Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Propaganda as Psychic Violence

This is a brief excerpt of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming book, "Jacques Ellul on Violence, Terrorism, and War."

“We need a revolution,” Ellul concludes, “in a world in which it has become impossible,”[1] a highly technologically developed world of the mass-manufactured, mass-marketed, and mass-distributed reality. “We need a rediscovery of the meaning of human activity, of the relation between means and ends, of their true place in a world which is given up to the love of power”[2] over material reality.

The revolutionary spirit – the will to fight the violence of technique – demands that we acknowledge the fact that violence is a natural and normal part of society, that it dwells in what Ellul calls “the realm of necessity” “imposed on governors and governed, on rich and poor. If this realism scandalizes Christians, it is because they make the great mistake of thinking what is natural is good and what is necessary is legitimate.[3]

In considering violence to be part of the human condition dwelling in the realm of necessity, and acknowledging that fact, it might become possible to cease our attempts to avoid it. For in our avoidance, it seems, we often do nothing more than replace one form of violence with another, move the realm of necessity from the world of nature to the world of technique. With great and constant and unavoidably violent force, our technological culture promises to protect us from violence and consistently delivers on that promise. All we have to do in return is to allow ourselves to be constrained, limited, shaped, and guided by values that aren’t our own; to give up everything that makes us most authentically human – our curiosity and creativity, our empathy and reason, our organic connections to nature and to each other. True human freedom is found in that brief, too-frequently comfortable interval between the stimulus and the response, between the offer and the acceptance, and in the realization that freedom is that perpetual struggle against necessity implicit in our conscious free will.

[1] Ibid., p. 118.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ellul (1969), op. cit., p. 127.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Why We Fight: Resisting the Incursion of Free-Market Technique in US Higher Education (An Educator's Manifesto)

(This is a brief excerpt of a paper I'll be delivering in July in France at a colloquium on "Resistance in the work of Jacques Ellul")

We are now being told that a transformation is under way in American Higher Education. This transformation is commonly explained by two major factors: 1] cuts in state support for higher education, and 2] increased competition from non-traditional educational institutions (e.g., on-line “universities” such as the University of Phoenix, Argosy University, and Capella University). Universities have become dependent on tuition due to decreased external (usually state) funding; in fact, nearly half (47%) of the national average institutional cost of educating a student is paid for by tuition,[1] up from 23.8% in 1988.[2] Today, roughly 71% of all US graduates finish their schooling in debt[3]; their average indebtedness rose to $29,400.00 in 2012 – an increase of 25% over an average indebtedness of $23,450 in 2008.[4] Furthermore, the addition of new technologized education platforms, on-line universities, MOOCs (“massive open on-line courses”) and the like have only exacerbated the situation by drawing students away from traditional colleges and universities, making those institutions even more tuition dependent. In alarming rhetoric, we are told by administrators that academia is in an existential crisis which demands executive action without regard to the wishes, needs, or aims of faculty:

Unprecedented problems confront our campuses. Institutions ignore a changing environment at their peril. Like dinosaurs, they risk becoming exhibits in a kind of cultural Jurassic Park: places of great interest and curiosity, increasingly irrelevant in a world that has passed them by.[5]

Many governing boards, faculty members, and chief executives believe that internal governance arrangements have become so cumbersome that timely decisions are difficult to make, and small factions often are able to impede the decision-making process.[6]

In response to these systemic economic problems, university administrators across the country have introduced with surprising consistency – to the dismay of faculty and of many staff but with the encouragement of governing boards – sets of policies that, while no two universities may have exactly the same response, still contain a number of curiously similar items: the elimination of tenure, diminution of faculty’s role in shared governance, the remediation of “curricular stagnation,” an increase in (faculty) productivity, the control of costs, etc.

Notwithstanding the sacrifices that have been borne – almost exclusively – by faculty and staff around the US in the last several years (faculty salaries have essentially flat-lined in the last few years and in many cases have not kept up with inflation[7]; the proportion of full-time, tenure-track faculty has been steadily decreasing[8] while at the same time 25% of all US adjunct faculty are forced to supplement their income with public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps[9]), I choose not to question immediately the need for greater institution-wide productivity or the control of costs. Indeed, as I shall soon argue, these are critical issues for the survival of higher education in the US; just not in the same way, or for the same reasons, as argued by administrators and governing boards. However, I believe that three of these issues – tenure, shared governance, and the so-called “curricular stagnation” – are a red herring that places an even greater burden on both full-time and adjunct faculty, threatens academic freedom, denies administrative accountability, commoditizes curriculum, and will, if left unchallenged, hurt students.

I believe that US higher education is on the verge of adopting a “free-market” model of higher education, a top-down structure of bosses and workers, a commoditization of information that mirrors the technological society, that focuses not on the needs of students as citizens and people, but on the culturally-derived desires of students as consumers and future functionaries of the free market.

[1] Woodhouse, Kellie. Public Colleges' Revenue Shift, Inside Higher Education, April 13, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2015 from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/04/13/report-shows-public-higher-educations-reliance-tuition
[2] Bidwell, Allie. Colleges Get More State Funds, but Rely on Tuition. US News & World Report, April 21, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015 from: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/21/states-increase-higher-education-spending-rely-on-tuition-in-economic-recovery
[3] The Institute for College Access and Success. Quick Facts About Student Debt, March 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015 from: http://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/Debt_Facts_and_Sources.pdf
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. Taking charge of change: Renewing the promise of state and land-grant universities. (Washington, DC: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 1996), p. 1.
[6] Board of Directors, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. AGB Statement on Institutional Governance. (Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 1998), p. 3.
[7] Curtis, John, and Thornton, Sarenna. Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the State of the Profession, 2013-14. Academe (Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors, March-April 2014), p. 5.
[8] Jaschik, Scott. The Disappearing Tenure-Track Job. Inside Higher Education, May 12, 2009. Accessed May 12, 2015 from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/05/12/workforce
[9] Jacobs, Ken; Perry, Ian; and MacGillvary, Jenifer. The High Public Cost of Low Wages. The University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, April 2015. Accessed June 2, 2015 from: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/pdf/2015/the-high-public-cost-of-low-wages.pdf

Thursday, February 20, 2014

W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" -- a Critical Analysis

The Unknown Citizen[1]
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint[3],
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint[4],
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired[5],
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.[6]
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues[7],
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)[8]
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.[9]
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day[10]
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.[11]
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man[12],
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.[13]
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year[14];
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.[15]
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.[16]
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy?[17] The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.[18]

[1] The title itself takes liberties with the idea of “the tomb of the unknown soldier,” within which is interred the arbitrarily chosen remains of an unidentified World War One casualty. This single unknown soldier symbolizes all who have fought and died anonymously for the United States. So this poem appears to be satirizing the idea of serving and giving one’s life to one’s country by applying this honor to the mere citizen, a not-wholly-outrageous idea, in fact, until you read the details of the poem.

[2] The unknown citizen didn’t die on any battlefield and the poet – who we will soon find sounds like little more than a dispassionate bureaucrat – seems to know a lot of details of his life; so it’s reasonable to question why he remains anonymous at the end of his life. This seems an oblique foreshadowing – whether conscious or not, deliberate or not – of themes developed by Jacques Ellul in The Presence of the Kingdom (1949), The Technological Society (1964), and Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965): the relationship of the individual to the mass, the primacy of the mass, the loss of identity in technological society, etc.
[3] Praise is replaced by an official accounting; praise is replaced by the absence of criticism.
[4] The “modern sense of an old-fashioned word” – saint – has very little to do with sanctity and much to do with conformity to technical standards.

[5] There’s an odd juxtaposition here that could easily be missed: the poet/bureaucrat is saying “except for the war” – which is a cataclysmic, life changing event that leaves no one unaffected – he led a rather mundane life as a factory worker. But how do we skip so blithely over this anonymous individual’s wartime experiences? The “unknown citizen” has no voice of his own in this poem – indeed, we suspect he had no voice of his own during the entire course of his life – and it would be tempting to hear what he has to say about his experiences in the war, as a worker, as a citizen, as a family member, etc. And, once again, to note that he “never got fired” is as close as we get to praise in this line; the absence of criticism in lieu of actual praise.

[6] Again, faint praise: he “satisfied” his employer. Did he only do the minimum? Or is “satisfaction” the best any unknown citizen can expect as a consequence of a life’s labors?

[7] The unknown citizen was a conformist in every possible way. Not only was he a dutiful employee (who “satisfied” his employers), he was a dutiful member of his class, the laboring class, a dues-paying union member.

[8] Again the bureaucrat steps in to assure us that even the labor union – potentially an agent of radical change in industrial society – was conformist and “acceptable” to society.

[9] Ellul, in “Propaganda,” talks about “human techniques,” that is to say the various fields of psychological research and practice concerned the full integration of the human person into an environment that is fundamentally unnatural. Clearly, the unknown citizen was fully assimilated in his meaningless existence, socializing comfortably with his “mates” and taking “a drink” – but not to the point that his drinking behavior becomes disruptive to his social roles.

[10] This is a page ripped from Ellul’s “Propaganda.” Let me say right now that I am completely aware that Auden composed this poem before either Ellul’s “Technological Society” or “Propaganda,” and this is a testament to his critical vision. Ellul tells us that the mass media of social control must be concerned that their constant efforts are fruitful. Furthermore, to be effective propaganda must be continuous and continual, affording the citizen no opportunities to find and take recourse in points of reference outside the dominant system of propaganda. So there is another “human technique” at work here; in our post-modern world it is the ratings service (a la Neilsen), the socio-economic institution that assures us that messages are hitting their intended audiences.

[11] The technological society is far more concerned with product than with process. It doesn’t really matter what malady the unknown citizen suffered from; what is important is that the technological system worked to rid him of it.

[12] The technological society no longer recognizes human ends; the means, in the technological society, become the ends. We don’t produce to satisfy a need; we produce only in order to produce, and use our “human techniques” (e.g., “marketing” and “advertising”) to create artificial needs. The ability to respond to these messages of artificial needs (i.e., “advertisements”) is a critically important characteristic for an individual in the technological society. It proves he has assimilated fully from individual to constituent of the mass.

[13] I’m convinced there’s some significance to the fact that Auden referred to this particular technology by a brand name (Frigidaire) rather than by its technological name (refrigerator). I just haven’t figured out yet what the significance is…

[14] Ellul, in “Propaganda,” emphasizes the centrality of public opinion research to the processes of propaganda. For one thing, he notes that people in a highly technologically developed society feel entitled to be a part of the political system. Paradoxically, however, he notes that governments cannot follow public opinion when forming, enacting, and carrying out policy: public opinion is inherently volatile and changing; government policy cannot follow public opinion, so public opinion must be made to follow government policy.

[15] Passively, without dissent, to be sure. How could it be any other way?

[16] Planning is most certainly a central characteristic of the technological society.

[17] Freedom and happiness are central themes in all of Jacques Ellul’s works. The highest form of human freedon, to Ellul, is individual thought; the ability to think critically about the world and one’s place in it. Critical thinking – and therefore freedom – is short-circuited by the various techniques of the technological society, including (and, in fact, primarily) propaganda. To be most fully free is to be able to question one’s culture and make moral judgments about it, about its values, about its goals, about its direction, etc. Happiness, then, is a natural consequence of freedom. One cannot truly be said to be happy if one’s life is determined by one’s environment.

[18] The bureaucrat brings the poem around full circle. The “unknown citizen’s” life is planned, measured, and evaluated in real time. Judgments are made not on the basis of achievements, but on the ability to adhere to the plan – on both the individual basis but also on the basis of the plan’s effects on the level of the mass. Notations are made only of deviations from the expected norm of the mass, not on the basis of objective achievements of the individual. So the fact that we (the bureaucratic class) are not aware of any “problems” (deviations from the mass norm) is all the sign we need to make the final judgment: not whether the “unknown citizen” was either free or happy (words which have no meaning in this technological context), but whether he was in conformity with the expectations of social planners. A perverse sort of utopia if ever there was one.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Church More Like Kaye

I just learned that an old, one-time friend of mine was elevated to Bishop. I won’t mention where and for the purposes of this brief essay, I’ll call him only “Jay.” And also without saying why, I’ll tell you that I was flabbergasted when I heard this news. Not terribly surprised, I admit, for Jay’s ambitions were always pretty apparent, but I was still flabbergasted. After my usefulness as Jay’s friend diminished and we drifted apart, I decided (perhaps uncharitably, perhaps not) that I didn’t think Jay was much of a priest. He will, of course, make a perfect Bishop.

One of the reasons this has jarred me as much as it has was because of the passing of another friend this past weekend. Kaye Ashe was a Dominican Sister, a scholar, a theologian, and a feminist. I met her and got to know her simply because she was close friends with another wonderful soul who had befriended me. Joan O’Shea, another Dominican Sister and childhood friend of Kaye’s (they met in kindergarten!), was one of several faculty and staff from Dominican University in River Forest who traveled to Fanjeaux, France, in May of 2002 for a summer study program on Dominican history and the Dominican tradition. I was one of the representatives of another Dominican college from Long Island.

My wife Mary Pat was also one of the Dominican University travelers on this pilgrimage, and that, in fact, is where and how we met. Joan was one of our first mutual friends and has remained our friend ever since.

I first met Kaye at Mary Pat’s and my engagement party. Kaye and Joan talked with us until late in the evening, after other guests had gone. I have a very clear image in my mind – vivid, immediate – of Kaye standing alone in the backyard of Mary Pat’s house, eyes closed, swaying to whatever piece of music was playing on the stereo, a soft smile on her face, clearly enjoying a moment of non-verbal prayer. That’s how I think of Kaye even now: swaying, playing, praying.

We last saw Kaye just around the New Year. We were having dinner with Joan and other friends and Kaye stopped by (they lived in the same apartment complex). She had been ill for the last few years but looked well this evening. She left a copy of one of her books that she asked us to read a passage from after we had finished eating. The book was “Today’s Woman, Tomorrow’s Church,” and the passage was about Molly Burke, another friend who was with us that evening, along with her husband Ed. This was Kaye: quick to share her feelings, quick to praise the strengths of others.

There was more to Kaye, of course, and I was privileged to learn about her. Being a divorced and remarried Catholic, one is forced into confronting certain uncomfortable facts about yourself that, like it or not, others are bound to make judgments about. For instance, doctrinally I am excommunicated. That’s a fact I live with. Again, doctrinally (and that is not a meaningless word), if and when I go to mass and choose to receive communion, I am not only in a state of sin, I am committing a further sin by receiving communion.

One of the things I learned about Kaye – indeed, about Joan, and Melissa, and Jeanne, and Clemente, and all the other members of my adoptive Dominican family – was that there was no pretense of sanctity. Holiness is not a façade you erect or a costume you don for special occasions. Holiness is a life lived in the peace of Christ, a life of love and forgiveness. Kaye and my Sisters acknowledged their own imperfection, lived with it, sought absolution for it – and forgave it in others. There was never a finger pointed at me. If Kaye or any of my Sisters judged me, it was no less merciful than the judgments placed on them; the judgment of a loving and forgiving God.

So losing Kaye – as little as I’ve known her, our handful of get-togethers each year for only the last twelve years, and the last three of them filled with her illness – has been really difficult for me. There’s no real logical reason why it should have had the effect on me that it has. Perhaps it’s the closeness of the event: other members of my Dominican family have passed on to God since they welcomed me into the fold, but only a handful – for whatever reason – have been as close in a spiritual sense as I felt to Kaye. Joan, Melissa, Jeanne, Clemente, Jean and Philip Mary. Perhaps I’m simply coming to terms with my own mortality and the mortality of my friends and family. But perhaps there’s more to it.

The elevation of Bishop Jay represents something painful to me. It represents a Church that’s not truly a home to me. It represents a Church dominated by men and ruled by bureaucracy. It represents a church of darkness, secrecy, chicanery; of hidden skeletons and con men playing three-card monte with peoples’ lives. It represents asylum in the Vatican for negligent – or completely incompetent – shepherds who relocate abusive wolves to new parishes where they continue to prey on an unsuspecting and far-too-trusting flock. It represents a Church that respects the primacy of men for no particularly good reason and investigates, stigmatizes, and devalues women who lead lives guided by Christ. It represents a Church where, no matter what kind of a person you are, you can still get to wear a fancy gown and bejeweled mitre if you have the right contacts in Rome.

And it all makes me sad – very, very sad. Because I think we’d all be better off if we had a Church more like Kaye.

Friday, January 17, 2014

"The Second Coming" -- an Analysis

The Second Coming

 by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre[1]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer[2];
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold[3];
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world[4],
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned[5];
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.[6]

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.[7]
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight[8]: 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.[9]
The darkness drops again[10]; 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?[11]

[1] A gyre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “spiral” or a “vortex.” The oral Irish culture, of which Yeats and his companions knew so much and with which they were so familiar, is a culture that sees time unfolding not in a straight line, not in a linear, unidirectional way, from a past which recedes into the distance behind us to a future which extends infinitely before us; this linear, uni-directional view is characteristic of literate, not oral cultures. Oral folk see time as a cycle where “everything old is new again,” and “what goes around, comes around.” Cyclical time is the time of birth, development, maturity, degeneration, death, and renewal, a constantly repeating and renewing process that reflects nature and the human experience. So I believe that Yeats here is hinting at our approach to the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new cycle (also borne out, I think, by the title “the second coming,” which not only indicates a renewal but also, in the Christian sense, the apocalyptic vision of “the end of days” and the establishment of the Kingdom of God – except, as we shall see, Yeats has something quite different in mind than the Kingdom of God). The image of the gyre also calls to mind Edgar Allen Poe’s destructive and deadly maelstrom (“Descent into the Maelstrom”): a gyre, like life itself, is powerful and dangerous and deadly and we don’t come out of it alive. But, if we keep our wits about us, the gyre is also beautiful. But as we’ll see, Yeats is suggesting that we’re no longer (in 1919 when he wrote this) keeping our wits about us.
[2] The gyre – spiral, vortex, maelstrom – symbolizes chaos. We are in a situation of chaos. Chaos is a natural function of the material world: entropy. The natural order of the universe is disorder. It is only through reason and the rational exertion of energy that we create and maintain order in the world. This idea is reflected in information theory; the entropy in a communication system (as in any system) yields “noise,” which is actually anything that interferes with the process of transmission/reception of messages. The “widening gyre” is an environment of entropy, chaos, noise and uncertainty. The falcon – bred, trained and nurtured by the falconer – no longer follows his master’s commands. He can’t hear him, can’t understand what he wants. This is a statement of existential anxiety, of a zeitgeist of fear and uncertainty.
[3] Again, entropy: human history is descending into the maelstrom, the ordered universe is coming undone, partnerships unravel, extreme views abound, cooperation becomes difficult if not impossible. No one is listening to anyone else.
[4] “Mere anarchy” has always struck me as a strange sort of phrase. Not being an anarchist myself, I’ve always considered anarchy to be a pretty bad thing. But I believe that Yeats is saying here: “Look at the mess this world is in. 37 million people just died in WWI. Nations are destitute. Revolutions (in Russia, in Yeats’s own Ireland) are disrupting the normal cyclical flow of life. But you think this is bad? This is mere anarchy. What awaits us in the future is even worse.” We’ll soon look back, Yeats is saying, to a time when “mere anarchy” was humankind’s biggest problem.
[5] The “ceremony of innocence” is, of course, the Christian rite of baptism, the ritual washing away of original sin, the sin of Adam, the sin common to all humankind by virtue of its refusal to conform human will to Divine will. This “ceremony of innocence” is now, Yeats tells us, drowned in the “blood-dimmed tide,” a powerful image that evokes the massive destruction and wanton murder of the still-young 20th century. There can be no more Divine forgiveness as humanity has fouled even the cleansing waters of nature with the gore of human hatred and ignorance (in an environment of chaos and failed communication such as Yeats describes here, what else could prevail but hatred and ignorance?).
[6] Hopelessness and despair are the legacy of the immediate past bestowed upon the few who still believe humans can do better and be better; they believe in the potential for human good, for human improvement, somewhere deep in their hearts, but they’ve lost all hope that they’ll ever see it. I’ve always thought Yeats was referring to himself in this part of the poem; descendant of an Anglican cleric, Yeats all but abandoned Christianity but remained a fervent seeker of spiritual realities. Meanwhile, the progeny of the immediate past – the product of warfare and dissolution, denizens of a hellish world, children of the gyre – know better than to hope fruitlessly for the improvement of the species and are certain only of themselves, their own needs, their own desires, their own feathered nests. As hope based on the Enlightenment concept of rational progress gives way to disappointment, frustration, complacency, and apathy, an irrational and entirely emotion self-interest becomes the dominant human ideology. Perhaps Yeats is suggesting – as I believe he is – that in its “passionate intensity” it has even become the new religion.
[7] The first eight lines of this poem are prophetic; in the sense that a true prophet is not the person who sees the future, but the one who sees the present more clearly than the rest of us. Yeats is describing the nightmare world we humans inhabit in the year 1919 and pointing out the ugliness of its reality. The next fourteen lines are also prophetic, but in a different way. They are, again, apocalyptic in that they reveal to us what lies ahead. And, as I pointed out before, Yeats’s use of the phrase “the Second Coming” (capitalized for emphasis) evokes the book of Revelations in the New Testament and the second coming of Christ. But this is a different sort of prophet in the second part of this poem than we read in the first part. While the first eight lines are descriptive and emphatic, the next fourteen are tenuous, fearful, and uncertain. The poet does not know what lies ahead, but he fears what he imagines to lie ahead.
[8] “The Second Coming!” An emphatic statement. All of what we once called “Christendom” knows the meaning of this phrase. It was once a phrase imbued with hope; of salvation, of perfection, of justice, of judgment, of eternal reward. But “hardly are those words out” of the poets mouth when he is struck with the reality he has only finished describing, of the reality of life in the “widening gyre.” And he cannot ignore the image of that Spiritus Mundi – the spirit of the world, the material worldview, the worldview of a people awash in images but bereft of vision (this is the beginning of the age of the image, the graphic revolution, of propaganda and advertising, of the mass marketing of mass commodities). This Spiritus Mundi overwhelms the poet just as the dominance of images overwhelms the peoples’ vision (I’m always reminded, when reading this poem, of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, 29:16: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”).
[9] How’s that for an image? It’s horrible. It’s frightening. It’s mythic. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man…” It is pagan mythology, this sphinx-like being, this nightmare amalgam of human and animal, of civilization and uncivilized nature, of reason and passion. Yeats sees a lion – the “king of the beasts” – crowned with the head of a human – the human intellect? Pure physicality ruled by pure reason. But this is not the human intellect as we once viewed it, the human intellect of Enlightenment humanism. This is a calculating intellect, an intellect devoid of compassion, indifferent to human suffering, “blank and pitiless.” It’s irrational. It is atavistic. It is a (cyclical?) return to pre-religious superstition, an embrace of magic and demons, a denial of monotheism, a rejection of the personal relationship with God shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It runs parallel to the (cyclical?) abandonment of hope based on (linear) rational progress. And above all the while circle the “indignant desert birds,” the vultures turning and turning in the widening gyre, waiting for imminent death.
[10] This is another reference to the cyclical conception of time common to oral (non-literate) cultures. It is also a marker in that cycle, for the poet is telling us we are reentering a cycle of darkness, i.e., ignorance.
[11] This is the payoff of “The Second Coming.” This sphinx-like creature is not the problem, not what the poet fears. It is, remember, nothing more than “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” a bogeyman, a nightmare image, the demon that lives in the closet or under our beds as children, our imaginations playing tricks on us. “Twenty centuries of stony sleep,” two thousand years of Christianity, of a placebo that calms us, distracts us from our imperfect natures, and allows us to sleep peacefully – these twenty centuries of stony sleep are disturbed by “a rocking cradle.” It is whoever inhabits – or will soon inhabit – this rocking cradle that we should fear. Whoever it is whose cradle is being prepared has disturbed our complacency, awakened our fears, and driven this primitive, atavistic sphinx-monster – predatory animal driven by compassionless, calculating intellect – into our nightmares. “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” We don’t know. And that makes its imminent arrival even more frightening.
So, what does it all mean? Is it a “religious” poem? I don’t think so, no. Yeats was not religious in that sense, despite his ancestry. He dabbled in Theosophy, attended séances, and befriended spiritualists, but he was not “religious” in the common sense of the term.
It is clearly a fearful and anxious poem, perhaps a cynical poem, certainly far from a hopeful poem. Yeats seems to have lost hope in humanity. As a younger man before World War I, Yeats had been something of an idealist and was a central, driving force in the so-called “Gaelic Revival” in Ireland. Yeats saw Gaelic-Irish culture as being less refined and, therefore, more “pure” and “authentic” than English culture, and his poetry and plays highlight the nobility and heroism of the ancient mythic figures of Cuchullain, Finn MacCumhall, Oisin, and Mebd. Bourgeois English and Anglo-Irish culture lacked conviction (beyond commerce and profit); ancient Irish folk culture had a passionate intensity to it. And Yeats championed that culture and brought it to the people with the same sort of passionate intensity. Yeats’s work – along with the work in general of the Gaelic Revival – was also a source of passionately intense inspiration for the Irish revolutionary movement. He later worried (in his 1938 poem “The Man and the Echo”) “Did that play of mine (“Cathleen Ni Houlihan”) send out certain men the English shot?”
By 1919, too, Yeats had suffered the loss of a romantic dream. As a young man he pursued the affections of Maud Gonne, another leading Anglo-Irish figure of the Gaelic Revival. He was rebuffed by her on many occasions (although they remained friends and many – myself included – believe he never surrendered his love for her) because he lacked sufficient revolutionary fervor and finally married George Hyde Lees in 1917. There was a lot of youthful idealism in Yeats’s life that he saw crushed by the spiritus mundi.
As banal as this sounds, I believe Yeats was (as we say colloquially today) “in a bad place” when he wrote “The Second Coming.” He was an aristocrat who, as a youth, turned his back on (English) aristocratic manners and aligned himself with the common folk. Yet he hated Marxism and could never muster a lot of sympathy for the plight of the proletariat. He was a romantic who had his heart broken and settled, in his marriage, for second best. He was an idealist who eventually saw all his ideals destroyed by the ugly realities of the 20th century. And he had only just witnessed millions of lives being destroyed in a war like no one had ever seen before.
As popular as “The Second Coming” has become since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I don’t think Yeats was trying to write a political poem, either. It is nothing more than the mark of good art that people found so many parallels between Yeats’s poem and the Iraq war.
If there’s any real identifiable target of criticism in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” I would say it is the moral bankruptcy of commercialized mass culture and the banality of commoditized information. He makes no direct references to either culture or media, to be sure, but even a cursory knowledge of 20th century history would suggest Yeats would not be blind to the effects of media on culture. The radiotelegraph brought news of the sinking of the Titanic to the world in 1912. Broadcasts of music and speech were common by 1919. Propaganda had driven all sides of the conflict in World War I. “Mass production demands the education of the masses,” said Edward A. Filene, scion of the Boston department store empire, in 1919. “The masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass production world.”  Walter Lippmann published “Public Opinion” in only 1922 (“When all think alike, then no one is really thinking…”) and Edward Bernays “Propaganda” in 1927 (“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…”).
This is my and only my opinion, but I believe that William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is an expression of his despair over the decline of transcendent values in the new century, the decline of a compassionate humanism founded on and supported by those values, and the loss of his own idealism.