Two January 6 Epiphanies: Insurrection and “The Second Coming”
Joan Didion, W. B. Yeats, and a Parable for Our Dystopian Times
Stream of consciousness: “a narrative method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind of the narrator.”
That’s how this week’s blog came about, my friends.
American author, social commentator, and essayist, Joan Didion, died on December 23, having just turned 87 two-and-a-half weeks earlier. As I thought of her, I remembered two of her works, her acclaimed 2005 The Year of Magical Thinking, and then her 1967 collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. And this reminded me that she took the title of the latter work from a poem by W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.” The image that this brought to mind was the “Journey of the Wise” (whether they were slouching or not is another story), which we celebrate on January 6, The Feast of the Epiphany, the anniversary of the insurrection and assault on our nation’s Capitol, which, if you think about it, is its own kind of epiphany.
Joan Didion’s passing -> The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Toward Bethlehem -> W. B. Yeats’ The Second Coming -> The Journey of the Wise -> Epiphany -> January 6 -> The Insurrection (another epiphany of sorts) -> Another (hopeful) possibility
Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 (you might remember the one-woman Broadway play based on the book, with Vanessa Redgrave in the starring role), as a response to the death of her husband in late 2003, novelist and literary critic, John Gregory Dunne, as well as the severe illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who died in 2005 at age 39 – complications from the flu which turned to pneumonia which turned to septic shock, an induced coma, a brain bleed, five surgeries and months in intensive care.
In the book, Didion recalls her own inner work in the year following her husband’s death – reliving it, the insights she gained – and laying bare the emotion of the experience. She titles the book after the anthropological designation, seen in many religions – “the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, use of symbols, or ritual actions can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world.” Didion noted that she thought hoping for something hard enough would make it happen, or that a crisis could be averted; an example, she refused to give away her husband’s shoes because he’d need them when he returned. She concludes that magical thinking is a (necessary) stage of grieving, at least it was for her.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing." A certain forward movement will prevail.
The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
She wrote this in 2005 at the age of 71, a catharsis, appraisal, a part of her healing. But she had already had an illustrious career, with her first non-fiction book written in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of her essays reflecting upon her time in California. And the title essay (which she originally wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in 1967) recounts her memories of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District in its countercultural heyday.
I’m not so much interested in the essay here, but instead with the title, which, of course, she took from the poem, “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats. As an aside, Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, takes its title from Yeats’ poem, too). Here’s Yeats’ poem; read it slowly, savor each image, take it in in its parts and then as a whole:
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: 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.
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?
A falcon, losing the voice of the falconer, soars, flying in an ever-widening spiral. Things begin to disintegrate, the center no longer holds. Chaos reigns, the rule of law no longer matters, innocence lost. The best in society have become disenchanted, the worst are empowered.
A disclosure of the ultimate meaning of things is about to occur, surely, the narrator exclaims hopefully, a “Second Coming.” But then, like Scrooge’s visitations from the three eternal ghosts, the narrator receives an eerie vision from the Eternal Spirit, the world’s collective unconscious – a desolate and bleak wasteland, a creature with a lion’s body and a man’s head is being born. A blank, callous stare, crippled limbs, being birthed in the shadows of agitated ravenous vultures. The narrator is aware that another, alternative, darker epiphany is about to descend – that two thousand years of tranquility is about to be disturbed by “a rocking cradle,” but not the birth he expected. Instead, the narrator haltingly, hauntingly, asks, “What beast, who in his own time, is creeping toward Bethlehem to be born?”
Epiphany: “a sudden manifestation of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality; an illuminating realization or disclosure.”
Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War that resulted in the death of over 20 million, and – does this sound familiar – in the wake of a global flu pandemic (which infected almost a third of the world’s population the number of deaths ranging from 20-50 million and more). In the weeks prior to Yeats’ writing of “The Second Coming,” his pregnant wife, Georgie, had contracted the flu and became so ill he feared for her death. It was during her convalescence that he wrote the poem. And he paints a bleak vision of humanity and her future.
The clear and simple meaning of the poem is this: Even though it may appear to be so, the liberal idea of progress is an illusion. Humanity (the falconer) is clearly not in control of its future because it is not in control of its own darker forces; deceived by its technological and scientific advancements only to be turned into more efficient vehicles of destruction. The very successes of modern society have failed to deliver better people, its promises found wanting and empty. Anarchy, rivers of blood, lost innocence, the very moral foundations of the world are coming apart. And instead of the birth of the Prince of Peace, as the Christian faith calls him, this “second coming” is a beast that sanctions the worst of humanity (and each of our worst angels), an abortive aberration that humanity has awakened within itself, “slouching toward Bethlehem” to usher in an age of darkness. The end times, Yeats suggests, are already here and it ain’t pretty.
Must it be this way, we ask? Must we accept this hopeless vision?
Here’s what I think.
We must first admit that the vision is true; it is an epiphany. The January 6 insurrection, a year ago, really was an epiphany, the insurrection at the Capitol, for all its uniqueness in our history. The furor stirred up by the former president and his minions, had been brewing, spoken behind-closed-doors for decades, simmering, waiting to be unleashed. And so Yeats’ poem gives words to what so many feel, the death of a way of life, the end of the world as we knew it to be, that we are in an in-between time, homeless, rudderless, and wondering what the future holds. It also says something about human beings themselves. Belying the liberal belief in progress and an optimistic view of human nature, and even though we have tried hard to improve ourselves and the world around us, there still remains, hidden, sometimes even to ourselves, the dark and even “beastly” shadow within. The poem reminds us of our incompleteness, even more, our penchant for putting self-interest before the common good, of concupiscence at the heart of the human heart, that, as St. Paul put it, as individuals and in society, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” All the wisdom traditions suggest something similar as part of the human condition.
But Yeats’ vision is not the final truth. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. I think we must say, “Yes, and … ” to Yeats. He uses rich, biblical and other apocalyptic imagery to make his point. And you don’t have to be Christian to get the picture, to grasp his vision. So let me offer another apocalyptic image, this from one of my very favorite chapters in the Bible, Revelation 12, hoping that Christian or not, religious or not, one can understand its own rich imagery and mythology as the “and” to our “Yes, and … ” to Yeats:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
There is an alternative Epiphany, another revelation, another baby born in the manger. We are not captive to the "beast” within us or around us, and we can choose which Epiphany to celebrate, which manger’s child to embrace – one, a beast whose name is “chaos,” “deconstruction,” “anarchy,” “toxic masculinity,” “disillusionment,” “intolerance”; or the other, a child, whose name is “justice,” “the common good,” “inner light,” “mercy,” “beauty,” “life,” “freedom,” for Christians, the name of the child is Jesus.
What’s the name of the child you’re embracing this Epiphany as you “slouch toward Bethlehem”?