Sunday, September 09, 2007

Approaching another September 11

W.H. Auden's words in his poem "September, 1939," still resonate for me as also evoking September 11, 2001.

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.

And is our decade any less low and dishonest than the one that came before us? On the one hand, the false promises of the Bush administration, which I once believed, that the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism is the same as the war in Iraq against the evil regime of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, those intellectuals and academics who equate the Bush Administration with fascism and see the United States as the root of all evil. The Bush administration has done the more damage in material terms - in lives lost both of countless innocent Iraqis and of American and other coalition soldiers, the social fabric of Iraq destroyed, the physical infrastructure mortally damaged - not to speak of the damage to the reputation of the United States around the world when we countenance torture and murder. But all that does not make the regime of Saddam any less evil - the regime which itself drove a deep wedge in Iraqi society between Sunnis and Shi'ites and which thus is one of the chief contributors to the violence between them today. The response I prefer is one that I find in reading the Euston Manifesto or the blogs of various left-wing British bloggers (some of whom supported the war in Iraq, some of whom opposed it) - people who recognize real fascism when they see it, and who know that you do not extol the Iraqi so-called resistance just because it kills American soldiers.

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.

I think that Auden is correct about German society - but his last two lines here are too facile. Just because the reparations imposed on the Germans after WWI were unjust and a terrible burden for the defeated nation, does not mean that Germany would inevitably have turned to Nazism.

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.

The strength of Collective Man - perhaps one could condemn the World Trade Center towers for manifesting this, but it seems to me that much else was going on in those buildings, including the lives of many immigrants who found in them the work they needed to survive. Perhaps words like these could be used by people like Ward Churchill to condemn the people who worked in the buildings as part of "world imperialism," but the way he talked about them came too close to the old canards about New York City being the center of "Jewish world finance."

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.

Indeed, we do cling to the average day - our government has never asked anything of we civilians to assist in this war, excep perhaps to put up with the indignities of modern air travel. Taxes were not raised to pay for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq - in fact, they were lowered, as if we really could have both guns and butter.

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.

I don't think that Auden is right when he says there is no such thing as the state - clearly it exists, and provides the political framework of our lives. On the other hand, it shouldn't be worshiped - perhaps that's what he meant. No one does live alone - despite our attempts to deify individualism in this country, we are all part of the same interconnected web.

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.

And even though our world - this country, the fortunes of Iraq, the situation of Israel in the middle east - seems to becoming ever bleaker, he is right to hope for an "affirming flame" in the midst of darkness. Of course, Auden puts it much better than my prose paraphrase....

1 comment:


    Mine is but merely one small voice
    As will have no impact
    Upon the ground, this "war of choice"

    Attacked a seated despot who
    Had little chance to harm us,
    As--known before and by review--
    With righteousness we arm us.

    My role is but a small one; not
    To influence the course
    Events may take, or try to plot
    An end to future wars;

    Rather, the actions as they go
    To comment on in song,
    To mention consequential woe
    Because the course was wrong.

    Vast multitudes the war has harmed
    While me it but annoys,
    Because unjust--so pen is warmed
    While I raise my small voice.