The Widening Spiral of Modern Society
The cultural context for the poem was, in some ways, similar to ours today: the 1918-1919 flu pandemic was still active, the First World War had recently ended, the Easter Rebellion had recently occurred, which was an armed insurrection of Irish Republicans trying to overthrow British rule. And, of course, there was religious discord between Catholics and Protestants.
Perhaps I need not belabor the parallels, but just to make sure my point is clear:
- Our world order has been upset by a global pandemic in a way that has not happened in a century, since the misnamed “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, which was still very much active when Yeats wrote his work.
- Many of our cultural and political clashes today are centered around differences in religious beliefs, most notably between those who hold to some form of Christianity, vs. those who have adopted a more secular, or vaguely spiritual, worldview (paralleling the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Yeats’ time and place).
- Many of our US states are chafing against rule by a remote and distant government, located in Washington DC. And, somewhat ironically, the United Kingdom has itself only recently overthrown governance by distant EU rulers in Brussels. All of which is similar to the desire in Yeats’ time to assert an Irish Republic’s independence from Britain.
- Ukraine is now resisting a violent attempt by Russia to assert its right to claim that country as part of its empire, in the most violent armed conflict to threaten Europe since our last World War.
- Here in the US we are daily hearing fresh evidence concerning the violent attempt to overthrow our lawful government in the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021.
And so, let me quote the first stanza of Yeats’ famous poem for you now, with the very definite idea that his description of the political and cultural climate of Ireland in 1919-1920 might also apply to our situation today, in 2022, and particularly in the US.
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 second and final stanza of his poem is more dramatic, but less pertinent to my purposes for the moment, so I will not continue the quotation here.
But I am haunted, as I hope you are, by the way that these words from Yeats portray our situation today, considering that:
- Our politics continue to turn in the widening gyre, as the voices from both the right and the left continue to spin ever further from some reasonable middle ground;
- Those making that flight seem to turn increasingly deaf ears to any opinions other than their own (including public opinion), such that the falcon can no longer hear the falconer;
- Our very democracy starts to fall apart, as a reasonable center can no longer hold our attention, our interest, or our support;
- As we repeatedly study the efforts to overturn our government via the attempted insurrection of January 6th, and as we survey the more extreme positions of our political leaders, on both the left and the right (open borders on the left, support for white nationalists on the right), we envision the prospects of mere anarchy being loosed upon the world;
- When we look on the horrific massacre of children in Uvalde, as well as comparable armed massacres at schools and places of worship across our land, it is hard not to believe that the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
- Although we might not agree on the descriptors of best and worst, I think we can easily agree that extremists at both ends of our political spectrum are full of passionate intensity, while those somewhere closer to the center are criticized for their lack of conviction.
And so, here we are: violence on the loose, with more threatening to erupt every day; all of our media and political systems working to further turn us against each other, citizen against citizen, because that’s what generates the most money for their corporate masters; institutions that once held us together in some form of productive unity now straining at the seams, threatening to fly apart; all who can be heard above the fray openly questioning the value of continuing to preserve our existing social and political order.
So where is all of this is going to lead? Where are we headed? And do most of us really want to end up there?
Yeats could not foresee any practical solution to this dilemma, and so he, in his second and final stanza, turned to his own active imagination (represented by Spiritus Mundi) to conjure up a monster for the ages out of a few mere words: “A shape with lion body and the head of a man,” and so forth.
But then, he didn’t have streaming services.
Today most of us can easily choose our multimillion dollar monsters for our evening entertainment with a flick of the remote control, whether it be the latest from Stranger Things or something from the archives.
In both cases, though – at least for my purposes today – these are mere distractions from the pressing issues at hand.
Will we continue to sit on the sidelines, powerless, while we watch our society being torn apart?
Or can we muster up the resolve and courage and resources to stand up for something as unromantic as what might be called the Reasonable Middle?
This is my intention.
And I’ll spell out these intentions in more specific terms in a few other posts to follow.
June 28, 2022