Bob Schwartz

The Second Coming at 100: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

It has been 100 years since William Butler Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming, in the wake of World War I and in the early days of the Irish War of Independence. It is an unsurpassed observation of a descent into societal darkness, as order passes and chaos reigns.

It is no wonder that its phrases are some of the most borrowed by writers over the past century: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”; “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”. Once we have read the poem, the lines force themselves on us when our lesser attempts to describe the most dire circumstances fail.

The Second Coming

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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats (1919)

A Face in the Crowd: A Media Star Demagogue Takes Himself Down

“Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak.”

“This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep! They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.”

“Good night you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”

A Face in the Crowd (1957) is a movie about an unlikely backwoods media star, a drifter named Lonesome Rhodes, who becomes a national populist icon. He believes he can sell his followers on anything, including who the next president should be.

The demagogic scheme falls apart when his real beliefs are broadcast on an open microphone.

***

ACTOR ON RHODES’ SHOW: You really sell that stiff [Senator Fuller] as a man among men?

LONESOME RHODES: Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got ’em like this… You know what the public’s like? A cage of guinea pigs. Good night you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.

***

LONESOME RHODES: This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep!

MARCIA JEFFRIES: Sheep?

LONESOME RHODES: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller’. They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.

***

Critical times are tough tests for lawyers. Some pass, some fail.

Lawyers are sworn officers of the courts of their respective states and federal jurisdictions. They take a solemn oath. They take that oath because as citizens we give them substantial power as officers of the court. As Spiderman (not a lawyer) reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility.

In normal times it is hard enough for lawyers to balance all the interests surrounding them—professional, personal, political. In abnormal and critical times—like these—lawyers may be pushed to pick a lane. The onerous professional demands, as embodied in the oath, may be in conflict with other interests, including ambition, success and ideology.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a few examples of times in which lawyers chose poorly. One is the case of attorneys involved in Watergate, almost two dozen of whom ended up being punished and sanctioned.  Another is Hans Frank, a brilliant attorney known as Hitler’s Lawyer.  There are many other infamous examples.

The number of lawyers involved in current events, as principals or as advocates, is growing exponentially. It will only expand as dark matters surrounding the president get deeper and more serious. Please keep this in mind as this drama unfolds.

Here is an example of an oath, one taken by attorneys in the State of Washington:

 

OATH OF ATTORNEY

I do solemnly declare:

I am fully subject to the laws of the State of Washington and the laws of the United States and will abide by the same.

I will support the constitution of the State of Washington and the constitution of the United States.

I will abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct approved by the Supreme Court of the State of Washington.

I will maintain the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.

I will not counsel, or maintain any suit, or proceeding, which shall appear to me to be unjust, or any defense except as I believe to be honestly debatable under the law, unless it is in defense of a person charged with a public offense. I will employ for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me only those means consistent with truth and honor. I will never seek to mislead the judge or jury by any artifice or false statement.

I will maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets of my client, and will accept no compensation in connection with the business of my client unless this compensation is from or with the knowledge and approval of the client or with the approval of the court.

I will abstain from all offensive personalities, and advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness unless required by the justice of the cause with which I am charged.

I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay unjustly the cause of any person.

 

The Torah Begins Again: A Big Nothing or A Big Something?

Whether or not you believe in religion, God, Judaism or the Torah, it is exciting that the annual cycle of Torah reading begins again with the first words of Genesis. A Big Nothing? A Big Something that becomes a different Big Something? Who knows? Who even knows what it says?

Here, a few different translations and comments from some brilliant scholars.


GENESIS 1:1-2

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

הַמָּֽיִם׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters

Note:

welter and waste. The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

hovering. The verb attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruaḥ) elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture as well as rapid back-and-forth movement.

Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Translation with Commentary


When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

Note:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1.1 as a complete sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2.4b. Hence the translation, When God began to create heaven and earth.

This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1.9, God creates the dry land (and the seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1.1–2.3, water itself and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45.7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1.5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.

The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition)


In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth —when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water—

Note:

the earth had been: Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean “the earth was shapeless and formless”—referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that “the earth had been shapeless and formless”—that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

shapeless and formless: The two words in the Hebrew, th and bh, are understood to mean virtually the same thing. This is the first appearance in the Torah of a phenomenon in biblical language known as hendiadys, in which two connected words are used to signify one thing. (“Wine and beer” [Lev 10: 9] may be a hendiadys as well, or it may be a merism, a similar construction in which two words are used to signify a totality; so that “wine and beer” means all alcoholic beverages.) The hendiadys of “th and bh,”plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.

Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah


At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean,

Note:

At the beginning…: This phrase, which has long been the focus of debate among grammarians, is traditionally read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” B-R agrees. I have followed several medieval commentaries, and most moderns, in my rendition.

When the earth…: Gen. 1 describes God’s bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness. Wild and waste: Heb. tohu va-wohu, indicating “emptiness.” Ocean: The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in an ancient Near Eastern mythology.

Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses


When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.

Note:

When God was about to create (b’reishit bara elohim); other translations render this: “In the beginning God created.” Our translation follows Rashi, who said that the first word would have been written (ba-rishonah, at first) if its primary purpose had being to teach the order in which creation took place. Later scholars used the translation “In the beginning” as proof that God created out of nothing (Latin: ex nihilo), but it is not likely that the biblical author was concerned with the question of matter’s origin.

W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

In the beginning when God created, or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something—and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, “creation out of nothing”) is dependent on the later rendering. In the original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter.

This disjunctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike these other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God is he only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos (cf. the role of God’s wind in initiating the reversal of watery chaos in 8.1).

The HarperCollins Study Bible


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

Scholars differ on whether this verse is to be translated as an independent sentence summarizing what follows (e.g., “In the beginning God created”) or as a temporal phrase describing what things were like when God started (e.g., “When God began to create . . . the earth was a formless void”; cf. 2.4–6). In either case, the text does not describe creation out of nothing (contrast 2 Macc 7.28). Instead, the story emphasizes how God creates order from a watery chaos.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

Thunder and Lightning, Fire and Ice

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will
Jerry Garcia, The Wheel

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

You are already minimal

Your life is filled with stuff, outside and inside yourself. Minimalism is popular. You are told and believe that reducing the amount of that stuff, outside and inside, has its benefits. It does.

But there is another face to this. However much too much is in your house or inside in your busy buzzing mind, the minimal is already there, without discarding and disposing of a single unkempt pile or thought. The ultimate is to remain surrounded and filled with stuff and to realize that you are not.

Yom Kippur: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Repentance

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) begins this evening. It is the final day of the Jewish Days of Awe.

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Constellations

Constellations

Constellations are useful
when we see through them
to the stars

We are occupied with connecting dots. We study and follow the pictures emerging from these dots. Like looking in the night sky and telling stories about people and things there. They are there but distract us from the stars themselves. Our systems of religion and psychology and society have power only fueled by the dots as constellations have power only fueled by the simple points of light.

A Comic Book about Presidents for Presidents Who Don’t Read

Once upon a time, children got a lot of important information about subjects like history and science from comic books. It was easier and more fun than actually reading.

Here is a comic book from 1957 called Life Stories of American Presidents. Each president up to that time (it ends with Eisenhower) gets at least a page, and some of the more significant presidents such as Lincoln get as many as eight pages.

Now you or anybody else who might need a quick education on American presidents, but who prefer pictures to words, can view this comic book online. It is found at Comic Book Plus, an amazing site that offers online viewing of vintage comic books and other related literature. Best of all, the comic books are in the public domain, so you can download this one and many others.

We don’t know whether Trump was a fan of comic books as a kid, though he is the right age. So maybe this is the way to school him on subjects such as the history of the presidency.

He might learn that Lincoln was a Republican:

He might learn that there used to be another most corrupt president:

He might learn that there used to be another worst president:

He might learn that other presidents may have accomplished more than him during their presidency:

So much to learn when you know so little. That’s why comic books might help.

 

Rosh Hashanah 5780: Re-Creating the World

Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1738–1813)

Every year, on Rosh ha-Shanah, everything returns to its very beginning. Creation is renewed. All that was created in the beginning comes into being again. Thus each Rosh ha-Shanah the world is re-created.
Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom, commentary by Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1793)