The cathedral was in a bad part of town. It was Christmas Eve, and midnight mass had just finished. I left the warm, bright cathedral into the wet, gray night. Immediately, I saw the body of a man, crumpled on the sidewalk facing the broad avenue. Judging by the postures of those standing near him, he was already dead. By the time I found my car and wheeled around to the avenue, the coroners were maneuvering the corpse into a body bag. It wasn’t the first dead body I had seen on a sidewalk before, but it seemed symbolic that this man lay dying on the sidewalk, alone, while we celebrated the nativity.
Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” has had deep influence on English-language literature. It paints an apocalyptic picture of death and birth that many should recognize. It begins:
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 what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I borrowed from the last line of the poem, rather unimaginatively, for the title of my post on “Slouching Towards Gomorrah“. Chinua Achebe used a line from the first stanza for the title of the book, “Things Fall Apart“, which is possibly the greatest African novel. Due in large part to Achebe, the Yeats poem has been influential in Black art; from poetry to novels to music. I’ll highlight three examples in popular culture:
The phrase, “things fall apart” simultaneously evokes the fall of man in Genesis, and the apocalypse of Revelation, in matter-of-fact language. Achebe’s novel is inspired by the Yeats poem, and narrates the social upheaval imposed on a Nigerian tribe by the arrival of Christian missionaries. Some have argued that the book is critical towards Christianity, but I didn’t read it that way. The main character, Okonkwo, finds himself lost and confused in a world that’s changing underneath him. It is tragic for him. But the old tribal traditions are not portrayed sympathetically, and Achebe doesn’t seem to think the tribal legacy should have been preserved.
Achebe touches on a huge number of Biblical themes, and perfectly captures the sense of disintegration, death, and birth in Yeats. No review could do justice; you really should read the story for yourself. Here are some quotes from the first part of the story, to give you a taste. Early on, Okonkwo acquires a young male slave, named Ikemefuna, from another tribe. Okonkwo keeps the slave for an extraordinarily long three years, becoming attached to the boy and treating him like a son:
Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy — inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everyone else — with a heavy hand. But there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts, he would allow Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father.
Ikemefuna helps raise Okonkwo’s children and teaches them with stories from his tribe. One thinks of the Greek slave in “Till We Have Faces“, or Joseph, or even Onesimus. One day, however, the tribal elders come to Okonkwo and tell him that Ikemefuna must be killed to remove a curse:
As for Ikemefuna, he was at a loss. His own home had gradually become very faint and distant. He still missed his mother and sister, and would be very glad to see them. But somehow he knew he was not going to see them.
As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.
How many Biblical references can you spot in this short passage? Through the course of the book, Achebe moves from death to death, and finally to birth. This book is relentless.
It had been years since I had seen any dead bodies. I moved across the country and married a year before, and we were trying to have children. Philadelphia Hip-Hop act “The Roots” had just released their album, “Things Fall Apart”, inspired by Chinua Acheba’s novel and Yeats’s poem. The hit song, “You Got Me”, was also the only song that referenced the famous Yeats line directly. Featuring Erykah Badu and Eve, the song makes a barely passable reference to the fall:
We knew from the start that things fall apart
That snake could be that chick
that’s whispering “she tryin to play you for the fool Black”
and on the topic of trust, it’s just a matter of fact
that people bite back and fracture what’s intact
I’ve seen people caught in love like whirlwinds
that’s exactly the point where they whole world ends
lies come in, that’s where that drama begins
The music video features lots of dead bodies on sidewalks, though. The final track, a spoken poem titled “Return to Innocence Lost” does a much better job of capturing Achebe’s theme of death and birth. The spoken word poem by Ursula Rucker, much like an Amiri Baraka poem, is not suitable for work or for children. It ends like this:
Death was the cause of…
Returning to Innocence Lost…
Baby ‘Sis awake for dawn on Christmas morn
To Mommy’s sobs and shakes
Daddy’s silhouettes of regret
All past, omitted, and absolved by lost
As they clung to each other
He told us that he intended to leave this life, but we refused to accept it. We thought a Christmas mass would do him good — it was my first Christmas mass since the body bags. It was several years later, I was now a father, and the Archbishop was now a Cardinal. Things were getting better. The mass was nice. As we left the cathedral after mass, the gusts of frigid air brought back good memories. It was one of the coldest nights in years, and we had to bundle up to make it the short distance to the car. There were no dead bodies this night. It was a good night for anyone looking for signs. But he wasn’t looking for signs. It was the last Christmas we would see him alive.
In 2007, Nike commissioned Juelz Santana to write a song for the 25th anniversary edition of the original “Air Force 1”. The popular AF25 commercial featured LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other NBA heavyweights — and the Juelz Santana song, “Second Coming“.
If you’re not familiar with Yeats, the Juelz Santana song looks like a positively motivational and upbeat song about achieving your dreams. But the Juelz Santana song is clearly motivated by the Yeats poem of the same name. Except, everything is turned upside down. Juelz deliberately and explicitly identifies himself with the evil portrayed in Yeats. Instead of “The falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart”, we have:
Yes, the bird’s left the nest.
I’m all grown up I gotta fly with the rest.
Rather than a foul beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, we have:
The future is here at last.
The second coming.
The new beginning.
The truth is speaking.
You should listen.
I’m my own author, here’s my story.
My life’s been full of pain,
Now where’s my glory?
Even the chorus line, “If you fall, get up and try again”, takes on new meaning, given the significance of the word “fall” in the Yeats line “things fall apart”. This is, after all, the guy who calls himself “human crack in the flesh”.
Somehow, I don’t think Yeats would have been surprised one bit.