Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September 1, 1939—How it Looked From a Barstool

It seemed like a lark—laughing German soldiers take down a Polish border road barricade to begin their invasion....

The beginning of unimaginable horror is hard to pin down by date.  Was it the first shattered glass of a Jewish shop?  The war by proxy in Spain?  The get-out-of-jail-free card dealt by Neville Chamberlain?  A secret split of the swag-to-be by ambitious empires?  Or earlier.  The reveries of a failed artist in a lonely bed?  The rotting heart of Western Civilization itself?

...and it quickly turns into  this.  Ten year old Kazimiera Mika mourns over the body of her sister, sometimes identified as the first casualty of World War II.  She was caught on her way to school by a strafing Luftwaffe airplane.  In reality there were both Poles and Germans killed in border skirmishing even before September 1, 1939.
Let’s pick a day.  This one will do.  Big Things Happened.  The world, pardon my pun, wobbled on its Axis.  All it took was the body of an unlucky prisoner swathed in a Polish uniform at an obscure border radio transmitter.  Cheaper than allowing a battle ship to sink.  Presto!  You have a war.  Not just any war.  Still, to this day THE War.

Far away in a smoky bar and lubricated by cheap whiskey, a poet marked the occasion.

September 1, 1939
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 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.

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.
—W. H. Auden

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