In the time of Yeats
World War I was a huge cultural trauma. In its wake people did sense that modernity was leading to insanity. What’s been realized since is that the roots of the insanity go much deeper than might have been thought in 1920. And the inertia is much stronger.
So it was logical that Fredy started Against Leviathan with Yeats:
This is barbarism! Isn’t it a public secret? Hasn’t it always been the big public secret?
It remains a secret. It is publicly known but not avowed. Publicly the wilderness is elsewhere, barbarism is abroad, savagery is on the face of the other. We’re on the side with the angels.
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs . . .
. . . is moving its slow thighs against the projected wilderness, against the reflected barbarism, against the savage face that looks out of the pond, its motion emptying the pond, rending its banks, leaving an arid crater where there was life.
In a wonderfully lucid book titled Beyond Geography, a book which also goes beyond history, beyond technology, beyond civilization, Frederick W. Turner (not to be confused with Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontiersman’s advocate) draws the curtain and floods the stage with light.
Others drew the curtain before Turner; they’re the ones who made the secret public: Toynbee, Drinnon, Jennings, Camatte, Debord, Zerzan among contemporaries whose lights I’ve borrowed; Melville, Thoreau, Blake, Rousseau, Montaigne, Las Casas among predecessors; Lao Tze as long ago as written memory can reach.
Turner borrows the lights of human communities beyond civilization’s ken to see beyond geography. He sees with the eyes of the dispossessed of this once beautiful world that rests on a turtle’s back, this double continent whose ponds emptied, whose banks were rent, whose forests became arid craters from the day it was named America.
. . . a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight . . .
Focusing on the image, Yeats asked,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
The vision is as clear to Turner as it was to Yeats:
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
* * * *
Seers of old returned to share their visions with their communities, just as women shared their corn and men their hunt.
But now there is no community. The very memory of community is a fogged image out of Spiritus Mundi.
The seers of now pour their vision on sheets of paper [he’s referring to academics who safely conform] on banks of arid craters where armored bullies stand guard [in the modern academy, re: upholding the conformist worldview of Western civilization] and demand the password, Positive Evidence. No vision can pass by their gates. The only song that passes is a song gone as dry and cadaverous as the fossils in the sands.
Turner, himself a guard, a professor, has the courage of a Bartolomé de Las Casas. He storms the gates, refuses to give the password, and he sings, he rants, he almost dances.
Of late, many have been storming the gates. Only recently, one [Solzhenitsyn] sang that the net of factories and mines was the Gulag Archipelago and all workers were zeks (namely conscripts, inmates, labor gang members). Another sang that the Nazis lost the war but their new order didn’t. Ranters are legion now. Is it about to rain? Is it the twilight of a new dawn? Or is it the twilight in which Minerva’s owl can see because day is all done?
Turner, Toynbee and others are focusing on the beast that is destroying the only known home of living beings.