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Entries in Colum McCann (5)


Spinning Yeats

In many ways, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is an answer, or perhaps a counterbalance, to William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," one of the seminal poems in English in the twentieth century. Bits and pieces of "The Second Coming" get referenced in several places in McCann's novel.

Here's Yeats' poem in full:

    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: a waste of desert sand;
    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
    Wind 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?

I'd like to start our discussion here, with Yeats' poem of terror and fear, the nightmare of some "rough beast . . . slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem," written at the end of World War I and as the Irish were undergoing horrible, national repressions.

If you look on page 325 of McCann's novel, you'll see the resounding answer to Yeats at the end of the third paragraph: "Things don't fall apart."

Or to put it another way, to quote the novel again: "The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough" (page 349).


Spinning The City

As you know by now, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is forthrightly a novel of the city, of New York City, a Walt-Whitmanesque catalogue of the voices filling an urban space that, as Judge Soderberg says in "Part of the Parts," is "uninterested in history." "[New York] assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief" (page 247).

As the book goes on to say, "[New York] wasn't like London, where every corner had a historical figure carved out of stone, a war memorial here, a leader's bust there. [Judge Soderberg] could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City--most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days? A man would need a phalanx of tanks just to pass Sir Walter Scott. On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history. Why bother? You couldn't eat a statue. You couldn't screw a monument" (page 248).

We live in the country, of course. Rurally. With breathing room. Many of us have chosen to leave New York City (or perhaps some other city) to live up here, in what Faulkner called "the cold air, the iron New England dark."

And yet. The city calls. We go in. We see it. We're glad to see it as it's coming toward us in the windshield or from the window of the train. We're also glad to see it moving away in the rearview mirror.

As you think about this novel, consider these other voices about the city:

Just as language no longer has anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connection with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle. Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet, 1903.

Today's city appears impregnable. However, it is the most vulnerable structure ever conceived by man. Martin Oppenheimer, American lawyer, specialist in labor relations, 1969.

The city is a fact of nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city, and in turn, urban forms condition mind. Lewis Mumford, American architectural critic, 1938.

The country only has charms for those not obliged to be there. Édouard Manet, French painter, 1860.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn't changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. John Berger, British cultural critic, 1987.

The American city should be a collection of communities where every member has a right to belong. It should be a place where each of us can find the satisfaction and warmth which come from being a member of the community of man. Lyndon Baines Johnson, American politician and president, 1965.

The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious. The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere; their 'Hub,' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs. Chicago is a sort of monster shop, full of bustles and bores. Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry. Baltimore is amusing for a week, but Philadelphia is dreadfully provincial; and though one can dine in New York, one could not dwell there. Oscar Wilde, British author and gadabout, 1887.

Indeed the metropolis is a complete cyclopedia, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable. Pierce Egan, British journalist and sportswriter, 1821.

A hick town is one where there is no place to go where you shouldn't go. Alexander Wolcott, American critic, member of the Algonquin Round Table, 1935.



The title of McCann's novel is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," a long, 197-line poem about war, love, the past, and even the future. Here's the quote, as it's found in the poem's final, fourteen lines:

. . . .  Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.


Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.


Mother-Age (for mine I knew not) help me as when life begun:
Rift the hills, and roll the waters, flash the lightnings, weigh the Sun.


O, I see the crescent promise of my spirit hath not set.
Ancient founts of inspiration well thro' all my fancy yet.


Howsoever these things be, a long farewell to Locksley Hall!
Now for me the woods may wither, now for me the roof-tree fall.


Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.


Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.

Admittedly, it's a tough poem--about a soldier in an unnamed war who pauses in a long march, sending his troops ahead as he engages in a complex, interior monologue.

His march has taken him near Locksley Hall, a place he loved as a child and where he first fell in love. As he lingers amid the chaos of war, he tries to come to terms with his own past--and eventually finds himself adrift in the murky waters of his own sexism and racism before finally imagining a future utopia, largely predicated on Europe vanquishing "the Orient" and born of wars where (in a strange bit of prophecy for the 1830s) air-born navies fight it out in the skies. By the end of his monologue, his wish, as you can see in the bit above, is for his cherished Locksley Hall to be obliterated.

The poem is among Tennyson's masterpieces: dense, trying, exasperting, oddly childlike, and full of contradictions, ranking up there with his most significant work: "In Memoriam A. H. H." Tennyson was a man of his time, invested in the dream of nineteenth-century progress, always doubting it, finding his religious faith shaken by Darwin and new geological findings, hanging on to the church despite not wanting to, defending England to the last, yet knowing that he was a man out of step with his beloved country, a throw-back to another era who could not survive outside a patronage system that ran counter to the mercantile spirit of the day.

I may bring copies of "Locksley Hall" to our group meeting this week--but I fear we won't have time to tackle such a clever poem. If you'd like, we can think about setting aside a meeting in the future to discuss it--and its relation to Colum McCann's novel.

More Philippe Petit

As you may know by now, the man on the wire in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is never named. We'll want to talk about this in our discussion: the ways that "real time"--that is, history--are offered up in the book as a frisson or perhaps merely background noise for something else, robbed of their "actuality" and turned into something new for the novel.

The book is in no way a "historical novel"--yet it uses history (in the sense of specific, recordable events) for its own ends.

And by doing so, it warps time in the way that fiction often does.

After all, isn't that one of the reasons we read? It is one of the few ways we can remove ourselves from our own timeline, our own narrative, our own story. It's not that we become timeless while reading. It's that we experience time in a different way.

Heady stuff, for sure. But here's another clip of Petit, this time on the indomitable Colbert Report:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Philippe Petit
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Philippe Petit's High-Wire Act

As promised, and with a long lead to our next discussion of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, here's a video montage of Petit's famed walk on the wire strung between the Twin Towers.

Most of the actual video footage is now secured under copyright for the documentary "Man on Wire" which the library has available for loan. I encourage you to watch the documentary in the next few weeks--simply because it itself is so terrifying and beautiful all at once.

In the meantime, here's the montage of stills someone has put together with Erik Satie's haunting music. (We have a fairly low bandwidth on this site, so you might want to let the full video load before watching it.)