My Humbling: Part II

My Humbling: Part II

We all learn things as we mature that we think we should have learned long ago but for some reason did not. Our thoughts about it generally fall into two categories; No big deal, learn from it and move on, or I can’t believe I didn’t know that sooner. I fall into the second category. I often think I should have known everything sooner, most people do. It was only a few days after my “humbling” regarding Charles Krauthammer, told in Part 1 of The Humbling of Larry Laveman, that I experienced another “really?” moment while watching a HBO documentary on the history of Rolling Stone magazine.

Mid way through Part 1 of the documentary Cameron Crowe lands an interview with the British rock band Led Zeppelin, which guarantees him the magazines upcoming cover. In the next scene Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, calls Crowe into his office and tells him that the article he wrote wasn’t really that good. Crowe is crestfallen. Wenner goes on to tell him, “We’re running your piece, but I think you missed the story.” What Crowe wrote was the story Led Zeppelin wanted told, not the story that would have shed some light on why Led Zeppelin was so unpopular with the critics at the time. Known for its hard core interviews with Rock and Roll royalty, Wenner knew the piece was soft for Rolling Stone readers. In this case, popularity won out over conviction. Not to seem like a total sell-out, Wenner then gives Crowe a copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and tells him to read her essays to learn how to write with emphasis and style.

I was not a big fan of Joan Didion in the 60’s and 70’s when she achieved her popularity. There was something about her writing that didn’t engage me. The strength of the scene between Crowe and Wenner, however, moved me to order her book. I was intrigued by the title. I wondered what she meant by Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It didn’t take me long to find out. The book opens with a poem by W. B. Yeats, called The Second Coming, where he describes the coming of a new messiah that slouches towards Bethlehem to be reborn as the world collapses in chaos. Yeats wrote the poem after World War I. Didion used The Second Coming to emphasize the upheaval of the 60’s and what was to come of the collapse of the establishment. The analogy to Yeats’ post war climate and the rising up of the counter-culture of Didion’s time was seamless. Her title bore witness to cultural shift that was happening; Rolling Stone was doing the same thing on the music side. Not being literary at the time, I totally dismissed Didion as a writer, yet couldn’t wait to read the next edition of Rolling Stone.

After receiving her book, I was completely taken by The Second Coming. I read it several times trying to adjust to the unusual imagery and understand the broader message. As I read the lines, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” I began thinking about our current political climate and how this poem would perfectly narrate our partisan stalemate; things falling apart as the centre collapses with the second coming on the horizon lumbering towards renewal. That was going to be my next blog article; the analogy of post war Europe, to the collapse of the establishment in the 60’s, to the current Trump era all narrated through the lens of The Second Coming. Brilliant, I thought.

Doing a Google search to get a clearer understanding of my interpretation of The Second Coming I quickly found out that my idea was not that brilliant after all. The poem has been quoted exhaustively since its publication in 1920 to describe change in every imaginable way. The Paris Review in 2015 said “it may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.” It not only found its way into Didion’s title but into many other book titles as well and also into an episode of the Soprano’s called, The Second Coming. Joni Mitchel even wrote a song, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in 1991. The more I read about the sweeping impact of The Second Coming since its publication, the more humbled I became. How could something so profound elude me for all these years!

It has been reported that in 2016, the beginning of the Trump era, more lines from The Second Coming were quoted than had been quoted in the preceding 30 years. Apparently, I was a little late to the party. It seemed that every writer but me was already seeing the relationship between The Second Coming and the collapse of our moral principles. The centre cannot hold has been used so often that most people don’t even know its origins. And here I stood thinking that I was going to write a clever little blog article highlighting Yeats’ poem only to end up slouching towards my couch in a humbled mess. Take heart though; these moments of personal discomfiture are also opportunities for greater self-understanding and depth. I’ve come to realize that being progressive is not the same as being literary. While I was reading the metaphysics of Carlos Castenada and integrative theory of Fritjof Capra in my youth, I had no idea who Maya Angelou was and categorically dismissed Joan Didion. That’s embarrassing to me now. It also wasn’t that long ago that I thought temperament had no “a” in it and that Frankenstein was the name of the monster, not the doctor. So, I’ve decided to move on and accept my all-too-normal shortcomings rather than dwell on what I should have already known. No matter what the situation is, it’s always the better choice to move forward with your newfound knowledge; it just took some humbling for me to reach that conclusion.

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