Thursday, August 27, 2020

William Wildblood's Yeatsian Vision of the End

My ex-Albion Awakening colleague William Wildblood (that's not him above but W.B. Yeats) has written a scorching piece on his blog about the descent of the Western world into madness and shapeless anarchy. A phrase popped into my head as I was reading it - 'the veil of the temple was torn in two' - and I had the strong sense of masks (ironically) being pulled off and the writer coming face to face with the horror, vacuity and sheer ennui of the great collapse unfolding around us. What he is describing, with clarity and feeling, is nothing less than the end of the world, not like some 'fancy dan' aesthete musing on Wagner's Götterdämmerung, for example, but in the real-time manner of St. Augustine of Hippo (whose feast day falls this Friday) reflecting on the fall of the Roman Empire in his monumental and always-influential Civitas Dei

Here's the link and here's part of the first paragraph as a taster: 

'How long can you keep pointing out that humanity is on course for global civilisational collapse which is always what happens when the impetus that gave rise to a new culture has dissipated and there is no creative energy left? How many times can you say that when the spiritual world is denied as it is now human beings go literally, yes, quite literally mad and start engaging in self-destructive behaviour? Their minds descend into a kind of anarchic mess, antipathy for the other increases and the most mentally perverted become the most passionate in defending and promoting their perversions.' 

There is something very reminiscent to me of Yeats (1865-1939) in these words. One recalls, for instance, these famous lines from The Second Coming (1920): 

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. 

Yeats was one of a number of early to mid-twentieth century writers and thinkers who were fascinated by what they felt to be the imminent dissolution of our era and the emergence of a new and very different order in its wake. The French metaphysician René Guénon (1886-1951) is another name which springs to mind in this context. His cosmological oeuvre revolves around the ancient Hindu concept of succeeding ages (or Yugas in Sanskrit) - Gold to Silver to Bronze to Iron (or Dark), back to Gold again, and so on. Yeats calls them gyres, and while Guénon was certain that this current Dark Age (Kali Yuga) will soon cede place to a new Golden Age (Satya Yuga), Yeats, thanks largely to the last stanza of The Second Coming, has usually been seen as somewhat more ambivalent in his prognostications. 

He was totally unambivalent, however, in his denunciations of modernity and the type of individual post-Enlightenment conditions tend to breed. 'Scorn the sort now growing up,' he wrote in his last major poem, Under Ben Bulben (1939), 'All out of shape from toe to top.' Or these lines from The Statues (1938): 

We Irish, born into that ancient sect 
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide 
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked ... 

The 'rough beast' at the end of The Second Coming, who 'slouches off to Bethlehem to be born', seems to indicate that Yeats had grave forebodings not only about the present but about the future too that he did not share Guénon's faith in an inevitably returning Golden Age. But his thoughts on the matter are in reality much more complex. I'm over-simplifying things massively in this post and the place to go for a full exposition of Yeats's cosmology is his astonishing prose work, A Vision, first published in 1925. With this in mind, I would like to end this post with all three stanzas of another late Yeats poem, The Gyres (1936-37). Here we see a bold and confident vision of the age to come and a complete disregard - an insouciance and disdain even - for the death rattle of this one. The best this world could offer, as the poet knows, belonged to former times anyway. 'A greater, a more gracious age is gone,' as he says. But 'What matter? Heave no sigh, let no tear drop.' For 'Out of cavern comes a voice, and all it knows is that one word 'Rejoice!' 

I have known this poem for a long time but up until very recently I would not have said that it has particularly informed or inspired me. I came across it again by chance in early May, I think, when looking for a quote from another Yeats poem - I forget which now - to include in an email to a friend. I would never have guessed that by August The Gyres would have become the most compelling and insistent poem in my life, my 'go to poem' if you like, for this discombobulating spring and summer we are living through. 

So why is this? To be honest, I think it's because the poem gives a 'two fingered salute' to the forces of disintegration and disorder which seem so dominant at the moment. Hope is too weak a word for what Yeats conveys here. There's a real strength and vitality imbued in these lines, a spiritual swagger, which has been in short supply, to be honest, too often for too long in too many mainstream churches. It isn't faith either - that's too tepid again. What we're talking about is a deep Platonic mystery, a rock-like certainty, and a sure and hard-earned knowledge of how aeons come and go and how time and eternity interact. 

No pearl clutching here then. No laments for the way things used to be. Yeats doesn't give a fig for 'all our yesterdays.' Nor is he cowed by the darkness rampaging everywhere, blotting out the light wherever it can. He has no time or respect for it. It's irrelevant to him. Kids stuff. Not worth bothering about. Not when the world is about to be regenerated. No way.

This led me to reflect that maybe the 'beast' of The Second Coming is only 'rough' and slouching because our age (which is 'perishing' anyway as St. Paul reminds us) has become so degenerate and effete - 'all out of shape from toe to top' - that a necessary purging and renewal can only appear to us as something threatening and unwelcome - 'bestial', in short. Because what Yeats foresees in The Gyres is not at all the hegemony of savages, but actually it's opposite - the return of archetypal, primal human types, men and women who, you might say, have the mark of reality stamped upon their foreheads, individuals who have been and continue to be marginalised under the current, decaying dispensation. They are symbolised in the poem by the figures of the horseman, the lover, the workman, the noble and the saint - the kind of company we would all like to keep, if we're honest, and maybe the kind of person, in one form or another, we would all like to be if only the world hadn't gone off the rails so much and was now orbiting away at a million miles an hour from anything true and real, whether in Heaven or on Earth. 

These figures will come again. Yeats had no doubt. And this will be so because they incarnate and embody reality and truth, and reality and truth always have the last word. Their coming may be closer than we think. And the world of falsehood and illusion will not be able to withstand them. Babylon will sink into the sea and the princes of this world will weep and mourn and hide beneath the mountains, but we will stand with Yeats and those 'sages standing in God's holy fire' he evoked in Sailing to Byzantium (1928) and shout out loud for everyone to hear, 'Babylon has fallen. What matter? Rejoice! Rejoice!' 

'Why should not old men be mad?' as he asked in another poem. There is madness in The Gyres indeed, but it is a madness that exalts us and leads us on, as Beatrice led on Dante, up to the realm of the gods. This lies at the antipodes of the madness William describes in his piece, which dismembers us spiritually, drags us down and makes us fodder for demons. The madness of The Gyres is the madness which heals. It is the madness which saves. It is the madness we need ... 

The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face, look forth; 
Things thought too long can be no longer thought, 
For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth, 
And ancient lineaments are blotted out. 
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth; 
Empedocles has thrown all things about; 
Hector is dead and there's a light in Troy; 
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy. 

What matter though numb nightmare ride on top, 
And blood and mire the sensitive body stain? 
What matter? Heave no sigh, let no tear drop, 
A greater, a more gracious time has gone; 
For painted forms or boxes of make-up 
In ancient tombs I sighed, but not again; 
What matter? Out of cavern comes a voice, 
And all it knows is that one word 'Rejoice!' 

Conduct and work grow coarse, and coarse the soul, 
What matter? Those that Rocky Face holds dear, 
Lovers of horsemen and of women, shall, 
From marble of a broken sepulchre, 
Or dark betwixt the polecat and the owl, 
Or any rich, dark nothing disinter 
The workman, noble and saint, and all things run 
On that unfashionable gyre again.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Saint Alban - British Protomartyr

Orthodox icon of the Martyr St. Alban at his Martyrium. 
If you are the writer of this icon please do contact me and I will gladly credit you. 
Thank you for the wonderful image.

I have been reflecting a good deal recently on the life and death of Saint Alban, Britain's first martyr. The rising tide of anti-Christian sentiment in the West is making me wonder if a wave of physical persecution, such as Alban and many others endured in the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire, might be close at hand.

Alban was a respectable Romano-British gentleman, liked and admired by all sections of society, who lived in Verulamium (modern day St. Alban's) a few miles north-west of London. The date of his execution has not been precisely established but it seems likely that it took place sometime in the late third century. 

Alban, so the story goes, found a ragged, exhausted-looking old man lying half-unconscious in his porch one day. Alban took him in, bathed him, fed him, and looked after him for several days. The old man, whose name was Amphibalous, told him that he was a Christian priest fleeing the authorities, who had embarked on another of their periodic, no-holds-barred attempts to stamp out the faith. 

Alban was deeply wedded to Roman custom and belief and he was shocked at Amphibalous' testimony. He asked him why he had come to his house, and the old man replied that it was Alban's reputation for goodness and his renowned kindness to the poor and needy that had led him to his door. 

As the days passed and Amphibalous grew stronger, Alban began to question him more deeply about his Christian faith. He was greatly struck by the old man's love for his god - a love so deep and true that he was willing to die to stay loyal to Him. This tells us much about Amphibalous' closeness to Christ and the quality of holiness which clearly emanated from him. It also reveals Alban's serious-minded nature, the sincerity of his spiritual search, and the great capacity for faith which this encounter opened up in him. 

Alban was so impressed with his guest that he asked him to baptise him and make him a Christian. Then, when word arrived that the Romans had learned he was harbouring a priest, Alban took off his robe and gave it to Amphibalous, before bundling him out the back door and dressing himself in the old man's clothes. So when the soldiers came and saw a man in the garb of a Christian priest kneeling in prayer, their surprise when they pulled back the hood and found Alban looking back at them, was great indeed. 

He was taken to the magistrate, an old friend of Alban's father, who did everything he could to release him. He would gladly forgive this one-off folly, he said. All Alban needed to do was make the customary offering to the Roman gods and that would be that. But this was precisely what Alban could no longer countenance. He was a Christian now, he told the magistrate, and unable to honour any god but Jesus Christ. Those present begged him not to forfeit his life over a technicality, but Alban was adamant and the magistrate was left with no other option but to sentence him to death. 

So the soldiers marched him off to the place of execution. They shoved him into a river, forcing him to wade across, but when Alban lifted up the wooden cross he was carrying the waters dried up and he walked along the river bed on dry land. At the spot where he was to be beheaded he asked for a drink, and a spring of water gushed up spontaneously from the ground. When the executioner saw this he refused to take part in the murder of such a self-evidently holy man. So the Captain of the Guard took it on himself to kill both Alban and the executioner. Amphibalous too was hunted down a few days later and martyred in his turn. 

What I find particularly interesting about this story is that it was not all that long after Alban's martyrdom - a few decades at the most - that the Empire became Christian and persecution ceased. Christianity, during Alban's lifetime, was rigourously oppressed by the Roman State, yet it grew in strength and numbers all the time, eventually becoming the religion of the Emperor and his family.

Today in Britain, the situation is almost the opposite. Christianity is officially tolerated by the State. We are, in fact, still a nominally Christian country, yet the dominant trends in culture and society are dragging us away from our Christian heritage and from any sense of a shared, collective relationship with Christ. 

So will this spiritual amnesia, this 'refusal to inherit', as the late Sir Roger Scruton put it, inevitably segue into the future imprisonment and execution of Christians? All we can say with certainty at the moment, I think, is that when it comes to Christianity there is no such thing as a benevolent 'liberal neutrality' or a disinterested, impartial State. A genuinely Christian nation needs a governing class willing and able to act as a positive advocate for the Faith. That is far from the case today, and it does make one somewhat uneasy as to where the direction of travel might be taking us. 

What then does the life and death of St. Alban teach us about effective, meaningful witness in a fundamentally anti-Christian age? It shows us, in my view, how to keep our focus on the Lord; to acknowledge that, despite appearances, He is present and active in the world; to realise that He has plans and intentions which we cannot comprehend, and not to become angry, resentful or overly-dismayed at the wretched state of things. Easier said than done, I know. Nor, on the other hand, should we let ourselves be seduced by spurious, head-based schemes and strategies for Christian renewal - 'roadmaps for recovery', 'programmes for revival', and so forth. What we need to do is something much more radical and also very simple - to open up to the grace which pours down constantly upon us from beyond the confines of this chequered world. That way something real can start to act in us and make itself manifest in society. This, and this only, is what will attract, compel, and potentially change others. We will become transparent, as was Amphibalous, who had 'got himself out of the way', as they say, and become a conduit for the presence and sanctifying action of the living God. 

What Alban saw in Amphibalous and what the executioner saw in Alban was not actually a 'what' but a 'who' - namely Christ Himself. It is not his or her own individual light which the saint casts out into the world, but the light of Christ. 'Say your prayers and keep your will fixed in the will of Maleldil', as Ransom tells Dimble in That Hideous Strength. And this is what is demanded of us today - dedication, humility, focus and simplicity. This is the path of sanctity, the wooden cross we hold up, à la Alban, to the foaming torrent of liquid-modernity and our would-be oppressors. Anything else, anything less, however well-intentioned, is to collude with the Father of Lies, who seeks to blot out from our souls that Life which, to paraphrase St. John, is the 'light of men; the light that shineth in the darkness, though the darkness comprehendeth it not - the true light, which enlightens every man who cometh into the world.'