History gathers up in a swirl of images
seemingly unconnected as individual incidents
clumping together to form a definite picture
of a species or race or culture.
There is much to be embarrassed of, proud of,
things to distance ourselves from
and things to claim heritage to.
Outside, crows flock in the snow-covered yard
and I wonder if they know they are capable of math
and basic human speech. I join them in the snow
wish myself wings and the will to leave
scatter seeds on the ground and ask them to stay.
Twenty millennia ago
when we made spears,
we did so, gazing at you.
We chipped flint
and sang our bison songs
in soot and pigment.
We begged old bones for marrow.
Wrapping sinew, binding
stone to wood, we crouched
on red clay
inventing new vocabulary:
to stalk, to hunt, to terrify
against every sharp thing
we painted our faces
ochre, stretched skin
till it pounded,
and gathered twigs
to feed your crimson
fury. Your blood-flame
sears our eyes; we raise
our sulfured veins to you.
The white smoke rises.
We scream your fire.
peering through dark branches
you glowed approval
so we made you
God of War.
You lurk in lovely places.
Like Normandy. Sparta. Hastings.
You galloped with Genghis Khan,
loaded longbows at Agincourt,
stiffened limbs at Gettysburg.
Sun Tzu wrote your biography.
In the killing fields of Khmer Rouge,
you stirred the pot, and grinned at us.
In mustard gas and mushroom cloud
and shrapneled flags you beckon;
at bloody dusk your colors flap
while both sides slip away.
When Augustus howled
for his lost legions,
demanding their return,
it was you who whispered, “…Never.”
What did you think of us, I wonder
when you crouched in the phalanx
at Thermopylae, and picked your teeth
on the Persian arrows? Were you
ashamed when we dared show
mercy? Or did you blush with pride
at the slaughter, at the wailing
and waste, the endless parade
of penetration? We remain
your eager children, grateful
for the chores. You spoil us
in skirmish, in genocide, in famine.
And if we’re very, very good
perhaps a holocaust. Meanwhile,
the Tooth Fairy tiptoes in
and leaves a hand grenade.
Your black-bearded sons-
flash scorpion smiles,
forked tongues flicking,
while you circle closer now
than ever before.
to revel in the embers
to sift the white ash
to splash the black puddles
to gnaw the young bones.
to smell the charred cinders
and touch the cold stones
of every fire
we light for you.
Found this review extremely interesting. Some highlights:
Carney begins his account of social alienation in an unusual location: Chevy Chase, Maryland. Far from being a depressed post-industrial town in the Midwest, Chevy Chase is one of the most affluent communities in the United States. And that wealth can be measured in more than just financial terms. Chevy Chase is a reservoir filled with social capital. As in other parts of affluent America, there is a wide range of community activities constantly afoot. Churches are well-attended, political participation is high, and married two-parent families are the norm.
Parents in such an environment can be confident that their children will grow up to have lives as happy and comfortable as theirs are, if not even more so. That sense of optimism and comfort within a community has important political implications, especially when voters are being encouraged to vote for a candidate who represents the antithesis of the status quo.
Candidate Trump campaigned across the United States by repeatedly delivering a fairly bleak message: “The American Dream is dead” (this was usually followed by a modest affirmation that he alone could fix this). Unsurprisingly, in the presidential election in 2016, Trump bombed in Chevy Chase. He performed abysmally in a huge number of other affluent communities across the nation, where people opted for Hillary Clinton by landslide margins.
This is not too surprising: the Democratic Party has long ruled the roost in America’s wealthiest metropolitan areas, which tend to be strongly socially liberal (in theory, if not in practice). What is noteworthy though is the extent to which Trump’s message was rejected in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries earlier in 2016. Even within the narrow Republican base in Chevy Chase, Trump was considered extremely unpalatable, gaining about 15% support.
It wasn’t just in richer communities where most Republican voters rejected him, either. Carney describes visiting the small town of Oostburg in rural Wisconsin. Most of Oostburg’s residents are ethnically Dutch, and affiliated to one of the town’s well-attended Dutch Reformed churches. While Oostburg’s denizens lack the financial status of their counterparts in Chevy Chase, the sense of togetherness is even stronger.
Locals look after each other, as Carney describes, and virtually everyone in the town is involved in its social and civic life.
This is where it gets interesting.
In spite (or perhaps because) of the little Dutch town’s conservatism, Oostburg was the site of one of Trump’s worst performances in the Republican primary in Wisconsin. As in Chevy Chase, grassroots Republicans preferred more traditional conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or more moderate alternatives such as Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Wherever church and community were strong, Trump underperformed. Wherever they were weak, he swept all before him.
People aren’t working together and many people aren’t working at all: preferring to get by on whatever unemployment assistance or disability benefits they can draw down. In the midst of such despair, addiction to illegal drugs or opioids has become common. And it is not just in the world of work where atomisation is more prevalent. Almost a generation after Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have continued to plummet in those communities which can least afford to suffer further alienation.
The percentage of people who are married, and the percentage of children who are being raised by married parents, has also fallen dramatically. Most importantly of all, the decline of religion among America’s working class has resulted in many churches shutting their doors for the last time.
In large portions of America, these trends have created deserts where social capital is all but absent.
It was in these communities where Donald Trump gained the extra votes he needed to win both the primaries and the presidency in 2016.
A large amount of social science data exists which shows just how close the correlation was between growing anxiety and disillusionment and the desire of the American working-class for a change in direction. Carney cites one study of the difference between Trump’s performance in 2016 and the Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney in 2012, carried out by the statistician Ben Casselman, which is particularly clear.
“Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.” Casselman wrote, “The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support.”
Trump’s success in 2016 led to much analysis of these problems, and the publication of Hillbilly Elegy in that same year helped many to put a face – even an imaginary one – to what one kind of Trump voter looks like.
What sets Alienated America apart though is Carney’s strong focus on the role of religion in sustaining communities, and the role which the decline of religion has played in hollowing out the social support network which used to hold communities together. For Carney, this has been even more consequential than the economic upheavals.
“The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems,” he argues. “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”
Reviewing those last two updates, not much happened. However I have submitted a story and a poem to Non-Binary Review’s anthology of pieces inspired by Dante’s Inferno. And I am trying to think something up for the “Still On Patrol” call I blogged about earlier.
According to this article from August 2016, lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the prior 30 years. I have a feeling the final score for 2016 eclipsed the first seven months comfortably. For what it’s worth, here is the text of a poem I once learned as a Speech And Drama recitation:
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?
Since reading this passage from Alasdair MacIntyre, I can’t help thinking of Nietzsche when considering this poem. And it turns out this paper explores the relationship between the poet and the philosopher in this poem in great depth (I have excepted the paper here, omitting about half):
In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on “The Second Coming” of Yeats’s historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.
The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats’s finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet’s thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: “It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others” ( Variorum 853) . However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the “packed logic,” the “difficult scornful lucidity,” of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell’s collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell’s “plebeian loquacity” infuriated Yeats who admire d “something aristocratic” in White head’s mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.
Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the time he was collecting, from his wife’s automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the “very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy” which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: “I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . .You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion” (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had “pieced his thoughts into philosophy” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Variorum 429).
Despite Yeats’s own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats’s thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding- what Graham Martin has called his “cryptic symbolism” (230). In fact the symbolism in “The Second Coming” is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements o his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein–literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical–which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.
In the course of this discussion of “The Second Coming” I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers [Yeats and Nietzsche] in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats’s language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.
From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.(4) Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats’s thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem’s specific philosophical and historical context:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, (“The Second Coming” lines 1-2)
and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly.
Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War (“bloody frivolity”) , the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19).
Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word “mere” and its surprising juxtaposition with “anarchy.” Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of “sheer anarchy,” suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase “a mere bagatelle.” In an early draft Yeats had written “vile anarchy,” which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify.
Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a “fabulous, formless darkness” which blotted out “every beautiful thing,” and “the darkness drops again” because the antithetical phases “are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash” (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell’s pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), “the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar.” Parnell was the symbol that “made apparent, or made possible .. . that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation…. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s; ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary” (Variorum 835).
Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats’s attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the “shadows of the indignant desert birds,” he wrote: “Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed” (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a “transvaluation of values.” Such references are legion in Nietzsche’s work. A “definite joy even in destruction ” is one of the prime conditions of a “Dionysian life-task” and a prerequisite of creativity: “Change of values. . . .Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator,” including self-destruction: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes]” (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats’s invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche’s pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: “Your enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts] And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars–and the short peace more than the long” (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical “enemy” and a personal, intellectual “war.” Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:
The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).
Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on “The Second Coming,” consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:
After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).
The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:
A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).
To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the “new civilisation was
about to be born from all that our age had rejected” (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because “each age unwinds the thread another age had wound” (A Vision 270).(5)
The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in “The Gyres,” with “tragic joy”:
When a civilisation ends … the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.” . . .Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian-not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter’s brush . . . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life (Explorations 433-34).
Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that “mechanical theory” had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that “lies outside knowledge, outside order”–the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats’s Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than “the child born in the cavern”; it is the embodiment of his belief that “the supernatural and the natural are knit together.” He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it” (Essays and Introductions 518) . This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which “lies outside knowledge, outside order,” are an integral part. Yeats’s critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications–humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism-was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before “the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world” was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.
Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as “hostile to life,” an attempt to deny “the doubt and terror of reality.” He thus invented a “fundamental counter-dogma,” an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: “I baptized it, not without some impertinence–for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?–with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian ” (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).(8) We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx–part man, part lion–was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as “natural and logical” as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the “imaginative richness of suggestion” thatYeats intended it to have.
“The Second Coming” is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the “intricate passion” that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the “masculinity” he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up “with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history” (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats’s rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from “our central date,” the first day of “our era” (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length] His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi’s sculptures: “They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.
I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of “The Second Coming” of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats’s, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation o the poem which has gained widespread currency:
In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet’s vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . .Yeats is not fond of Christianity . . . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).
While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem’s Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats’s antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, “all things are from antithesis” (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a “beneficent Dionysus” would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.
For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats’s cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life’s experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity”amor fati,” the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche’s attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats’s idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane–“tender” qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical–“hard, astringent” qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.
Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats’s work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his “philosophizing with a hammer”: “Caesar Borgia as Pope] Do you understand me?” (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche’s work, the clash throughout human history of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” values–the confrontation between a “higher” order of values that are “hard” and “noble,” that “say yea to life,” that “assured a future,” and “the opposing values of degeneration,” which he characterized as the morality of decadence: “Have you understood me] Dionysus versus Christ” (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).
Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those “hard,” “noble” qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:
Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of “greatness”: with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age–such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).
Seeing that this documentary is to be broadcast next Saturday I thought it an apt time, though any time would be an apt time, to post about my own research into the obscure career of Fr Pat Noise…
Some years ago, when lecturing in UCD, I was working on a presentation on conditions in some ways connected with the passage of time. The best known being deja vu, the perception when in a new place or situation that one has been here before, or the same thing has happened before. Of course, there is a whole psychological science of time.
In those days I had the chance to read more deeply and broadly for this kind of thing than since. I used what was then the UCD School of Medicine in Earlsfort Terrace. It was the last few months of it being part of UCD. The librarians were working on transferring stock of the main UCD Library and many older and more obscure volumes were out and about on various trestle tables. Among these was one which I had dimly heard of but had also come up in some of my reading, Vico’s The New Science. Vico believed that history went in a curve or spiral, and that events recurred.
In the middle of the book, presumably used as a book mark at some stage, I found a faded, worn prayer card. I could barely make out the text on it except for a request to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the soul of Fr Pat Noise, and below this the following words:
Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.
This struck me as somewhat unusual content for a prayer card. Again, having more time than now, I was able to follow up with some research on Fr Noise in the Dublin Diocescan archives in All Hallows. I think I had a vague idea about writing some kind of paper. I am not a historian and was seeking not truth nor likelihood but astonishment. So I found out somewhat more about Fr Pat Noise.
Noise, like Fergus Kilpatrick and Dungarvan native John Vincent Moon is a figure who has somehow been forgotten, by and large, in the so called Decade of Centenaries. Unfortunately, at the time , I made my notes in a file on a laptop which is long defunct.
In the archives what we read about Fr Noise is entirely through the words of others, him being a curate in Berkeley Road who dressed in an extremely flamboyant manner, who was unambigious in his support of the workers in the 1913 Lockout, and also as proposing theological views not entirely Orthodox. However one letter describes him as travelling to the furthest reaches of orthodoxy, but not going over the precipice.
This was contained in another letter from a priest that was otherwise quite hostile to Fr. Noise. According to this priest, Fr Noise stated that there are no two moments alike and every moment is a new moment and that history is in a cycle and life is in a cycle because every moment is new again. The poem that was on the prayer card was reproduced in this letter; apparently Fr Noise read it at a ceremony. It is unrecorded what the congregation in Berkeley Road made of this.
Fr Noise’s sympathy for the 1913 Lockout and for the poor of Dublin seems to have, in a similar way, gone right to but not past the limit of what the Church hierarchy could tolerate. There are hints in another letter, by an anonymous outraged parishioner, of accusations of Socialism and Communism, but in this area Fr Noise crafted his sermons in the words of Christ Himself, and remained at the dangerous edge of orthodoxy.
The link with Peadar Clancy came through being one of the genuine customers of Republican Outfitters. This was a well known meeting place for the IRA in Dublin. Dan Breen said that really if you were an IRA man you shouldn’t stay there too long. In the letters about Noise it is mentioned that he wore quite elaborate capes and top hats which were sourced from Republican Outfitters.
He also apparently translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Irish, but there is no trace I could find of this. There is also a clipped article by Fr Noise, but from an unidentifiable periodical, on Festspiele – festivals in Switzerland in which thousands of people , possible the whole population of a town or area will renact historical events in the place where they happened. In this piece he suggests that this is something that Ireland and Dublin should emulate and and there were all these hints that the 1916 Rising was a reenactment of a previous event that had happened before in history.
Fr Noise pops up in letters beween Peadar Clancy and Sean Treacy and also seems to have been an intermediary for Clancy. Surprisingly these activities do not make it into the accusations of his various foes, and in the letters what Clancy describes are purely philosophical and theological discussions.
Fr Noise is now commemorated with a plaque on O’Connell Street, but otherwise his life is nearly totally forgotten by both the worlds of the Church and of Official Ireland. Perhaps in the narrative of commemorations and the rather self-congratulatory rhetoric about How Far We Have Come, a priest with cosmopolitan intellectual influences does not fit neatly into our perceptions of a cleric or a revolutionary. His plaque is, by coincidence, on the spot on O’Connell Bridge beside which the Millenium Clock, a digital clock inserted into the Liffey in 1994 but which was beset by all sort of problems, including time running backwards.
Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.
1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie
William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.
He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”
Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.
As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.
Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.
There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.
Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste, while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter, with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.
One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:
He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)
Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.
William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’
After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).
The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:
God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.
Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”
Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various nations – recur.
Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with. Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:
Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.
This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.
But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.
This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.
Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.