On the day Hitler invaded Poland, the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden famously sat “in one of the dives on Fifty Second Street/Uncertain and afraid.” The poet was a native of Yorkshire, England, but as totalitarianism amassed in Europe and perhaps threatened to overtake his homeland, Auden, like so many of his fellow intellectuals saw the shining beacon of the Mother of Exiles in New York harbor and migrated to the west, seeing in the United States the last, best hope of mankind. The Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who approached the Manhattan skyline at the same moment as Auden got quietly drunk among the gay bar of Midtown, enthused that Americans had erected “pyramids of democracy with the vertical organ-pipes of your skyscrapers all meeting at the point of infinity of liberty!” And Auden, who sat in a tavern within these canyons of glass and concrete and steel, contemplating the horrors of that “psychopathic god” driving eastward, considered these “blind skyscrapers” that use “Their full height to proclaim/The strength of Collective Man,” right at the moment that Europe was embracing the nightmare of the strong-man. For Auden, in the relative safety of New York, he could ruminate on the implications of “Imperialism’s face/And the international wrong.” Today, about seven blocks north of where Auden may have drank, stands Trump Tower.
What else is there to say? The perversity that the land which once signaled safe-harbor to so many men and women fleeing European fascism should now see itself pinging with the ominous echoes of the past. Horror of horrors, it also feels farcical in a particularly American way (a gameshow host….). Not an obscenity so much as a blasphemy. As I write this, men and women are amassing in the streets of our greatest city, one that I love, to demonstrate to the world that a sense of decency, civility, tolerance, and freedom still burns somewhere here. On this day we can repeat the saddest lines, that we loved America, and that sometimes she loved us. What did I learn, after an hour of terrible sleep and a cup or worse instant coffee, reflecting on the electoral horrors of November 9, 2016? North Carolina, Ohio, my own beloved Pennsylvania all painted that blood red? Auden wrote that “Accurate scholarship can/Unearth the whole offence,” and no doubt we’ve been trying to sort it all out, ensconced in our blue island social media bubbles, asking how the polls could have been so wrong? What has “driven a culture mad,” as Auden asked of Germany? The poet’s theory about the Germans, after one has stripped away “the whole offence/From Luther until now,” was “What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.” I might amend that to “Those whom perceive evil having been done to them,” but then again perhaps I still really don’t get it.
Tonight I keep returning to Auden’s “September 1st 1939.” His image of “Faces along the bar” that “Cling to their average day” has always been affecting to me, but it returns with a new immediacy at this dark hour. I think of the single African American man I saw gently sobbing in a restaurant, surrounded by white faces happily chatting and enjoying their food. There were my shell-shocked colleagues, and the students thrumming to class, the customers at a coffee-shop whose faces I scanned, wondering what they thought of the results, the parked car I saw that incongruously had both a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker and a Union Jack hanging from its antenna, the teenage girl with a hijab who smiled when I said hello. And yet for the surrealism of the day, a country that to me had seemed suddenly transformed (but which was of course always there) was all the stranger by the pantomime of daily ritual. Auden writes of his bar that, “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.”
Happiness can return soon, goodness needs to come now. And here is what we do: we fight him at every step of the way in the courts to prevent him from implementing his policies, we bear witness to the indignities and immoralities he proposes, we provide succor, relief, comfort and most of all protection to women of all backgrounds, to our Hispanic brothers and sisters, our black brothers and sisters, our Muslim brothers and sisters, our LGBT brothers and sisters. Auden asks “If I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie… And the lie of Authority/Whose buildings grope the sky” as visible as skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue. We run for city council, we run for school board, we hit the pavement, we protest, we convince the disaffected that their lot lay with progress and not a carnival barker. We run for the House, we run for the Senate, and we win. Most of all, we take care of each other, we be empathetic to one another, we rediscover civility in our own lives even as our nation rejects it, we express tolerance in our own actions even as our country denies it. The poet explains that “no one exists alone.” Auden may have hated the line “We must love one another or die,” often changing it, cutting it, or finally disavowing it all together. Yet E.M. Forester claimed that the line alone could make Auden “command me to follow him.” Auden may have hated the line because it is corny, and it is. But it’s also true.
Like Auden, we feel “Defenseless under the night/Our world in stupor lies.” But, he reminds us that despite the fear, despite the bigotry, despite the intolerance, despite the oppression, “The lights must never go out,/The music must always play.” We must, as it were, continue not just to organize in political solidarity, but to create, to sing, to write. One year ago, and in a very different America, Toni Morrison reflected on the need for literature in a time of potential tyranny. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” This morning in The Paris Review Dan Piepenbring argued that we must “write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can.” Again, the lights must never go out. The music must always play. Auden may have been “Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair” and yet even in the darkest of moments, he wished to “Show an affirming flame.” In our actions and words let us be that affirming flame, for we must remember that even if it feels like we’re losing our country – even if we’ve lost our country – we don’t have to lose our souls.
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he studies early modern religion and literature. He is a contributor at several sites, and can be followed at both edsimon.org and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.