November 24, 2007 [No Country for Old Men]

No Country for Old Men led me to Yeats' poem about Byzantium, particularly near the end where the speaker yearns to be "out of nature" and become an immortal thing—or at least an "artifice of eternity," a golden mechanical bird like in the fairytale singing of "what is past, or passing, or to come." He wants the "sages" who "come from the holy fire" to teach him, to change his heart "sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal" so that he can be that golden thing, that fire.

And at the end of the movie the tired sheriff tells us a dream of following his father into the past where the father is "the younger man," and he's carrying fire in a horn and moving farther up the trail into the mountain, where he'll wait for his son. I couldn't stop the sudden tears and sat through most of the credits. What a desire, in the midst of so much evil, to rise in flame up out of time and be a thing that sings of eternity.

That is the poet's wish—and Yeats was such a good one that he knew such fire was "artifice"—and he accepted it, saw it not as the bare facts of the movie's one-man apocalypse—or of our willingness to be duped by apocalypse and call it, heads or tails—but as something you can hold onto in the dark, a truth one sees only in artifice—something, as holy as it is, made by human hands. Yes, made like the killing machine that sends the bolt into the brain and drops us like stones—big deal: the most evil can do is to kill us proudly, as if everything else couldn't. The widow all by herself with evil sits there heroically and sees that all it has is a dull tool, like a hammer, the kind of thing anyone can pick up and bring down. And her refusal to call it, heads or tails, is the first firm step into the sheriff's dream.

So maybe the poet is a fool, every work he gives or becomes just a dream made of a younger man—Yeats reminds us that "an aged man is but a paltry thing"; but at least, like the sheriff, he knows that he's just a stranger passing through, that the world is not his home; and knowing that may be enough: It helps him climb "a golden bough to sing," even as the hammer drops.


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