William Butler Yeats and the avatars
By Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 12/22/09
Ross Douthat, the best man on the NYTs’ op-ed page, has a good piece this week about the movie, Avatar, the blockbuster hit that is about to set the new zeitgeist. There is some worry in his essay as he correctly points out that this film by James Cameron is an anthem to pantheism, a faith in opposition to the “literal mindedness of the monotheistic religions” that equates God with nature, “and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.”
He gives a good appraisal of where we have been sailing these past 60 years. Joyce Carol Oates called what she saw around her in the 1970s a “new pantheism.” Certainly the hippie movement at its best – Ina May Gaskins’ group in Tennessee, for example, and the great San Francisco scene in 1967 – was pantheistic before the hippies turned to Wall Street and Bill and Hillary. And the movies Star Trek and Star Wars were primarily a struggle between Protestant Ethic (Captain Kirk, its avatar) and pantheism (Luke Skywalker); possibly reflecting America’s original struggle between Hamilton and Jefferson. Mel Brooks correctly understood it when he identified the sky walkers as “new druids” in Spaceballs. And although Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be the Evil Empire, by the last set in the Star Wars series it was clear that reference was being made to the U.S. Congress during the Clinton Presidency and the sky walkers – pantheists – were clearly secessionist. So Douthat’s worries about this movement are well founded.
It is natural to look for avatars at the end of things because they bring new beginnings, but pantheism has most always run parallel with Christianity and the theistic traditions. See the parades this week throughout Germany of Santa and his dark aspect, Black Peter. In County Sligo, Ireland, where I probably have cousins, William Butler Yeats found that the most aboriginal of Catholics – Yeats’ “visionary peasants” - did not believe in ghosts but did believe in fairies, leprechauns, water-horses and fallen angels because “they stand to reason.”
Yeats advised that “Everything exists, everything is true and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.” So he would probably have no problems’ with Avatar. It is wrong to put words in the mouths of the dead, but he might approve.
Yeats saw a far worse fate rising at the beginning of our age which was identified by Yeats and Co. back then the Age of Aquarius; an age which began, incidentally, in the year 2001.
He wrote of a positive avatar born to a prostitute in a Paris slum – Kurt Cobain would come to mind in the story had it been set in Seattle. But he wrote as well the most famous of predictions and the most dreadful: A great golem would appear and bring us slouching to war in Bethlehem. And there we have gone these last ten years, the first ten years of Aquarius and the end of an age in which the center no longer held.
I’m not sure the new age has started yet. I don’t think it has. Yeats wrote at a time when there was no middle class, no electricity, but they would rise in his lifetime. Today we have these things but we have no Yeats and perhaps we have no “Hope and Memory.” And their daughter who’s “name is Art” is absent as well. And Yeats’s day saw the first yearnings to rise into space. Avatar, like Lost and the TV Survivor series presents a yearning at the beginning of our new century to return to earth. It augers for an age of returning to that from which we came. Maybe this century we will find the sisters here again; Hope, Memory and Art, here on earth, our only home.