Friday, August 10, 2007

Joseph, my little man

In 1923 the Catholic Bulletin bitterly berated Yeats for his failure to write more like this:

"Una, my little one, be a nun.
Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can."

But the call went unheeded - instead Yeats kept stubbornly producing this kind of language:

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?

The contrast is humiliating: this is Christianity shrunk and enfeebled by modernity, once universal, universally serious world view is shrivelled to a set of narrow rules, blindly and unquestioningly to be followed against all dictates of reason, esthetics and humanity. Today the equivalents of this parochiality of dogmatic religion can be seen in the clumsy, pseudo-scientific formulations of intelligent design and creationism. These forms of religion cannot any longer operate without denying reason and empirical observation - there was a time when Christianity self-confidently saw no reason to doubt that reason and empirical observation would be in any conflict with its teachings. If Christianity as a force in culture cannot any more reach to the complexity, the majesty and tragedy of our being in the world, it will have lost its meaning. It might remain popular as an easy pain killer, a handy blindfold, but it would not have any moral significance or value. I know from my native Finnish Pietism that there are approaches that can still easily escape any blunt Dawkinsian instruments - but outside such occasional oases of universal visions directly connected to the original revelation, we seem to have increasingly only a choice between bland, convictionless official churches or then shallow and escapist fundamentalist interpretations. Not really encouraging thinking of the gift, the vision once so memorably received.


Anonymous said...

Yes, it does seem Yeats had a part in enfeebling Christianity with that poem. Good point.

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stockholm slender said...

Quite Yeatsian... I think he was mostly just observing the era and somehow, despite of his harebrained philosophy, picked up essential themes. Certainly a strange process that.