Monday, February 9, 2009

Someplace with Monkeys

This morning I read the newspaper and looked at google news, and then I read some of the blogs I follow, and all of the sudden, some of my inarticulate fears coalesced into an image, and that image is the house in Dr. Zhivago full of desperate people after the revolution, courtesy of the Green-Eyed Siren. She says what a lot of bloggers are feeling about the economic crisis:
"... I feel like I’m developing dual identities. One part of me is happily Facebooking and Tweeting and blogging about all that is random and useless, generally with an ample helping of bad-economy gallows humor. The other part of me is in a constant state of fear and depression, like a background application gone haywire, breaking through my online party time more and more frequently to have anxiety attacks about our collective future."

I've been feeling this way since September, when I started feeling like maybe I was like Nero, fiddling in the local symphony and reading books to escape present reality. And yet, as the Siren points out, what more can any of us non-experts do than continue to take care of the things important to us, including our children? One of the questions Harriet got this week is about whether we should all chuck our "serious writing pursuits" and collaborate on a money-making romance novel, and she said yes, "let's go write it in Bermuda. Or someplace with monkeys." Now, that's escapism.

But I'm thinking about W.H. Auden (which you know I do a lot), and about how his poem "September 1, 1939" was revised during his lifetime and then how very often it was quoted in September, 2001, and how important it still seems right now:

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 iimago 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.

All I have is a voice, and even if I would like to go write nonsense someplace with monkeys, that's just talk. It's connecting with others. And if "we must love one another or die" or any of the variations on that line that Auden tried, connection itself is important.

And humor is important; think of the father in Life is Beautiful, and the courage it can take to get through what later might be identified as a Bad Time in History. Also, Dr. Zhivago may be scary, in parts, but why is it one of the few Russian novels made into a movie that many Americans have seen? It's a love story.


greeneyedsiren said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. The Auden poem is quite perfect. And you are absolutely correct that it is our job as people to relate to one another in the most compassionate way we can.

You're also right that Dr. Zhivago stays with us not for the its portrayal of suffering, but because it is a love story. What makes it a particularly compelling one is that it takes place against such a dismal backdrop. Zhivago is an amazing character because he continues to revel in beauty even as the world surrounding him becomes a place where beauty is no longer valued.

All we can do, then, is keep on keepin' on, as they say. Support one another, make each other laugh, and not allow ourselves to become blind to beauty. We don't know what's coming, but, whatever it is, we'll have greater strength to deal with it if we can do those things.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I have very much been escaping and avoiding the issues that terrify me but about which I can do very little. The wolf is at the door, but I feel under no obligation to acknowledge his presence. Beauty and humor are more important even in bad times than good because they have the power to sustain us. I can't help but notice how the Sunday morning congregation grows ever larger these days. How much more readily we laugh when we can. I can only keep doing the things I need to do, acting the way I need to act. Life doesn't screech to a halt for trouble. But at the same time, I don't feel the need to dwell on what I cannot change. Better to work on the things I can do something about and hope it somehow contributes. And if there are monkeys involved, it's all the better.