Yeats and “The Rough Beast”
While we are on the subject of the pursuit of power, let’s turn our attention to W.B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” and his intriguing image of “the rough beast”. I have read some contemporary interpretations of this “rough beast” (such as the very conservative US judge Robert Bork’s best-selling Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline with its purely self-serving, conservative ideological slant on the “rough beast”), and most of those interpretations get it wrong.
So, here is the poem, written in 1919, again
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?
First of all, it seems pretty straightforward that by “rough beast” Yeats’ intends us to understand “Anti-Christ” as described in the Book of Revelation. But in the Book of Revelation, the Anti-Christ is a semblance of the Christ — a semblance sufficiently persuasive and convincing as to fool many. This is clearly born out by the title of the poem, “The Second Coming”, and by the reference to the beast as slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
“It’s a Renaissance, Jim. But not as we know it!”, to paraphrase Bones from Star Trek.
The second thing to observe about the rough beast is that it is the form of the Egyptian sphinx, emblem of pharoahism, and is described in the poem exactly as it stands today in the Egyptian desert as a “shape with lion body and the head of a man”. My own understanding of the sphinx is that this is probably not a lion’s body but a cat’s body, for the cat was a sacred animal in ancient Egypt, one with which the pharoahs would want to be associated. One of the reasons the cat was a sacred animal, I suspect, was that the regular inundations of the Nile would bring plagues of rodents, for which the cat would serve as a benefactor, protector, and saviour, and therefore as something that the pharaoh would like to be associated with also — as a protector and saviour figure.
So, the rough beast in Yeats’ poem also returns as a saviour, redeemer or protector figure and clearly in response to the conditions described in the first stanza of the poem — the loss of the vital centre when, in consequence, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, or what we would call “chaotic transition”. In the first stanza, then, we have described an excess of liberalism, and in the last is described a reactionary conservatism — a mere swing of the pendulum.
The sphinx is the image of pharoahism and the return of the god-emperor who, like the sacred cat, crushes his enemies as if they were no more than rodents — ruthless, merciless, pitiless, and the image of profane power.
And it seems clear enough that if the rough beast returns as god-emperor, and in the guise of saviour and redeemer, then the rough beast and the followers of the rough beast would see any constraints, or “checks and balances”, on that protective, salvific and redemptive power to be illegitimate and even threatening, and would be quite willing and content to have such constraints and such checks and balances on the god-emperor’s power and authority done away with completely. For if the god-emperor is now taken as the guarantor of “the way, the truth, and the life”, however profane, shrunken and withered up all that might be, any constraints on that would be perceived as an assault on the way, the truth, and the life.
In those terms, the rough beast is the image of profane power. Profane power is what is essentially implied in the old saying that “Satan is but the ape of God”, and it is profane power that is described by Algis Mikunas as “technocratic shamanism” or as “inverted totalitarianism” by Sheldon Wolin. These are just contemporary terms for what is here called “pharoahism”.
In those terms, the contemporary plague of fundamentalism and reductionism are like the two forks of the serpent’s tongue — the tongue of profanation, where “the way, the truth, and the life” becomes inverted, usually through quantification. This also pertains to one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” which runs: “Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.” The “year of dearth” is the kali yuga, the desert waste from which the rough beast emerges in Yeats’ poem. “Number, weight, and measure” are the profaned aspects of “the way, the truth, and the life”. The “year of dearth” or drought, is also called “malaise”, and it is from this malaise (or ennui) that the rough beast promises salvation and redemption.
In those terms I think we can anticipate an assault on the institutional checks and balances intended to constrain the hand of power, and which is likely to have widespread support, and any resistance to this is very likely to be construed as nothing more than interfering with the salvific and redemptive hand of power. I think we can anticipate that. But, at the same time, I know of no regimes of absolute or totalitarian power — profane power — which have denied truth and reality, or have perverted truth and reality, that have ever endured long. They have a habit of self-destructing.
In that sense, Yeats’ poem was quite unfinished.