I read it and we give a little background.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, sure.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Okay, because I feel like that would be useful because it is so unwieldy and a lot of ways that subject matter.
Wes Alwan: It is, yeah. Yeah, go ahead. No, why don’t you give it a reading?
Erin O’Luanaigh: Okay. [recites the poem]
“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: somewhere in 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.
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?”
Wes Alwan: Very nice.
Erin O’Luanaigh: [clears throat] I feel like I should have a deeper voice.
Wes Alwan: At least during the second part, it should be raspy [laughs] and satanic, the possession part.
Erin O’Luanaigh: So Yeats was born June 13, 1865. He died January 28, 1939 at the age of 73. And this poem was written in 1919. It was originally published in a journal called The Dial in 1920. And then it was included in his 1921 book, Michael Roberts and the Dancer. And as you said in the intro, written in 1919 is obviously on the heels of World War 1, the Russian Revolution, and unrest in Ireland. And I think it’s important to know that Yeats though he has Irish nationalist sympathies, was actually a member of the Protestant Ascendancy. His family was very pro nationalist, but they were sort of originally English at some point.
Wes Alwan: And he spent a good amount of his childhood in England and–
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, I think his father was descended from a Williamite soldier. So English by heritage, perhaps which is sort of interesting. It’s something that maybe I want to talk about in a bit with the falcon and the falconer.
Wes Alwan: There are apolitical tendencies to his work at least early on, and that I think he resisted but they come to the fore later on. So he had nationalist sympathies, but he was also… So for instance, he fell in love with Maud, this woman Maud Gonne, who was sort of an outspoken, Irish revolutionary, but he did not sympathize with her politics. He was much more conservative in a way. You’ll see some of that conservatism in this poem. But he was deeply affected by the 1916 uprising in Ireland. And a lot of people he knew were actually executed after that. They led the uprising and ended up being executed. And one of them actually was Maud Gonne. Maud Gonne had rejected Yeats and married someone else and her husband was one of the people executed and Yeats actually ended up proposing to her after that had happened, getting rejected, and then proposing to her daughter and getting rejected… But anyway.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I was going to say something really mean. I was gonna say a dead husband is better than Yeats. But he was really unattractive to her for some reason. [laughs]
Wes Alwan: Yeah. I don’t know the full story of what their relationship but it’s not infatuation. So that’s some of the background. So the Easter uprising in Ireland in 1916, he wrote a really beautiful poem about that called Easter1916. And it has this beautiful refrain all changed, changed utterly a terrible beauty is born. This is a poem where he famously gets political. Anyway, he ends up becoming a senator, right?
Erin O’Luanaigh: Did he really?
Wes Alwan: Yeah. So he ends up becoming a senator of the Irish Free State.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Wow. I did not know that piece. That’s really interesting.
Wes Alwan: Yeah.
Erin O’Luanaigh: And I think it’s important to say that even though he doesn’t have the violent, nationalistic fervor of Maud Gonne, he is very proud to be Irish and he was very interested as a poet in shaping a cultural identity for Ireland as independent from any English artistic heritage. For instance, he went around the Irish countryside and gathered fairy tales and folklore from Irish peasants that he later published in this book called The Celtic Twilight. And that was in the late 1800s. And so a lot of his literary interests were directed towards this strong Irish nationalism and independent heritage. And a lot of this had to do with the kind of the pre-Christian Ireland mythology which ultimately developed his interest in mysticism, and the occult, and all of these sort of interesting, crazy things that he’s going to get involved with which are kind of figure into this poem somewhat and figure into a lot of his later work.
Wes Alwan: Sciences and his wife later on the woman he marries is a medium and does all this automatic writing just inspires his poetry.
Erin O’Luanaigh: And you don’t really need to know he has a vast system of thought that he’s developed from all of this interest in the occult and the secret society that he’s in called the Golden Dawn which practices these magic rituals and they literally have capes and wands. I mean, it’s very, as Auden says in his great elegy for Yeats, he calls Yeats silly. And he says a lot of the stuff he’s interested in is silly.
Wes Alwan: So this is actually another embarrassing association for me which is to Arrested Development and the– What is it called?
Erin O’Luanaigh: The Alliance of Magicians.
Wes Alwan: So Arrested Development and The Alliance of Magicians and their motto we demand to be taken seriously. And then Job’s reframe illusions not tricks that, illusions.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Illusions, you don’t take my illusions seriously. Yeah. You know, there are a lot of similarities I think personality wise between Job and Yeats that we can get into. If Yeats took one of those BuzzFeed quizzes about which Arrested Development character are you? He would definitely be Job but–
Wes Alwan: But I think it’s important because I don’t take the magic seriously, or the mysticism seriously. And that I think might be a deal breaker for some people with Yeats or at least for some of them palms, but I think he does really transcend that. So even in a poem like this which as we’ll see seems to depend upon some of his elaborate mystical system, I think it stands on its own and it’s a great poem regardless.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I mean, certainly this provides his ideas which he elucidated in this book from 1926 called A Vision, was published like a few years after The Second Coming. And certainly The Second Coming is operating within this scaffolding that he’s talking about in A Vision, but it’s not necessary. I mean, he uses the word gyre which could just be a spiral or a circle. You don’t necessarily have to know. Like you said that there’s all of this scaffolding of symbols and imagery and all of his ideas about these world historical movements, like the word gyre is it’s in the poem, but it could just mean what it traditionally means which is just a circle or a spiral. You don’t necessarily have to know that he had all of these ideas about gyres that these cones, these spirals, like a tornado basically one on top of each other, facing each other so that the vertices are, how do I put this?
Wes Alwan: They’re inner locked. Think of two cones, the vertices of one touching the base of the other and they’re being interlocked and having these movements in relation to each other. I think the most important part of it is just that even though you don’t have to know it, it does help to know that he thinks of these gyres as having something to do with historical cycles. So what The Second Coming is prophesying is a new epoch. So the previous cycle starts with the birth of Christ and goes 2000 years. And that’s what seems to be coming to an end.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah. And he also believed that the full lifecycle of a gyre he thought was 2000 years and that there were these smaller and smaller portions that were governed by, for instance, he thought the lunar cycle was very important and the full moon. He thought there were cycles that took place within people’s individual lifespans. And then he thought that also within this 2000-year gyre, there were high points at 500-year intervals in which the greatest achievements of civilizations tended to happen around the 500-year mark. So the slices of the pie were successively smaller or greater within that 2000-year span.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, I think it’s actually helpful the book you mentioned, A Vision from 1926, explains some of these, so I’ll just read a little bit. He says at the present moment, the life gyres sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ which was narrowing and has almost reached its greatest expansion. The revelation which approaches will however take its character from contrary movement of the interior gyre. All our scientific democratic fact accumulating heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself, but the revelation as in a lightning flash. Though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated of the civilization that must slowly take its place.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, that’s good. That’s really helpful.
Wes Alwan: Elsewhere, he puts it after an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction. Peace comes in age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularly war.
Erin O’Luanaigh: That’s really good and helpful.
Wes Alwan: So I think that sets up the first stanza of this poem. Describes some of the impetus to this type of prophecy and almost sounds like the world as well, as he puts it, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, right? So things are falling apart. Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. That’s the first part of the poem. And then the second is he imagines at first the possibility of some second coming, one that’s evocative of Christianity, right? But then things take a left turn and you get what sounds like a vision of a sort of Antichrist figure awakening and ultimately heading to Bethlehem to be to be born. It’s very shocking turn in the second part of the poem.
Erin O’Luanaigh: That’s such a great summary. I labored under trying to figure out how to summarize this poem for so long.
Wes Alwan: Well, yeah, give me yours. I know cuz you said early on that you had one. What’s your–
Erin O’Luanaigh: No, I just, I mean, you said it far more elegantly than I did. I just wrote the first stanza he’s describing the current state of the world, its upheaval and violence through metaphor and abstraction. Then in the second, he predicts or assumes that a second coming must be on its way to reckon with this state of chaos and disorder. And the implication is that the second coming will be hopeful, restorative, what have you. But then he gets this vision of a creature emerging from a troubled sleep comes out of the desert and slouches towards Bethlehem to be born so what awaits the future generations, the recipients of this new order that the Sphinx represents is it’s unknown, but it seems to be sort of sinister but it’s hard to tell.
Wes Alwan: Right. We can talk a little more about that as we go on. But I guess we should start by hitting some of these very famous phrases that have now just become regular parts of our language and even clichés so every time someone wants to evoke the idea of partisanship or maybe accuse others of partisanship, this phrase, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity comes up. And of course, the famous novel was named Things Fall Apart and The Center Cannot Hold. So all of this you see part of the power of the poem and these very evocative phrases that stay with us so. And then, of course, at the end slouching towards Bethlehem which has also become a–
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, the title of Joan Didion collection of essays which is great which we might actually cover at some point on this podcast one of those essays.
Wes Alwan: Yeah.
Erin O’Luanaigh: So, the first two lines turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. So falconry is a sport of kings as Wes reminded me before we recorded. The falconer is controlling the falcon through a system of signals. I think that it’s by sound, possibly also by sight. So basically, what we have is kind of like a broken communication. So we can imagine the falcon spinning in the air making a circle above the falconer’s head and he has to stay within a certain distance to be able to be communicated to by the falconer. And perhaps that spinning out of control that perhaps the falcon has made too wide of a circle or something and can no longer hear the falconer who’s supposed to be controlling it. And so there’s this breakdown in communication so that with a falconer since it’s the sport of kings, we think of this as a very aristocratic sport. Perhaps there’s the metaphor there. The implication there is the falconer is like any kind of system of control, or in monarchy, or what have you and the falcon is maybe the populace. I mean, do you agree with that Wes?
Wes Alwan: Yeah. I think that’s one possible reading of this. So you could read it as a central political authority. But you can also read it, as we’ll see in this poem as having something to do with the governing ethos of a society. The falconer metaphor helps explain the center cannot hold, this phrase. Which before really thinking about this poem and when I saw it used, I actually thought of the center as being the moderate center between two partisan extremes. But I don’t think that’s actually what it’s doing here in the poem. We think of the falconer as being at the center of that circular motion that the falcon is making, right? The bird moves in a circular way around the falconer. So it’s not just that it flies off, it’s that circle, that gyre– it’s a spiral really– gets wider and wider until all communication is lost. So the center cannot hold in the sense that when things fall apart, they cannot maintain their relation to this governing center. I think that governing center can be read, as I said, in a lot of different ways. One is a central-political authority, maybe monarchy. But again, it could have something to do with the sorts of values that hold a civilization together. So more so, the moral fabric of a society, I think those sorts of things formed the regulative principles that govern the society and give it some cohesion.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, I was thinking a lot about the center not holding and what that might mean. And I think that we have a lot of overlap there. But I thought about it maybe even too intensely and came up with all these different ideas in physics that it might relate to, like specifically with the idea of the cone, right? So it actually started the more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of the inverse-square law which is the intensity of any kind of radiating signal whether that be light, or sound, or anything is equal to the inverse of distance squared. So what that means is, as I understand it and our listeners are going to know way more about this than me, so forgive me with my bad explanation. But say you’re standing on the ground and you have a flashlight and you’re pointing it up into the sky in the same way that you could think of the shape of the gyre as being this ice cream cone shape, or the falcon and the falconer. Like the falconer’s on the ground kind of holding the flashlight and the falcon is charting the circle, and the sky is this cone. So the person on the ground is holding a flashlight pointing it up in the sky. And basically anything that propagates through the ether like the light is going to disperse as it gets further and further out from the flashlight from the source. So it’s also getting weaker and weaker as it propagates through the air. So it’s the inverse of the distance squared means that it’s one over the radius squared. So basically, like when it’s a foot away from the flashlight, it’s pretty strong. But when it’s 2 ft away, it’s actually already down three quarters of that strength and it just keeps on. So this dispersal through the air means that the further away someone is, the less of the flashlight they can actually see basically. So there’s a breakdown of the light through the air, meaning that there’s kind of like a breakdown of communication. I was also thinking about this in terms of centripetal force and all this other stuff. But basically what’s interesting about that, I mean, it can kind of also just be related to thinking more about the metaphor itself about training an animal. Animal training means that you are controlling the animal and they have a certain openness to temptation, but the closer you are to them and the more control you have over them, the less likely it is that they will be tempted to go away from you, right? So if a falcon is circling in a wider and wider arc, that means that they’re further away from the controlling source. So they have a greater openness to temptation, or seeing a rabbit or something
Wes Alwan: Interesting.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, that they might shoot away from the falconer that they’re supposed to be responding to because they’re temptation outside of that falconer is it becomes too great. And so the further away, the more of a chance that they can be tempted and not be controlled. So this can be related to physical distance. I mean, for Americans, we might think of this as being the colonies. It was very difficult for King George to control us because we’re far away from the controlling source.
Wes Alwan: Being farther means developing different mores becoming a different people and so that’s part of how control is lost.
Erin O’Luanaigh: But then also, if we think about this in terms of World War 1 and the nations involved in World War 1 that we’re on the continent, the countries losing the faith and the goodwill of their people by embroiling them in this war, there creates a kind of a mental distance which might account for some of this as well.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, so that’s what I was thinking of with the colonies as well, that sort of mental distance. You’re reminding me that we can see this fartherness, this distance in terms of time as well. Western societies have inherited these two important traditions, one Greco-Roman and one Christian. We might think of those things as the center. And as time goes on, we move farther and farther away from that center and we get farther away from those sorts of values. And at some point, there might even be a crisis. So this is the critique that Nietzsche gave. And actually, it turns out that Yeats was a fan of Nietzsche, and read a lot of Nietzsche and even wrote about Nietzsche. So this critique of the advent of idealism and society which is one of the problems of modernity and Yeats is sort of on the cusp of that is the loss of faith, the loss of a sense of meaning for the world, the loss of a real connection to religion, the religion like Christianity. So Nietzsche, for instance, thought in the 19th century, yes, a lot of people still go to church, but is their faith vital? Is it really important to them? Do they really believe when he talks about the death of God? That’s his way of dramatizing the fact that God has died for people psychologically, spiritually, even if they pay lip service to God. So whether we think about this in terms of religious faith, or the values involved in Greco-Roman society including aristocratic values, so as we mentioned, Yeats’s conservative tendencies here and he was a fan of the aristocracy, we can think of this temporarily as well. The widening gyre involves a historical movement that attenuates certain types of values and puts us in a nihilistic crisis. So, what do we do to fill the void? Nietzsche had his own interesting solution to that and it’s problematic. And I think part of the problem with this poem is once you evoke the problem of nihilism, it’s hard to plug that hole so to speak. It’s hard to give any sort of satisfying solution. [laughs]
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, that’s great. What kind of results from all of these things breaking down according to Yeats is mere anarchy. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, he says in the fourth line. And I was thinking about this too. Like what’s the significance of the fact that he doesn’t just say anarchy, but mere anarchy? Almost as if he’s implying that anarchy is kind of a force.. Like, you know, the force without all of the, of course, the central powers that are controlling it, or the central values that are put in place and thus it’s a more natural state and this handset are returned to the pagan, the collective forces, the anti-authoritarian forces which are happening in the first stanza are coming about.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, I love this phrasing, near-anarchy, because to a contemporary reader it might look like he’s minimizing the importance of anarchy. The word mere might suggest to us one of the meanings might suggest that it’s not all important that anarchy is loosed upon the world. Anarchy is something small or trivial. But the way the word was used at Yeats’ time, it could often just mean pure or absolute. So it’s a way of saying complete anarchy is loosed upon the world. But I think there is a double meaning here. I don’t know how well it holds up at the time Yeats was writing, but it’s just the sort of thing that you were describing where the smallness of the mereness, it’s as if anarchy is an approach to nothingness. It’s like as close as you can come to nothing without actually being nothing. So that’s one way to reinterpret the smallness here, not as unimportance but as in a loss of being or even a loss of form as a kind of formlessness which will prefigure the talk of the drowning of the ceremony of an innocence that we’ll talk about in a second.
Erin O’Luanaigh: I almost wonder if this mereness of the anarchy is actually further confused by the blood-dimmed tide being loosed in the next line as a metaphor for mere anarchy. And yet, with something that’s blood-dimmed, I just think of the opacity of blood in the water. It makes the water harder to see through, it dims, it dilutes the water whereas mere anarchy is undiluted pure shear. So there’s something staining about this anarchy as well the fact that it’s stemming the tide with blood so there’s a sort of strange two opposites happening here.
Wes Alwan: I didn’t think of that. That’s very good. So what’s really great about the idea of the blood-dimmed tide, you take what might be a common image or a cliché, right? So if he had said something like the rivers run red with blood or something like that, he would be trucking in a common place. Here, he alters that in an interesting way. So we might think of blood as staining water. But here he adds the image of dimming. What I think that is in contrast to is the image of clear water as having something to do with translucence and the visibility of the future and being able to project ourselves into the future so a kind of optimism. The dimming here, we can think about that as having something to do with the loss of communication that we saw early on with the falconer except I think we were thinking of that in many ways is primarily backward looking or spatial. But now we get some sort of relation to the future. So there’s an opacity as you mentioned. There’s an opacity and I think it blocks out future hopes let’s say, and I think that’s important because what he’s describing here in light of we’ve talked about the revolution, and Ireland and Russia. What he’s critiquing in some ways is the revolutionary ethos in which bloodshed is worth it, right? So there’s a means justifies the ends approach to the world. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet to quote Lenin. I think that’s part of what’s being critiqued here.
Erin O’Luanaigh: Yeah, that’s really good with the ceremony of innocence in line six that the blood-dimmed tide is coming and drowning the ceremony of innocence. He’s saying that a new order that is not Christian or perhaps even anti-christian is coming in. He’s really getting a lot of use out of Christian symbology and a Christian ethos here. So obviously with a ceremony of innocence, I think of baptism which is you sprinkle or you pour water on the head, or there’s even full immersion baptism in water. And it’s supposed to be a rite of admission into the church into the Body of Christ. So rather than being washed with water as the term goes, you’re being stained with blood in a sense by being washed with this blood-dimmed tide and it is a drowning force or killing force now rather than a life giving force. So there’s obviously some sort of topsy-turvy thing happening here where for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So since the world was once controlled by Christianity, it seems as though this force that’s coming to take its place is turning Christianity inside out in a way.
Wes Alwan: Yeah, I really like that because it gives you the image. So it writes baptism large, right, or an anti-baptism to talk about a flood being loosed upon the world. A flood that’s dimmed by blood is to talk of a macro level baptism for the entire world or anti-baptism. And the thing that it wipes out, of course, is the more traditional concept of baptism. The smaller ceremonial baptisms that are part of everyday life is what it takes away. So you get this great big baptism that on a cosmological level, let’s say that wipes out the human instantiations.
Erin O’Luanaigh: And yet the great big baptism seems to be making smaller parts out of it in a sense. Like one of the things I read about in relation to A Vision, I read this great summary of it online that talked about how there were these contrasting states of objectivity versus subjectivity that Yeats was ultimately trying to get at. So he believed that the objective is anything that’s collective unifying where the individual is part of something greater than itself, society, God, the Body of Christ or whatever, whereas the subjective is individualizing. It’s separating people. It’s differentiating, not necessarily that these things are inherently good or bad. I think maybe that type of a binary is not particularly useful to understand Yeats, but here it has the significance of baptism is that you all become one. You all become part of the Body of Christ meaning the church. You all become the collective, it’s objectifying. And yet, like you’re saying with this tide which comes in just washes over people here where it’s turned on its head, it actually has the effect of individuating people and causing people to actually break from each other, to separate. And for the fabric, this tissue, this objective collective tissue that was holding everyone together is now actually evaporating in this tide and everyone is being dispersed and particulate.
Wes Alwan: You’re reminding me that we can read the ceremony of innocence in a larger way as having something to do with the various norms and manners and ways of behaving towards each other which conceal our check our baser instincts, right? And so even if we’re frustrated with people, or even if we have really aggressive impulses, or sexual impulses, all these things are part of being civilized is to keep these things under wraps, but it shows up at a very micro level. So just having good manners while you’re eating at dinner with someone is part of that. Those sorts of things are ceremonies in a way and there are ceremonies that project the kind of innocence which it’s there and it isn’t there, right? So the instinctual level it’s not there. The ceremony hides something, ceremony conceals something. So when you drown those sorts of things, you obliterate the types of norms that make us behave and innocent ways towards each other. So that’s Christian morality, but it’s also the morality that descends from Christianity. It’s enlightenment morality. So even though you might think of enlightenment values as superseding and in the way rebelling against Christian morality, the way Nietzsche thought of this, he saw it as an extension of it, an extension of an essentially ascetic trend in which instincts are suppressed. So even to be focused on scientific truths in a way is to repress the instinctual and to engage in these types of ceremonies of innocence.
Erin O’Luanaigh: That’s really good. I love that. So then in these last two lines, the lines that have launched 1000 editorial.
Wes Alwan: Right.
Erin O’Luanaigh: There’s a sort of paradox happening here too, I think. I’m not quite sure. It’s actually maybe more complex than those bad editorials would have you believe the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity people who are good, who are centered, moral justice etc. They’re not people who are going to be carried away perhaps by these violent passions. And yet, it seems to me that convictions are also needed to hold people steady and to make people the best. Am I reading too much into this or?
Wes Alwan: I think you’re right. I think part of this there’s this interesting contrast between conviction and passionate intensity, right? He could say the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of it. So you get an opposition between two things which aren’t exactly opposites, they have an oblique relationship to each other. So, do the worst exactly have conviction? Maybe conviction is something that you can’t legitimately have if you are one of the worst. It’s too deformed or bastardized to really be called conviction and maybe passionate intensity is just what it becomes. It’s kind of empty. It’s hard to say what it means for the best to lack all conviction. I think part of it is just that you might think of those who are virtuous or those who are morally upstanding as coming to the point where they are in a state of doubt. They are essentially skeptical or agnostic about the truth. So they’re not willing, for instance, to kill and subjugate other people for the sake of a higher truth for the sake of their revolutionary values to take one example of that. Those sorts of the Philosopher de Beauvoir calls this the serious man. This is the type of man who would do this, who takes such ideals so seriously that they become more important than human suffering, human life, human dignity and any sort of decency. Again, we go back to it means justifies the end type of approach to the world. So the best don’t do that. That’s inherently weakening. You get this inherent tension between being virtuous and practical action in the world because those sorts of actions often put you in the position of asking you to sacrifice life or at least sacrifice the social order or social stability for the new stage that you would like to reach in society. The implication concerns the pros and cons of revolution, the possibility of getting to a more just society versus the horrors that might be involved in getting there.
Erin O’Luanaigh: That’s great.
Wes Alwan: So I think that’s a good place to end part one. We’ve done the first stanza, eight lines. [Erin laughs] We have how many lines to go?
Erin O’Luanaigh: 14.
Wes Alwan: 14 lines to go. But, we’ll fit that into an hour. [laughter] Join us next week for part two of our discussion or you can get the whole thing early on patreon.com/subtext. Thanks, Erin. [music]
Erin O’Luanaigh: Thanks, Wes.