Sometimes a poem gets it “Oh so right!”
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.
In this case, it is W H Auden’s lament over Hitler’s invasion of Poland: entitled September 1, 1939,
It became a staple at funerals during the AIDS epidemic (Auden himself had been gay), and it was widely cited after 9/11 (for its references to New York City).[i] With Covid-19, it returns to haunt us – especially in its even more dramatic fifth stanza.
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.
At least metaphorically, isn’t that us? The lights of life darkened; the music silenced? And not so metaphorically, here we are, quite locked away – not in forts we imagine as homes, but in homes that have become forts.
I wonder, however, about the last line: We are indeed reduced to “children afraid of the night,” but have we “never been happy or good”?
Where did Auden get that idea?
Auden’s devoutly religious family of origin had instilled it in him with the belief in original sin and a suspicion of pure enjoyment. As an Oxford undergraduate, he rebelled, by embracing Freud, Marx and Berthold Brecht, but by 1937, he was already beginning to despair of his youthful left-wing hopes and flirting with a return to his Christian roots.
In December 1939, with America still neutral in the war, he attended a movie in New York City’s “Germantown” (the Yorkville area, around East 86th St.). As a newsreel showed German soldiers taking Polish prisoners, the German-American audience erupted in shouts of, “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was stunned.
On what grounds, he came to wonder, did he even have a right to expect anything better of those around him? His inability to answer this question, he explained, “brought me back to the Church.”
But he was already on the way back, after visiting Spain in 1937, and seeing civil war there tear apart his leftist ideals. Then Hitler invaded Poland, and by the fall of 1940 he was going to church again, and would affirm the Christian faith for the rest of his days.[ii]
Auden’s rediscovery of original sin, the view that we had “never been happy or good,” was a commonplace event for intellectuals of his day. In 1908, G. K. Chesterton wrote an entire book to explain his return to the Christian fold, putting it down to “the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes” and “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[iii]Auden himself admired Kierkegaard’s view that “Before God we are always in the wrong.” September 1, 1939 was cited in an introduction to Paul Tillich’s theological masterpiece The Courage to Be, because for all his modernism, Tillich too taught that the ultimate experience is the despair of guilt. The “courage to be” is the courage to affirm oneself in spite of it.[iv]
Is that the lesson we are to draw from our plague of the moment? That the lights have gone out, the music has stopped, and we realize now that all along, we have never been happy or good? Because after all, we are inveterate sinners? Really?
It is not Christianity to which I object. Most Christian thought has nuanced the concept of sin – it’s hardly as black and white as I have portrayed it — and anyway, you see a different form of it in medieval Judaism too, including medieval Judaism that persists, here and there, today. Evangelical Christians were not the only group to defy the social distancing rule so as to pray in droves for a divine end to the pandemic; some Haredi Jews did too, not out of concern for “original sin,” but because of “ordinary sin,” the sin that makes us Jews at least “primally” sinful, if not “originally” so – to the point that plagues may be divine punishments that we deserve. This is the attitude that blamed the Shoah on the victims for not putting m’zuzot on their doors. If that is true religion, then spare me from it.
I see another response to the Covid debacle, a reaffirmation of the more mainstream Jewish belief that human beings, at our core, are really a mixture of bad and good – not essentially sinful, as Auden, Chesterton, and Tillich presupposed. I love Auden the poet, Chesterton the writer, and Tillich the philosopher, but try as I may, I see the world differently.
I think that locked away in “our dives on 52nd St.,” the lights out and the music silenced, we are indeed “children afraid of the night,” but all the more frightened because we know we have indeed been happy and good, and we wonder if we will ever be so again.
I do worry about American society and the American dream that I have come to know and love. It is April 2020, not September 1939, but we too might rightly claim to be watching “the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade.” And so far, the next decade doesn’t look all that much better, not if we judge tomorrow by the headlines of today: the uneven impact of our plague upon the have-nots and left-behinds; and the bailout efforts gerrymandered to favor corporate banking favorites, for example.
But yesterday, here and there, amidst the April rain and gloom, a rainbow majestically appeared. We are, God help us, ordinary dust of the earth, alive all too often to just our personal well-being, our own self-enrichment, our own creaturely comforts — as much of them as possible before we die, and others be damned. But we are also, equally, and maybe even usually, the love and light of God’s presence, the purity of soul breathed into us at the beginning, our better natures that do come out in the midst of a storm to shine like the sun: the self-sacrifice of hospital workers and first responders; the folk who buy groceries for elderly neighbors and sew makeshift masks because our government cannot get them for us; the phone calls we all make and get with people we haven’t spoken to in years.
In the middle of this April winter of our discontent, the support staff at Hebrew Union College in New York, who double as professional singers and work for us in between their gigs in operas and musicals, sent around their version of the priestly benediction (https://vimeo.com/405088660).
I see promise where others see defeat.
And even Auden, back in September, 1939, still had his doubts about the human incapacity to, at least partially, save ourselves, because he ended his masterpiece in a poetic flourish that defies despair:
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.
Exactly. We seem “defenseless,” feel “beleaguered,” but are charged now more than ever to “show an affirming flame.” Things can change. Tomorrow can be better than yesterday. “The Just can exchange their messages.” The happy and the good can prevail.
[i] Ian Samson, “The Right Poem for the Wrong Time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939,” The Guardian (August 31, 2019).
[ii] Alan Jacobs, “Auden and the Limits of Poetry,” First Things (August 2002).
[iii] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908: Image Books ed., 2001), pp. 4/5.
[iv] Peter Gomes, Introduction, Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be , 2nd edition, (New Haven: Yale University press, 1952).