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In which John doesn't know what to do in 2019, so he thinks about the W. H. Auden poem, "September 1, 1939."


The Auden poem in question:

I also quote from Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which why read when you can listen to Auden himself reading it:

People in the U.S. are less happy and more lonely on average than they were ten years ago:

BUT happiness (and trends in happiness) vary a lot depending on where you live. You can read the full report here:

Why is U.S. life expectancy declining?

Violent crime is falling in the U.S. (and has been falling for decades except for a couple years in the 2010s).

Median household income in the U.S. was higher in 2018 (and 2016 and 2017) than any year in American history (even after adjusting for inflation): (NOTE: This does not mean the economy is working well for everyone, and income does not equal wealth, and also as mentioned in the video none of this invalidates the abundant and truly terrifying horrors around us.)

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Good morning Hank,it’s Tuesday 

There’s this W.H. Auden poem called called September 1, 1939 that begins”I sit in one of the dives,On Fifty-second street,As the clever hopes expire,Of a low dishonest decade”.

I’ve always read that poem as a kind of relic,like a fragment of what life felt like in 1939 as the war in Europe began. In a different poem written around the same time,Auden writes about all the dogs of Europe barking and each nation being sequestered in its hate and those sentiments always felt distant to me even historical but as we approach September 1st 2019, 80 years since that poem was set,I confess to feeling “uncertain and afraid”and like the clever hopes are expiring of a “low dishonest decade”. I certainly don’t think we’re at imminent risk of the kind of global war that Auden lived through but in the 41 years that I’ve been around I’ve never experienced a now that felt so precarious and fraught and weird.

Hatred,which has always coursed through the human story,does feel ascendant at the moment and polarisation is worsening and with it the dangerous dehumanisation of others when we call people trash or vermin or monsters,we edge towards the great abyss-the abyss where we treat people as trash or vermin or monsters and I guess I should stop here and acknowledge that I am hopeful and I think the data supports my hope,like homicides and violent crime in general declined in the US in 2018 and, in fact, are both lower than they have been in 42 of the last 45 years. Even after adjusting for inflation , average household income has risen consistently over the last decade in the US while unemployment has consistently declined but I don't think any of that invalidates the contemporary horrors;I mean for one thing,in the US both violent crime and unemployment were also falling in the late 1930s but also like something is wrong.

Even as humans are living healthier lives and have better technologies to connect us,we report ,on average, feeling lon,ier than we did 10 years ago and also less happy and life expectancy in the US is going down for the first time in decades primarily because due to substance abuse disorders and mental health conditions.

Something is clearly wrong and maybe part of what makes me feel so uncertain and afraid is that I don’t know quite what.

That Auden poem goes on:”Waves of anger and fear,Circulate over the bright,And darkened lands of the earth,Obsessing our private lives”-And I don’t know if this is just me but these days I sometimes do feel like the”Waves of anger and fear” wash over me with such force that I am powerless before them and overwhelmed by them:whether it’s the death of a friend or climate change or mass murder,I sometimes feel like an actor in a play I cannot rewrite-“Lost in a haunted wood” as Auden put it .

I don’t want you to worry about me,I’m fine ,I promise,I just don’t know how we unwind from this,how do we get out of this strange labyrinth of terrors and outrages?-I don’t know but I do believe we will.I believe one day I will try to explain to my children why this moment felt so strange and scary,and to them it will feel like history.

The most famous line in that poem is”We must love one another or die”-and to me that is gospel truth,”We must love one another or die”. Now I know that I'm gonna die but I truly believe that we are not going to die.

I don’t know how to move through this world ,I I don’t know. All I know is the last stanza of that poem:”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,Negotiation and despair,Showing an affirming flame.

Hank,I’ll see you on Friday