“We must love one another or die”

German newsreel footage of the invasion of Poland (with English subtitles).

On this date in 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War in Europe.

This is one of those rare occasions where a terrible historical event inspires a major literary work that is contemporaneous with it.  In this instance, a poem with the date of the event as its title and published just 48 days later.  That makes it is a good opportunity to consider the prophetic power of literature to confront history.

Here’s W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (after the jump a recitation of the poem with the stanzas displayed):

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.

Given the horrors we know will follow — tens of millions dead from Europe to Asia, including the industrialized genocide of the Jews and other “undesirables” — the clarity of vision of this poem, its demotic rhythms, its scrupulously measured indignation and humble expectations, allow it to retain a devastating power more than 70 years later, as though literature had unambiguously claimed its authority to instruct as well as delight.  After all these years, those last two stanzas can still catch the breath with anticipation, and the cumulative power of the poem begins to feel like rolling thunder at these lines:

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.

This is about as pure an expression of what Frye calls primary concern as can be articulated in so few words.  Johan Aitken notes in her introduction to The Double Vision that Frye “cherished” that last line especially and cites it on a number of occasions as a visionary expression of our moral duty to one another.

Here he is in “The Voice and the Crowd,” an interview with Gregory Baum of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto:

. . . .[W]hen Auden says that we must love one another or die, I think I know what he means and I imagine you know what he means. Yet for many people this has overtones of trying to hypnotize oneself into thinking that people are amiable who are not amiable.  And while I know what you mean when you say that there’s no difference between love and Christian love, still there is a difference between love and gregariousness.  The kind of unanswerable vision of the community of man which we may or may not be fortunate enough to get in our lives is perhaps what we have been revolving around. (CW 24, 47)

And in The Double Vision (with the Montreal Massacre still fresh in our minds):

[T]he immense increase in the spread of communication today has also increased our sense of involvement with people at a distance, and even people who actually are totally alien to ourselves in their mental processes.  It is difficult not to feel some involvement even with the fantasies of a psychotic murdering women who want to be engineers.  One hopes that underlying the drive toward peace and freedom in our time is an impulse toward love growing out of a new immediacy of contact.  The word “love” may still sound somewhat hazy and sentimental, but it does express some sort of crisis: “We must love one another or die,” as W.H. Auden says. (CW 4, 192-3)

And, finally, here he is in the Late Notebooks with his own death in sight but with an understanding that death is not the end when the conditions of life are freedom and love:

We must be free or die, says Wordsworth.  We must love one another or die, says Auden.  We must grow older or die says Northrop Frye at age seventy-eight. (CW 6, 721)

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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.

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1 thought on ““We must love one another or die”

  1. Nicholas William Graham

    As Auden says, “We must love one another or die.” This point is raised by a teacher of English, Martain O’Hara, near the end of the unpublished interview, at the Thomas More More Institute, Montreal, “Frye on Romance”, posted on this site/blog.

    Again, when Frye remarks: “If Hegel had written his PHENOMENOLOGY in mythos-language instead of in logos-language a lot of my work would be done for me.” [CW vol. 5, 192] I think Frye is suggesting that mythos-language is the language of love and poetry and constitutive of our soma pneumatikon (spiritual body) [WORDS WITH POWER, 124,126], in this vale of “spirit” in contrast to Keat’s “soul” making.

    But Frye is certainly not anti-intellectual, against logos-language, and can often add a profundity and existential dimension to the logos-language of philosophers, as when he agrees with Wittgenstein’s aphorism that the end of speech is silence, and adds, “but real silence is the end of speech, not the stopping of it.” [CW vol. 18, 124]

    By reforging the links between mythos-language and logos-language what Frye invites us to is to create and participate in not only an educated imagination but also an imagination that is creative, constructive and intelligent and philosophical, what James Joyce calls in ULYSSES, ch. 15 “Circe”, the “intellectual imagination”. Allow me to reference an article which show how of Gadamer and Lonergan go beyond the limitations of Heidegger on the topic of love:
    “Expanding Challenge to Authenticity in INSIGHT: Lonergan’s Hermeneutics of Facticity” by Fred Lawrence. [Divyadaan 15/3 (2004) 427-456]
    Google and click on: FREE DOWNLOADS FROM DIVYADAAN JOURNAL.

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