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A vision of frightening topicality: The Second Coming By William Butler Yeats.

These days, one of the most famous poems of the 20th century comes to mind. Williams Butler Yeat’s Apocalyptic Vision The Second Coming has never felt as true as it is now:

….”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….”

Not much interpretation is needed here regarding this excerpt from the first stanza. We will see much more which sounds like a prophecy finally coming true. However, the true dimension of possibilities comes to mind if we delve into the background of the origins of this visionary poem.

Automatic Writing In The Woods

Emily Ludolph writes in JSTOR Daily: “Ashdown Forest, William Butler Yeats, and his new bride Georgie Hyde-Lees were having a miserable first few days of marriage”. Having discovered that her new husband W.B. Yeats was writing to Isold Gonne, a woman he intended to marry before Georgie became his wife, she used the common interest in the occult to attract W.B. Yeats more to her. In the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, she introduced him to automatic writing. This was a popular thing during the time and a way male writers abused women as a medium or muse for inspiration. It was believed that a spirit was dictating the words which were written down by the female writer.

W. B. Yeats was fascinated and endless sessions of automatic writing followed. Like other male writers he never credited Georgie when using the material. We do not know if any inspiration for the later famous poem The Second Coming originated from these sessions in the woods, but it reminds us that the Forest Dark is always a place of connection with the otherworld and it was definitely something W.B. Yeats was into. We can assume that W. B. Yeats saw himself and his medium Georgie as visioners. The Second Coming is a visionary experience:

The Spiritus Mundi is the source of all things.

It is important to see W.B. Yeats’s interest in inspiration from higher, spiritual realms not so much in the sense of ghosts or demons dictating something to a writer in trance. Another part of the poem refers to a well-known philosophical concept also known as anima mundi:

“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: “…

Spiritus mundi (Anima mundi) is the world soul, a collective consciousness, a deeper realm of reality. It is, “according to several systems of thought, an intrinsic connection between all living beings, which relates to the world in much the same way as the soul is connected to the human body” (Wikipedia). Anima Mundi is an important concept in Neoplatonism. Plato identified the universe as a living being. Anima Mundi is constitutional for these antique cosmology as for Gnosticism. But it is also a concept that modern philosophers believed in and notably, C. G. Jung.

Anima Mundi is like a living ocean that surrounds us, which is also in us. It is the place where ideas or archetypes live and from where they can emerge in our world. The definition of these archetypes is difficult if not impossible. We see them not directly but in the way they affect our world.

The concept of Spiritus mundi played an important part for Y. B. Yeats, but it means a lot for the gravity of the predictions in this poem as a visionary experience. Yeats didn’t claim this explicitly as a visionary experience but it is important that it is written like a visionary experience and we know about the automatic writing background with his wife Georgie. It reminds us of the otherworldly encounters with a darker god in the Old Testament.

INTERACTION WITH THE OTHERWORLD

The Spiritus Mundi is very similar to the Otherworld. The idea of the Otherworld exists in any culture as a larger realm. Another important observation is the introduction of the poem.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”

The first line contains a powerful image of the structure of the universe, our world combined with the otherworld. Think of galaxies intertwined, a maelstrom. This deeper fabric of reality sees history, events epochs not as isolated but connected with deeper currents in the otherworld. We are in the middle of a gyre. The rise and downfall of civilization, and the collapse of empires are not coincidental. There seem to be darker forces outside, invisible but intelligible steering the destiny of mankind. This is a grim outlook on history. It is not a unique view of Yeats. Gnosticism and Dualism favor similar concepts. The second line might refer to a breaking point, where the old do not understand the new.

This is another dark and grim prospect for human development. Indeed there have been vault lines again and again where things began to fall apart, where people did not longer understand each other, where communication failed and Chaos reigned. The end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of modern times was such a fault line and led to the Thirty Years’ War:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

Isn’t that what is happening now?

After introducing a sense of impending doom the author describes his vision (When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight)

It is a powerful image, an archetype rising from the depth of the spiritus mundi:

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?

THE BEAST

The second part of the poem turns the biblical promise of the Second Coming as the return of Jesus Christ into a nightmare. Instead of Christ, a horrifying beast from the realms of the anima mundi begins its journey into our world. The beast has raised many speculations and is identified later with monsters like Hitler or Stalin.

However, the interesting part is to closely examine this image. It bears attributes of an animal but this seems more like a non-human, non-animal lifeform, a dark energy, an archetype. The shock of the visioner he describes in the poem is because it is not only frightening but it is something familiar. Something which has been there all the time.

The imaginary lets us think the beast appears like a Sphinx. That fits with the attributes, it is bleak, cold, brutal, and impossible to read. It shows no emotion and more importantly, it has no empathy. It is an image of ultimate evil, the opposite of morality, of human dignity, the embodiment of a merciless monster. It immediately gives us a sense of terror.

This suggests something more fundamental rather than something that incarnates in a person. It is a corruption that poisons the land, the people, the society. It is something that encourages humans’ tendency to irrationality, chaos, and violence. It is an energy that makes humans in-human due to making them incapable of showing empathy. It uses the dark aspects of human nature and super-charges them, it takes away morality.

The events of the 21st century also the portrayal of chaos, darkness, and anarchy in film and literature are signs of a seismic event, a change in history, and the presence of the beast in the air. There is a feeling of global collapse, we see the undoing of society.

Even more, W.B. Yeats expresses a terrifying insight, “. That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”. Has innocence been an illusion? Is the end of society as we know it, inevitable? The poem doesn’t give a simple answer here, it is more of a wake-up call, and it aims to name the unnamable.

Thanks to the great LitPoetry Channel for helping so much with the understanding of The Second Coming in an easy-to-access YouTube video.

The poem ends with an even more frightening cliffhanger. That thing, that beast, isn’t even born yet, it exists, but on another spiritual plane of reality. But has it come into existence in our world in the meantime since 1919? And is this undoing of morality, civilization, and security inevitable? Can we take a stand against it?

W. B. Yeats offers no clue, but if we put this frightening vision into context, we can see it as a manifestation of something known: The eternal battle between light and dark, between good and evil, between the demiurge and the higher realms.

David Lynch offers in his iconic TV series Twin Peaks a comprehensive view of the eternal battle and even a potential interpretation of the coming of the beast into our world.

DAVID LYNCH’s EPISODE EIGHT OF TWIN PEAKS AS THE SECOND COMING.

Episode 8, Twin Peaks The Return is one of the most unusual hours ever aired on TV. The climax of the episode is an over 10-minute explosion of a nuke in 1945 which according to a common interpretation of David Lynch’s rich imagination opened a portal that led an unprecedented evil into the world. It’s Bob (the murderer of Laura Palmer) coming into a bubble and stream of ectoplasm coming into our reality. Later in the episode a sinister Woodsman enters a radio station and kills the host. He takes the microphone and repeats the mantra “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.” There are many interpretations of these sinister lines that lead to the radio listeners asleep. One thing is obvious, these events supposed to happen in 1956 refer to the era of Cold War paranoia where there is a sort of peace and security on the surface but a fire burning underneath. Maybe this fire burning for decades, unrecognized, and is now erupting like a volcano. The seismic historical shift which undoubtedly happens now was set up after WWII. Episode 8 of Twin Peaks is clearly about something being born. Today we face the threat of civilisation as we know is about to be destroyed and the promises of the Cold War era on the surface have proven empty. Subsequently, the reality of the contemporary time depicted in Twin Peaks has the quality of a nightmare. As in the real world, everything falls apart.

There is an important distinction here to make: Bob is not the main villain, it is the creature that sent Bob into our world in episode 8, and that creature, JUDY is the powerful evil entity behind the events. Judy seems to be still in that otherworldly realm but poisoning the normal world we live in. It incites chaos, terror, anarchy, and violence everywhere.

We do not know if David Lynch and writer Mark Frost had The Second Coming in mind but there is some potential inspiration here.

Is Judy The Beast?

It would make sense since it has the same qualities.

However, there is a difference between the more depressing outcome of W.B. Yeats’s poem and the events in Twin Peaks, The Return, Episode 8. The explosion of the nuke and Judy bringing Bob into the world alarms the Fireman in the White Lodge, which exemplifies the light, the goodness in a dualistic world. There is a reaction. The answer is the soul of Laura Palmer as a sign of hope and the assault of the dark forces will be not unanswered.

It is not decided who wins but the conclusion is that we are in an ongoing battle between the dark forces and the light.

There is no simple message in the David Lynch series, but it is obviously the task of everyone to stand up to the dark forces, stand up against the beast, the corruption, and the depravity. There is no reason for fatalism because there is also this other side, this white lodge, the light. It is there, but it can’t act alone. It is time to ignite that fire to fight fire with fire in order to stop these destructive forces.

A theme of the movie project The Forest Dark is that these sinister forces can be always found at some notorious places and that the wanderer has to be cautious and not fall for the Maya illusions these forces constantly create. We need to withstand them to battle chaos and evil.

Peter Engelmann, November 27, 2023

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