Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Low Dishonest Decade

It's hard to finish the gaming post I had prepared today (perhaps later when the clouds have past). Hard not to stray back to that profound moment of shock and sadness ten years to this day, a thought obviously shared by others on my blog roll.

Jolted by a half-heard phrase on the radio, I remember that afternoon pulling down a dog-eared copy of W.H. Auden's poetry and flipping to that famous elegy on the opening day of the catastrophe of his own generation--a poem he was said to have hated till the end of his life and never wanted to see published again.

Rereading it today, I was struck how nothing that day, or since, put it together as well the welter of conflicting emotions.

September 1, 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
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 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.


  1. Great poem and incredibly apt indeed.

  2. Rather than merely applaud Auden, I'll wonder if your other readers recognize the poem is in no way an encouragement or contains a note of positive camaraderie; this is part of the reason Auden disliked it. The poem condemns civilization, it condemns the simple blindness of his fellow human beings. It proposes the solution for ills, love and the hope for love, but Auden's own words, that his light might shine amidst the beleagered hordes, speaks as much to the people in the dive he describes himself being in as it does the invasion of Poland by his own Germany. The poem is a description of one man watching all history lead hopelessly to the final degredation, that he alone sees coming and he alone can do anything about.

    It helps to imagine what a 'dive' was in New York in 1939. It is a place where no upstanding person goes. It is a place for blind staggering drunkedness. It is not the artistic refuge beatnik joint of the 50s. It is where working men drink, men who do not care if Europe turns upon itself and dies.

    And yes, there are some that see America like that. But I don't believe these are here reading this blog today: "nice" and "apt"? As the drones roam over the plateaus of Iraq and through the chinks of Afghanistan, soaking the soil in blood, the Americans sit and lick ten year old wounds that have grown callused and hard, quite beyond soothing.

  3. Alexis, your observations have only strengthened my conviction that my use of the word "apt" is indeed apt. I don't think anyone here thought the poem was encouraging or held "a note of positive camaraderie", quite the contrary - which is why it is apt.

  4. I will join the chorus: it's a remarkably apt reference for a dishonest decade, although the rubbish talked has been anything but "elderly."

    And it's still going on. "Arab spring" is the sort of hopeful-sounding nonsense you could have heard from development sociologists in the 50s or (with a different racial referent) League of Nations Gentlemen in the 20s and 30s. Hurrah for democracy! Down with the dictators! Ogle the rape rooms. Bomb the freedom into them (and us).