ads without products

Archive for March 24th, 2009

notes on / from the sensual man-in-the-street

with 16 comments

Blunted by mass-circulation at various points during our own low dishonest decade, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” nonetheless still has the power to raise my hackles, give me the cold shivers and the warm shakes all at once. Here’s some from the middle:

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.

The best things, poetry or otherwise, veer just this way toward the peripheral parts of sense, the receding focal point, the dim heart of reason. What does the solipsism of love, the egotism of desire, have to do with the war, with the invasion of Poland? You’d have to be insane (insanely solipsistic, insanely egotistical) to think so, right? What a drawback of reasonableness in that turn from “universal love” to the next. What is Auden doing in the dive? Why is he drinking? Why is he “uncertain and afraid”?

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 dead,
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.

Ah listen to the way that the credos of the second of these stanzas repeat (syntactically, metrically, ideologically but with a slant) those in the first. “I will be true to my wife” twists into “There is no such thing as the State.”

The trick turn in the poem is what he does with the everyday. The previous masters of the everyday haunted by the outside, the wars raging at the margins, only got this halfway. Here the turn is total – the poem forgets itself, its origin, in the flipside, the real deal of chaining neurosis, repetitive speech-to-the-self. It is answering questions that no one has asked; it cannot seem to shut itself up.

The poem suggests parallelism or co-determination, but I’m not sure it’s that, I’m sure it’s meant to be heard as a false affiliation. The commuters’ fidelity or infidelity has nothing to do with what’s happening in Poland, what’s on the radio in the bar. Rather, the poem is performing the inwardness of the everyday, it’s suggesting the half-pious connections, the personal penances that we perform. I have seen, in the last few months, people give up booze in solidarity with the Gazans. I have read about the pledging of orgasms to the French General Strikes. Jokes or serious, there is a spot of truth expressed, almost vicariously, by these things. A truth about perspective, the way we run our worlds and run away from our worlds.

But…. on the other hand, one knows what Auden means, right? “We must love one another or die.” Too pat, way too pat. We are meant to hear it as pat. But we also know what he means, prismatically untangling himself in the bar, with the radio on, on fifty-second street.

A few stanzas ago, those buildings were proclaiming “The strength of Collective Man.” They were reshaped, pressed into service. Now they are sexually offensive, overbearing – they touch what they are not asked to touch.

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.

Ah a trick break. The same is the “Eros and dust” but not. It is the “Negation and despair.” Or both. Syntactically both. One set material yet metaphorical, poetic, anthopomorphic, the other abstract yet real, too distant, yet right. And it’s all couched in a passive-aggressive (but who is the aggression directed against? Who is the target?) unreasonably long extension – the wish, the “May I,” gets lost in itself, in the resistances that it wishes against.

There is no connection between the aspiration to let go of the “loved alone” in favor of the universal and the onslaught of violence just started in middle Europe. That is to say, there is all the connection in the world.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 24, 2009 at 12:38 am

Posted in poetry