W. H. Auden hated this poem. He called it the most dishonest he had ever written, and eventually had it excluded from collections of his poetry. And yet it quickly became one of his most popular poems. And after the attacks of September 11, it was published in several national newspapers and widely discussed. This might seem to be a strange result, given that the poem is not a call-to-arms, but an invitation to self-critique. What explains the enduring appeal of Auden’s September 1, 1939? Was he right to repudiate it? Wes & Erin give their analysis.
For bonus content, become a paid subscriber at Patreon or directly on the Apple Podcasts app. Patreon subscribers also get early access to ad-free regular episodes.
Email email@example.com to enquire about advertising on the podcast.
Thanks to Martin Köster for allowing us to use his painting New York at Night III for the cover art to this episode.
Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: Okay, so, Erin, in our last episode, we discussed Auden’s Musée des Beaux Art, and I had originally suggested to you that we discussed September 1st, 1939. And then I thought, well, maybe we should do two poems for the episode as usual, thinking that we were gonna actually fit two poems into an episode, [laughter] which is delusional, you know, because poems are short, so we gotta, you know… if you count the number of words and compare that to, what’s in Hedda Gabler, surely…
Erin: Oh, that episode on… yeah, yeah.
Wes: …surely we can fit two poems in two episodes. So then it turned into two episodes, one on each poem, which I’m really glad that we did, because it’s allowed me to spend some time with Auden and… not as much as I wanted, I could continue to do this, we could spend another month on Auden, at least, but I’m glad we’re at least doing two episodes, for now, on Auden. The reason why it initially suggested this poem September 1st, 1939 is really it was my introduction to Auden after… it’s a poem that circulated widely after 9-11. I was really taken by it as soon as I saw it. The first stanza. It was immediately gripping to me. And some of that is just the… because it’s evocative. You know, after 9-11, there are things that just resonate, that we’ll discuss. But, you know, everything from description of skyscrapers, to being in New York, to the the sense of doom, and the the stench of death in the air, the sorts of things… but also just because it begins with a kind of sense of disgust and political urgency that in my experience, you don’t often see in a good poem. I think there’s a sort of tension between the political stance and poetry, and it’s one of the reasons, I think, that Auden ended up hating this poem and having his editor exclude it from collections, and calling it rubbish, and things like that.
Erin: I just wanted to include the quote that he said about September 1st and his poem Spain. He called them trash, which he is ashamed to have written.
Erin: So everyone wishes they could write this kind of trash.
Wes: [laughter] Right.
Erin: But I think, you know, he used this political posturing, maybe, that he later became uncomfortable with. I guess he had three sort of phases in his intellectual development, as I think Mendelson calls them, like the sort of the Freudian, the Marxist, and then finally the Christian. I think that the Marxist revolutionary vision of the world that he was working in at this time was not, or at least later, he said, it wasn’t one that he ever really agreed with, but which he used as a sort of, you know, theory of the world to benefit his poetry. And he thought that it was useful, these types of myths, as he would call them, useful to poets, that a sort of unifying theory of the world or political theory of the world maybe was even necessary to craft a legacy as a poet, as a lasting poet. And so I think that kind of later, you know, soured for him, or he realized how false that stance was, and so anything that sort of grew out of it or was hung on that scaffolding he later disavowed. But the remarkable thing I think about Auden is that he’s so humble, that sort of Marxism or that idea of a revolution, I mean, that doesn’t really that doesn’t really come across here because he’s not really peddling anything, except for dissatisfaction and then a kind of historical background through which to view the kind of the present moment. But he’s implicating himself, I think, as much as anyone else. And so it’s not a… accusation. Or if it is an accusation, it’s as much a self accusation as accusing the world. This is what, I think, people get wrong about political poetry is that it can veer into the propagandistic, and he’s really not doing that at all here. It’s something, like, much grander and more noble. So though I understand his desire later to sort of retract this or expunged from the record, I think that that’s like just even more an example of his humility and his desire to be truthful.
Wes: Yeah, one of the things which I know… you just told me before we got on the recording, that you had read this quite a while ago. Joseph Brodsky wrote a 50-something-page line-by-line analysis of this poem, which I only found over the weekend, just cause I was poking around in the secondary literature, and it is really one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever read and so I can’t recommend that highly enough to listeners. And I’m actually gonna put together a little secondary reading packet that I’ll put up on Patreon for people, that people can read this and some of the other essays that I had… that either of us read and in preparation for this. But he does, you know, one of the points he does make is about… I think he calls Auden, like, “the most humble poet ever.”
Erin: [laughter] Oh, I agree with that.
Wes: A grandiose claim on behalf of Auden’s humility. And, you know, part of that, as you just mentioned, is there’s that element of self accusation. So I don’t… Yeah, that the disgust that begins the poem… I think it would be hard to get away with that strong a political sentiment if it were just directed towards whatever political opponents you’ve imagined or conjured up, I mean, so whether it’s Hitler or capitalism or whatever you wanna call it, there’s an element of disgust for humanity in general, in a sense that we’re all culpable in some sense, which is an interest… you know, it’s a strange thing to be immediately so resident after 9-11, where you know there is a temptation to feel militaristic and to want to go to war, which, of course, is the thing that went out. But I think there’s a significant undercurrent. I have the desire to avoid that posture in ourselves, avoid that reaction, that vengeful and jingoistic reaction to 9-11 and this poem captured that feeling. Oh, and I did want to read one more… We talked about Auden hating the poem, and I don’t think he gives a long explanation of his dislike of the poem. I think he calls it dishonest. What did he call it? Trash or…?
Wes: Trash. That’s a good [laughter] epithet for it. So there is a letter in which he said “the reason (artistic) I left England was precisely to stop me from writing poems like September 1st, 1939 the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” Interesting he’s using that word “dishonest”, when “a low, dishonest decade” is, you know, one of the most memorable lines in the poem. “I am neither politician nor a novelist. Reportage is not my business,” Auden wrote in the early 1940. So there’s an interesting reaction here to the possibility of the use of poetry or the use of the arts, more generally, to make political statements. I mean, I think -and many others, of course, and this is why it’s persisted, you know why it survived- it’s such… I think it’s a brilliant poem, and one of the gripping things about it is sort of the first stanza in which it’s as if a reporter is writing, right? But anyway, why don’t we pause and read it?
Erin: Should we talk about his dislike of the last line of the penultimate stanza in particular?
Wes: Yeah, since we’re talking about the dislike here…
Wes: Right. So we’ve got to correct my assertion that he doesn’t really explain it because this is the one… this is a line that he tries to change.
Erin: Yeah, so he particularly disliked the last line of the penultimate stanza. “Oh, we must love one another or die”, which is obviously one of the most famous lines from the poem, and he felt that it was dishonest or just plain wrong, because obviously we’re all going to die anyway. And then he changed it to. “We must love one another and die.” But I guess that wasn’t enough of a change to satisfy him and then he just completely excised the poem from his collected… But, you know, so that was, I think, the official reason that he gave, which seems like not a very good reason, I guess. And I think that in the Brodsky essay that one of the things I really remember from that was that he said that the meaning of the line is actually “we must love one another or kill.”
Wes: Right. Right. He does say that, yeah.
Erin: I think that’s the way he puts it. And that the last stanza is kind of a rebuke of that sentiment, anyway. You know, he keeps going to these high points, you know, off pitch and then kind of like reeling it back in a little bit and then sort of casting his line out far again and then sort of reeling it back in. And so, since it’s the last line of the penultimate stanza, it’s not as if it were the last line of the poem, so in the last stanza that he kind of really backs in a little bit and so there’s a sort of apology for it, like built into the poem. But still, it wasn’t enough for him. And that was, anyway, the official reason that he gave for being dissatisfied with it in public, I guess.
Wes: Yeah, you know, maybe it’s because it sounds too sentimental to him. The idea that we’re going to die anyway doesn’t really make sense, right? I mean, the question is, when we die and how we die, [laughter] right?
Wes: I mean, I think Brodsky’s idea about killing, of course, is precisely the point. “We must love one another or die”, violent deaths at each other’s hands, essentially. Maybe it sounds platitudinous or too obvious, but in the context of the poem, it doesn’t, of course. It’s one of the points of high pitch, but there’s enough sobriety in the poem at various points as well to weigh it down and not make it seem just like a platitude. All right, do you want to read it?
Erin: Sure, we should also just say quickly. Obviously, September 1st, 1939 is the day that the Germans invaded Poland and started World War Two. Okay:
September 1st, 1939.
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
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
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
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
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 deaf,
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.
Defenceless 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.
Wes: Very nice. I can’t help but hear that “ironic points of light” mine and the voice of Bush, the first. [laughter]
Erin: George Bush. Yes. [laughter]
Wes: “Ironic points of light.” Um…
Erin: Yeah. What about the line about no new taxes?
Wes: [laughter] That’s right.
Erin: Um… [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. It’s weird that he put that in there about the taxes, but…
Erin: Yeah, you know, he really could see the future.
Wes: [laughter] But the way it begins, you know, as Brodsky points out, I was trying to put my finger on why it was so affecting, and, you know, something about locating himself in a dive and using, you know, a specific street number. But Brodsky points out that this kind of positions himself as a reporter. The title of the poem is a date, and then it’s like I sit in one of the dives. It’s like I’m reporting here from a dive bar in New York City
Erin: “Coming to you live.”
Wes: “Coming to you live.” And then there’s an immediate switch from that neutral reportorial… (Is that a word?) the neutral journalistic mode, straight into expression of raw emotion and then disgust.
Erin: Yeah, the 52nd Street area I know was like the jazz center of the world at that time. I suppose, after “uncertain and afraid”, what catches my eye are “the clever hopes of a low, dishonest decade.” So these clever hopes, meaning maybe of Spain, or clever hopes for peace, or wasn’t England sort of assuring Poland that they would not come under this way of the Germans, also?
Wes: The invasion of Poland immediately brings England into the war, so… But before that, there are attempts to appease Hitler, and the previous decade sees the rise of fascism. But during that time, there’s kind of a “well, everything is gonna be all right” type of attitude. There’s hopes that appeasement will work.
Erin: I guess Spain, too, I think of as being like the anti fascist thing that fell…
Wes: Yeah. So the fascists basically took over. And in Spain… I think those are the two things that loom large, the appeasement of Hitler and the attempt to kind of stay out of things as he’s mobilizing, and then the rise of fascism in Spain.
Erin: The cleverness of how these stanzas are put together, too, is really great, like the lines are almost on a monopoetic in a way, like “the clever hopes expire / of a low, dishonest decade.” It’s sort of like a staircase going down that line, that deflating effect that none of these hopes have come to fruition and so the stresses in “low, dishonest decade” sink sort of lower and lower. It’s really clever.
Erin: I should just say, too, that this is a sort of iambic trimeter, I guess, and these are eleven-line stanzas, there are nine stanzas total. Oh, which means I just figured out that there are 99 lines in this poem. And yeah, in a really irregular rhyme scheme, so like “dives” isn’t rhymed until “private lives”, three lines before the end of the stanza. So it’s really irregular. And then “waves of anger and fear / circulate over the bright / and darkened lands of the Earth” maybe it’s just because we recently did that episode on Yeats, but this makes me think of Yeats. And, of course, it does have some parallels to a poem that we didn’t cover but which is great, Yeats poem Easter 1916, which has sort of the same look on the page. I think that’s also kind of an iambic trimeter.
Wes: Commentators will note that this poem, in a way seems inspired by Yeats, there’s a lot of similarities. You know, I think he’s referring to radio waves, which took me a while to figure out, actually. Part of what’s going on here is the… so these anger and fear are obsessing our private lives. So I think there’s something important here about the fact that… the use of technology here to…
Erin: Yeah, to sort of invade us or… Yeah, I think there’s a really important balance that Auden strikes throughout this whole poem between sort of, like, the public mode and the private mode, and I think he sort of implies that that balance that is supposed to hold where, you know, sort of public things or newsy things are kept in one sphere, and one’s private life remains sort of sacrosanct. Those wires have been crossed. I think, Wes, you’re getting at this, that this is very… this seems recurrent…
Wes: Yes, exactly.
Erin: …like the idea is that maybe our private thoughts shouldn’t be upset by these big public pieces of news, especially when you know he’s writing safely, sort of from America. He has just left England, and now they’re in a war, and he’s certainly upset about it but he’s also lucky to be at some remove from England. And so the idea that we are so affected by things that are happening far away from us just obviously gets more and more true as the 20th century goes on and we’re all living in a global society.
Wes: Yeah. You know, I had this in my notes about… It’s kind of a complaint that we hear over and over again. Now the complaint is about fake news and social media and the Web and all that stuff, but they’re different iterations of the same sort of complaint. I mean, even Thoreau and Walden, right, complain about the telegram and the way news has invaded people’s private lives. And I’m sure somewhere in Pompeii they’ve found graffiti complaining about [laughter] the ways in which the news… they can think of nothing but the news, but anyway… Yeah, and I think also, you know, this mention of “bright and darkened lands”. I really love that because it’s also… seems like a reference to the role of technology. I think of kind of an aerial view of the Earth or a country as you’re flying over it, where you see, right, all the brightness from well-lit cities and then you see the patches of darkness. But in this case, the darkness is also the impending war. So I think there’s a bit here about, you know, the cleverness extends not just… it’s not just about appeasement, but it’s also about human cleverness in general, including technological cleverness and the ways in which that sort of cleverness is not a match for our darker natures. “Clever hopes” is such a wonderful phrase, too, because it’s a juxtaposition of two words that you might not necessarily think go together. You want to unpack that. What makes the hopes, in particular, clever, right? And they have something to do with liberal aspirations, you know, political aspirations, the belief in the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, for instance, but also in the… in progress in general, including technological progress, I think and, you know, skyscrapers, the things that that are surrounding him in New York.
Erin: Right. Yeah. So then we have “the unmentionable odor of death (but he mentions it) / offends the September night.” And then there’s kind of a turn, and each one of these stanzas is so different and each one kind of comes in at a different angle. Um…
Wes: Let me just say something about the “odor of death / offends the September night” because yeah, the night… This is one of the things that I think it was so resonant after 9-11, as you know, I was close to the South Tower when it fell, and I had to work right next to the aftermath, so that there was a big burning pit and there was this smell that you would never forget. And really, it was the smell of pulverized concrete for the most part. But there was the knowledge that that pulverized concrete included human remains, and it was everywhere. You know, when I went into my work station… when I finally got… was able to go back to work, everything was covered in that dust. And, of course, when the South Tower fell, I had been covered in that cloud of dust as well. It’s something that you never forget, that odor. But of course, for him, this is sort of “the unmentionable odor of death.” It’s… he’s nowhere near the odor of death at this point, right? It’s still far away, and yet he’s making it viscerally present.
Erin: Yeah, I think also, we read this through the prism of Auschwitz Birkenau, you know. But of course, none of those things exist yet, either. So he’s sort of, I don’t know. He’s very visionary here. Not not, of course, that there haven’t already been casualties because of German fascism. But this odor of death, like you say, I think it you know, it takes on a much, much greater significance when we think of the burning flesh of September 11th or, you know, much closer to ‘39, another situation where… that, you know, the odor of burning flesh hung over places. It’s just remarkable.
Wes: Yeah, it is kind of a prophetic element of it. I’m reminded now, actually of Watership Down, in which -I forget the little prophet visionary rabbit- but sees blood. Actually, it’s… you have the sensations of the thing that is coming in the future. You have them viscerally and in the present. And that’s the means of prophecy, these very basic sensory experiences. I associate September with fall, I guess fall officially begins, what, September 21st? So it’s the beginning of fall, it’s the beginning of the season of dying, and yet normally, you know, I think we normally have positive or calming associations with it. But here it’s as if, you know, a crisp autumn air has become something else.
Erin: Yeah, so then, between the end of the first stanza, in the beginning of the second, there’s kind of a turn. There’s a tonal shift, which happens a lot, I think, between stanzas throughout the poem. He’s coming at his subject from all different angles. And so, at the beginning of the second stanza, he says, “Accurate scholarship can / unearth the whole offence / from Luther until now / that has driven a culture mad.” And so there’s some kind of like, um… detached. He’s now kind of looking at it from a remove, maybe. Whereas he was considering everything from this dive, now he’s sort of gone, maybe a little bit of the sort of pedantic route here and looking at it through a historical lens, maybe. And so what is the offense, I suppose, that has driven the culture mad is the question, and he goes to Linz, which I know is the town where Hitler grew up.
Erin: So he sort of goes to Hitler’s sort of upbringing but he also harkens back to Luther, obviously another German. And maybe the idea that Luther was sort of the beginning of this trouble for Germany, the beginning of the kind of the tear in the common fabric that had united, you know, Europe up until that point, maybe the beginning of the atomization of society with, you know, no longer having everyone under the same church banner. And so he sort of goes back to there as sort of the beginning of something that would then create Hitler, which is interesting. And I can’t imagine that Lutherans are a fan of that. [laughter]
Wes: He’s rejecting these sorts of explanations as… yeah, he’s dismissing them as, you know, he’s scoffing at them, right? So, yes, we can give these historical explanations, we can give these causal explanations of what led up to this point, we can psychoanalyze Hitler and write ”What huge imago made / a psychopathic God.” An imago is an idealized image of a parent. But it’s actually very simple, he says, you know. You can give those explanations if you want, but the truth is actually very simple, something that you don’t need to be a scholar to know, you’d know if you’re a child, which is that “those to whom evil is done / do evil in return”, which seems to be a reference to the Versailles Treaty and to what a horrible circumstance Germany had been in after World War I, which Auden had actually experienced firsthand. He had been in Berlin for a while in the thirties. For people who might be initially enamored by the poem when they figure out [laughter] what it’s about, when it seems to be self-blaming. And it’s not just about the condemnation of Hitler and certain types of people or fascism or whatever. It’s a condemnation of our own impulses, human impulses more generally, and here you don’t have to search very far, according to him, to understand what’s going on, you just look at the desire for revenge or, in Germany’s case, humiliation and the desire to regain status or something like that. Of course, I think after the whole course of the war, he might have had a different opinion, right? Hitler becomes… and the atrocities of the Nazis, become harder and harder to explain as time goes on because they become so much more horrific. They’re already bad at this point, but they, of course, become horrific and unimaginable, and lots and lots has been written on how human beings could treat each other this way, how the Holocaust could happen. Something I was, by the way, as always, fascinated with this as a child. My grandfather was a Marine and was in Germany during World War II, but decided (he was actually… had some German heritage) and decided to stay there with my grandmother after the war, and they lived there and they integrated themselves, fluent in German and when they did come back to the States, finally, my grandfather had a lot of books on German history and the history of the Third Reich. And it’s something, as a kid, I became kind of obsessed with as a kind of moral, ethical focal point, as in, “how do we explain this?” and “how do we stop it from ever happening again?” It seems like the primary political imperative for me is to prevent the circumstances under which human beings will do this sort of thing to each other.
Erin: Yeah, I like what he manages to do here, which is to kind of like you say, to come at it from this historical angle and then and then go into what I assume is kind of like a Freudian reading of Hitler.
Wes: Well, it’s more… It’s psychoanalytic in general. You could call Freudian, but I think the reference to an imago is more of a reference to Young. Yes, specifically. And Auden was into psychoanalysis, right? And of course, he has a Great Palm, which is a tribute to Freud. And so he’s not condemning a psychoanalytic explanation per se but in this moment of spleen, he’s saying, “fuck all that, fuck all these complicated explanations. This is just something a school child can figure out.”
Erin: Should we go to the third stanza?
Erin: Okay. Yeah. So then I think Auden is making a strong parallel between himself and Thucydides at the beginning of the third stanza. I think they’re both sort of exiles, though Auden is in a kind of a self imposed exile.
Wes: So Thucydides, he wrote about the Peloponnesian War, and he wrote that during the war he was exiled pretty early on for something that was not his fault.
Erin: Didn’t he, like, not arrive somewhere in time?
Wes: Yes, he didn’t. But it wasn’t his fault.
Erin: Something… [Indistinct – laughter]
Wes: Yeah, he didn’t arrive in time before a certain city ended up surrendering and so his punishment was to be exiled. And then he actually got to hang out with people on the other side of things, so he’s with non Athenians, with enemies of the Athenians. So, you know, as someone who’d been exiled, and so he gives a famously neutral (quote-unquote) “objective” or “realistic” account of… a non-partisan account of the war.
Erin: Yeah. Thucydides, obviously, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, famously transcribed or even more famously, maybe like made up Pericles funeral oration, where he eulogizes, rather, the Athenian war dead and then… and sort of, like all of Athens itself, I suppose. And so, you know, maybe Auden is trying to say… this is what he himself is also trying to do with September 1st, and sort of eulogizing the end of an empire in a way. But then he does this, again, this this really humble thing, which is really [laughter] kind of confusing to me, which is then he sort of takes down Pericles and Thucydides and that sort of himself by I think he’s sort of collapses or conflates the funeral oration or the writings of Pericles or Thucydides with the dictators’ speeches that they give, you know, they’re fascistic speeches, “the rubbish they talk / to an apathetic grave.” And so he’s sort of… the whole thing becomes very deflated that this grand speech is actually just being spoken to, you know, a bunch of people who don’t care because they’re dead and it’s rubbish, it has no effect, ultimately, it’s futile.
Wes: Well, yeah, so what Pericles is doing in that speech, and I went and, in preparation for this, I read… It’s been a long, long time, since I was, like, 19 or something, since I looked at Thucydides and I had never thought sufficiently about what’s going on in Thucydides and specifically what’s going on with the Pericles funeral oration. But part of what Pericles is doing, right, in that speech, is he is… first of all, it’s kind of a ritual, it’s kind of a ritualized thing that they do, to give a eulogy to the war dead at a certain point, and the and the war is not over. So what he’s also doing is he… he’s really riling people up to give them the will to continue with the war and to succeed, to be victorious, which he confidently tells them they will be because Athens is such a great place. So he pivots from the beginning and says, “I’m gonna deviate here from talking about how great all these warriors are in particular, and I’m going to talk about Athens.” So that’s one of the famous things he does, and he has a great way of putting it, which is that he’s, you know, the reputations of many brave men should not be imperiled by the mouth of the single individuals if he can’t really do justice to the people who have died. But what he does with Athens is he talks about how fair its laws are, there’s equal justice under the law, in fact, their “equal justice under the law” phrase arguably comes from the speech, they welcome foreigners, they’re open, even if it means that people can spy on them. And so it’s a eulogy to Athenian liberal values and the idea that they will succeed because of those liberal values. Now he even says at one point, “we don’t have to… you know, Spartans, (because they were with Spartans, essentially) the Spartans train their youth to go through all these… you know, all the severe training when they’re younger, and we don’t have to do that. You know, what we have is it’s like we believe in science. You know, that’s what we are saying. [laughter] We believe in a culture. We are the cultured ones, we are the enlightened ones” and a lot of the upshot of Thucydides’ book is how all of that doesn’t matter, right. All of the sophistication of the Athenians doesn’t end up mattering, all their planning… And they do some brutal things, by the way. You know, they really commit some terrible war crimes, essentially, despite their conception of themselves as being enlightened and just and merciful and so on. It all comes to, you know, it all comes to a bad end for the Athenians. They lose the war, and Athens, you know, kind of briefly regains its glory again after a period, but it never really will have its empire again. So, you know, when he says all that speech can say about democracy, it’s in part, you know, Pericles is eulogizing democracy. He’s praising democracy, and he’s using it to rile people up for the cause of war. So when I think when he talks about the Enlightenment driven away, the habit forming pain, mismanagement and grief, it’s a competing model of education, which also has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy in which you have to… It’s not enough to be rational, it’s not enough to be enlightened or cultured. You have to learn by suffering, or you have to learn by being habituated. And that means, unfortunately, that there’s no easy transmission of learning from one generation to another because it has to be directly experienced. So, you know, it suggests that we’re not as capable of learning from history as we might have thought as well. Yeah, so it’s a really… it’s kind of a brilliant invocation of Thucydides to say that. And I think he’s reacting to probably some of the jingoistic, you know, as people are getting riled up for war, he’s probably “What’s going on?” as you’re hearing a lot about how Europe is now going to defend democracy against the Hun, right? So all the talk of democracy and liberal values is going to be turned as it was for Pericles to the purpose of getting people ready for war.
Erin: I sort of disagreed a little bit with what you said about the Enlightenment. Just that within the seeds of Enlightenment, it contained its own destruction, right? I mean, it’s not just about suffering. It’s about the idea that if you believe that man is perfectible, the progress of self improvement can lead you anywhere and can end in some sort of, you know, utopian vision that that is always going to go awry. I read the word “enlightenment” as… like a reference to the Enlightenment and obviously the Enlightenment and the neoclassical era are drawing heavily upon Athenian society. But… so just this idea that man is perfectible and that the promise of the Enlightenment is, you know, a scientific society in which all pain is eliminated and everyone lives in harmony it’s just not possible, but it’s because you have to understand something, I think, deeper about human nature is essential in perfectibility or something that all of these promises of the Enlightenment are going to end more in fascism than in something like socialism or communism, perhaps, or maybe a combination of both.
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s very good.
Erin: So the “neutral air”, which I really like, and the “blind skyscrapers” like, obviously with the fact that the air is neutral means that he’s in America because we’re not in the war yet. But there’s also something really, I don’t know, like antiseptic about that to me, something about that “neutral air” and “the blind skyscrapers” that make me think of, like, needles or something. Maybe the skyscrapers air blind because they’re like needles with no eye, or something, so they’re sort of poking into the neutral air, and they “proclaim the strength of collective man.” So I read this, maybe, as America is not immune to this potential downfall of enlightenment era thinking, I mean, you know, that’s what allowed America to exist is this… it’s an Enlightenment exercise, I guess you could say, or enlightenment idea.
Wes: So the neutrality, too, is a nice pivot of Thucydides who was famous for his neutrality and a more general idea of, yeah, of a kind of enlightenment neutrality in the sense of scientific objectivity and all that stuff and the neutrality associated with, again, liberal values that are supposed neutrality. And he’s going to say “That’s all bullshit.” [laughter] It’s “into that neutral air” that’s supposedly “neutral air”, what do you get? You have these skyscrapers which are in and of themselves. I was gonna say “piece of propaganda”, but, you know, maybe the better word is they are kind of physical agitprop. They say something, and they are expressions of the grandiose pretensions of humanity. So they are expressions of sort of human glory: “Look what we can do. Look what we can accomplish.” And you could say, you could attribute that to our collective efforts, right? So you could think of it as a tribute to the strength of collective men, as here’s what we can do when we cooperate when we work together and that seems well and good, except part of what’s going on here is that nationalism has its seeds in those sentiments, right? We’re proud of ourselves, we are proud of ourselves for being these clever human beings. But then we might be proud of ourselves for being Americans with a great democracy, or we might be proud of ourselves for being Germans with this great cultural tradition for being a volk. And that can become, of course, a big problem. So we can see the seeds of aggression and violence in our self-congratulations for having transcended such things, you know, whether it’s Pericles talking about how great Athens is for its openness, or whether it’s us congratulating ourselves for our democratic tendencies.
Erin: And that idea of self-congratulation, I think he’s saying toward the end of the stanza, it lends itself to imperialism.
Erin: You know, the idea that if you’re better than everyone else, you should, you know, share that beneficence with other countries, [laughter] whether they want it or not. And, too, with the mirror, I think, you know, he can’t… Auden is humble, of course. And you can’t use the word imperialism and be an English person and not have that go both ways. I think he’s talking about America here, But I think that, you know, he’s also talking about English culture at least up until World War One, at what point they were significantly weakened. But the idea that maybe these images that we’ve constructed of the face of imperialism, the mirror, maybe sits in the Atlantic and America is a true child of England in that way, in addition to, obviously, you know, the idea of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German imperialism. So we’re all sort of guilty of this. All the major players here, I think, are guilty of the same kind of sin.
Wes: Yeah, I think “each language pours its vain, / competitive excuse,” but what do you make of that specifically? That’s a hard one. What is the competitive excuse? I take it as some sort of reference to capitalistic competition, maybe, or the competitive spirit involved in business.
Erin: Yeah. And also with skyscrapers. I mean, at that time, I know there was, at least in the 1910s and 1920s, there was a great race to see who can build the tallest skyscraper too, so for… different countries held the title at different times. I know for a while the Eiffel Tower was one of the tallest free-standing structures. And then there was a bunch of cities in America, like Chicago and New York. It was going back and forth. So maybe the part of the excuses, like just progress itself and the idea that we want to make these buildings really tall. “Why?” “Because progress”, I don’t know, and therefore like science, you know, is the excuse, maybe.
Erin: This just makes me think of the space race, [laughter] which I know is not, you know, he’s even predicting the space race in here, I guess.
Wes: Yeah. So we get again the sort of at the end of the stanza of this kind of element of self-blame. “Out of the mirror they stare”, right? So when we think about imperialism and the international wrong and what Hitler is doing himself, we’re looking at a kind of mirror.
Erin: And obviously the clear Michael Jackson references are strong here. [Wes laughs] So he’s…
Wes: Of course, of course. It sees profit in many ways, yeah.
Wes: So, Erin, let’s pause for a moment to talk about the sponsor for this episode. Amazon Pharmacy. I know that one of the things I hate doing the most is actually going to a Brick-and-Mortar Pharmacy and standing in line for my prescriptions.
Erin: I know it’s such a hassle. It wastes a lot of time, and especially in this time of Covid, maybe not the safest option. But your doctor’s office can actually send your next prescription straight to Amazon Pharmacy. And then Amazon Pharmacy can deliver your medication directly to your door so you don’t have to wait in line anymore or bother going to the pharmacy at all,
Wes: And you can use your insurance. Amazon Pharmacy works with most insurance plans nationwide, but if you don’t have insurance and your Amazon prime member, you can save on prescription costs and get free two-day delivery.
Erin:You can learn more at amazon.com/subtextrx. That’s amazon.com/subtextrx. amazon.com/subtextrx.
Erin: Well, then that mirror is continued in the following stanza, which always reminds me of the painting Bar at the Folies-Bergèrelike the people in the mirror sitting at the bar because he’s back in the dive, he’s reminding us, I think, here, that, you know, he’s still in this dive. This is my favorite stanza, I think. I just love this stanza so much. We have “imperialism” and “the international wrong”. And then he goes back into the personal and the private again. This sort of sort of, like, tension back and forth between public and private or the objective and the subjective, maybe. So he’s looking at the faces in the bar, and then there’s this sort of strange pair of lines: “The lights must never go out, / The music must always play”, which… this is like a desperation for distraction, maybe, inherent in people who frequent these bars and these two lines remind me of like a manic carousel or something. [laughter] The desire to make the bar like home is really interesting to sort of…
Wes: In particular to make a fort into the furniture of home.
Erin: Right, but that the bar is itself a fort, I think.
Erin: So there’s a sort of conflation of, like, military implication of the bar, but then also like the public place of the bar becoming the place maybe that you avoid home with, but then you also have to sort of delude yourself into thinking that it is home and to become comfortable in it, it has to assume some of the furniture of home. So the idea that… extended then to the military metaphor, is that one becomes comfortable with war or that one makes war a hospitable environment for oneself. If you needed to be, I’m not being very sure.
Wes: I mean, part of it is, so he’s connecting militarism to people just going about their average day and distracting themselves with entertainment and the simple pleasures of life. So I borrow… Yeah, I think you’re spot on with the idea of the bar is furnished to be homey, ideally, right, at least if it’s an English pub, right, and you and you’re going to spend a lot of time there, and it’s sort of a… this is an American place, though, so I forgot about that, so I don’t know if a dive bar is gonna be all that homey, [laughter] but anyway. So It’s a home away from home, I think, at the very least, or that is self-conception. But to call it a fort… Wow! That’s pretty amazing, right? The idea is that it’s actually, in some kind of symbolic way, what people are doing there is they are being soldiers. Maybe it’s soldiers in their daily life, right, they’re going to work, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, they’re obeying rules, they’re in a sort of routine. So it’s just an amazing juxtaposition to talk about the ways in which we distract ourselves with the various entertainments as a kind of military routine, and of course he’s talking about, you know, military… the way political disaster can kind of flourish because people ignore it, and they kind of abdicate their roles as citizens by distracting themselves with entertainment. So this is a nice exaggeration, poetic effect of that very idea where it’s not just, “Oh, I’m distracted”, so injustice flourishes. It’s “I’m a member of an army of the people who distract themselves with leisure”. So the place that seems like it’s just a home away from home, and it’s nice and it’s innocent and it’s really a fort and where we really… we’re in this haunted wood. Now we get the kind of fairy tale feeling, right, [laughter] this turn to “Who are we?” “Are we Hansel and Gretel?” “What’s going on here?”[laughter]
Erin: The idea, too, that, like, you know, we’re afraid of the night so we have these distractions that keep us going. This is, maybe, especially true of American society, or the city, places like New York that never sleep, that you never have to confront yourself or be alone with yourself. The lights never have to go out, and so you can sort of go from public space to public space, sort of convincing yourself that you’re home and never having to confront your own dissatisfactions or your own moral failings. And he’s, you know, by being a denizen at one of these bars is extending that, of course, to himself.
Wes: Yeah, so we’re deluding ourselves, you know, “lest we should see where we are.” So where are we, really? Right? The bar is kind of an illusion which will fall away now. And we’re no longer in a fort but we’re “in a haunted wood”. So where are we, really? We are not people at the bar just distracting ourselves anymore and we’re no longer soldiers, but now we’re children at our core who are afraid. You know, what does it mean to say that we have never been happy or good is part of the illusion that we’re setting up in our entertainments, in our leisure, right? This is, you know, this is what happiness means, and this is my reward for being a good person, for following the rules, for going to work. No, you’re not happy. You’re not good. You’re not getting a reward. At the bottom, you’re someone who’s afraid, trying to distract yourself from that fear and still very child-like, so I love that. I just love… I love the twists and turns of the stanza.
Erin: Yeah, and then the next stanza is one of my least favorite. [laughter]
Wes: Is it because there’s a hard to pronounce name in it? Because that’s my reason.
Erin: [laughter] No, it’s just it gets a little thorny, I think. I also don’t like “the windiest militant trash”. I don’t like that very much, mostly because it reminds me of Auden’s own opinion of this poem.
Wes: Brodsky says he kind of makes a turn back to English. You know, more British diction here, and it’s because there’s more… there’s kind of a tension between the Britishness and the Americanness in this poem, American diction and British diction, and this is a turn back to bus plane, you know, more snobby language, in a way.
Erin: I like the “lest we should see where we are”, and I think that’s a little bit Englishy. But “the militant trash / important persons shout / is not so crude as our wish.” Okay, so these are the worst things that people shout is not as bad as we are our own wishes, which is… what? “What mad Nijinsky wrote / about Diaghilev.” There’s actually, I think, a direct quote from Nijinsky’s diary in this stanza, “not universal love, / but to be loved alone.” I think that’s the part that’s quoted, just those two lines. So Diaghilev was the founder of the Ballets Russes and was the lover of Nijinsky, who was his star dancer for many years. And Nijinsky was probably the greatest ballet dancer of all time, along with Anna Pavlova. And so Nijinsky and Diaghilev were lovers and then Nijinsky went sort of like increasingly insane. And one of the ways in which he sort of went insane was he…
Wes: Diaghilev, right, fired him essentially, right?
Erin: Yeah. As sort of… as a result of Nijinsky’s erratic, growing erratic behavior. And also, there was a lot of ill will between them with Nijinsky’s marriage and their very messed-up [laughter] sort of relationship. But yes. So Diaghilev was this… he was like this impresario basically and nurtured a lot of ballet talent as founder of Ballets Russes. And in his diary, I think he was sort of analyzing a couple of famous figures at the time. I think one of them was Woodrow Wilson, and he was saying… he was comparing these people to Diaghilev sort of unflatteringly and saying something like “What we need is universal love but what Diaghilev wants is just like one person’s particular love.” So he’s sort of casting Diaghilev, I think (if I’m remembering this correctly), in a sort of a selfish light and that what we should want is the sort of universal love that unites all people, but what most of us want is just for us to be loved, for people to love us, selfishly, and not for that that give-and-take or that communality of a kind of a Christian, all encompassing love. So this, I think, is “the error bred in the bone”, and just because he follows it with “each woman and each man” I always think of, like, Adam’s rib or something [laughter], like this idea that the desire for this kind of specific, selfish love is the sort of original sin… I know, I’m conflating Adam’s rib with original sin, and I don’t need to do that, but just that we want not the love of all but the love of me, I suppose, and that that’s where all of these problems originate.
Erin: We can even harken back to “those to whom evil is done / do evil in return.” The idea that, like a sin against me, means that I’m allowed to do you a reciprocal sin because of that self love being wounded.
Wes: Exactly. I think self love is a really good way of putting this right. It’s not what he explicitly says, but this is about our narcissism and the word love is kind of polyvalent, in the sense that wanting to be loved alone can include just wanting to be admired alone and that, in a way is kind of the narcissistic position as to not want to be in that vulnerable situation of depending on others, and having to give, having to having to love, and risk loss, and risk rejection, but to just be invulnerable and to receive and not to give. And so where the receiving of love lends itself to a sense of self inflation, sense of self importance, but also to… it kind of feeds into the concept of status, which is really important to the concept of nationalism, right. So when people want to take vengeance and they wanna do evil to those who have done them evil, what is that about, right? How could that possibly be satisfying to us? What does vengeance do for us? And what it does is it restores our self concept. So being harmed is more than what the pain caused us. It’s about humiliation, it’s about the damage it does to our self image, to our self love. And the desire is to restore that through some kind of infliction of pain, which becomes a kind of proof, right? “Look what I can do. I am not the week humiliated being that you thought I was that you tried to make me into. I’m actually powerful and important.” This idea of being… wanting to be loved alone is extremely important in the kinds of self aggrandizement now at a national level, or the cultural level that he’s talked about earlier in the poem, including the self aggrandizement associated with being enlightened or being a liberal democracy and so on.
Erin: The use of the phrase “loved alone” is really interesting because he’s like, you know, “but to be loved. Period.” Basically it’s what he means in one way, but in the other way by saying, you know, “to be loved alone” it’s almost like “to be left alone.” One can’t be loved alone, like that’s, you know, the implied, like self love. The love that you receive or that you can give to yourself that doesn’t rely on anyone else is obviously a sort of part of what he’s getting at here.
Wes: Just one more thing about this stanza. It kind of also gets at our inclination to say, “Oh, this is about the Fascists, right? This is about the windy militant trash. So fuck the Fascist. Let’s get rid of the fascists,” you know. And this is something you hear in our political discourse all the time, and there’s never that reflection on the fact that this is a universal problem, right? We’d be accused and Auden would be accused here of bothsidesism or false equivalence, which is fine by me, by the way. I’m accused of it all the time, and I’m fine with that [laughter] because I think it’s true. I think there’s a precise moral equivalence between partisans on each side. We are called again to cast judgment on ourselves and not just cast judgment on others. And part of the problem, part of what leads towards that inability to cast judgment on ourselves are. But lots of people died during World War Two at the very moment that they were accused of being a fascist or a communist or… And in a way, you know, being Jewish was synonymous with being a communist. So people use these words as epithets and come out the evil of their fellow human beings, and it allowed them, it justified atrocities. So unless we can admit to our own narcissism and to our own culpability in horrific ways that human beings generally treat each other then we can easily be lured into what is essentially a fascist frame of mind ourselves. So anyway, I’m sorry to moralize there. I had to get that in. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, so then in the following stanza that he moves “from the conservative dark / into the ethical (I would want to read that as light) life.” [laughter] He’s just describing, like, commuters on a subway, maybe, who are sort of imploring themselves or sort of like rehearsing their little axioms to try and, you know, get them through a day without cheating on someone or…
Wes: …being a good… trying to be a good person.
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Wes: Which you talked about in the bar stanza a little bit too. So it ties him. But go ahead.
Erin: Right. Yeah. And so I mean, what do you make of that “conservative dark”, though? That’s really interesting. Is conservatism that the place where these things aren’t really tried out or, you know, where there’s no… you know, the light of like, a practical use doesn’t shine on conservatism. In practice, everyone is embroiled in something that, by its own nature, can’t be conservative, maybe?
Wes: Part of what’s interesting here is, we might expect “from the conservative dark / into the ethical light” right? But “light” is changed to “life”. And conservative… I’m not sure… When I look at that word, I often think of Freud, because Freud used it, and I know Auden was reading a lot of… I mean, I think he read practically all Freud and was very into that. And for Freud, there’s a conservative element to the instincts that associates with death drive. But this is essentially to say there’s some sort of part of us, which is inertial, which will just try to… and ironically it’s, despite being called, you know, death drive, it’s associated with what Freud calls the ego instincts and the desire to preserve ourselves and the desire just to keep things going as they are, because it’s comfortable. And, you know, it is what it is. And you can associate that with political conservatism, right? The desire to preserve tradition and do things purely because it’s what’s been done before and it feels right because of that, and it feels good because of that. If you come out of that into the ethical life, I think that’s a more progressive mode, but ironically, right, “the dense commuters come.” So I like that double entendre on “dense” as in “dumb” and “dense” as in… you think of a really packed subway train and they’re “repeating their morning vows / I will be true to the wife / I’ll concentrate more on my work”, which sounds like a train, by the way, which sounds like, you know, kind of “da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da”: “I think I can, I think I can.” It strangely enough, reflects that inertial conservativism, which it supposedly is trying to escape, right? So the the ethical life brings us out of ourselves. It brings us out of that narcissism with which he’s just ended the previous stanza. Which one could argue, that’s the conservative thing, our narcissism. And yet it doesn’t seem to escape the powerful force involved in that, right? It just… suddenly we get something that doesn’t sound so enlightened and ethical. After all, it’s just the repeating of Catechisms. So that’s the kind of pessimistic [laughter] interpretation I give to this stanza. I don’t know. Does that sound right to you or…?
Erin: Yeah, yeah. That singsonging quality to those two lines I think is continued with this idea of like the governors are waking up to just play their compulsory game. So this idea that everything is sort of like automated and everyone’s just going through the motions. So though it’s seemingly supposed to be the ethical life, that the very fact that you’re a commuter on a train, there’s a lack of agency, maybe, inherent in that. People were just being carried along…
Wes: Yes, exactly.
Erin: …they’re not, actually, you know, deciding things for themselves in the same way that they’re may be, you know, carried into what I would call sin, right, like adultery or being distracted or, you know, not not concentrating on things you actually have to be concentrating on. But this just sort of hapless, self diluted and and kind of distracted mode, which is the same one that the governors who are controlling the people are also existing in. “Who can release them now, / Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb”. These are maybe the three lines in the poem that most challenge my understanding. So this is the game that the governors play, maybe like a game of, you know, with the end of Trump’s presidency and all the commutations and pardons that are coming down. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of “who can release them now” as… like a pardoning or commuting sentences or something. Like what governors do. Who could reach the deaf who can speak for the dead? I suppose I’m thinking of these governors also as being like European and, you know, obviously having a larger meaning than just like the governor of the State of New York, for instance. I suppose I don’t really know what he’s getting at in these three lines.
Wes: In my notes I make things red, I make the text read when I still don’t feel like I have much understanding. [laughter] So this is one of those parts. I mean, I think you’re on the right track as far as… you know, and I can’t add much more than that, except to say that he… yeah, he seems to be thinking now of “so you have the people living out their routine. And then what do the people who run the government do about that?” So we’re now looking at political aspirations in relation to the people. We get the nice irony of the fact that they’re supposed to run things, but they’re helpless and they’re engaged in a compulsory game. So in the same way, you know that the commuters have not really been able to emerge into a true ethical life and make, as you put it, you know, make real decisions who seem to get the same thing with the governors who are supposed to somehow help people do that. So I take “release them now” as “release and reach the deaf” as having something to do with liberating people liberating them both materially, right, and politically and spiritually and ethically. The idea seems to be that there is some role for the government in accomplishing these ethical goals with people in becoming, you know, formative for them. That doesn’t work. That can’t do what it’s supposed to do. So overall, a very pessimistic stanza. Probably the very, you know, the absolute low point of the poem, although we’re gonna get a bit of a turn around, a little bit of hope that, of course, Auden hated. [laughter] So…
Erin: He comes back in with the “I”, which I think is the first time he’s used it, not in quotation marks to describe the thoughts of the commuters, the first time he’s used the “I” since I guess the second stanza.
Erin: “All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie”, folded lie being paper, like a newspaper, maybe, and also I have the romantic lie in the brain. So he sort of implies that it’s like within the fold of the brain this lie is deeply lodged…
Wes: I have to admit, and I did not get that until I read Brodsky and he mentions it, but… [laughter] so I completely missed that. And I was like, “What does he mean by folded? Is he talking about some kind of inherent contradiction here? Something that turns back on itself?”, but yeah.
Erin: And yet we know that just a few months before in his poem for Yates, he writes, you know, that poetry makes nothing happen. So there’s a futility inherent in this too, based on what we know about Auden and what he thinks about poetry doing nothing. So he just has his voice, “the romantic lie in the brain / of the central man-in-the-street, / the lie of Authority.” So he only has his voice to undo this lie of the central man-in-the-street and the second lie, but maybe they’re the same lie, the lie of authority. So perhaps again, it’s just this narcissistic self conception that we’re all out for authority, we’re all out for pleasure, we’re all out for ourselves, we’re all islands who can disregard one another and and seek our own pleasure, even if that means, you know, traveling on other countries. He sort of reduces everything and, you know, sort of contracts it and expands it at the same time to refer to just some guy on the street and also Authority with a capital “A”, these skyscrapers, the state.
Wes: So there’s an interesting synthesis in this stanza of a lot of what’s gone on previously in the poem, right? We’re revisiting the skyscrapers now, and it’s become even more sinister. They grope the sky, and they represent the live authority. Earlier on, we had seen them, you know, they’re blind. And by the way, the good… one of the things I like about the blindness, of course, is that skyscrapers have lots of eyes, there are lots of windows, and yet they’re blind. Blindness is also associated with justice, but it could also be associated with failure to see it at an ethical level, even as they proclaim the strength of collective man. So I think again, it’s the way the celebration of human cleverness and ingenuity and also human enlightenment. Values and liberal democracy can itself degrade into something authoritarian, right? We celebrate our prowess with those buildings. We feel proud. We feel maybe even nationally proud. And so I think that’s the… the romantic lie has something to do with that pride in… you know, romanticism and nationalism are… they have some relation to each other, at least for some critics, including Nietzsche, the idea of national glory. So we’ve seen that, you know, this idea of a central man-in-the-street, we’ve seen that before, with the people in the bar distracting themselves with their entertainments and their pleasures, that sensuality you might think might ground them might bring them back down to earth but somehow it implicates them in this live authority. Perhaps because that’s, you know, in part because they are surrounded by these concrete visual symbols of such things. When we get to the point in the stanza of where “there is no such thing as the State / and no one exists alone”, what do we make of that contradiction?
Erin: I’m not sure. I mean, is he saying that the, you know, the social contract that binds us all together is an illusion, or is he saying that that’s become invalidated by people’s lack of care for each other if they ever had it? It seems to me that Auden doesn’t have so rosy a view of the past in relation to the present. He’s not romanticizing the past in any way. So, I don’t know, the idea that states are perhaps just constructs, and that there is nothing binding us together in any kind of literal physical sense necessarily. But also the idea, of course, that we are communal people, that we’re social animals and that we are not capable of being total isolationists. I guess that that word makes me think of, maybe, this is his Coat of Arms for Americans.
Wes: I think that’s very, very good. So the state can become the object of glorification. And I’ve been associating that with nationalism and alive authority. When really what he’s saying, “…no one exists alone / hunger allows no choice,” really he’s saying that we are in the state of abject interdependency, and the state may be a small “s” right, we should say, because he’s capitalized the “s”, and this other glorified state, state (small “s”), is a product of that vulnerability and abjectness and interdependence. And it’s not this thing that people turn it into, right? It’s not Germanness or Americanness. It’s not this big thing of which one ought to feel proud. It’s just something that we have, because there’s nothing… [laughter] there’s nothing better, right? Well, it’s just a way to escape the nasty, brutish and short state of nature. And, you know, “we must love one another or die”. So that’s an interesting riposte to the second last stanza, right? “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.” So we talked a lot about that narcissism, so that pitied, right, in a way it pitied selfishness and survival against love of others. And here he is concluding that our survival actually mandates that we truly love one another. So I think it’s a strange… well not strange, but it’s a really interesting turn to something positive out of a complete state of abjectness. Our survival’s at stake, and so we can learn the lesson of love from the alternative, which is destruction.
Erin: Yeah, And then in the last stanza, I remember Brodsky saying that the last stanza is sort of the deflation, maybe, that comes after the grandiosity of “We must love one another or die” or “Defenseless under the night / our world in stupor lies / yet dotted everywhere / ironic points of light.” There’s the Bush reference. Again I have, like, what you were describing, I also shared in that that first stanza of… there is a sort of, like, aerial or, you know, topographic view of the United States.
Wes: Yeah, that’s really important, actually. The bright and darkened lands they’ve been transposed right into something more hopeful. Points of light.
Erin: Yeah, “Flash out wherever the Just / exchange their messages”. I love that. It makes me really wonder, like what… okay, so who is Auden calling “just” then? Like, I would love to get his list of people who meet his approval. Because so far, everybody is, like, you know, militant trash. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, this is part of the problem of the poem, right? So now he’s singling him and a few others out as the good ones, and that’s precisely what the rest of the poem argues against. But then how would you be hopeful [laughter] if you don’t do that?
Erin: Yeah. Then he ends with a kind of a prayer that he’d be one of these just people. But, you know, perhaps the message is, then, that he doesn’t number himself among them but that he wishes that he could be: “May I be…” you know, a light in the in the darkness or whatever the, you know, cliche phrases, though I am just made of of Eros and of dust. So I’m, you know, I’m also just the sensual man in the street, I’m just composed of the same medalists as anyone and under the will of the same… bent to the will of the same forces and and oppressed by the same states and wars and everything else that’s going on. May I flash out and be this point of light? And that’s, you know, the most he does is pray that he can aspire to that. I think in the end he still…he stays humble. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think that his own worries about the poem are not as founded as he thinks they are. I think he does maintain his humility and he does maintain the self examining and self… the element of the rest of the poem in which culpability is accepted by all of which we’re not singling some people out as just and others as bad. It’s just that… well, one of the other things I wanted to say here is that this is such a perfect stanza for the ending of the poem because there’s a lot of call-backs. It comes full circle. There’s a lot of call-backs. Actually, the first stanza where, you know, we had the radio waves obsessing our private lives and “circulating over the bright and darkened lands”, and now we get instead points of light, and the points of light represent messages, so that’s what has replaced the waves. And these are messages that are hopeful, that are representative of justice, which for all the pessimism of the earlier stanzas, right, we do have to admit, yes, we are capable of being good to one another, we are capable of being just, we are capable of being loving and those things, maybe they’re rare, but they are things to strive for, and we’re not just, you know, composed out of dust but there’s also Eros. We’ve heard a lot about dust, in away, including the conservative dark, which I thought of in relation to the death drive and I think “dust” applies here as well, the sort of inertial, not just inanimate component of us, but the inertial component that keeps us doing what we’re doing and has us ignore injustice and suffering and has us live according to our pleasures and our sensuality, as opposed to living according to higher aspirations, and then gets us confused about when we do think we’re reaching for something higher. It’s status-oriented, or it has something to do with the live authority. Or it’s… it seems to be about love, but it’s about pride, it’s about our own narcissism. And that’s a big problem, right, with the erotic and with love. It’s hard to distinguish those two things. When are we genuinely in a loving state and when are we simply loving others as extensions of our… of ourselves? So this invocation of Eros, you know, capital “e”. It’s a counterpoint to the State capital “s”, which is sort of the political manifestation of our narcissism, and I suggest the state not capital “s”, which requires us to love each other and be just to each other and be good to each other because of our interdependence, you know, is the proper way of thinking about things. And I think that state, non-capitalized “s” we might associate with… truly with Eros capital “e”. Out of that, we get an affirming flame out of our negation and despair. So there’s this… obviously, this interesting dynamic between Eros and dust and between love and narcissism and all of those other counterparts to each other. And the question is how you tip the scales in the direction of Eros and how you get… um, there’s two kinds of possibilities explored in the poem. One is the way in which our destructiveness can emerge from what seems to be the erotic and the other is the way in which the truly loving can emerge from our dust-like nature and our negation and despair. So that’s the weird dialectic going on and that’s what makes it… the political so difficult, right, where we tell ourselves we’re opposing fascism and we’re telling ourselves we are defending democracy, and really we are engaging in our own jingoism and nationalism, and the question is, how do we avoid that? And it’s difficult. And I think what, you know, what Auden was sensing in his hatred [laughter] of his own poem, which I think is great, is the… It’s like he’s trying to… maybe it’s too neat an ending, and too cute, in a way, too positive and a platitude in this way, but it I don’t think it is.
Erin: Well, what’s interesting, too, is that I read (maybe I’m wrong) but I read the final stanza as almost like a call to arms or something. The dots and the messages and the flashing lights are reminding me of, like, people at a military base, maybe getting messages in and stuff like that. You know, the idea is that we have to fight this. What’s the point, too? So though he is down on this kind of nationalism or self assertion, there is also the need to stop fascism and to assert oneself as a nation and insofar as, you actually do get out there and condemn things that are wrong, while somehow still acknowledging that you are not perfect. There’s a difficult balance, obviously, that needs to be achieved there. The idea of the just and a just war is important here. You know, standing up for the right things and making those, you know, being active, not just like a commuter on a train. I mean, I suppose one reading of the poem would be okay. Let’s get let’s give up, because there’s nothing we can do and there’s nothing we can fix. And we’re also evil in and of ourselves and were also quick to point fingers that we should just not point fingers at anyone and be sort of incapacitated [laughter] by our own failures. I don’t think he’s saying that either, “to show an affirming flame”. What does that mean? It’s got to mean more than just talk, I think. And he knows that. He’s a poet again that, you know, poetry makes nothing happen. That that’s something active does need to happen in response to this. And one can’t just be in this neutral air forever.
Wes: Yeah, I think you’re also getting at what he disliked about the poem, which is this idea that you know when in the previous stanza, he says, “All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie”. He comes to reject the idea that poetry is designed for political persuasion and that it can change people and it can change the world. You know, you’re talking about actually doing things, and I think you’re right. I mean, I think in a way he thinks this is the wrong place for political advocacy of any kind. And I think the reason he’s wrong about that is because of the self critical tone of the poem and humble tone of the poem. I think if you can pull that off, then you can do something political without just being another rank partisan or someone who’s pontificating about the world’s injustices in a trite way. And he has a point, you know, in his mind, poetry, and the arts in general, it’s a kind of perilous terrain for them when they get into the political. You know, at what point is it just propaganda, for instance? Or at what point is it just an expression of one’s own nationalism or one’s own partisanship or something like that? It’s always hard to tell when you’re doing that, and so to do that to your art, you do want some sort of neutrality, right? We’ve talked about this a lot. If you’re Shakespeare you don’t wanna come in with ethical judgments about your villains. You just wanna make them what they are in all their glory. I think that’s the problem.
Wes: All right. Is that it?
Wes: All right. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.