William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” should scare the shit out of anyone with half a brain and more than a speck of heart. It certainly always scared me. The thought of the end of the world, the falling of civilization, the cracking of doom filling the air. Revolution it is called by some, civil war by others. It all sounds pretty horrible, and Yeats captures the horror in twenty-two short lines.
The Second Coming by W. B. 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: 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?
Things fall apart… yes, indeed they do. But there is more to the story than blood-dimmed tides and drowned innocence. Charles Dickens famously described the same sort of event at the opening of his book A Tale of Two Cities.
From Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
When things fall apart it is the best of times and the worst of times. But Dickens called it “the best of times” first. There is something glorious when things fall apart, when the centre cannot hold. It is hell loosed upon the earth, no doubt about that, but this hell is freedom. Freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s sense at any rate. For Sartre, freedom is a nightmare from which we continually try to awaken. Freedom is impossible because there are too many options, too many possibilities, too many choices for our finite existence. We may not be infinite beings imprisoned in mortal shells, but it sometimes feels that way.
Revolutionary times are the same times when things fall apart. The end of the old world is the beginning of the new world. Just before Abraham Lincoln was elected President he swore he would uphold the institution of slavery if it would preserve the union. Unity looms large in all questions of politics. But his promise was not enough to prevent fracture. Things fell apart. The center could not hold. Civil war broke out anyway, and so, with nothing to lose, Lincoln abolished slavery. The Union won the war and the United States reunited, this time without slaves.
Sometimes it takes things falling apart to make progress a reality.
This does not mean we should not fear the end of the status quo. No ancien régimes go peacefully into that good night, all rage against the dying of the light. Such times must be exhilarating but they are untrustworthy. All revolutions carry with them the mark of duplicity and the stench of blood. If anyone can find a method for achieving social progress without things falling apart, let us carve their face upon the moon. But I fear it might be as Thomas Jefferson said, that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
His point here is simple. The spirit of ’76 is worth half the lives of a generation.
We should fear the growing animosity and contempt we all feel in the United States. We should fear it, but we should not stop it. Progress is often paid for in blood, it is seemingly the only currency that humankind accept. And maybe–if we are lucky–we’ll live to see the better world.
I hope one day we will learn to do better.