The Second Coming (William Butler Yeats)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Britten set the William Blake-inspired line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” as a central motif of his masterpiece chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw (itself an adaptation of the Henry James novella of the same name). John Tavener set the entire apocalyptic Yeats poem as a haunting motet for chorus and organ. Like Britten, Tavener is an admirer of Blake, and has set both the innocent “Little Lamb” and the experienced “Tyger.” He embodies that dialectic by writing “innocent” lullaby-like chorales for the chorus contrasted with the “experienced” dissonance of the organ’s cadenzas, erupting outbursts that sound like the polluting industries of modernity. Yeats’ nightmarish vision of a modern-day Sphinx slouching towards the cradle of a civilization numbed to sleep was written in the aftermath of the First World War. What would his ode for today be?
The “ceremony of innocence” is not only drowned, it is spat upon, kicked, beaten and grotesquely abused in Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Gathering Evidence, a chronicle of his troubled youth in Austria during and immediately after the Nazi era. Yeats’ poem reads like a nursery rhyme compared to Bernhard’s vitriol, but behind his eviscerating dissection of the Austrian “Catholic-Nazi denial of the spirit” lies the stone-cold face of harsh truth.
The locale in question in his account is none other than the city of Mozart, Salzburg.
The city has always rejected those spirits it could not understand and has never taken them back under any circumstance, as I know from experience…I have to seize the moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then…For all too soon a time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light…and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.
Personal experiences resonate with Bernhard’s. Coming home for an artist, if not impossible, can be fraught with tension and peril for the subject who vainly thinks he may be understood, if not celebrated for returning with the symbolic boon to contribute to the society that, for better or (more likely) for worse, shaped him.
It is at this point that one of the greatest agents of destruction, the Church (or religion generally), sets about destroying his soul, while the schools, acting on the authority and under the orders of the governments of all states throughout the world, apply themselves to murdering his mind.
The transformation of the boarding school Bernhard attended during and after Hitler’s regime may give one inclined to dismiss the above pause to reconsider.
Inside the boarding house I could find no striking changes, but the so-called day-room, where we had formerly been instructed in National Socialism, had been turned into a chapel…where Hitler’s portrait had once hung on the wall, there was now a large cross, and in place of the piano [that] accompanied our singing of National Socialist songs…there now stood a harmonium…We now sang hymns where we had previously sung Nazi songs…
Elaborating on the means by which “so-called universal art is pressed into service to disguise this perverted denial of spirit,” Bernhard warns the artist who would guard herself from the polluting influence of a corrupt and hypocritical society:
It is therefore of paramount importance to be on one’s guard and avoid being bluffed, for in this city the confidence trick has been developed into a fine art, and every year thousands and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, are duped by it.
Surely he jests? Yet has the corrupting influence of the “confidence men” diminished even a degree? Hardly. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the time-worn saying goes, and the proof is in the history lessons our schools gloss over for fear of offending PTA officers, coaches and preachers. The pattern is cyclical and epidemic.
The masters were simply the servants of a corrupt and essentially philistine society, which meant that they were just as corrupt and philistine themselves, and their pupils were expected to grow up to be corrupt and philistine in their turn…I found myself gripped in the intolerable vice of an educational machine which purveyed history as a dead subject while pretending it was vitally important…
His diagnosis is not far off the mark. His cure, while extreme, merits the consideration of a painfully honest examination. What is lacking is a collective courage to face the harsh truths of our human condition and the widespread corruption that impedes progress.
The world would be better off if all these so-called middle schools, grammar schools, secondary schools and so on were abolished and we were to confine education to elementary schools and universities. For elementary schools are not destructive – they do not destroy anything in a young person’s nature; and universities are there for those who are suited to the pursuit of learning and would be equipped for a higher education even without having attended a secondary school. Secondary schools, on the other hand, should be abolished because they bring inevitable ruin upon a large proportion of the young.
Bernhard holds up two examples of easy targets for the ruthless venality of any so-called civilized society: a disabled boy and a nerdy teacher who “was the laughing stock of the whole school.”
All the baseness of society, all its natural cruelty and viciousness – all its sickness, in fact – were daily vented on these two…There was nobody who did not participate in the entertainment, for the supposedly healthy members of any society enjoy such entertainment – whether secretly or not, whether openly or behind a mask of hypocrisy – at the expense of the suffering, the crippled, and the sick. In such a community, such an institution, a victim is always sought and always found, and if he is not a victim already, form the start, he will in any case by made into one.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats indicts both the philistine perpetrator and the silent bystander or tacit accomplice. One rationalizes his actions with reasoned arguments (attorneys and executives are obvious examples of the “confidence men” and bullies that exist in every field). The other lamely excuses his position of neutrality with the lukewarm rationale of “there was nothing I could do.” The lies a man tells himself may be the most damaging of all.
The often fraught choice between the broad road of social “experience” (aka material “success”) versus the narrower, “road less traveled” path of pure, “innocent” authenticity is one of the causes of the neurotic split. But that is a deep psychodynamic subject. The initiate faces peril and frequently perishes. He may emerge permanently damaged, rarely comes out unscathed and is always wounded or scarred by the dramatic confrontation with corruption. This crucible or initiation or purification or life-shattering trauma occurs when the “innocent” pilgrim attempts to enter a closed circle or confronts the “system.” The innocence / experience dialectic is manifest as good / evil and pure / corrupt. It is a through-line across the history of humanity and present in mythology and art. The Christ-figure wrongly condemned, the sacrificial hero and the mad prophet are all related. Odysseus being tossed to and fro upon the “wine-dark seas,” Kafka’s alter ego trying to enter the enigmatic Castle or facing the cryptic Trial, and the unjustly accused Billy Budd’s vain defense against the formidable villain Claggart are all crucible experiences where this fundamental confrontation is variously resolved.
So-called fairy tales and children’s stories are full of the allegorical resonance of this essential dialectic. The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland are many-layered troves of these symbolic, archetypal truths. What the Renaissance era called the “good life” (and this artist calls the “authentic”) requires an open-ended system. It is what Novalis means when he writes “the world must become Romanticized.” It must open another window of the collective mind. It is the window that opens onto the creative path, and this never-ending capacity for Phoenix-like newness always threatens a status quo that settles for compromised novelty. It is an integration of cognition and intuition, reason and emotion. It is the as-yet unconsummated marriage of the enlightenment and romanticism. It questions everything, especially “received” wisdom and “given” truth. It pledges allegiance to the soul, individual and universal, and not to particular flags or creeds. In acknowledging the existence of human error it embraces the elusiveness of any so-called “absolute” truth. It requires equal parts intellectual curiosity and courage. Poe reminds us the poet sees injustice where others see nothing amiss. The cliché “the truth hurts” exists with good reason. “Speaking truth to power” is necessary at every level of society, from confronting abusive parents to calling out playground bullies to exposing the emperor’s new clothes regardless of fashion and whistle-blowing dishonesty wherever it is manifest. Systems and institutions require confrontation and reexamination if they are not to stagnate or be slowly poisoned from within by “the invisible worm” in Blake’s “sick rose.”
Emile Zola’s courageous open letter, J’accuse! was directed at the anti-Semitic injustice of the Dreyfus affair in France a century ago. It is as infamous in modern European history as it is untaught in the United States. Zola “saw the cause and the effect, the roots and the tree… He was a moment of the conscience of man,” utters one character near the end of the classic film, The Life of Zola. It is a prototype of the inspirational bio-pic, “the power of one” to confront injustice and provoke change. It is still popular today in films like Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela drama, Invictus.
All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, wrote the poet, philosopher, critic and librettist W.H. Auden (in one of his many Yeats-inspired odes). It is an exhausting and never-ending task. The same humanity that makes poetry and opera possible also succumbs too easily to the temptation to compromise integrity. The path of least resistance is frequently the well-worn one, which should be an immediate red flag for the examining soul when it comes to life choices and not paths in the woods.