Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Uncertain and Afraid: We Must Love one Another or Die" - Why W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" Speaks To This Very Moment

                                                                                Auden with his lover and collaborator Chester Kallman

"...As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth...."

Although Auden later disowned this poem, many people have found it moving over the years.

It was written about the fear and uncertainty that overtook the world as World War II began, but I believe it speaks to our time as well. Uncertainty and fear seem to be what a great number of people are feeling at the moment.

To those of us who were in New York (where this poem was written in 1939) for the September 11th attacks, a few lines jumped out at us through time:

The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night....


Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return....

There was a horrible smell in New York for weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Fires continued to smolder. Tons of material had burned, as well as so many human beings. It was the smell of death and it was awful and it went on and on, like the sirens that moaned and echoed and went nowhere and never stopped, for weeks...

The missing posters affixed to every building "Have you seen my loved one? Last seen at..." No one had the heart to tell them their relatives were not "missing".

Evil had been done, evil had been returned, and continues to be returned.

This 2016 election has been amazing, and it is truly remarkable how divided and divisive we are.

We have differences.

There will always be people who hate, but most white people who hate ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT's, and other vulnerable communities simply out of knee-jerk reaction are old and will die soon. 

But the rest of us are stuck with each other. Global warming is a reality, and if we expect to survive, as Auden said, we must indeed love each other or die.

Only together can we face and triumph over these challenges.

September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade: 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use 
Their full height to proclaim 
The strength of Collective Man, 
Each language pours its vain 
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare, 
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash 
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: 
What mad Nijinsky wrote 
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart; 
For the error bred in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game: 
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Wikipedia article on this poem

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