Monday, April 24, 2006

The Public Voice

We may never fully escape the long shadows cast by the attacks of September 11th. We are reminded on a nearly daily basis: Congressional hearings, the Moussaoui trial, the ongoing debates, conspiracy theories, TV ads beginning for the soon-to-be-released film "United 93" - even brother Rick over at the Right Wing Nuthouse posting an essay a couple of days ago entitled "Are You 'Over' 9/11 Yet?"

One possible reason for the ongoing trauma, beyond the obvious shock of the event itself and the consequent sense of uneasy vulnerability that it engendered nationwide, is that we have not yet had - and may never have - the kind of conclusive national catharsis that such a tragedy seems to demand.

Other catastrophes have had the finality of graceful denoument - the triumphant march of the Grand Army of the Republic through the streets of Washington in May of 1865, or the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, or the horse-drawn caisson and riderless horse and solemnly muffled drums of November , 1963. Such observances function as transitions, as portals through which we pass and lines of demarcation between what was and what is to be.

That we have no such moment of closure for the attacks on New York and Washington is not for lack of trying. Books have been written, documentaries produced, hearings held - all attempts to come to terms with what happened and why.

But all such attempts have failed, largely, I think, because we have no one bold enough to speak with the kind of public voice that artists in general and poets in particular in earlier times considered both their right and their obligation to employ. The disdain, for example, that independent-minded poets have frequently expressed for one of their own who accepts a laureate position - the position of becoming the official literary mouth of a government, a kind of artistic press secretary - stands in stark contrast to the Wordsworth or Browning or Whitman or Sandburg or Frost who treasured their critical independence yet dared to speak about the great issues of their days with a voice that was at one and the same time intensely personal and unapologetically public.

Maybe the last poet to do so sucessfully, and arguably more successfully than any other writer in English of the twentieth century, was W.H. Auden. It is no coincidence, then, that in the groping for meaning following the catastrophe of five years ago it was Auden's words that appeared ubiquitously, especially the closing lines from one of his finest poems, "September 1, 1939":

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.

This is vintage Auden - the poet's voice at its finest, conflating the public disaster of the outbreak of the Second World War with his own sense of "negation and despair" - the public event and the private angst-filled horror conjoined in a single remarkable work of art.

That Auden in his more conservative later years repudiated the poem and sought to ban its inclusion in his collected works is unsurprising. Barely thirty when he composed it, Auden came to regard it as the effluvium of his youthful romance with socialism and as (in his own words) "intellectually dishonest." He had grown past and out of the passions that informed the first stages of his artistic life, and he sought to bury some of what endure as his greatest poems, including the elegy to Yeats and "Petition," among many others.

If our age and the events of September 11, 2001 have not produced a voice like Auden's, perhaps it is because we do not have the ears with which to hear it. This very poem exemplifies that fact. As much as these closing lines served for many as a kind of comfort - the voice of the solitary powerless individual confronting and seeking to deal with cataclysm - the whole poem itself conveys a very different set of observations. Auden sees the impending world war not as an attack on innocence but rather as the logical and inevitable outcome of mistakes and mendacity. Earlier in the poem, he notes:

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.

The "psychopathic god" that Hitler had made of himself, in other words, was spawned as much by Versailles as it was by any other single factor. And Auden had little sympathy for the machinery of capitalism or the modern industrialized Western state. He opens the poem by locating himself ironically in New York, in "one of the dives/On Fifty Second street." His observation on the skyline of the city that was to be so violated sixty-two years later:

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.

Horrors have their reasons to Auden, and nothing happens in stasis or vacuum. As ye sow, so also shall ye reap. That is Auden's take on why the awfulness was to come upon them, the evil and the innocent alike - more akin in some ways to the ill-phrased and mean-spirited obscenities of Ward Churchill than to the uses to which some have tried to put Auden's poem.

Which is not to suggest the Auden is obscene, or that he blames the innocent. It is in fact for him the very innocence of the victims of international horrors in whatever decade that stokes his anger against "Collective Man" or, as he suggests later, "Authority":

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.

These are the lines that I believe Auden himself might have cited after September 11th. The imperative of the last line, coming as it does immediately before the last stanza quoted above, is the artistic core of the poem. We must do good even to those who do or wish us evil, lest we engender greater evil in return. Likely anticipatory of his later conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, this line is not the weak-kneed response of a hand-wringing bleeding heart. It is rather the thundering testament of a Biblical prophet, one who shatters tablets on the heads of those stiff of neck and short of sight. Mend your ways, see the truth clearly, live by it - or perish. And this is what we have lacked since September 11th - a compellingly artistic assertion motivated by neither narrow politics nor reprehensible self-interest, from a poet who can believe it is within his purview and power to unfold that lie.

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