Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
The current issue of Commonweal features "The Beginning of the End" by regular contributor Paul Elie. This piece also appears in The Good Book, a new collection of essays by well-known writers about their favorite parts of the Bible. Among the other contributors: Lydia Davis, Robert Pinsky, André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Lynch (another Commonweal contributor), and Tobias Wolff.
Regular readers of Commonweal will be familiar with the work of Eve Tushnet.
Just in time for today's announcement about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul Theroux writes in the Times about the hypocrisy of billionaire philanthropists:
Like all liberals and even a few social conservatives, I believe Kim Davis’s legal case is a weak one. More importantly, I believe the moral analysis behind it is confused. As others have argued, if Davis could no longer carry out her official duties as a county clerk without violating her conscience, then she should have followed the example of Thomas More and resigned. That might have entailed a real hardship for her and her family, at least until she found another job, but the principle of religious freedom does not protect us from every kind of hardship or inconvenience.
Now up on our homepage is an essay by Rowan Williams about Pope Francis's recent encyclical, Laudato si'. Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbuy, draws attention to the sources of Francis's social teaching, including the work of his predecessor. Williams writes:
From the New York Review of Books, "Trapped in the Virtual Classroom"—the text of David Bromwich's speech at the Yale Political Union on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses):
In a column featured on our homepage, E. J. Dionne uses W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to help explain the surprising popularity of Donald Trump in this country and the rise of far-right and far-left political parties all across Europe. Here’s the first section of the poem, the part that Dionne discusses:
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.
And here’s Dionne:
The line invoked most—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—is irresistible. It’s always tempting to assume that the side we oppose brings vast reservoirs of demonic energy to bear against our own sad and bedraggled allies.
The other oft-quoted verse comes four lines earlier, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This sentiment comes back again and again, at times of stress when Establishments seem to be tottering and when moderate and conventional politicians find themselves outshouted and outmaneuvered.
We are definitely in for another “Second Coming” revival, and Donald Trump is the least of it. The center is under siege all over the democratic world.[...]
Political Establishments worthy of the name and middle-ground politicians who care about more than power understand the dangers of a Yeats moment—to social harmony, to tolerance and, if things go really badly, to democracy and freedom. The next decade will test whether the political classes of the world’s democracies are up to the challenge.
Is this right? Yes and no. Dionne’s first observation is a good one: Yeats's line about the worst being full of “passionate intensity” does give politicians and pundits a golden tongue with which to lick their wounds after defeat. They may have lost a debate or an election, or sunk to the bottom of a poll. But at least they are not the worst, and anyway every dog has its day, including the loudest-barking cur.
Still, if Dionne is right about the source of the poem's appeal to Beltway insiders, I think he's wrong about its message. When Yeats wrote that "the centre cannot hold," he was not thinking of political "centrists" or the established political class; he meant the social center of gravity that keeps a country from disintegrating. The unity of any social organism—church, state, or political party—is constantly threatened by centrifugal forces (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”). At certain moments in history those forces can tear a country apart, and Yeats believed he was living at such a moment in Ireland's history. When he wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," he did not mean that the centrists or moderates of the Establishment lack all conviction while dangerous radicals are full of passion, as Dionne seems to suggest. If a careful reading of the poem itself weren't enough to prove this, the poet's political record would be. For Yeats was never exactly a moderate in his opinions and affiliations. He did caution against the dangers of political zeal, but what he objected to was less the zeal than the politics. His mad old men knew "a Helen of social welfare dream, / climb on a wagonette to scream." Prose translation: If you are a Helen, you have better things to do than campaign for some social or political cause, however worthy it might be (for example, you can sit in a castle while men go to war over you and write poems about your beauty). Yeats's own political inclinations were inchoately reactionary. He believed in a kind of aristocracy of the spirit and looked down his nose at the masses and their elected representatives. He was no centrist.
Why is this important?
Robert Conquest has died at the age of 93. By the end of his life, he was best known as a historian, whose landmark book The Great Terror detailed Stalin's brutal purges. Conquest's assessment of Stalin's aims and methods, controversial when The Great Terror first appeard in 1968, was largely vindicated when new information came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union. (When a new edition of the book was published in 1990, Conquest wanted to call it I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.)
But long before Conquest became famous as a historian, he was known as a poet. He belonged to a group of British writers known collectively as The Movement, which included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings. It was a fairly heterogeneous group, more a ragged circle than a movement. Its members all belonged to roughly the same generation, but had little else in common apart from a desire to get out from under the shadow of literary modernism. Most of them were more influenced by Yeats and Robert Graves than by Eliot and Pound.
Amis, who also wrote poetry, became famous as a novelist. Larkin became the most important poet of postwar Britain. Thom Gunn moved to northern California, joined the counterculture, and started writing free verse.* Elizabeth Jennings, a Catholic, enjoyed a loyal following but was never taken as seriously as the Movement men—and certainly not as seriously as she deserved to be taken. (She was never well known in the U.S.)
Conquest's reputation as a historian eventually eclipsed his reputation as a poet, though not totally: among those who love the limerick, he was considered a modern master. After the jump, three of his finest (with unasterisked profanity).
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