THINGS FALL APART
works in progress
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?
I found this poem long after making these small works.
Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First
World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native
Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and
violence. 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.
It’s the same form of despair we see in, say, Ivan Karamazov.
Of course, twentieth-century history did turn more horrific after 1919, as
the poem forebodes. The narrator suggests something like the Christian
notion of a “second coming” is about to occur, but rather than earthly
peace, it will bring terror. As for the slouching beast, the best
explanation is that it’s not a particular political regime, or even fascism
itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the
ideological, and the political. A century later, we can see the beast in
the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, and all
manner of systematized atrocity.
Recently I reread Achebe’s. ‘Things Fall Apart’, the first book to borrow a
line from “The Second Coming,” he cleverly inverts the poem: here African
civilization is the one under threat, and the rough beast is the West.
Achebe’s Nigerian warrior faces exile from his village and pressure from
Christian missionaries who threaten the tribal way of life; he commits
Things are falling apart. I am trying to chart the roots and fumble in the
space between things.