What Rough Beast? A Small Meditation on Book Smugglers

rough beast
Jurgis Bielinis was born on this day, the 16th of March, 1846, in Purviskiai, Lithuania.

During the long Russian occupation of Lithuania, books written in Latin-Alphabet Lithuanian were banned. It was a part of Russia’s assimilation program, which necessitated the destruction of historic Lithuanian culture, or at least the extreme attenuation of it. And, of course, at the heart of such things books must be banned. And so they were.

These were heady and lethal dangerous years. In the face of this oppression numerous secret societies formed simply to smuggle books into their occupied country. Jurgis Bielinis was among those. He joined with a number of others smuggling books into Lithuania, and is generally considered one of the central leaders of that continuing act of resistance.

People caught at the border smuggling were arrested, fined, imprisoned. Other were simply shot on the spot.

I think of Nazi’s and their bonfires. I think of the great litany of banned books. I find images from Fahrenheit 451 and people memorizing books to save them.

Today in Lithuania, they have come to mark Bielinis’ birthday as a celebration of those book smugglers.

Me, first I want to join in that celebration. But, also it sets me to thinking about our times. Today in the West we’re not so much concerned with banned books, although that in fact does happen from time to time, but rather, about how we choose to engage the information that is available to us. Our books are not banned, they’re drowned in a sea of trivia and misinformation.

At no time in human history has the ordinary person, actually has anyone had such wide and deep access to information. The problem for us is two-fold. First, there is that sea of trivia. And with it our inability to critically read what we find. I suspect when the history books are written they will speak of our Trump Era as one of rampant misinformation, willingly, eagerly consumed by people wanting their prejudices confirmed.

There has been a recent study that shows how in our contemporary American culture, we choose to isolate ourselves into echo chambers. That study revealed the American political right is more culpable. But, frankly, not all that much more. It is a thing we are prone to do as humans. But, it is a frightening thing. It is a harbinger of more ill to come.

W. B. Yeats sings a terribly prophecy.

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?

I read this and my skin crawls.

But, then, I find myself thinking of the Day of the Book Smugglers and Jurgis Bielinis. And, you know, I feel just the tiniest glimmer of hope. A shadow in the back of my heart. That rough beast need not be the disaster which confronts us. There are many prophets to choose from. Always have been.

Maybe instead of those with passionate intensity but with no compass through the night we’ll pick one of those best, lacking conviction in one sense, but, always curious. They’re there, they’re here.

If we want that person, those people, of course. Only if we are willing to be the womb of that savior, of those saviors. That’s the hard choice.

But, there is a choice. There is a chance.

I think of us, we poor sad humans. And, I hope…

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