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.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, in the wake of World War I, the flu pandemic and ongoing revolutions in his country and Russia. His muse correctly informed him of the coming century’s carnage.
Nick Tabor, in his 2015 Paris Review analysis “No Slouch,” says, “Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.”
Much like today.
Those destructive forces of modernity, driven by the new age of capitalism, industrialism and urbanization, were not to be confined to mere political parties or countries or limited by morality. They were to shape and define the modern era of empire, colonialism and oppression and deliver us into the crises of pandemic and climate chaos to which we are now bound.
That’s Yeats’ beast. The unpoetic might simply describe it as unfettered multinational corporations serving today’s wealthy elite. It appears in the next stanza.
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.
Spiritus Mundi, Yeats’ term for the collective soul of all existence and source of all its poetry, has conjured up for him this horrific image. Rather than envisioning the return of a supernatural Christian demi-god with instructions to love your neighbor, it is instead an unnatural hybrid of man and beast bent on destruction. Massive in size with an apex predator’s strength and a male human brain, it doesn’t see or care about the living and would go on to take more than 100 million lives in the century’s wars for control of the planet’s resources and domination over others.
And what about those desert birds overhead, and why does Yeats have them casting their shadows, crying out indignantly? They’re reacting to the beast’s movement, instinctively following it, incapable of grasping its nature. They fly unseen in the poem, just their dark, shifting shadows flit across the beast and landscape.
Which takes me to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on.
That’s where they fly now, angrily following the beast through its “blood-dimmed tide” of pandemic and war, far from any falconers of reason or religion that previously checked their worst impulses. Unthinkingly squawking in agitated support of this deadly force, Yeat’s “rough beast,” they are part of the destruction, no longer tethered by the moral dictates of 2,000 years of mere Christianity:
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?
Despite the increasing horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, our desert birds have been calling for more avoidable deaths by demanding people be forced to work in life-threatening conditions or face economic ruin, whereas others have been forced out of work, health insurance and home.
Unflinchingly loyal to Trump, a beast of Biblical proportions himself, the birds of our parched landscape include Fresno County Supervisors Steve Brandau, Buddy Mendes and Nathan Magsig; Fresno City Council Member Garry Bredefeld; Fresno Unified School District Trustee Terry Slatic; Lincoln Club leader Michael der Manouel Jr.; and KMJ hate-radio host Ray Appleton.
Most of this flock has been tweeting and posting in dark, threatening tones since the onset of the pandemic, downplaying the risks and demanding businesses of every type be allowed to remain open. They consistently set a tone of contempt for government and fury at its efforts to provide for people’s safety.
By mid-May, they had pushed things to a boiling point when paid agitator Ben Bergquam led a protest on the doorsteps of City Council President Miguel Arias’s home. A few days earlier, an inane crowd of angry White people demanding waffles on Mother’s Day in northwest Fresno were yelling obscenities at the police and city staff were summoned there to enforce physical distancing rules.
These incidents were preceded that Friday by a traveling road show of anti-lockdown protests funded indirectly by the Koch brothers–backed American Enterprise Institute. Supervisors Brandau and Magsig happily posed for a photo with Bergquam, who just last year donned a sombrero to stage a racist protest against immigration reform on the grounds of the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
The incident at the Arias residence could easily have ended in injury or worse. The community leaders stoking fear, anger and the potential for violence are responsible. Their flock roosts at KMJ radio to crow with “passionate intensity” from there, working to normalize Trump’s violence, especially the slaying of more than 100,000 innocent souls in the United States so far.
Although the poet’s darkness has dropped again, with thousands more dying daily due to Trump’s murderous intent, his local shadows of evil need to wake up to the nightmare they’ve created for our children, our community and this valley.
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for presentations and information.