Slouching Toward Bethlehem

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 it {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?

“Circling and circling in the widening gyre” — flying further and further out in ever-widening circles — the falcon goes beyond the retrieving whistle of the falconer. In Yeats? poem, the falcon represents the people, the culture, the society of the age the falconer. The falcon represents the core of our moral sense, that which binds us in a sense of the good, of right and wrong. When the falcon begins to stray too far from the falconer, the falconer’s whistle brings it back to his influence and control, back to the center. If the falcon flies too far in its circling, it not only is no longer being controlled by the commands and the urgings of the falconer, it no longer even hears the falconer. If there is a moral imperative at the center of our flight, we seem no longer to be under its influence.

We are living, Yeats is saying, in a time in which the falconer — the sense of the good and true — seems to no longer have any hold on us. We have strayed too far from the center. That center does not hold, Yeats said, nothing guides us, nothing corrects us. We fly from extreme to extreme.

The prime of Yeat’s work was the first quarter of this century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. The poem about the falcon and the falconer, called “The Second Coming” was written in 1919. It written specifically about the brutal putting down of a rebellion in Ireland by the British army. But the poem also foreshadowed an age of incomprehensible horror even then coming into being. In a letter in 1938 Yeats quoted “The Second Coming” in a speech about the rise of fascism: “Every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe,” he said. “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

It was an age beyond hearing the falconer. An age with no binding center. A time fully blossoming now into the age in which we live.

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.

The center cannot hold. Some, perhaps most, in our time, have no sense of where or what the center is. What is the ground on which we stand? What are the principles, the rules that bind us? What Falconer, Christ, Madhi or Messiah, keeps us safe within sight and, with a tug, returns us to the center? Do the Ten Commandments hold us? The Golden Rule? Koran, Books of the Elders and Ancestors?

No pope, priest, no clergy or Guide of fame or humility can, in this age, pretend to the power to keep the dogs of war at bay. The faithful each invoke their gods — as they always have. Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews slaughter each other by day and smile into the world’s cameras in the evening. The sons and daughters of church-goers, fresh from child prayers and sweet singing in the choir, are raped or shot in the streets. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

And if the center will not hold by the precepts of faith, will it hold by government? Will the leaders of states and nations call us back to the guiding voice of virtue and the good? Hardly a falconer among that lot, is there?

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Wasn’t it ever thus? Was there ever a time in which princes or popes, holy books or sacred principles kept one megalomaniac or crusader madman at bay or one true believer from the throat of another? Perhaps not. But there were those believers and those individuals who still heard and lived and died by the sound of the Falconer, those whose flight never lost sight of the center. Many a Socrates, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Beckett, Luther. Many a Christ of many cultures. A Moses and Martin and a host of prophets, Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Margaret Sangers: Those whose foot would not be moved.”

I may be naive, but I assume there was a time in which such leaders as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln sought to hold the widening flight of the nation by such laws as they held upon their hearts, by the voice of their God as they heard it, by the ground of integrity as it led them. The law at the center may not always have held, but it was earnestly sought. All these sought the center in their souls, and when it failed them or when they failed it, it was in agony as if their very flesh was rendered.

And there were those who have been patient for the law. Remember that there were two sets of Commandments brought down from the Mountain. In that ancient story, Moses brought down the tablets to the people only to find them worshipping a golden calf. In his anger, Moses smashed the tablets. But then he took pity on the people, fashioned two more tablets — which God good-naturedly wrote on again — and restored the law to them so that they would not suffer in anarchy, without soul or center.

But Yeats named our time a time in which there is no voice. The falcon does not hear the falconer. The center does not hold. Religion can not compete with limitless entertainments. Religious leaders slip and fall. And national and international politicians — has there ever been a sorrier lot? They have made a nest of what is meant to be a watch-tower and have so fouled that nest that decent women and men are loathe to enter it.

What now? Dare we hope? Dare we hope and act on hope? Cast a new vision and swear to make it be? Can there be a new time, a new age, a center rediscovered and a humankind transformed? Yeats wrote, “Surely some revelation is at hand; surely the second coming is at hand.”

The first “coming” was to a time much like our own. Perhaps it is the case that times are not so different, except in scope or by degree. It was like this, so the songs say: “Veiled in Darkness Judah lay …” “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” “The heart is tired at Bethlehem, no human dream unbroken stands …”

Into that unlikely time and most unlikely place came the child whom faith named “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Savior, The Prince of Peace.” It has been, at best, a mixed princely reign. Here and there, in each age, a true saint. Here and there a heretic tortured to death and a child blown apart in His dear name.

Bringing us now (by the reckoning of us purists) to the close of the twentieth of Christian centuries, the close of the second of the eons since the first coming: and, wrote Yeats,

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?

What rough beast, indeed? What is being born in the deep and dreamless streets of our time? What Force — if any — will shape the future for good or evil? It seems that, for Yeats, the second coming will not be a pretty sight or a time to eagerly await. He described the “beast” as “… 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 …” This sphinx-like creature, this beast coming to be born, is almost the exact opposite of the first coming. In fact, it is said that, for Yeats, the beast is the Anti-Christ, that cosmic force for evil that contends eternally against the Christ figure.

I came across a passage from the nineteenth century poet, Heinrich Heine — perhaps the poem from which Yeats later drew his image. The poem was written in 1842 — eighty years before Yeats’ own beast. “Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,” Heine wrote, “and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.”

And so the generations of poets feed our darkest fears that some great evil lumbers clumsily, but inexorably, toward our time. For all who were lifted up by the first coming, as many shall be crushed in soul and spirit by the second coming.

Well, Merry Christmas to us all And God bless us, every one.

But wait — there is another interpretation, another vision of second coming and salvation. It is a vision our faith in human possibility embraces. In his final work (published after is death) Joseph Campbell, that great interpreter of myth and proclaimer for the power of human consciousness, spoke of our time as a time on the verge of transformation. He made reference to Yeats’ poem, but shaped the beast into a force for ultimate good, a beast that will shatter the walls dividing peoples, trample over our imagined boundaries, and lead us by a vision of a unified earth in harmonious being. Campbell spoke of all the dichotomies, divisions, and fragmentations by which we live and by which we oppress each other and the earth.  He spoke of them as ancient, dying gods of religions and nationalisms, gods who will not thrive in a new time, Campbell used the same violent imagery I associate with the slouching Beast: but it is a force that purifies. “What thunderblast of the spirit must be launched,” he asked, “to blow this multiheaded Lord of the Century to smithereens?” Campbell believed we are indeed on the verge of a second coming, a new Bethlehem. That second coming, that Beast that will not be diverted, is the metaphor for a new way living in the world. And Campbell believed that this second coming, this new eon of wholeness, harmony and peace is already among us and in us in our experience, in our intuition even in our common sense and reason.

It is part of our experience that we can no longer live with the divisions, dichotomies and alienations that the old religions created and that they have supported. And we (many of us if not most of us) are coming to rediscover our interconnectedness — our relatedness to each other and to the world. Out of this rediscovery, a new understanding will be born. Joseph Campbell called it the understanding or the faith of this unified earth “as of one harmonious being.”

“Surely a new revelation is at hand,” as Yeats wrote. The new revelation is both a promise and a warning. We live in an age in which we are daily confronted with the evidence of our human relatedness, our interdependence, our connectedness to the earth and to everything, without exception, upon it. Revelation is not sealed. A new vision is before us, calling forth from us a new universal religion overcoming the ancient gods of nations and tribes. This new religion, Campbell said, will be grounded in the vision of the human family bound in its interconnectedness with the earth and all of being.

It is more than a dream. In our time, it is clearly a necessity. If this is a dream, it is a dream of possibility. But it is also a dream that will command our ultimate commitment. The alternative to such commitment is a nightmare. We have created ourselves in our own image. And our image has not changed that much since whenever it first occurred to us to have one. We human beings starve each other, oppress each other, kill each other on the ground of our outworn religions, our peep-hole-narrow vision of how things are.

We are confronted with our fragility.

Religions that divide us from each other and which alienate us from our earthly home are out of harmony with this age. They cannot survive. We cannot survive them. Religion can have the power to transform, to save. Religion is not divine but is created by human beings, consciously or not, to serve our purposes. We now have the opportunity to transform those purposes, so that our religions no longer serve our differences, but serve our common humanity.

Russell Schweikert, the Apollo XI astronaut, described his feelings on looking at the earth from his viewpoint from space:

“You look down there, and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are — hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take one person in each hand and say ‘Look at it from this perspective.'”

Astronauts: perhaps the fulfillment of the religious vision of angels on high, announcers of the second coming, proclaiming the good news of a new heaven and a new earth — as Campbell put it “Of One Harmonious Being.”

In our wild, undisciplined and frightened flight, surely the commanding sound of the falconer is heard again, and the tug felt toward the center, to come full circle to the center, the true thing, above all else, that we have always known: that we are related each to the other and to each creature and to each particle of the earth and universe. Any other proclamation is

Anti-Christ, untruth, false gods in service of race, nation, wealth and power.

We have gone far in our flight, but the falconer has remained faithful, holding, at the center, the promise of a second coming — the beast slouching here to be born, to shatter all that is false, to overcome all that divides and conquers, to contend with the frenzied shrieking remnants of dying gods and their passionate prophets — and to lie down, then, with the lamb.

It is not a new, mad vision. It is the oldest dream of humankind. Born in Bethlehem, in Bosnia, in Brooklyn, crucified, dead, buried and forever coming to be born again.