The Second Coming
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?
— W. B. Yeats
The Perennial Relevance of “The Second Coming”
The Poem as Response and Anticipation
I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism
Things Fall Apart, Contemporary Crises, 2003-2016
III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Political Center Threatened
V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?
In his 2016 foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, novelist Tom Bissell asks how it is that, two decades after its publication and almost eight years after its author’s suicide, David Foster Wallace’s complex and groundbreaking fiction, though “very much a novel of its time,…still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?” Wallace himself, as Bissell notes, “understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience with equal force.” In a critical essay written while he was at work on Infinite Jest, Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels address their contemporary audience like “a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus.” But in the case of those lacking DeLillo’s observational powers, Wallace continued, the “deployment” of, say, contemporary pop-culture “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” This observation demonstrates the usual disconnect between Wallace’s lucid critical prose and the enigmatic, multi-layered, funhouse of his fiction. For ought is not is. As Bissell observes, Infinite Jest “rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event.”
Infinite Jest, as its Shakespearean title confirms, is the work of a modern Yorick, a man acutely aware of the contemporary world, especially of the play-element in culture. And yet it is “infinite,” a novel transcendent both in its linguistic exuberance (language being Wallace’s only religion) and in terms of its ambition to express “everything about everything,” even if we are left, 20 years later, still unable to “agree [as] to what this novel means, or what exactly it was trying to say.”
Unlike Wallace, W. B. Yeats did believe in the “Platonic Always”: in that “Translunar Paradise” to which he had been initiated by his studies in the occult and by his later immersion in the Enneads of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. And yet Yeats could, in the same poem (“The Tower,” III) in which he evokes Translunar Paradise, “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth.” For the antithetical tension that generated the power of Yeats’s poetry required allegiance as well to the things of this world. Even as he yearned for his heart to be consumed in spiritual fire and gathered “into the artifice of eternity,” he remained “caught in that sensual music,” the very fuel that fed the transcendent flame. These antitheses (cited here from “Sailing to Byzantium”) play out in all those dialectical poems leading up to and away from the central “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927).
In the case of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written eight years earlier, the “Platonic Always” is present in the poem’s archetypal symbolism: that of a bestial image rising up in the desert. The vision is at once concrete and sublimely vague: timeless, universal, transcendent. Its genesis, however, was thick with particulars. In the process of revision, Yeats deleted (aside from “Bethlehem”) all specific references; but examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that Yeats’s symbolism and apocalyptic prophecy were rooted in his response to contemporary events. In registering details of the moment in time in which he was writing, the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the drafts reveal a poet looking back, into earlier history, and ahead, to our own time, with what David Foster Wallace called “oracular foresight,” and birthing a beast that, a century later, “still feels…transcendently, electrically alive.”
Written almost a century ago, “The Second Coming” has emerged as the prophetic text of our time, uncannily and permanently “relevant.” The best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century, it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decades of the twenty-first. That “The Second Coming” is the most frequently-quoted of all modern poems testifies to its remarkable applicability to any and all crises—not only to the Communist Revolution to which Yeats was initially responding when he wrote the poem in 1919, and to the rise of Nazism, which, almost twenty years later, prompted Yeats to quote his own poem; but to the domestic and international crises we ourselves face in 2016, a crucial election year.
A decade ago, “The Second Coming” was often cited in connection with the Iraq War. The 2007 Brookings Institute report on Iraq was titled “Things Fall Apart”; the following year, Representative Jim McDermott called his House speech demanding a strategic plan for Iraq “The Center Cannot Hold.” These days, the disintegrating “center” evokes the polarization of American politics, or the European economic and migration crises, while Yeats’s slouching “beast,” its “hour come round at last,” portends current eruptions in the Middle East, especially the specter of ISIS rising up in the desert and its exportation of terror within and beyond the region. In addition to substantial ISIS-claimed or ISIS-inspired attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon, European jihadists inspired by ISIS have launched large-scale attacks in France and Belgium. At the moment I am writing, March 28, 2016, there are threats of further, and imminent, attacks on European targets. As noted at the end of Chapter I, ISIS jihadists have announced that Paris and Brussels are “just the beginning of your nightmare,” and that networks already positioned in Europe are ready to unleash “a wave of bloodshed.” Are “Mere anarchy” and Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” about to be “loosed”? And the fearful prospect of radioactive materials in the hands of radical jihadists is now no longer a nightmare but an approaching certainty.
At home, as the survivors of an increasingly sordid and embarrassing primary campaign, the two remaining principal contenders for the Republican presidential nomination out-bellow each other, each boasting, based on zero experience in foreign or military affairs, that he and he alone is the man needed to utterly defeat and destroy ISIS. Listening to simplistic Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, one is reminded of Pauline Kael’s devastating synopsis of John Wayne’s 1955 anti-Communist propaganda movie Blood Alley: “Duke takes on Red China—no contest.” One way or the other, a rough beast is slouching to the Republican convention in Cleveland.
Such Yeatsian allusions have, of course, become commonplace. In accounting for the extraordinary power and perennial relevance of “The Second Coming,” I will illustrate its near-ubiquity and show how Yeats’s revisions of his original (historically-specific) manuscripts universalized the final poem, making it, oracle-like, applicable to all crises, our own included.
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PART ONE: THE POEM AS RESPONSE AND ANTICIPATION
I. Vexed to Nightmare: The Financial Crisis; the Iraq War; the Rise of ISIS
The genesis of “The Second Coming” is to be located in Yeats’s troubled response to contemporary history, specifically, the European political and economic crises attending the immediate aftermath of the First World War. As I noted in an essay published four years ago in Numéro Cinq, the genesis of my own thoughts on the poem’s timelessness, as an ode for all seasons, was my observation—nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11—of the remarkable frequency with which “The Second Coming” was being applied—in magazines, newspapers, and blogs—to almost every contemporary crisis or division, foreign and domestic. Centers weren’t holding, conviction was lacking, passionate intensity defined the worst, and rough beasts seemed to be slouching in every direction. It was an old story.
Yeats’s poem in general, and its ominous yet expectant final line in particular, provided, back in 1968, the title for Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the iconic collection of the same title. The essay describes an outer and inner de-centering: the ’60s druggy counterculture and the author’s own disintegration as a result of her immersion in the ethos initiated by Haight-Ashbury. The collection as a whole dramatizes the breakdown of order and civility when rough beasts slouch to Los Angeles and New York City. That line continues to inspire allusions. While some found comic relief in Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (the ’60s novel by Peter and Derek de Vries), that judgmental judge, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Towards Gomorrah. The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, echoing Yeats’s poem (its first four lines appear as the epigraph), titled his 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture Things Fall Apart. In our own contemporary Culture Wars, things continue to fall apart, with communal decency ruptured, on both sides, by political ideology.
Surveying the decline in the quality and civility of specifically conservative discourse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a conservative, alluded to Yeats’s poem in observing: “It’s a climate in which the best often seem to lack a platform commensurate to their gifts, while the passionate intensity of the worst finds a wide and growing audience.” Rush Limbaugh, who repeatedly moralizes, though with none of Judge Bork’s civility, comes to mind. Notable among Limbaugh’s many pontificating violations of taste and decency was his public branding of a Georgetown law student (an advocate for women’s health issues seeking inclusion of contraception in her college’s insurance coverage) as a “slut” and “prostitute.” That was in 2012, three years before Donald Trump, out-Rushing Limbaugh, found his wide and growing audience.
That famous line made even more famous by Achebe—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—has also been aptly applied to the European debt crisis, and its threat to the world economy. In 1919, when he wrote the poem, Yeats was looking out at a postwar Europe torn apart by crippled economies and various national revolutions. Though today we have a “European Union,” it is, economically and demographically, gravely imperiled. Complete financial collapse has been averted by cheap loans from the European Central Bank, and the actions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year”). But failure to resolve the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the most indebted nations (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) means that we may still face the prospect of what some prominent economists were envisaging—to cite the blood-red cover and banner headline of the August 22, 2011 issue of Time—as nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”
The cover article itself, titled “The End of Europe,” following in the line of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, noted that Europe was not experiencing a typical, correctable recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, wrote Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something more profound: a second [post-1929] Great Contraction of growth,” with investors “suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.” Doubling down on that allusion to Yeats, Foroohar began her lead article in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy: “If there is a poem for this moment, it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compared what the poet faced in 1919—“the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation. After quoting the poem’s opening movement, and connecting the “centre cannot hold” with the “shrinking” of “the middle class,” Forohoor observed of the poem as a whole, “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age.” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, saw, even after emergency help, “dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.” The resistance to the austerity pushed by Merkel and the stubborn lack of growth had led to violence in the streets and to the emergence of extremist, fringe parties. Coupled with Muslim immigration and the rise of Islamic extremism, that trend has since continued and intensified: in France, Poland, even in Germany, with the emergence of revanchist and authoritarian parties. Politically as well as economically, it would seem, “the center cannot hold.”
Shifting from Europe to the Greater Middle East and beyond, the crises have also intensified, with responses to them participating, rhetorically, in the same pattern: the compulsion to return in times of turmoil to the resonant images of “The Second Coming.” Over the past three years, the poem has been repeatedly quoted in regard to the increasing instability of the international order. Though not the first to consider Yeats’s lines uniquely relevant to their own time, we have a better claim than most. The poem’s opening movement, posted on the website Sapere Aude!, was singled out as the “best description” we have of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his sweeping survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia) on a note of foreboding: “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.”
Walt’s concerns resonate, and Rogoff and Reinhart may have been right; perhaps “this time” (for, as of March 2016, the European economic crisis is hardly resolved) is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover were alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; indeed, Yeats’s eternal gyre can be read optimistically, though the birth pangs of his annunciatory rough beast suggest otherwise. When we consider the rise of ISIS and the metastasizing international threat presented by jihadist terrorism, along with Europe’s current immigration crisis, we may conclude that there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in the future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” will remain in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”
This talismanic poem’s projection of cyclical and violent rebirth in the form of a sphinx-like beast rising in the desert eerily foreshadows today’s Middle East, most dramatically, the rise of ISIS out of the wreckage of Syria and Iraq. The once hopeful Arab Spring has long since turned autumnal. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, overwhelmed by military elites and by long-suppressed but well-organized Islamists, the young rebels who actually initiated the Arab Awakening quickly became yesterday’s news. Revolutions devour their own children. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As two Middle-East experts, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, accurately predicted as early as September 2011: whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” And so it has turned out. Optimistic anticipations of beneficial change were shattered by what Agha and Malley called, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces” (“The Arab Counterrevolution”). Many in the chaotic Middle East are now, as various Islamic sects vie for power, and ISIS galvanizes jihadists, wondering what comes next—or, in Yeats’s stark image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.
The long-sustained hostility has also intensified between Israel and the Palestinians, with the elusive two-state solution further away than it was when the UN partitioned Palestine 2/3rds of a century ago. That embittered stalemate is epitomized in the title of a recent book, Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine. In lieu of advancing any proposals to resolve the issue, the book offers, on facing pages, differing perspectives on the same events. The “sheer reciprocal incomprehension” in these parallel narratives, with “two sides locked in…a dialogue of the deaf,” reminded British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft of a famous phrase of Yeats (for once, not from “The Second Coming,” but from “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” a poem written a dozen years later): “Great hatred, little room.”
Like many lines from “The Second Coming,” this phrase, too, applies throughout much of the Greater Middle East. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, militarily propped up by Vladimir Putin, continues to barrel-bomb his own people, while we puzzle over how, now that one plan to arm the Syrian “moderate” opposition has ignominiously failed, we might prevent further carnage. In Afghanistan, what began as a justified attack on the Taliban sponsoring al Qaeda now seems a futile counter-insurgency: a struggle hampered by our putative “ally” in the region. Playing both sides in its own self-interest, Pakistan covertly supports the resurgent Taliban it originally created and funds extremist madrassas (now over 1,300) intended to displace Afghan state schools, where secular subjects are taught as well as religion. And Pakistan is itself an unstable nation, its nuclear arsenal partially dispersed and therefore vulnerable to seizure by its own Islamist radicals.
And then there is the nuclear game-playing of a truly paranoid regime. North Korea is already in possession of several nuclear weapons, and its erratic dictator, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has become increasingly provocative. North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January was quickly followed by a rocket-launch, part of a project whose goal is to eventually mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile. The rocket was launched not only in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, but even in defiance of the Hermit Kingdom’s powerful neighbor, China, the only nation thought to have the leverage to restrain its unpredictable ally. Apparently not; Kim Jong-un is spinning out of control, threatening, in March 2016, to aim nuclear missiles at Seoul and Washington. A propaganda video released the same month depicted a submarine-launched ballistic missile visiting nuclear devastation on the US capital.
There is a double threat involving Iran: the danger of that theocracy violating the recent accord by surreptitiously working to develop a nuclear weapon, and of the predictable and unpredictable ramifications of an Israeli and/or US preemptive strike. Should our policy be to prevent, to contain, or to attempt to destroy? This issue, politicized in this election year, has become as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet, unless the nuclear agreement works, unless reason on both sides prevails and the center holds, we may be careening into yet another, and potentially even more profoundly destabilizing, war in the Middle East.
In Iraq, we have ended our large-scale military presence after a war we should never have started. But in toppling Saddam Hussein, we rid Iraq of a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator whose tyrannical reign had at least one positive aspect: his repression of militant Islamists. As a result we have left behind not only an economically ravished country (35% of those fortunate enough to have survived Operation Iraqi Freedom live in abject poverty), but one divided along predictably sectarian lines. The discrimination against the ousted Sunnis, not yet redressed by Haider al-Abadi, who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in 2014, not only affects every aspect of life, but alienates (since they have little incentive to protect the Shiite government in Baghdad) the very Sunni fighters needed to resist ISIS.
The negative consequences of our misguided disbanding of Saddam’s Sunni army after its defeat in 2003 were compounded by our decision to back Maliki over secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose party won the March 2010 parliamentary elections, but fell two seats short of a majority. Maliki, pressured by Shiite Iran, broke his pledge to integrate the government and instead institutionalized the repression of the Sunnis. Obama was urged to cease supporting Maliki by, among others, Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq and as a senior advisor to three CentCom commanders. Khedery concluded a 2014 opinion piece:
By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated. Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11. (Washington Post, 3 July 2014)
Shortly after we initiated the Iraq War, a Syrian businessman, Raja Sidawi, a friend of Washington columnist and writer David Ignatius, offered a prescient observation. Ignatius cited it, somewhat skeptically, in his July 1, 2003 Washington Post column, “The Toll on American Innocence.” A dozen years later, in October, 2015, he reprised it; and its second coming—in a cover-piece in The Atlantic, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East”—was far more somber. What Raja Sidawi told his American friend in June 2003 was this: “You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.” Given his cultural and practical knowledge of the region, Sidawi’s remark may not quite match the oracular clairvoyance so many of us have found in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But it will do. We stormed into Iraq with “shock and awe”; and with hubris, a mixture of political duplicity and the American confidence of Innocents Abroad—“innocence” indistinguishable from ignorance. We changed; the region didn’t. The result: a variation on the old Sunni-Shiite war, “with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.”
Principal among those plotting radicals, their brutal implementation of an apocalyptic theology flourishing in the implosion of Syria and Iraq, is of course the Islamic State: ISIL, or Da’esh, best known as ISIS. Confronted by the spectacle of ISIS, commentators from Left and Right, including experts on Islamist terrorism, turned in 2015 to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” In a Huffington Post piece titled “ISIL: The Second Coming,” composer Mohammed Fairouz, whose setting of Yeats’s poem premiered in New York City on March 10, applied his epigraph, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” to President Obama’s failure to confront barbarous ISIS early on. A June 2015 posting on a West Coast socialist website, titled “Iraq: ‘Things Fall Apart’,” cited the opening three lines of the poem, noting that Yeats “might have written today, and nowhere is this more true than in Iraq.” In a blog posted in August, a former liberal turned Neo-conservative announced, “Read this, and think of ISIS.” The “this” was the full text of “The Second Coming.” The poem had been haunting her, she reported, since 9/11, and “these days it seems more than ever that the rough beast is on the march.”
Between these two, in a July Wall Street Journal essay, “A Poet’s Apocalyptic Vision,” David Lehman, himself a poet, described “The Second Coming,” extrapolating from the moral anarchy of 1919, as a fearful pre-vision of our present anarchy. “If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics, and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than” this poem, in which Yeats envisages no Christian “second coming,” but “a monstrosity, a ‘rough beast’ threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.” The accompanying color illustration— a slouching leonine creature with light beaming from mouth and eyes—attempts to visually capture that “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” But the image, in this case, is a counter-example to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, or even (if they are Yeats’s) seven words.
Photo by Yao Xiao
After sketching its historical, psychological, and occult contexts, Lehman focuses on the text, celebrating the poem’s “metrical music,” “unexpected adjectives,” and such “oddly gripping” verbs as “slouches,” as well as Yeats’s “epigrammatic ability,” best exemplified in the last two lines of the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism, says Lehman, retains its authority as both “observation” and “warning.” We may, he suggests (yielding to the irresistible impulse to specify politically), “think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century.” He concludes by recommending that we read the poem aloud to appreciate its “power as oratory,” and then ask ourselves which most “unsettles” us: “the monster slouching towards Bethlehem or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?”
Lehman’s question is valid, despite his being unaware that Yeats, interpreting Marxism-Leninism as a second coming of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were vacillating European moderates and liberals who had failed to respond to, much less resist, revolutionary brutality. In its initial drafts, “The Second Coming” reflected Yeats’s response to the violence in Russia in light of the violence in France a dozen decades earlier. But in its final version, the poem also looks, almost clairvoyantly, ahead to the future. And even French and Russian revolutionary brutality can seem tame in comparison with the theologically inspired and politically intimidating barbarism of ISIS, with its mass rape and enslavement, beheadings and crucifixions, and its growing capacity to inspire and ignite terror attacks well beyond the borders of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also seeking radioactive materials. As in the past, “The Second Coming” is at hand to supply metaphors. In the final pages of ISIS: The State of Terror, two noted experts on Islamist jihadism, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, quote “The Second Coming,” and then conclude:
It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst—the most base and horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of “best,” then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq….
The double point made by Stern and Berger epitomizes their theme as well as the current crisis, marked by the bloodlust and passionate intensity of the “worst,” and the lack of conviction the civilized world, the “best,” has thus far displayed in fully engaging this religiously inspired death cult. Reviewing this book, and two others on ISIS, Iraq specialist Steve Negus remarks that “only one quotes Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ but the others must have been tempted” (New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2015). Negus was writing before the publication of the latest book-length study, counterterrorist expert Malcolm Nance’s Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe (2016). He was also writing five months prior to the publication of perhaps the best of the bunch: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants. His deep knowledge of ISIS’s political strategy and apocalyptic theology reflects McCants’s immersion in primary Arabic sources. His good-news, bad-news conclusion is that ISIS will be defeated, but that its example will inspire future jihadists. McCants does not cite “The Second Coming.” However, given his richly informed apocalyptic emphasis, it seems safe to imagine that he, too, “must have been tempted.”
In the month I am writing, March 2016, US commandos killed the Finance Minister of ISIS, and, as a result of coalition bombing and Iraqi army advances, ISIS is losing some ground in Syria and Iraq. But even as its Caliphate contracts, ISIS is expanding—geographically into Libya and elsewhere, and exporting terror throughout the Middle East and Africa, and into the heart of an under-prepared Europe. Last November’s coordinated attacks in Paris, which took 130 lives, were replicated by members of the same Molenbeek-based Belgian cell in Brussels on March 22, when two brothers and a third suicide bomber slaughtered 31 and wounded almost 300. Hundreds of alienated European Muslims, radicalized and militarily trained by ISIS in Syria, are now back in Europe, organized in operational cadres. In a video released on March 25, two Belgian ISIS fighters warn that “This is just the beginning of your nightmare.” Promising more “dark days” ahead for all who would oppose them, the terrorists in command of ISIS have threatened that jihadists already positioned in Europe are prepared to unleash a “wave of bloodshed.” Once again, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.…”
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II. A Vast Image: From Political Genesis to Archetypal Symbolism
In accord with the mystery of the Sublime, Yeats’s sphinx-like beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem is a horror capable of many interpretations but limited to none, and, therefore, all the more terrifying. For that very reason, as I’ve just illustrated, “The Second Coming” is perennially relevant. Almost a century after the poem first appeared, pundits in books and essays, newspapers and magazines, routinely draw upon Yeats’s evocation of cultural disintegration and imminent violence, and lines from the poem (the whole poem, in Joni Mitchell’s 1991 riff) riddle popular culture, as we can see by consulting Nick Tabor’s recent compendium of dozens of pop-culture allusions, itself titled “No Slouch.” More gravely, as part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled by the loosing of a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” dreadfully attended by a “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status?
An Endless Source
In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I refer in the first endnote to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.
A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing-wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, from the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations (fusing metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order) to that final momentous question. The presentation is cinematic, with the “vast image” looming gradually, and dramatically, into focus: a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” then a zooming in on the creature’s “gaze,” followed by a panning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem’s extraordinary power is attributable to its sources in the occult and the unconscious, its Egyptian and mythological reverberations, and, above all, its alteration of the Bible (Daniel, the gospels, Revelation), culminating in the shock value of the subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming.” “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, not the return of Christ, but the advent of a sinister rough beast. Apparently moribund for two millennia, it is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Indignant because those circling scavengers had mistakenly thought the immobile creature mere carrion; but the beast, imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier, is alive. Now, initiating a new cycle, it slouches, provocatively and precociously, towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”
But the poem’s universal relevance, its adaptability, is, above all, testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated, as we’ve seen, with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”
As earlier noted, Yeats initially identified the “worst” with the Bolsheviks, perpetrators of such revolutionary crimes as the slaughter of the Russian royal family; while the putative “best” were those who had failed to resist, eventually epitomized, for Yeats, by the British King, George V. As it happens, Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government had initiated an offer of asylum, promising to send the Tsar and Tsarina and their children to England for safety: an offer rejected by the King (fearful of reaction from the British Labor Party), even though he was Nicholas’s cousin. This cowardice and violation of the family bond, not known to Yeats at the time he wrote “The Second Coming,” surfaced two decades later in “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” where Yeats’s most famous and least inhibited female persona is revived to bitterly decry the fact that
A King had some beautiful cousins
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.
Tsar Nicholas II and family, ca. 1914 (via Wikimedia Commons)
But “The Second Coming” resonates far beyond that old atrocity. It looks back from the Bolshevik to the French Revolution, as filtered through Yeats’s reading of Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets.
Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley. But in his own political response to revolution, Yeats found himself closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself aligned with a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. At this time, Yeats was reading the French Revolutionary books of Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. His own ambivalent response to catastrophe (horrified and yet strangely exultant), as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism.
An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the War of Independence in Ireland. And they all recapture Burke’s elegy over the fall of Marie Antoinette, and his premonition of “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” The sequence’s recurrent “nightmares” and the drowning of “the ceremony of innocence” in “The Second Coming” echo Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the postwar turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.
Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the drafts of “The Second Coming” his linking of Burke’s lamentation over the assaulted Marie Antoinette with the spectacle of the Russian royal family, including the Tsarina Alexandra, “battered to death in a cellar” (as he would have Crazy Jane later put it). Yeats connects Bolshevik brutality with such French atrocities as the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what, annotating Wordsworth, he characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals,” with admitted royalist “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result: “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ July 1918 slaughter of the Tsar, the Romanov children, and the Tsarina Alexandra: “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.” The crucial point is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” of all these particularized references. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.
Pages from drafts of “The Second Coming”
Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting
Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft (page 1., image above):
Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge (pages 2.-4., image above).
In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic-card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.
We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events specified in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” Yeats was aware of the tendency of literalists and cranks to apply the obscure symbols of Revelation to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the drafts of “The Second Coming.” Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done in producing a text that was less an inspired prophecy than a coded account of events happening at the time he was writing. But there was one clear prophecy. John insists, following Paul and Jesus himself, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon” (echoed by Yeats: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”), and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)
Less interested in correlating specific events with Revelation or in predicting the future than he was in artistically mining Revelation as a rich source of resonant symbolism, Yeats was particularly fascinated by sublime aspects of the apocalyptic Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative. (In depicting the first coming of Christ, he had referred, in the turbulently sublime final line of his visionary poem “The Magi,” to “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”) Above all, Yeats, as visionary, would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous—as had many biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call (in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World) “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”
St. Jerome, aware of the many strained, historically specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehem makes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the “lamentable crimes” of the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come: “The fear gone by/ Pressed on me like a fear to come…”
For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth. (Prelude 10:71-93)
Wordsworth’s image of a malevolent and returning tidal sea may remind us not only of the loosing of “the blood-dimmed tide” in Yeats’s poem of “second birth,” but of another powerful, and no less apocalyptic, prophesy of “coming” destruction. In Robert Frost’s 1926 couplet-sonnet, “Once By the Pacific,” the water is “shattered,” and “Great waves looked over others coming in,/ And thought of doing something to the shore/ That water never did to land before.” This is an unprecedented rather than repeated act of destruction, but its premeditated “thought” makes Frost’s ocean even worse than Yeats’s “murderous innocence of the sea” (in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” where revolutionary violence takes the form of “sea-wind…/ Bred on the Atlantic”). Though Frost’s shore “was lucky in being backed by cliff,/ The cliff in being backed by continent,” the sea seems backed by God himself, whose creative fiat in Genesis, “Let there be light,” is soon to be superseded by his apocalyptic extinction of light:
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.
In that final line, Frost moves from Genesis (1.3) to the Book of Revelation (21:1). In reversing Christian expectation (in Matthew 24 and Revelation), the poet of “The Second Coming” echoes the whole of the Prelude passage, which ends with Wordsworth returning to Paris, scene of the worst atrocities of the September Massacres, to find the place “unfit for the repose of night,/ Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.” Yeats’s “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, invoked a Dionysian and eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast”: an eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what he called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Unsurprisingly, since Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” and that “Nietzsche’s thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn,” Nietzsche’s beast (first trotted out in Yeats’s 1903 play Where There is Nothing) later resonated in his archetypal mind with Blake’s Tyger and his half-bestial Nebuchadnezzar, slouching on all fours (as in Daniel 4:31-33) on Plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (via Wikimedia Commons)
The Rough Beast
The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” It can be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images induced in Yeats during the symbolic-card experiments he conducted in 1890 with MacGregor Mathers, the dominant figure in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. In his most memorable vision, Yeats saw a “Black Titan” rising up ominously from the desert sands. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
Around 1902, Yeats “began to imagine” a brazen winged beast “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” In that same year, in his uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, he envisaged a laughing, destructive beast resembling the eternally recurrent “savage cruel beast” of Nietzsche: a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called (in Beyond Good and Evil) these “more humane ages.”
In perhaps the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats believed that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The rough beast of “The Second Coming” can be seen as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast with (along with the dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) aspects of Blake’s Urizen, his Tyger, and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality and slouching posture is likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”
All precursors of the “rough beast.” But Yeats’s response to French revolutionary violence, and its rebirth, was at least as powerfully influenced by the bestial imagery and conservative politics of Edmund Burke. For conservative Yeats, the September Massacres and French Reign of Terror foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder”: the same inevitability Burke had early and uncannily prophesied in 1790. In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem, in its final, published text, is not “about” either the French or the Russian Revolution.
Nor is it about the National Socialist revolution. Many readers have taken it that way, citing a 1936 letter in which Yeats, refusing to politicize the Nobel Prize by recommending a German dissident writer, also condemned Nazism, quoting the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” While Hitler, with the help of Goebbels, read himself positively into the Book of Revelation, as a secular Aryan Messiah and initiator of the thousand-year Third Reich, Yeats, though a man of the Right, saw the Führer as a type of the apocalyptic beast. In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.
No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscripts of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. The speaker has had an apocalyptic vision, a “lifting of the veil” (the Greek meaning of Apokalypsis) and the disclosure of something hidden from the rest of us. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus limiting its evocative power.
If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”
Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” As we’ve seen, “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious and bestial “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of his own patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into “masterful images.”
“The Second Coming” obviously and dramatically transcends the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to universalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats—who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” that we must delve “down, as it were, into some fibrous darkness”—falls into this second category. Influenced, as was Joyce, by the cyclical philosophy of Giambattista Vico, Yeats agreed with Vico that “Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses; the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to the universal; the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars” (Scienza Nuova, 1725). Yeats has it both ways in “The Second Coming.” The specific details of the poem’s political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose universalized vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting in Viconian and Blakean “particulars,” idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.
What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But the note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the Nietzschean irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipe dream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the hopeful form of the Nietzschean-aristocratic civilization welcomed (“Why should we resist?”) in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.” This troubled vision is also rooted in apocalyptic literature. Yeats is doubtless recalling the response of the prophet Daniel (two hundred years before an echoing John of Patmos) to the final and most “terrifying and dreadful” of the “four great beasts” he sees in a dream: “my spirit was troubled within me, and the vision in my head terrified me….I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 7:19-20, 8:15-27; cf. Revelation 13:7).
Yeats’s dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the poem’s drafts, is reflected in his final punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poet ends, as Daniel had, with a cryptic, troubling vision he “did not understand,” and therefore with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to the unknown Greek author of the great treatise On the Sublime, attends that mystery.
Peering into the dark forward and abysm of time, their sight “troubled,” readers of Yeats’s poem are easily persuaded that something ominous is afoot. But we are left wondering which of our own current crises might emerge as no less transformative than the events Yeats was responding to in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” specifically his connection of 1919 with the bloodshed following 1789. As those drafts reveal, Yeats was paralleling the two most momentous events in the history of the modern Western world: the French Revolution, and its blood-dimmed aftermath, with the First World War and its various sequelae. The consequences of the Great War include the global influenza pandemic that swept away at least 10 million more people than the 37 million fighters and civilians lost in the war itself, as well as the slicing of the modern Middle East out of the rotting carcass of the Ottoman Empire. Before the 1921 Cairo Conference, which created, ex nihilo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, John Maynard Keynes warned the man who had presided over this division, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill: “If you cut up the map of the Middle East with a pair of scissors you will still be fighting wars there in a hundred years’ time.” Five years from that centennial, Keynes seems no less prophetic, and rather more specific, than the poet who envisaged anarchic disintegration and a beast rising from “somewhere in sands of the desert.”
Though excised by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those World War I-related events sowed the seeds of much that followed. Even Yeats’s stress, in the manuscripts, on the execution of the French queen and its repetition in the massacre of the Russian royal family, were not idiosyncratic choices. Whatever one thinks of Yeats’s politics or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—in Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—“pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird.” Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”
Yeats sensed this seismic change and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian royal family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide and slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, ecological degradation, melting ice shelves and rising sea levels, and political anarchy—in the form, in our own country, of an ideological and special-interest polarization so intense that the center can no longer hold.
Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse—envisages, or, rather, can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Front and center at the moment is ISIS: the apocalyptic cult of fanatics operating out of their medieval Caliphate and able to ignite or at least inspire terror wherever the Internet and the various forms of social media they have mastered can reach. ISIS does not exhaust the legion of threats our own century of stony sleep has vexed to nightmare. Like Yeats, we are left wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards” us?
W. B. Yeats, 1932 (photo by Pirie MacDonald)
In Part Two, we will revisit the turmoil of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. Though both have deep causal roots, both are the immediate result of our 2003 decision to invade Iraq: a disaster exacerbated by its antithesis: President Obama’s understandable but consequential decisions and then indecisions regarding the Syrian civil war. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are the roots of the tree from which most of the poison fruit has fallen, but the carnage and chaos in Syria not only expedited the rise of ISIS but produced the current immigration crisis. It is a tragic history.
When various moderate factions first rose up against the Alawite tyranny of Bashar al-Assad, it seemed part of the hopeful Arab Spring. Obama, who had been criticized for his alacrity in abandoning President Mubarak in Egypt, was now criticized for his reluctance to urge the ouster of Assad. After several months of calibrated diplomacy and sanctions, Western policy shifted to regime change. In tandem with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama announced that, for the good of the Syrian people and before his regime was utterly rejected by them, the time had come for “President Assad to step aside.” The policy became distilled to three fateful words: “Assad must go.”
That was in August, 2011, when perhaps 2,000 had been killed in the conflict. Figures differ, but a consensus estimate is that, in the subsequent five years of civil war, well over 300,000 Syrians and non-Syrian combatants have been killed, while another 70,000 have perished because of lack of water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Assad alone is responsible for the slaughter of 10% of his own people, over 40% of them civilians. In 2013, President Obama, in a decision as fateful as the announcement that Assad must go, drew a red line, threatening to attack Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people. When the Syrian President crossed that line, twice, Obama, on the verge of ordering airstrikes, reversed himself, for reasons, and with consequences, we’ll revisit. Meanwhile, the slaughter continued. In addition to the deaths, nearly two million people have been wounded in the ongoing conflict, and approximately 120,000 are currently starving and freezing in towns besieged by government or anti-government forces, and subject to bombing—from the air by Assad and (until recently) by his Russian ally, and, on the ground, by the various warring factions, especially ISIS, which recently launched its worst bombing attack of the war, killing at least 130 people.
The continuing horror in Syria has also created a wider humanitarian and political crisis. Millions of refugees have inundated not only the region but a Europe already buckling under the burden of debt and demography, and giving rise to right-wing anti-immigrant movements that are now threatening centrist governments. The primaries leading up to our own 2016 presidential election—driven by populism on the Left and, most dramatically, on the Right—exposed a fragile political center that, here as in Europe, may not hold. Thrilling some, dismaying most, a nativist rough beast, Donald Trump, is slouching towards Cleveland to become the presumptive Republican nominee, or to hurl the convention into anarchy.
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PART TWO: THINGS FALL APART, CONTEMPORARY CRISES, 2003-2016
III. Mere Anarchy: Polarization at Home; the Challenges of ISIS and Syrian Immigration
Its evocation of imminent yet mysterious catastrophe has made “The Second Coming” the swan song of our time. As the 20th century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats, alert to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress, was also telepathically attuned to the paradoxically related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”: a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and not only committed to terrorism, but, potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons.
In part a reaction to Western colonialism and more recent US intervention, militant Islam has deep theological roots in the “sword-passages” of the Quran. Though we have no choice but to confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, our “global war on terror” is both quixotic and often counter-productive. In the Bush-Cheney administration, Neo-conservative hubris joined with the evangelical notion that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush invoked as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.” The result was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, worsened when “liberation” became occupation. Worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, and now, in the case of ISIS, our global war tends to generate more terrorists than we can kill. We face a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out to avenge past injustices, all under the auspices of their approving God.
President Obama’s anti-terrorist policy, militant but limited, and only partially effective, will doubtless be intensified, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican is the next President. If the latter, the principal competing visions may once again become apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to eradicate perceived evil. Along with religious-right hawks, we have militants ranging from Rapture-ready End-Timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to unreconstructed theoconservatives still clinging to a version of Bush’s Bible-based foreign policy. Despite Ted Cruz’s hyperbolic pledge to make the desert sands “glow,” there is a significant difference between the combatants: a distinction made graphic in the recent nuclear threats by apocalypse-hungry ISIS jihadists, whose suicide belts and Kalashnikovs will seem a quaint memory once they have acquired enough radioactive material to build a divinely sanctioned dirty bomb.
And then there is Iran. Its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, insists that the endlessly reiterated chant, “Death to America,” is aimed, not at the American people, but at the US government and its “arrogant policies.” There is a danger of that distinction blurring should Khameinei—despite the more “moderate” elements in his government and against the majority wishes of the Iranian people, as reflected in the March 2016 elections—choose to resume Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is already defying UN sanctions by testing missiles, tests not covered in the recent US-Iran strictly nuclear agreement. Any cheating on that nuclear accord would invite, well beyond sanctions, harsh retaliation, probably in the form of a massive preventive airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—by the US alone, or in concert with Israel. No one knows what geostrategic repercussions might follow.
A greater nightmare scenario involves actual rather than potential nuclear weapons, with more to come. Pakistan is planning to more than double its arsenal of 100 warheads, including tactical (“battlefield”) weapons, which lower the threshold to nuclear war. And Pakistan, which would then be the fifth-largest nuclear power, is a state (to cite the title of Ahmed Rashid’s recent book) “on the brink” of chaos, perhaps in the form of an Islamist coup. Nine years ago, a matured Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, determined to resist such militants. “Extremism” can be contained, she said, “if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up against fanaticism.” Just before the general election, she was assassinated. No Pakistani since has mobilized any “moderate middle,” and there is no prospect of any “center” likely to “hold.” Even if there is no full-scale coup, Pakistan’s arsenal—widely dispersed to deter the perceived enemy, India—will become still more vulnerable with the addition of those smaller, easier-to-steal “battlefield” nuclear weapons. They, or larger warheads, could be seized by a now more globally oriented Pakistani Taliban or by a post-bin Laden al Qaeda still inspired by 9/11: in both cases, terrorists clearly willing to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.
Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism threatening all civilization. Europe’s debt crisis has now been compounded by Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and, above all, by the potential of the new migration crisis to destroy the European Union, now “on the verge of collapse,” according to Europe’s central figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy of welcoming Syrian refugees has put even her dominant position in jeopardy. Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration, a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole, has taken a demographic and terror-haunted form. The problem of Europe’s dramatically declining native birthrates, long accompanied by growing Muslim populations, is, in 2016, exacerbated by the flood of refugees. Many Muslim immigrants, old and new, unassimilated and hopeless, are often hostile to the host countries, with some extremists eager to kill in the name of jihad—as demonstrated by various terrorist plots, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris and, three months later, in Brussels. Noting, in the aftermath of those attacks, that the EU has a single currency but lacks a common database to screen terrorists, Die Zeit political writer Jochen Bittner wondered (in the Yeatsian title of his March 24 NY Times op-ed): “Can the European Center Hold?”
Confronting crises in the turbulent Greater Middle East itself—the rise of ISIS, as a “state” and as a generator of jihadist attacks beyond the region; the mass migration produced by the ongoing carnage in Syria; and the apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians (their contested land the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon)—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Even those of us most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance often find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, it sometimes seems, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.
Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. The centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, ecological—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. Within the long-term impact of the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated, there may be perfect storms combining nature and technology. Full-time teams are still fighting the radioactive tide at Fukushima, the nuclear plant devastated five years ago by earthquake and tsunami. A full clean up may take the rest of this century, and in the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable, a Japanese disaster threatening to become a wider catastrophe.
We in America gaze out at what, despite (and often because of) free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overheated and overpopulated, sporadically wealthy but overwhelmingly impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism, and by both under- and over-reactions to it; and groaning for a deliverance that seems never to come. The Arab Spring quickly lost its liberating early bloom, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, far from evolving into even semi-stable states, let alone democracies, are well on their way to falling apart: into mere anarchy, or becoming failed states ripe to be dominated by Islamist extremists. China (Napoleon’s sleeping giant) is awake but stumbling; Russia is once again militant under Putin; Iran and North Korea pose future and, in the case of the latter, a present nuclear threat; jihadism is on the march in the Middle East and Africa, its terror networks threatening to unleash a “wave of bloodshed” in Europe. Fresh crises loom everywhere, none more existential than the challenge to the planet itself presented by global climate change, and the threat to Western civilization posed by the apocalyptic savagery of ISIS.
Looking homeward, we wonder about the state of our own democracy. The Democratic Party offers little to rally around, and President Obama, reluctant to get into the trenches, has had a dismal record of working with Congress. In fairness, it must be added that this President was resisted from the outset by many who, for political, economic, ideological, or racist reasons, never accepted him; 35% of registered Republican voters remain unreconstructed Birthers, and another quarter are “not sure” he was born in the United States. Even so, Obama has been too aloof to be fully effective.
But the primary blame is located in the very titles of some recent books: The Disappearing Center; Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy; Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The respected bipartisan authors of the latter, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, formerly critical of both parties, now insist that the core of the current dysfunction and polarization is an inflexible and obstructionist Republican Party. Beginning with the demonization of opponents prescribed by Newt Gingrich, the party’s “center of gravity has shifted far to the right.” Today’s GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Mann and Ornstein concluded by hoping that voters in 2012 would “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents.” Only then will “an insurgent outlier party” have “some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” But things have continued to fall apart, with Republicans uninterested in moving toward a “center” that, many clearly believe, should no longer “hold.” The extremism Ornstein and Mann described three years ago is more obvious today. With no sign of getting better, our politics has gotten far “worse,” incarnate in that reductio ad absurdum, Donald Trump.
Even those of us who intend to vote this November have become frustrated by a system not only dysfunctional, but increasingly venal. Mark Twain’s old witticism that “we have the best government money can buy” was never more telling. Our electoral process has been utterly corrupted by “dark money”—to cite the title of Jane Mayer’s brave and brilliant new expose of the Koch Brothers and affiliated billionaires behind the rise of the radical Right. Their flood of filthy lucre was fully unleashed by the Super PAC-producing Citizens United decision—reinforced by the SpeechNow and McCutcheon cases—all thanks to a conservative and “activist” Supreme Court majority. Those decisions have set more beasts a-slouching. In an overheated 2012 essay titled “Beast of Citizens United Slouches Forward,” Charles Pierce described Mitt Romney as “in every way the rough beast” predicted by Justice John Paul Stevens (in his eloquent dissent in Citizens United): a beast “slouching toward Iowa to be born.” (This particular beast in pinstripes would be undone by the secretly taped revelation that he, like the rich donors he was speaking to at the time, believed that 47% of Americans were freeloaders, mooching on government handouts).
Writing in Vanity Fair, Craig Ungar also cited “The Second Coming,” in noting the re-emergence of a discredited Karl Rove, among the quickest to appreciate the SpeechNow decision, which overturned limits on individual contributions to PACs, making it easier for big donors to influence elections. “Proving the Yeatsian verity about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity, Rove has created a ruthlessly efficient political operation beholden to no one but himself.” Though dismissed by Donald Trump as a “total moron,” Rove, like Yeats’s irrepressible rough beast, is again heading-up his American Crossroads Super PAC, specifically dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The corrupting power of unrestricted money is manifest in the sorry spectacle of politicians pandering to the narrow interests of their party’s base and accommodating an ever-growing army of lobbyists, the most influential representing corporate interests. The result is legalized bribery, and, under the aegis of supply-side economics and an antipathy to government, a breakdown of that balanced public-private partnership epitomizing the genius of the American system at its best. Today, competing in a global market, Western democracies must engage as never before in strategic economic planning. Public investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to restore economic competitiveness. But such federal prescriptions are disdainfully rejected by Republicans, who have turned Ronald Reagan’s mantra about the federal government being the “problem” rather than the “solution” into Ayn-Randian economic dogma, referring to Washington as if it were an enemy capital and indulging the fantasy that the “socialist” federal government, which has supposedly “never created a job,” should just “get out of the way” and let the infallible free market work its trickle-down magic.
In this ideologically polarized context, those of a Keynesian bent, who still wish President Obama’s initial stimulus package back in 2009 had been larger, more innovative, and tied to financial regulation of the bailed-out banks, and who see a positive role for an activist federal government in economic crises, can expect no compromise (now a dirty word) from those committed to the deregulated market forces of the private sector. Hence, the persistent clamor of Republicans, who have virtually all signed on to Grover Norquist’s Pledge, for lower taxes on the most wealthy—the “job creators.” That remains a priority even in the face of an accelerating disparity between the many and the very few: a concentration of private and corporate wealth that translates into political power since laws tend to get written in accord with the interests of those (say, the Koch Brothers) writing the checks. Democrats, when they are not complicit in corporate power, bow to their own special interests, fostering divisiveness in the form of identity politics.
Either way, little constructive gets done. Despite the abysmal approval ratings of Congress, partisan confrontation blocks progress on any measure aimed at healing our economy and repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Three years ago, two liberal commentators drew on Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to deplore the gridlock. Addressing the political “failure” to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, economist Paul Krugman decried (in his New York Times column in September 2012) Republican opposition to any plan likely to reduce unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity.” Five months earlier, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary announced his fear that the US economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Playing a variation as well on “the center cannot hold,” Robert Reich observed that the top percent or two have now accumulated “so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed,” and that Republican resistance to tax increases had drained funds required to finance important public investments depended upon by that collapsing middle class. With Washington paralyzed by the divide between dread of mounting debt and the need to invest in infrastructure, education, and job retraining, our economy is still “slouching toward” potential disaster.
Krugman and Reich (and Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, debt, deficits, and burgeoning entitlement spending certainly matter, and must be addressed, as fiscal conservatives rightly insist. On the other hand, most Republicans seem ideologically incapable of acknowledging the opposite danger: that deep retrenchment in public spending is likely to have the same effect here as in Europe, where fiscal austerity, even when it has arrested the downward slide, has failed to produce growth. Yet, as Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has said, “market fundamentalism, radical privatization, and a universal fear of state power are overly simplistic answers to the question of how to sustain a modern, globalized economic order.” His focus is European and global, but Avineri is not forgetting the private-enterprise purists of the Republican Party in the United States.
Political tension, even partisanship, is not only inevitable but desirable; as William Blake reminds us in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without Contraries is no progression.” Blake also notes in the same text that “Opposition is true friendship,” that differences can be dialectically fruitful, and need not sour into enmity. But our current political divide is less dialectical than rancorous; and it transcends “politics as usual” because the widening gap is not only economic and ideological but often cognitive. Senator Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” has been trumped by political expediency and, often, by actual or willful ignorance. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by a polarized and polarizing media that caters to those who prefer to have their own prejudices confirmed and amplified rather than to actually think. In the cable war, CNN tacks to the center, but the conservative audience addicted to Fox News has little in common with the liberal audience addicted to MSNBC; and in that war, the clear victor has been Fox, the supposedly “fair and balanced” organ of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.
In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. One needn’t accept every nuance of what conservatives might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today—when the political spectrum in the United States has shifted dramatically to the right—far more justified than they were when he was writing a half-century ago. What would he make, for example, of venomous, pseudo-populist right-wing radio or of the dominance of the Fox News Network? What of fundamentalist resistance, not just to ACLU excesses, but to the very concept of a constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the Religious Right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling to the rational, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology? What would Hoftadter have to say, if he wasn’t rendered mute, by the spectacle of Ben Carson, a physician who is also an evolution-denying biblical literalist; of Ted Cruz, a sanctimonious, inflexible ideologue who deems everyone who demurs from his religio-political absolutism a far-left extremist; of insult-monger Donald Trump, who is—well—TRUMP.
At times we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. During that defining national tragedy, both sides, equally immersed in the wrathful sword-and-vintage imagery of Revelation that dominates “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” saw themselves engaged in an apocalyptic struggle, each on God’s side and fighting against perceived evil. The Confederacy may have been defeated by the Union armies, but the old ideological struggle persists between central government and states’ rights, between a concept of the common good and unfettered individualism. And once again, though with considerably less justification, what ought to be a public-private partnership is turned into a conflict hyperbolized and sanctified by conservatives and libertarians as a fight to the death between federal “tyranny” and individual “liberty,” now intensified by the guns-and-God identification of the former with all that is reprehensibly “coercive” and “secular,” the latter with stridently libertarian and evangelical concepts of “freedom of religion.”
Faced with the acrimonious divide in our current religio-political Culture War (another example of a “dialogue of the deaf”) and attuned to the language of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, we readily concur that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist earlier cited, returning to “The Second Coming” in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, lamented the “disappearance of a Christian center.” This “polarization is a sign of what happens” to a deeply religious country when “its theological center cannot hold.” However persuasive or dubious Douthat’s specific claim, his citation of Yeats’s famous line helps rhetorically by locating his argument within a larger and resonant context.
More than a quarter-century ago, in a 1988 “On Language” column, William Safire noted that Yeats’s line about the “center” failing to hold “is quoted whenever polarization takes place and centrists disappear.” That observation is even more germane today, when most centrists have fled Washington in frustration or been driven out by their own party’s more extreme elements. Six-time Indiana Republican Senator Dick Lugar, a notably civil and nuanced Republican with almost unparalleled expertise in foreign policy, was defeated in the 2012 primary by a Tea-Party challenger funded by massive outside spending.
The House situation worsened with the 2010 mid-term elections, when the Republican State Leadership Committee, deploying over $200 million from Republican-aligned “independent groups,” achieved the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) dream, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process until the new census in 2020. By assuring right-wing Republicans safe seats, gerrymandering underwrites obstinacy, reducing the Congress to a partisan, obstructionist combat zone, with opponents demonized and compromise replaced by mutual contempt and deadlock. When, in December 2015, Donald Trump, touting flexibility, criticized the relentlessly uncooperative Senate behavior of his main rival, Ted Cruz, he was furiously attacked by right-wing bloviators Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for so much as suggesting he would be willing to work across the aisle. In response, a Cruz spokesperson, back when her man was still relentlessly buttering up The Donald, regretted only that Trump, in accurately noting Cruz’s rejection of any compromise, had resorted to “Democrat talking points”! No wonder centrists leave in frustration. What moderate Republican Olympia Snowe described, in announcing her retirement, as the Senate’s “crumbling center” epitomizes our larger cultural breakdown. When things fall apart, no center, religious or political, can hold.
The 2012 Republican primary debates were filled with fevered, self-righteous, semi-theological rhetoric about “taking our country back,” and “saving the soul of America.” Obama was still elected to a second term, to the dismay of Republicans who, from the outset of his first term, never intended to be a “loyal opposition.” Mitch McConnell flatly stated that the “priority” was to make Obama “a one-term president.” Even now, most Republicans put partisan politics ahead of cooperation, then complain when Obama resorts to executive actions. The old adage that politics ends at the water’s edge is long gone with the wind. Republicans adamantly resist, or ridicule, the nuclear deal with Iran, and would rather criticize a president they despise than find common ground in confronting the danger of ISIS.
Though there are thoughtful individual Republicans, their Party has become ideologically extremist and anti-intellectual, hostile to “elites” and to science. No Republican presidential candidate (even when there were seventeen of them) felt free to publicly accept the fact of biological evolution, let alone acknowledge the crisis of global climate change, resorting to denialism based on reports covertly funded by fossil-fuel interests. In December 2015, the Obama administration helped bring together in Paris 195 nations in an accord committing them, for the first time, to lowering planet-warming carbon emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The modest reductions are tailored but voluntary, making this an executive agreement, not a treaty, which would have been rejected by the Senate, controlled by Republicans who, beholden to the Kochs and their affiliates, either deny established climate science, pronounce the cost of combating the problem prohibitive, or are simply out to thwart the President’s agenda.
The 2012 Republican primary was temperate compared to the 2015-16 anti-establishment circus, initially starring a pious, clueless neurosurgeon (who would later flame out and endorse Trump), then dominated by a talented but absentee junior senator; an articulate but hyper-ambitious ideologue loathed on both sides of the aisle; and, above all, by a reality-TV huckster and hyperbolist. After losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Donald Trump crushed Cruz and Marco Rubio in the next three primary states, becoming—against all predictions from pundits left and right—the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He has continued to cleverly exploit the national frustration at the polarization and dysfunction of Washington, as well as the growing (and justifiable) annoyance with “political correctness.” But in the process, building on and exacerbating the growing fear of all, not just radicalized, Muslims, the Birther-in-Chief (who later played that card on Canadian-born Cruz) has tapped into the nativist zeitgeist and Know-Nothingism of a substantial slice of the American electorate—whose fears, frustrations, and left-behind fury he adroitly channels and fuels.
Republican leaders, having long ginned up their base but caught off guard by the consequences, are now terrified at the looming prospect of Trump becoming their nominee. But he is the untethered Frankenstein’s monster they created—liberated from the Establishment, from Fox News, even from the Koch Brothers! The GOP’s strongest ticket would include John Kasich. But in an extremist milieu, victors tend to be those who appeal to voters “full of passionate intensity,” rather than to the “best”—the better-informed and less absolutist, who don’t expect simple answers to complex questions. Hoping Trump (and Cruz) would fade, the Establishment sought to anoint, as the Party’s “savior,” the more “electable” Rubio, whose initially upbeat campaign quickly darkened into the same old fear-mongering, religious pandering, and strident hawkishness. Since Bernie Sanders, despite his victories and virtual ties, seems unelectable in a center-right country, the Democratic nominee will be a self-wounded, baggage-laden Hillary Clinton.
We can be sure that both sides will be full of passionate intensity. We can also be sure that the Democratic and Republican candidates will be equally supported by their respective Super PACS. Hillary Clinton is flush in PAC money, Cruz is second only to her, and even Donald Trump (closing in on the nomination) will eventually come to the trough. Before his departure, Rubio’s cash cows included three multi-billionaires, who also happen to be pro-Israeli zealots. Despite differences (especially over the West Bank settlements), Israel is our ally, to whom we are bound by history and culture. But must loyalty be obsequious? The Republican nominees (even Trump, who caught hell for saying he would try to be a “neutral” negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse) are tripping over each other vowing unconditional support of Israel. But 2016 began with primary emphasis on the terrorist and refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq.
This was the subject of President Obama’s rare Oval Office Address in late December (a speech prompting emails from two old Fordham college friends, a Democrat and a Republican, but both foreign-policy hawks). In his Address on the terrorist threat, the President said that we should continue our current policy: working with international partners, using targeted airstrikes and special forces to attack terrorist networks. But he also warned against an expansive ground war in Iraq and Syria, calling for a “sustainable” victory using a minimal number of US ground forces. ISIS (or ISIL, as he prefers) would only grow stronger as an insurgency against an occupying power. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.” But alliterative rhetoric is no substitute for a specific strategy.
Until recently, almost everyone (aside from John McCain and Lindsay Graham) agreed with the President that substantial (tens of thousands) of American ground forces would be counterproductive. Trump’s characteristically crude and crowd-rousing alternative—to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”—was bested by Cruz’s lunatic and illegal proposal to “carpet-bomb” their “troops,” to make the desert sands “glow,” presumably with radioactivity. Given the jihadists’ proximity to the civilians they terrorize and use as shields in the places they occupy, how many tens of thousands of innocents would we have to vaporize to destroy the Caliphate? Besides, even as ISIS loses territory in its Syrian-Iraqi base (down by more than a third from its apogee), the cancer metastasizes—to Yemen, Libya, elsewhere in Africa; and it retains the ability to inspire and coordinate terror attacks far beyond.
There was a shift, to include substantial “boots on the ground,” in the March 10 Republican debate. In calling for a large-scale injection of US troops into the region, the Republicans are in ironic accord with ISIS, itself the bitter fruit of our misguided invasion of Iraq and, in particular, of our ill-planned, blundering occupation, whose chaos created al Qaeda in Iraq. We want no more of that carnage. ISIS does, committed as it is to its own chiliastic scenario, its version of Armageddon. Based on ancient myth, revived by Abu Musàb al Zakhari, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq and the godfather of ISIS, and reiterated by the “Caliph” himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS apocalypse calls for a final battle on the plain outside the small village of Dabiq (north of Aleppo, in Syria). This unlikely place has long been prophesied as the site of the ultimate victory of the Islamic Caliphate over the armies of the infidel—nowadays, those of the United States. Much ISIS propaganda is devoted to luring us into that land war.
Image from Islamic State video, in Dabiq (issue one) (via Clarion Project)
It is a lure we should resist. We can target, provide intelligence and special ops; but the main anti-ISIS ground force must eventually be made up, as the President says, of other Sunnis. At least for now, those Sunnis are divided among themselves. The Saudis, the promulgators of fundamentalist Wahhabism and funders of radicalizing madrassas throughout the Greater Middle East, continue their long and sordid double-game—though there are recent signs that they may finally be ready to field anti-ISIS troops. In any case, thus far, President Obama has not displayed the leadership skills (given these divisions, perhaps no one can) required to put together a pan-Arab force, let alone helm or guide the alleged coalition of “sixty-five” partners.
I agreed with some of the substance, though not the “anti-academic” tone, of the response to the Oval Office speech by my Republican Fordham friend. Ridiculing the president’s claim that his plan was “working,” he described Obama as “the ultimate college professor,” couching events that
unfold before his eyes as academic exercises requiring intellectual examination. True, there is a scholarly aspect than can be argued long into the night, but what is really needed is a bold, rousing response like that of George W. Bush, with the megaphone atop the rubble. It’s about looking and acting like a leader, despite the fact that it might not go beyond immediate visceral satisfaction.
Obama may indeed be too “professorial,” but I have no nostalgia for the sort of “bold, rousing response” that led us, hard on the heels of the justifiable attack on the Taliban harboring al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the duplicitous invasion of Iraq. That 2003 invasion and the subsequent violence and chaos of the occupation triggered a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, an increase British Intelligence has aptly dubbed the “Iraq Effect.” It also engendered much of the current crisis in the Middle East—notably including the abrupt turn, in word and deed, to apocalyptism among Sunnis, not only in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but in the global jihadist movement. This new End Times appetite among Sunnis, hitherto skeptical of apocalyptic thinking, was fueled by Sunni clerics and by the al-Qaeda precursor of ISIS, Zarqawi, who envisaged the new American “Crusaders” as having joined the Shia and the Jews in a triple union to “destroy” true Muslims. Unlike al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi believed “the Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.” We now know what rough beast, its hour come round at last, has been slouching to be born in the deserts of Iraq: ISIS.
According to unreconstructed foreign policy hawks who still defend the invasion of Iraq and still fail to grasp the historic complexity of the Sunni-Shia division, that monstrous birth is entirely attributable to Obama, who “abandoned” a “liberated” Iraq made “stable” by the “Surge.” In exploiting the Anbar Awakening, General David Petraeus bought the provisional loyalty of Sunnis even more appalled by al Qaeda than by American forces. But while it was a success tactically and as PR, the Surge, elevated to the status of myth by Republicans, barely affected the underlying realities. Yet the President is incessantly condemned by Neocons, the right-wing media, and the current crop of GOP candidates for “squandering” our “gains” in Iraq by withdrawing “precipitously.” Though he is not without fault, this is far too sweeping, and, of course, characteristically partisan.
Like others, the President was slow to realize the gravity of the threat presented by ISIS (far from the “JV-team” of his glib dismissal), and he failed to heed warnings about the double-dealing of Maliki. The President was eager to get out of Iraq, in accord with his promise during the 2008 campaign, and reflecting the consensus of the vast majority of the electorate. But Republicans tend to pass over that other pledge: the one made by us to the Iraqi government, to completely withdraw US troops by 2011, a pledge made by President Bush. Without the Status of Forces agreement rejected by Maliki (at Iran’s behest), were we to leave in place, in violation of our own agreement and against the express disinvitation of the host government, a residual force of, say, 15-20,000 American troops? The President’s critics on the Right blandly assume that such a force would have prevented the rise of ISIS. General Petraeus recently expressed a wish that we had “tried the experiment,” though he is doubtful “it would have made a difference.”
Opportunities were lost, especially in Syria; today, ISIS entrenched and the Internet at its command, there are no longer any routes to a quick victory without considerable risks and downsides. Any plausible, as opposed to preposterous, plan to defeat ISIS, would not be wildly different from what the President seems to think he can wish into existence, and would involve actual rather than half-imaginary coalitions, Arab and European. But our internally-divided NATO and Arab allies lack the capacity to organize and lead an effective counteroffensive on their own. And Obama may not be the leader required to inspire and implement such a strategy. More hawkish Hillary might be up to the task, more so than Trump, Cruz, and the departed Rubio, all of them as inexperienced as they are bellicose. Had he not fallen from grace, the gifted David Petraeus, running as a Republican or a Democrat, might have provided both experience and thoughtfulness.
We should be under no illusion that there is any military silver bullet that could even conceivably resolve a crisis ultimately based on a long-delayed backlash against Western imperialism and economic exploitation, grievances made toxic by the most militant sections of the Quran being fed by radical clerics to alienated young Muslim men, ripe for revenge. But understanding the causes does not eliminate the need to confront the consequences. Given the deep sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious context, and the endless supply of hopeless young men susceptible to the siren call to jihad, eager to spill blood for the glory of Allah and to advance the End Times, there may be no way to avoid a protracted struggle. One would be more satisfied with a multi-pronged, gradual degradation of ISIS leading to eventual defeat were it not for the immediate dangers presented by sleeper cells, and by the ultimate nightmare: the acquisition by ISIS or its affiliates of a dirty bomb or, worse yet, a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Time is no more on our side here than in the need to confront the challenge of global climate change. So, what to do?
In Europe, intelligence has to be much better shared and the EU borders made less porous. Thousands of European Muslims have traveled to Syria and back, now thoroughly radicalized, militarily trained, and ready to wage jihad in their home countries. One such man, Salah Abdeslam, who helped orchestrate the attacks in Paris, slipped easily out of France and into Belgium. Four months later, he was found, by sheer luck, hiding out in jihadi central, Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up. Though Belgian authorities announced that another attack was “credible and imminent,” Abdeslam’s questioning, apparently perfunctory, yielded no information. Within days of his capture, members of his cell launched their lethal attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.
In the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East itself, we should counter Iran by pressuring al-Abadi to re-enfranchise the Sunnis, incentivizing the “Iraqi” army to fight, as it has started to do by recapturing Ramadi. We should also inform Turkey that we’re going to intensify our arming of the Kurds—and directly, not through Baghdad. Even then, we can hardly be confident that Sunni forces, themselves radical (foolishly disbanded but left armed by the US in 2003, they became the insurgency against us), would produce eventual stability. And the Kurds, willing and demonstrably able to fight ISIS, are primarily interested in their own independence: understandably, but a further source of regional instability. In fact, in the final week of 2015, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resumed a fierce battle to “annihilate” the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have long sought Kurdish autonomy.
In the immediate future, Iran and Russia have to be accepted as in fact what they are: major players in the region. This will outrage most on the Right and, when it comes to our policy in Syria, undermine what’s left of the “Assad-must-go” position of the Administration. The more pragmatic assessment of the President’s own Joint Chiefs is that any vacuum left by the removal of Assad will be filled with Sunni extremists rather than largely non-existent Syrian “moderates.” Even a provisional alignment with the supporters of the murderous Assad regime is repellent. But the principal goal we have in common with Iran and Russia is defeating ISIS. For now, along with preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (the one other goal we share with Putin), confronting ISIS must be a strategic priority. In December 2015, a UN Resolution, jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, united many nations in an overdue effort to cut off the sources of ISIS funding. But that cooperation was dwarfed by the impact of Russia’s continued and intensified bombing of Syria, little of it targeting ISIS.
Caught up as we are in the struggle with ISIS in particular and jihadism in general, there is a related tension: between Islamophobia and a realistic assessment of the facts. In the wake of the large-scale Paris attack (preceded by the Charlie Hebdo murders and followed by the events in San Bernardino; Brussels was yet to come), President Obama sought to avoid demonizing Islam, while acknowledging that the Muslim community needs to grapple with the issue of radicalization and political violence. In his Oval Office Address, he urged Americans “to see Muslims as neighbors, friends, and countrymen, and to avoid bigotry and discrimination. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must,” he said, “enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” But, the President added, that “doesn’t mean denying the fact that an extreme ideology has spread within some Muslim communities,” a “real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”
The latter is a problem that also needs to be confronted by those who, like the President, want to accept, if not the 65,000 recommended by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Donald Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional proposal that we ban all Muslims until we can figure out “what’s going on” is outrageous, but not, for many, much more so than the Administration’s plan to take in refugees whom even the Director of the FBI acknowledges we cannot properly vet. Tens of thousands of Syrians are starving in besieged towns, and almost all refugees have suffered horribly and deserve compassion. But ISIS would be derelict in its terrorist duty if it didn’t seek to infiltrate and radicalize some of those masses. Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—have taken in almost four million refugees, and Iraq and Egypt between them another 400,000. Even after the Paris attacks, up to the turn into 2016, Sweden and Germany (having already accepted over a million refugees) were absorbing very high numbers per capita. That ended abruptly in the final week of 2015. Since then the sexual attacks in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, by Arab and North African Muslim men, have challenged Merkel’s admirable welcoming policy and fueled legitimate concern, as well as xenophobia, erupting in street violence between right-wing opponents of immigration and leftist advocates of asylum.
Since our own Muslim population is far better assimilated it seems inhumane and craven for us to resist welcoming a mere 10,000 more, two-thirds of them (as referred to us by the UNHCR) women and children. But many Americans of good will, even those aware that the refugee problem has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II, nevertheless fear, when it comes to Syrian war refugees, the radicalizing reach of ISIS. Of course, that is just one more aspect of the ISIS strategy of inculcating fear, turning victims seeking to escape from barbarism and lethal violence into potential security threats. The record suggests otherwise. According to an October 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, of the 784,000 refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. But recent events have intensified our concern. Having accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refuges since 2012, and now, with many Americans (and virtually all Republicans) opposed to the President’s plan regarding the 10,000, the United States runs the risk of fueling—across the European continent—the sort of anti-immigrant (and anti-American) far-right populism represented in France by Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, and, in Hungary, by Putin buddy Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Worse yet, our resistance to accepting refugees further destabilizes such frontline states as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and strains relations with Germany, which has borne the brunt of the flood into Europe. We have contributed $450 million to alleviate the crisis in Syria, yet appear to be sitting it out, though we are hardly blameless in terms of responsibility. An increasing number of Germans believe, with good reason, that while they are shouldering the consequences of the collapse of Syria, it is America that bears much of the responsibility for the causes of that collapse. Even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Bush’s war partner, though still proud of the ouster of Saddam, admitted (on CNN in October 2015) that “mistakes” were made. Indeed, “the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of Syria figure among the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
That accurate conclusion was drawn by Michael Ignatieff, playing off but going beyond Blair’s admission. The Murrow Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School observed in his November New York Review of Books essay “The Refugees & the New War,” that the refugees present not only “a humanitarian crisis,” but “a national security challenge,” though not the one stressed by those unnerved by the possibility of importing terrorists. US strategy in the final year of Obama’s presidency should start, he concludes, from the understanding that helping Europe deal with the refugees is
critical to the battle against jihadi nihilism. If Europe closes its borders, if the frontline states can no longer cope, the US and the West will face millions of stateless people who will never forget that they were denied the right to have rights. In a battle against extremism, giving hope to desperate people is not charity, it is simple prudence….In a war against jihadi nihilism, in a world of collapsing states and civil war, a refugee policy that refuses to capitulate to fear belongs at the center of any American and European strategy.
This openness—at once strategic and in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent confirmations of the rights of stateless refugees—is currently complicated by the sheer scope of the crisis; while hesitance is propagandized by jihadists as anti-Muslim hatred. Trump’s “total ban” feeds that narrative, yet appeals to some annoyed by Obama’s attempt to recognize distinctions. With jihadism expanding and growing more savage and dangerous with the emergence of the apocalyptic and ruthless Islamic State, many have wearied of the President’s nuanced language, especially his apparent inability to utter the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism.”
This semantic sensitivity, though diplomatically defensible and admirably intended to avoid turning combat with jihadist terrorism into a war on Islam itself, nevertheless seems misguided, unnecessary, and patronizing—to the vast majority of Muslims and to those capable of distinguishing between them and jihadists. His stubbornness on this point (adhered to by Hillary) also leaves Obama, once we get beyond the lunatic Right’s delusion that he is himself a covert Muslim, vulnerable to the charge of politically correct reticence—and worse.
In a discussion of foreign policy during the December Republican primary debate, Chris Christie contemptuously dismissed the President as a “feckless weakling.” None of the other Republicans on the stage objected to this depiction of a sitting President, whose reputation affects national security. The prime example of this “weakness” for most of his critics, even for many of his supporters, remains Obama’s pivotal rethinking of his initial decision, in the summer of 2013, to militarily enforce the chemical-weapons “red line” he had drawn in Syria, cancelling the airstrikes intended to punish Assad for crossing that line. While the President should never have laid down that red line, he did have valid reasons, military and political, to rethink the airstrikes. His reversal was influenced by David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary authorization, Angela Merkel’s reluctance, and Obama’s own second thoughts about the danger, in blowing up chemical depots, of poisoning the very civilians he was trying to save. But the price was not only a loss of US “credibility,” but a perception of Obama himself as vacillating, indecisive, “weak.”
Though Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of the Middle East should be appreciated as wisdom rather than dismissed as weakness, he can also be frustratingly overcautious. He can also appear casual, as in his decision, after Brussels, to continue his visit to Cuba and Argentina rather than rush back to Washington. (Despite the baseball-and-tango “optics,” he was also ordering the commando operation that took out the ISIS Finance Minister.) Better Obama’s cool and restraint than the reckless hubris of Cheney and Bush, whose “bold, rousing response” led to the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s restraint is also preferable to the macho chest-thumping of Chris Christie, hailed (three years ago by conservative pundit Bill Kristol) as a much-needed incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast.” This President’s scrupulous deliberation has its own flaws, but it is sober and rational compared to the half-truths and hyperbole that have marked this Trump-dominated Republican primary in general.
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IV. Things Fall Apart: The American and European Center Threatened
In fact, the more one sees and hears Donald Trump, the more one recognizes in him, far more than in Christie (who later hitched on to Trump), the contemporary political incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”—boorish, narcissistic, reckless, given to irresponsible hyperbole and ad hominem bullying. In a January 20 New York Daily News op-ed, “Slouching toward Des Moines,” Harry Siegel deplored the inadequacy of the candidates then gathering for the Iowa caucuses. “The people who would be President are lunatics, liars or both,” he opined. Citing Yeats’s poem in its entirety, he synopsized “the Republican view of the world, and America’s place in it,” by directly quoting Trump, and captioning as a symbol of “passionate intensity” a photo of Trump being endorsed by syntax-challenged flamethrower and nitwit, Sarah Palin. “What rough beast?” Siegel wondered, answering himself: “I’m afraid we’re about to find out.” One day earlier, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson noted the intensified conflict between the frontrunners for the Republican nomination: Trump, an “ethno-nationalist wrecking ball,” and Ted Cruz, “more demagogue than ideologue.” Gerson concluded his January 19 Washington Post column: “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose. The future of the party as the carrier of a humane, inclusive conservatism now depends on some viable choice beyond them”—a sentiment echoed by his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, hoping for Trump and Cruz to kill each other off.
A few days later, National Review, the venerable conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley, weighed in with a special Against Trump issue, featuring twenty-two diatribes denouncing Trump, a “philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the conservative ideological consensus.” In varying degrees of panic (the one African-American among them, Thomas Sowell, more exercised by hatred of Obama than fear of The Donald, sounded positively unhinged), the right-wing pundits (plus Glenn Beck) projected the nomination of Trump as a disaster for the Republican Party and a catastrophe for their own “principled,” intellectual conservatism.
Trump characteristically dismissed National Review as a failing, elitist magazine, and announced that his followers’ loyalty was such that if he were to “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” it would have no effect on his numbers. The outrageous remark was at once offensive and funny. Fears that it might also be accurate were allayed when a suddenly vincible Trump was defeated in evangelical Iowa by a hymn-citing Cruz (“To God be the glory!”), while just edging out a no-less-pious Rubio, praising “Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.” Better Trump than Cruz, though it’s hard to know which demagogue best embodies the Yeatsian “worst.” As a deal-maker par excellence, Trump seems flexible and pragmatic, but as a candidate on the stump and on TV, he plays a man “all conviction” and “full of passionate intensity,” his certitudes and seemingly spontaneous outbursts cunningly calculated to inflame, while entertaining, the huge crowds he attracts. Media-savvy and freewheeling, a master of the immediacy of reality TV, Trump plays on the frustrations and fears, the anger and alienation, of his core audience: white, non-college-educated, struggling economically—in short, the very “losers” this relentless exponent of “winning” almost certainly despises even as he charms them.
Going into New Hampshire, some attention shifted to Cruz and Rubio, but moderate Kasich beat them both, and all were trounced by Trump, whose decisive victory there, in South Carolina and Nevada (and solid lead in the national polls) left the Republican Establishment reeling. Much of the Religious Right has rallied to Trump, but not Richard D. Land, the former President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dipping into the “maelstrom” of sociopolitical turmoil agitated by the “populist uprising” of 2016, Land, now executive editor of The Christian Post, reported on January 31, that lines of Yeats’s “famous poem” keep “running through my mind.” He quoted a half-dozen lines of “The Second Coming,” beginning, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and asked, in conclusion: “Can the political-societal center hold, or has it been hollowed out (center, and increasingly the center-right and center-left) to the point that America and her political institutions have devolved into…ethnic, societal, religious, and electronic tribes (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)?” Has the “tidal wave of intense populism” surfed by Sanders and Trump left us with a “political tsunami” and an anti-centrism “currently beyond rational constructive consensus?”
This imagery, like the loosing of Yeats’s irrational “blood-dimmed tide,” captures the out-of-control aspect of the 2016 election. The populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, focused on inequality of wealth and opportunity, though anti-establishment, is comparatively benign. But just as Yeats tapped into the Collective Unconscious of Spiritus Mundi for his images in “The Second Coming,” Donald Trump has, alas, tapped into part of the American psyche—not the Emersonian “Oversoul,” but the darker Under-Soul, or “base,” or id, of the contemporary Republican Party. His appeal, populist-nationalist and pseudo-conservative, though based on himself as the latest embodiment of the Great Man theory, feeds on the facile illusion of simple solutions to complex problems and on what Nietzsche called ressentiment.
As E. J. Dionne noted in an August, 2015 Washington Post op-ed titled “When Yeats Comes Knocking,” Trump “is a symptom of a much wider problem.” Citing the “most cited poem in political commentary,” Dionne observed that we are “definitely in for another ‘Second Coming’ revival,” since “the center is under siege all over the democratic world.” Dionne, a liberal, quoted conservative Reihan Salam, also struck by the similarities between Trumpism and rising movements (to the left and right of centrist European parties) that “manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew.” In a February 24 NY Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg, author of a balanced new study of Ronald Reagan, noted that unless the Republican Party (which venerates Reagan, but more in the breach than the observance of his pragmatism) “repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties.”
Trump’s wealth allows him to spurn corporate donors and PACs (appealing to his working-class supporters), and to mock (in tweets) his fellow candidates as “puppets” who (aside from Kasich) flock to palatial meetings to “beg for money from the Koch Brothers.” But he is at one with the Republican Right in fomenting hatred of a federal government allegedly out to “take away our guns” and freedom; and no one has matched Trump in manipulating the festering rage and fear over rapid demographic and sociocultural change that the former fringe but now center of the GOP has been scaremongering for years. That witches’ brew culminates in Obamaphobia: a visceral hatred directed at the ultimate “other”: that alien and Constitution-spurning usurper in the White House whose domestic reign Republicans deem “lawless” and “imperial,” even as they pronounce him “weak” in foreign policy. The hatred is most toxic in Cruz and Rubio, who accused the President of deliberately intending to damage the United States.
In dealing with Syria and ISIS, Obama’s characteristic weighing of every alternative can summon up, even among some of his supporters, the most repeated phrase from “The Second Coming.” I would not myself ascribe to the President a “lack of conviction,” let alone the sweeping “all conviction,” applied (by David Lehman and by the authors of ISIS: The State of Terror) to those who have demonstrated insufficient decisiveness in confronting the terrorist challenge. Cool, poised, and aloof amid the fevered atmosphere of polarizing and extremist babble, Obama may see himself (a colleague, historian Ed Judge, suggests) as the “Man” in Kipling’s “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Almost congenitally incapable of expressing and evoking that “visceral” response sometimes required of a leader, Obama can vacillate. Again, his pivotal decision/revision not to enforce with air strikes the red line in Syria brings to mind Yeats’s tragic insight, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
This President may not be the “best,” but he is far better than this year’s Republican alternatives, all (with the only partial exception of John Kasich) critics and haters at once dismissive of Obama’s “weakness” and apoplectic about his exercise of executive power. Finally, however, as it is worth recalling, there are passions even more intense than Obamaphobia. The excellent documentary, “VICE Special Report: Fighting ISIS,” which debuted on HBO on the final day of 2015, ends with Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Baghdad, lamenting the presence in fragmented Iraq of multiple “passionate intensities,” none boding well for the region, or for us.
Like the volatile American primary races, the world doesn’t stop turning and churning. 2016 began with the US stock market’s worst-ever start to a new year, a five-day sell-off reflecting international economic and political turmoil. There are two epicenters this time, Europe and China. In China, runaway economic growth has come to a sudden halt, reflected in the plummeting of its financial markets and fostering a cycle of decline and panic throughout the world, especially in South America and in South Africa, whose economies rely on supplying Chinese manufacturing’s insatiable demand for natural resources. These negative repercussions are compounded by the collapse in the price of crude (at its lowest point in a dozen years), which has already had a devastating impact on petro-states, much of whose oil is sent to China. The dramatic slowdown of the long overheated Chinese economy, the second largest in the world and a main driver of international trade, could conceivably trigger a global recession deeper and wider than the US and Europe-centered financial crisis of 2008.
The European situation is more immediate and more dire. Geoffrey Wheatcroft opened a February 18, 2016 essay in The National Interest: “There are times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind.” He cites Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” Kipling’s “Recessional.” But his title, “Europe’s Political Center Cannot Hold,” confirms that he really has in mind “that extraordinary, oracular work,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The lines about mere anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide being “loosed upon the world” were (notes Wheatcroft, aware of the poem’s original context) “not meant to be a guide to everyday politics.” Yet the words “the center cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, “seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war, and total murder.”
So they do again today. We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of politics in the United States is another question [and one not limited to “Donald Trump’s vulgarity”]….But we Europeans should hesitate before sneering….What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency…to the awful problem of mass immigration [caused mostly by refugees fleeing the horror in Syria]….Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. The [the old center-right and center-left consensus] is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”
Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, only free of Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century and in the European Union for a decade, have shown “alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption.” Even “more perturbing” are events in the nations of Western Europe, recent experience in the largest of which (France, Germany, and Italy) has been “somber.” Consider France, where the National Front founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen is now headed by his more adroit daughter, who expelled her father from a party whose tone, however, remains staunchly nativist, “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim.” Wheatcroft’s survey, brief but ominous, provides sufficient evidence to support his grim Yeatsian thesis: “Europe’s political center cannot hold.”
On the humanitarian and political fronts, 2016 arrived accompanied by an intensification of already bad news. The Syrian refugee nightmare continued to worsen by the day, with tens of thousands of Syrian civilians—cut off in towns besieged by pro- or anti-government forces, and bombed from the air—starving and freezing as a harsh winter set in (an ironic reminder of the antithetical crisis: accelerating global warming). Russian airstrikes, especially in and around the rebel-held city of Aleppo, intensified sharply. The February peace talks in Geneva were suspended before they even started, a “temporary pause” essentially attributable to Putin’s bombing, a strategy popular at home and successful in turning the war in favor of Russia’s ally, Assad. In March, that goal achieved, Putin withdrew.
Putin was always seeking a military rather than a political solution in Syria; while the US negotiated but seemed unable to stop him, debating even about airdrops of food and medicine in areas where Russian planes were operating. The agreement reached in Munich on February 11, between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for a “cessation of hostilities” on the ground in Syria in order to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas. This tentative step toward a true cease-fire depends on its being honored by the various warring parties and by Assad himself. At the very moment when negotiations to that end were underway, ISIS launched its deadliest attacks of the civil war, bombings that took at least 130 lives. Whatever our role or Putin’s, without a genuine cease-fire, the humanitarian crisis will intensify within Syria and continue to expand throughout the Middle East and Europe as desperate refugees flee starvation and carnage.
At the same time, we have an expanded example of the post-World War I European fragmentation that prompted Yeats to conclude in 1919 that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In 2016, beyond the internal collapse of the European “center,” the transatlantic alliance binding the United States and Europe since the end of World War II and anchoring global stability for seven decades seems no longer able to hold. We are still united by shared values, but there is a growing divergence between European and American priorities. Their militaries underfunded, worried about the potential threat of unassimilated Muslim populations, the nations of Europe (and Turkey, also a NATO member) are too divided among themselves to present much of a united front. Insufficiently full-throated in celebrating American “exceptionalism,” and caricatured by jingoists as “apologizing” for America, Barack Obama has been more justly accused of indecisiveness in his vacillation over the Syrian “red line.” We retain—for good or, as we know all too well, for ill—the option to act unilaterally; but things have fallen so far apart that, whoever is President, the US may no longer be able to lead a coalition of the unwilling, or unable.
This transatlantic division and consequent diminution of resolve and leadership is especially dangerous at a moment when the West is confronted by so many global challenges. The most urgent emanates from the world’s most volatile region, the Middle East, torn by its own divisions: the old and apparently irresolvable breaches between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Shia and Sunni. After three decades of opining about the Middle East, Tom Friedman, in effect, threw up his hands, admitting in his February 12 NY Times column that none of “the many Mideast solutions” are any longer viable. He concluded that the “real,” as opposed to the “fantasy,” Middle East is “a wholly different beast now slouching towards Bethlehem.”
The intra-Muslim rift has been intensified by the recent rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two most powerful oil-rich states, and the principal defenders, respectively, of the Sunni and Shia branches of schismatic Islam. Triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the ransacking and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the crisis between these regional rivals led, in early January, to a severing of diplomatic relations and to escalating tensions affecting the whole of the Middle East. The breach torpedoed hopes for diplomatically resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, in which Tehran and Riyadh support opposing sides, and it works to the benefit of ISIS by further destabilizing a region already fractured along ethno-sectarian fault lines. With this Saudi-Iran rupture, we also have the hypocritical spectacle of one barbaric theocracy criticizing the other for behaving—barbarically.
Both autocracies relish the graphic execution of their perceived enemies, and both spread terror: our “ally” through its far-flung madrassas and by permitting its elites to fund jihadists; our opponent, but partner in the nascent nuclear agreement, more directly, and through such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah. The January 4 New York Times account of the crisis was accompanied by a video of a Tehran mob being whipped into a religio-political frenzy by a cleric ranting that the decapitation of al-Nimr, part of a mass execution (forty-seven in all, mostly by beheading and mostly Sunnis), was carried out at the behest of Islam’s true enemies. According to this turbaned pundit, the Saudis are the “collared dogs” of the Little and Great Satan; thus, the protest climaxed with the usual chants: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” (even, for good measure, “to England”).
As a fomenter of hatred, unrest, and terror, Iran is second only to ISIS. Offering one glimmer of light, the March 2016 Iranian elections confirmed widespread support for the reformers and those most committed to the nuclear agreement with the US. Whatever the leadership’s internal stresses, and while it remains a theocratic tyranny, Iran seems dynamic compared to its sclerotic regional rival. While revolutionary Iran meddles, propping up the Assad government, bankrolling Israel’s regional opponents, and stirring up Shia minorities in the Sunni-dominated Gulf states, the Kingdom is experiencing its own severe internal tensions. The new dynastic discord within the Saudi royal family has reached the point where open conflict is now a plausible threat, a scenario incomprehensible before the January 2015 ascension of King Salman. Reputedly suffering from dementia, the aging King may have deferred considerable authority to his favorite son, defense minister and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman.
Whoever is calling the shots, ailing father or impulsive son, the monarchy’s new and unilateral aggressiveness (pursuing in Yemen a costly, brutal, and indecisive war against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, and ordering these recent provocative executions) reflects less strength than fear. Fear of a succession crisis; fear, despite huge cash reserves, of a collapsing oil-based economy; above all, fear of revolutionary Iran and its hegemonic ambitions in the region. The nuclear deal with the US has alarmed not only Israel and Saudi Arabia, but all the Sunni states. Its verification procedures are persistently and deliberately misrepresented by its opponents, but the accord still comes with a cost. Even those of us in favor of the deal— given the unpalatable alternatives—should be as troubled as its opponents are by the prospect of a $100 billion or so windfall attending the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the initial withdrawal of sanctions. Most of that money will be needed to rebuild the sanction-damaged Iranian economy. But some of it will inevitably be used to fund Iran’s proxies. What impact might that influx of cash have on the region?
Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran; the Emirates sharply reduced contacts; and Shia militias bombed Sunni mosques in Iraq. Quickly rippling through the Middle East, the decision to behead al-Nimr stirred protests as far away as Pakistan and India. The fact that the United States advised against the execution of al-Nimr and was given no advance notice of the Saudi decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran suggests that the young Crown Prince may be in charge in Riyadh. With the role of the US diminished, China and Russia both weighed in, urging restraint; Putin even offered to mediate. This political and religious crisis, the most dangerous regional confrontation in decades, threatens, in the language of several Middle-East experts, to “spiral out of control.” Retired General Mark Hertling, a perceptive CNN military analyst, concerned that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt, employed the same imagery: “That’s the key issue. This is spiraling very quickly.” It is hard, in pondering the perennial relevance of “The Second Coming” to contemporary crises, not to think of Yeats’s own spiraling imagery: the poem-opening falcon, no longer under the control of the falconer, “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” its spiraling movement replicated by the “desert birds” whose shadows “reel” about the ominous “shape” moving in “sands of the desert.”
This crisis, on hold but potentially explosive, is part of a recurrent centrifugal pattern. Yeats was responding to specific historical events in “The Second Coming.” If readers were bound by the literary equivalent of judicial “originalism,” the theory espoused by the eloquent but reactionary late Justice Antonin Scalia, many or most of them would be guilty, in endlessly citing and alluding to the poem, of misappropriation, quoting Yeats’s words while inadvertently or deliberately misconstruing his original political intentions. But we are not thus bound, as Yeats also intended. For his deepest and most genuine foresight, as we have also seen, was his decision to delete, in the process of composition, virtually all the specific details that would have tethered his poem to the events of 1919 as seen through the perspective of the worst atrocities of the French Revolution. The result is a universal poem that has resonated with every generation of readers, and from every political perspective, for almost a century.
Whether we have in mind international political and economic crises, the coarsening and polarization of American politics, the metastasizing of Islamist terrorism, the fragmentation of the European Union and of the Middle East, the refugee tide inundating Europe and the Levant, the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail, or the interrelated ecological challenges threatening life on the planet itself in our new “Anthropocene Age,” we may be reminded of John Donne’s disoriented cry early in the 17th century. With “new Philosophy” calling “all in doubt,” sun and earth “lost” and the “Firmament” itself “crumbled out againe” to atoms, the Metaphysical poet summed up the chaos in a single line: “‘Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone” (The First Anniversary, 205-13). That lamentation over the loss of wisdom, cohesion, stability and order was surely recalled by an admirer of Donne, W. B. Yeats, when he wrote the line that has become so familiar to those contemplating the world the modern poet prophesied as he brooded, in excited reverie and dread, over European disintegration, and envisioned, “everywhere,” the loosing of an irrational blood-dimmed tide of “anarchy” and varieties of “passionate intensity” erupting in violence and chaos. To quote it once more: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
One recalls that open question from Yeats’s near-parallel poem, the great sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: given all this, “is there any comfort to be found?” If so, it is unlikely, for most readers of “The Second Coming,” to derive from Yeats’s own Burkean political perspective, in which the sociocultural disintegration threatened by centrifugal forces could be countered only by the values of a hierarchical, aristocratic civilization. What comfort there is, if there is any at all, may be inherent in the symbol of the gyre itself: the eternal cycle which, for Blake, was a dehumanizing nightmare, but, for Yeats’s other great mentor, Nietzsche, an eternal recurrence to be embraced with astringent tragic joy. And there is a variation more comic than tragic. That aspect of the recurrent cycle was caught by an anonymous editorial writer in the Christmas Eve 2015 issue of a newspaper, the Memphis Flyer. “Simultaneously looking back and forward,” and proceeding “ahead into the next turning of the eternal gyre,” the editorialist invoked the locus classicus:
That aspect of the eternal gyre is something we of the Western world owe to William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ gave us lines to remember through all the cycles, all the turnings of fate that seem to foreshadow an end but merely invite a new beginning. There are times, as Yeats wrote almost a century ago, when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ A hundred years later, and it’s still true. It will always be still true. And we will survive and scramble to find our place in a brand new cycle, which itself will seem to be heading to an end but will just be the same old adventure in a new cycle….
The phrasing at its most glib—“merely,” “brand new,” “just be the same old adventure”—is in keeping with the purpose of the editorial, which was to wish its readers a “Happy New Year!” But, mutatis mutandis, this optimism differs only in tone from Yeats’s own pipe dream, as expressed in his lengthy annotation to “The Second Coming.” I refer to the vision—influenced by Nietzsche but one that would have repelled Blake—of that new and nobler hierarchical civilization Yeats hoped, and apparently believed, would succeed the democratic and Christian age that was dying.
Introducing his play, The Resurrection, Yeats presents a counter-myth to democracy, Christianity, and that linear “progress” Nietzsche dismissed as a “modern theory, and therefore vulgar.” “When I was a boy” Yeats tells us,
everybody talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin. [Around the turn of the century, after reading Nietzsche], I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.
Yeats goes on in this paragraph to cite his 1903 uncanonical play Where There is Nothing, featuring a Nietzschean beast with the literally hilarious name, “Laughter, the mightiest of the enemies of God”—a beast (he adds in a footnote) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”
But is this assertion, this claimed identity, really accurate? Mythically and politically, the apocalyptic “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” wingless and certainly not laughing, may represent both the end-product of the vision of the “progressive” Left and the first stirrings, life arising out of death, of an antithetical vision of the aristocratic Right. But however “exciting” it may be, the risen and slouching creature, as actually presented in the poem, is far less promising than sinister, its imminent birth less hopeful than horrifying. In terms of its precursors, Yeats’s rough beast resembles Nietzsche’s beasts, cruel or laughing, only peripherally. And it has less in common with Blake’s prophetic Tyger, terrible but beautiful, than with the slouching, bestial Nebuchadnezzar of Blake’s striking illustration. Indeed, as a creature of “second birth,” the rough beast may most resemble one of those “tigers” Wordsworth imagined prowling the bloodied streets of revolutionary Paris, ready to pounce again in the even worse Terror to come: for all things have second birth.
In short, whatever the poem’s original starting point as a response to his juxtaposed Bolshevik and French Revolutions, and whatever Yeats’s own politics and cyclical counter-myth to the vulgar modern myth of linear progress, “The Second Coming” turned out, as a linguistic work of art, to have a momentum all its own, quite aside from authorial intention. Though the tone of the finished poem mingles dread with a vestigial schadenfreude (“I-told-you-so”) exultation, it ends in human incertitude rather than prophetic certainty.
Other readers may differ, but, aside from that breathless and ambiguous phrase, at once cyclical and terminal, “its hour come round at last,” I find—once we’ve turned from the prose glosses to the actual text of “The Second Coming” itself—little or nothing of the anticipatory optimism attending Yeats’s theoretical celebrations of ecstatically destructive beasts. Nor, I believe, at least as poet rather than prose annotator or apocalyptic theorist, did W. B. Yeats—his sight titillated, but, finally, as “troubled” as ours by what he glimpsed before the darkness dropped again.
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V. What Rough Beast?: Can (Should) the American Center Hold?
Re-narrowing the focus, I want to return to the current American political scene, specifically to the 2016 Republican primary race. As mentioned earlier, back in 2012, Bill Kristol, the conservative mastermind who had earlier helped midwife both the Iraq War and the emergence to national prominence of Sarah Palin, welcomed Chris Christie as the “rough beast” the Republican Party needed to win the Presidency. This time around, we have two far more likely Republican contenders for the title of “rough beast”: Donald Trump, obviously, but with Ted Cruz lurking in the wings.
Christie was forced out of the 2016 race after a humiliatingly weak showing in New Hampshire, but not before humiliating Marco Rubio, who, in a campaign-altering meltdown, reiterated a canned accusation that it was Obama’s deliberate intention to damage the US: “We have to stop saying that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing….” Rubio kept robotically repeating this charge of presidential treason, even after Christie had twice ridiculed, not the malice or the mendacity, but the verbatim repetition! In a second coming, Christie, out of the running himself, returned as a revenant the day after the Republican debate in Austen, Texas, to repeat his takedown of Rubio. Having finally been put on the defensive in that debate by Rubio, Trump demonstrated his skill in dominating the news cycle. The next day, in a surprise “Big Announcement,” he trotted out Christie to repeat his ridicule of Rubio while effusively endorsing the “one man” able to provide America “the strongest possible leadership” and insure that “Hillary Clinton will never return to the White House.” In one stroke, this tag team of bullies blunted Rubio’s short-lived post-debate “momentum,” taking the wind out of the sails of the Republican Establishment’s preferred last hope to Stop Trump.
Shortly thereafter, with Christie looking less like a formidable surrogate than a flaccid sycophant, Trump managed (after failing, in response to repeated questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper, to definitively repudiate the support of David Duke and the KKK) to reach a new level of vulgarity. Trump turned Rubio’s innuendo-laden taunt about his allegedly “small hands,” and what that “meant,” into a boastful “guarantee,” in the next debate, of his impressive sexual endowment. The “debates” had deteriorated from mere incivility to schoolyard braggadocio, with “he-started-it” silliness to follow. When a lush photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was distributed by a group unaffiliated with Cruz, Trump tweeted a threat to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. At first Cruz responded with an indignant defense of his wife (its sincerity tainted by the fact that it was plagiarized, verbatim, from the 1995 film, The American President), before bellowing, after Trump had posted an unflattering photo of Heidi, that this “sniveling coward” better leave “Heidi the hell alone.”
In the first Super Tuesday round of primaries and caucuses, Ted Cruz, who had not at that point descended into the Trump-Rubio gutter, did well, crucially holding his own state, Texas, and winning several others. Though Rubio, ironically the first “Tea Party” senator, had briefly become the darling of the Establishment, the attempt to slow down Trump by wrestling with him in the mud had backfired and been to no avail. Trump took seven of eleven states on Super Tuesday. Subsequently, and even more ironically, with Rubio fading (he would never get beyond his two minor victories: the Minnesota caucuses and the Puerto Rican primary), and Trump denounced by Mitt Romney as a fraud, Cruz, in whom everything anti-Establishment was concentrated as in a bouillon cube, emerged as that Establishment’s last desperate hope to keep the blond-maned rough beast from slouching to the convention in Cleveland with the required 1,237 delegates, or with so many fired-up acolytes chanting Trump! Trump! Trump! that it would prove difficult if not impossible to broker him out of the nomination.
It would be a battle between egotistical demagogues, equally capable of commanding an audience, though their oratorical styles could hardly be more different. Silver-tongued Cruz, who can’t say “hello” without sounding as if he’s pontificating from a pulpit or from atop a soapbox, deploys the elaborately-constructed, orotund sentences of a trained debater, skillfully weaving his points into a coherent argument. Rambling and repetitive Trump rallies his rapt audiences in staccato, non-syntactical bursts, hitting the same few points, and often legitimate grievances, but appealing less to reason than to emotion and prejudice. In a March 8 NY Times op-ed, “Only Trump Can Trump Trump,” Tom Friedman noted the folly of rivals trying to rationally convert Trump “fans” who respond to him on a “gut level” impervious to logical argument. Friedman’s conclusion, that “you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into,” aptly reminded my friend Dennis O’Connor of Jonathan Swift’s advice to a young clergyman in 1720: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.” In addition, with his base, Trump assumes the ethnic stereotypes he shares with them, and in which, as a businessman, he has trafficked for years. He also possesses a bully’s ability to size up an opponent and skewer him with an ad hominem epithet. “Little Marco” was left, diminished, on the ropes; a single hyphenated adjective, “low-energy,” from which Jeb Bush never recovered, was enough to demolish a dynasty. “Lyin’ Ted,” puffed up with hubris, proved able to take a punch.
The latest avatar of the Religious Right and a purist ideologue—a contemporary right-wing version of Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” of the French Revolution—Ted Cruz is, for many, more frightening even than Trump. An unctuous, sanctimonious ultra-conservative, Cruz thunders apocalyptically about undoing everything done by his hated predecessor on “my first day in office”—“repealing” Obamacare, “ripping to shreds” the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting rid of regulations on corporations, stringently curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights, rolling back environmental protection measures (indeed, terminating the EPA, along with the Department of Education and the IRS); devoutly committing ourselves to Israel, right or wrong; to judicial originalism; and to the extremist agendas of both the NRA and the Koch Brothers.
Hardline conservatives applaud many of these presidential priorities, but Ted Cruz is a zealot and a singularly unattractive one, loathed from the outset by his Princeton and Harvard classmates and later by his Senate colleagues. It is not necessary to consider him (to cite the paired photo of Cruz and Grandpa Munster that has gone viral) “a blood-sucking vampire from a bygone era,” or as “Satanic” (a telev