Things Fall Apart

baby JesusThe 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 ends:

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:

Chinua Achebe

book coverThe 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.

The Roots

album coverIt 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.

ballersIn 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.
So glorious.

I’m my own author, here’s my story.
My life’s been full of pain,
Now where’s my glory?
So glorious.

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.

Not With a Bang but a Whimper

Robert Alter’s masterpiece, “Pen of Iron“, celebrates the unique influence of KJV on American literature. But more than anything, it’s a story of loss and disintegration. In modern America, the heritage of the KJV has been abandoned by the literate, and is carried on by fundies, gangster rappers, and homeless schizophrenics.

For the first 150 years of America’s history, the KJV was the American canon, which all literate people knew intimately. In other countries, Christianity was less pervasive, and there was no single canonical translation of the Bible. But in America, the ubiquity of KJV provided a culturally unifying literary treasure which authors could mine in creating uniquely American literature.

As Alter explains, these works of literature, while borrowing heavily from KJV in substance and style, were not necessarily Christian:

In every case I will consider but one, there is a perceptible distance between the writer and biblical values, but the result is not simple rejection. It is easy to assume the stance of the village atheist if you think only of ideology or theology, as several recent anti-religious polemicists have done. An imaginative writer, on the other hand, is before all else a language-using animal, and when the language of the texts you cannot embrace as revealed truth is strongly chiseled, hewn from deep quarries of moral and spiritual experience, you somehow have to contend with it and, given its intrinsic poetic power, you may even be tempted to put it to use.

Alter repeatedly emphasizes that this American style relies on juxtaposition and deliberate violation of decorum:

There is an unfettered exuberance of invention and improvisation in the line of American prose that I shall be following which has no real British counterpart. Dickens, whom I would rate as the greatest stylist among British novelists in the nineteenth century, has his own linguistic exuberance, which frequently produces the most fantastic and beguiling inventions of metaphor, but on the whole it is played out within the decorum of an accepted order of literary language. The American stylistic turn that begins with Melville is to violate linguistic decorums with the greatest gusto. The general impulse is to fashion a language for the novel out of the most violently heterogeneous elements.

No one after Melville wrote very much like him, but he established a precedent for later American novelists in the bustling promiscuity with which he mingled high and low, modern and archaic, with a strong biblical thread running through the pattern.

The book has been adequately reviewed elsewhere, and I highly recommend it. However, I want to make an observation about Alter’s commentary on William Faulkner’s novel, “Absalom, Absalom!“. Faulkner’s novel, I believe, has personal significance for Alter. Because of the great evil of the Holocaust, Alter says that he is unable to believe in a God who plays an active role in human affairs. In Faulkner’s novel, slavery is the great evil, and Sutpen’s proud southern family, reminiscent of King David’s family, ends up in ruin:

After everything Thomas Sutpen has built, material and familial, has been utterly devastated, the only survivor is Sutpen’s idiot black great-grandson, Jim Bond, who is no more than a pathetic inarticulate witness to the final destruction of Sutpen’s Hundred.

In a bitterly ironic comment on Sutpen’s dream of dynasty, Jim Bond is called “the scion,” a term at once medieval-heraldic and biblical. But the idea of the retarded mixed-race man as the surviving heir is given a dialectical twist in the penultimate paragraph of the novel when Shreve imagines that in due course of time “the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere,” only “bleached out”.

Sutpen, the child of hardscrabble itinerant whites, fiercely set his will to make himself a king, like David. The enduring royalty, however, abides in the once enslaved people brought in captivity from another continent, “sprung from the loins” – an appropriately biblical locution – “of African kings.”

Alter dolefully predicts that it will soon be necessary to teach KJV in university as a prerequisite to understanding American literature. Yet Alter surely knows that KJV is alive and well with fundies and urban street preachers. And it is from this latter that the “hip-hop” culture comes. In hip-hop we find all of the Biblical figures of speech, the counterpoint of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon with Greco-Latin phrasing, and KJV words and imagery. And like the early American literature Alter describes, hip-hop could be seen as the ultimate terminus of “violation of linguistic decorum”, “violent heterogeneity”, “bustling promiscuity”, and “mingling of high and low”.

To be sure, some of the hip-hop demonstrates a great deal of creativity and talent. The skillful uses of synechdoche, parataxis, and all of the other Biblical figures of speech, as well as Biblical imagery, are unparalleled in any other modern popular “art” form. It’s just that this “art” tends to express something very depraved. Far more sobering is any fifteen-minute conversation with a typical homeless schizophrenic. In my experience (and I have a fair amount), the average homeless schizophrenic knows scripture better than the average Christian, and can quote KJV at length from memory. Just ask questions, listen to the crazy person’s theological musings, and you’ll soon be thinking of T.S. Eliot.

The KJV advocates of the past argued that America’s great material success was evidence of the divinity of the KJV translation. In shades of Sutpen, some believed that a perpetual dynasty could be established for those who relied upon this divine translation. If you spend any time with the modern scions of KJV’s heritage, though, it’s difficult not to think of Alter’s commentary on Faulkner.

The Poetry of King James

I was completely off the grid in the wilderness last week, so I took the opportunity to read through “Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase” (as well as halfway through “Perception“). I bought the book based on this review by Dandelionsmith, HT: Unk.

In “Figures of Speech“, Quinn introduces 60 different figures of speech, citing several examples of each. This little book is a virtual bestiary of many of my favorite lines from Yeats, Shakespeare, the Bible, and other sources. Over the years, I’ve read and memorized extensively, and I know what I like, but I’ve never in my life taken a college-level literature course. It was exciting to see that all of these different techniques have names and can be correlated across sources. Since reading this book, my mind has been flooded with examples Quinn didn’t cite, explaining so many lines of poetry I found beautiful but couldn’t say why. For example, the parallels are obvious between Blake and Shakespeare here:

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?


Tell me where is fancy bred?
Or in the heart or in the head

But before reading this book, I never would have thought to articulate the parallel. Of course, poetry is about much more than figures of speech, but this was an enjoyable and illuminating book.

While reading the book, I found myself re-evaluating my attitudes about the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. As a child, most of the verses I memorized were KJV, but I’ve since switched to New International Version (NIV), and memorized several Psalms in NIV. Quinn cites beautiful passages from KJV, many of which I remember from childhood. But when I looked them up in NIV I was surprised to find that many had lost the very figures of speech which made them beautiful. The ugly starts right at the beginning of the Bible. Compare KJV:

the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

with NIV:

the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

How many times have I read my NIV and not noticed this? Many other examples of figures of speech present in KJV are lost in NIV, and upon further reflection, it makes sense. KJV attempts to be more literal, word-for-word, while NIV attempts to express the semantic meaning in natural English. To be sure, the editors of NIV were able to preserve a fraction of the figures of speech present in the Hebrew and Greek, but it appears that many were lost.

C. S. Lewis once speculated that Ecclesiastes might not be inspired, and I’ve always intended to write an essay defending Ecclesiastes. This post from Unk both defends Ecclesiastes and underscores the beauty of the figures of speech in KJV. Unk quotes Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (KJV, NIV) and says:

It is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, in terms of the poetic quality of the language, at least in the King James Version—about that season of life.

Who can disagree? The NIV version is beautiful, but the fidelity of KJV more beautiful still. Yeats’ poem “When You are Old” is one of my favorite depictions of this season, but is a pale shadow of Ecclesiastes 12 in KJV, and apes the same figures of speech. Shall we assume that Yeats was not speaking of Ecclesiastes 12, and the creator who is Love, who moved upon the face of the waters?

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.