The 1930s began with an economic crash, plunging the world into an abyss of unemployment and poverty that came to be known as the Great Depression. The decade ended with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, marking the outbreak of what became World War II.
In his poem titled “September 1, 1939,” the W.H. Auden writes:
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.
In some ways, our situation today is remarkably different than it was during those awful and uncertain days in 1939. But in other ways, it’s not. I think it’s fair to say that even today “waves of anger and fear circulate over the bright and darkened lands of the earth, obsessing our private lives.” Europe continues to struggle, the Middle East continues to implode, and increasingly extreme weather patterns around the globe impress upon us the reality of climate change.
And everywhere, we smell, if not the odor of death, then the fear of violence. Even in this nation, young black men and women fear violence at the hands of police, women fear violence in the clutches of men, and schoolchildren fear violence in the once-safe refuge of their classrooms.
The unmentionable odor of death, the poet calls it — unmentionable. Most people don’t want to talk about the fact that violence is principally something men use. Most people don’t want to talk about the fact that violence has become vastly more scalable over the past century because so many men are making so much money producing ever-more lethal weapons and waging ever-more protracted wars. Most people don’t want to talk about the fact that the Second Amendment was initially designed to give slave owners the right to crush slave rebellions with lethal force.
But when it comes to violence, there’s a lot to talk about. The number of school shootings in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years. In the three years between 1996 and 1999, there were eight major attacks. In the three years since 2012, there have been more than 140 major attacks.
The essayist Elizabeth Winkler, writing in the New Republic, points out the nihilism of the school shooters — their focus on annihilating the people and culture they disdain, as well as themselves. She asks, “What is it about life in 21st-century America that has made this kind of nihilism such a compelling program?” She then wonders what would turn a potential copycat shooter away from killing. The answer to that question is consistent across the spectrum of shooters. They are driven by a desire for recognition and respect.
Winkler concludes that something has gone awry in our culture. She says, “Young people feel increasingly isolated, lacking a sense of purpose and belonging. Religious and civic organizations that, in a previous stage, formed the backbone of American community have fallen to the wayside, and we haven’t developed something to replace them.”
In his poem “September 1, 1939,” Auden continues:
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.
For the most part, however, we don’t love one another. If we did love one another as human beings, truly and deeply, there would be a lot less violence in the world. So what’s the problem?
Elaine Scarry, a professor of aesthetics and value theory at Harvard, says that the way we act toward others is shaped by the way we imagine them. And the reason we are so good at doing violence to other people is that we are so bad at imagining them — their lives, their feelings, even their bodies. She says, “The human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.”
When people somehow develop the capacity to imagine the lives of others — that is, the lives of people they once considered “the other” — their attitudes and actions begin to change. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin enabled northern whites to imagine, many for the first time, the excruciatingly brutal lives of slaves in the South. Having a family member whom they know to be gay enabled many Americans — Dick Cheney, for one — to imagine that gay people wanted the same things as everyone else.
Conversely, soldiers are trained to view the subjects in their gun sights not as humans, but as targets. In some cases, especially the cases that end in tragedy, police officers apparently look at people only as perpetrators, not as people who might’ve also been members of their own extended family. Men who consume degrading and violent pornography are able to do so only because they are able to view the abused women as somehow other — different than their own wives and daughters.
“We must love one another,” Auden says, “or die.” Tragically, there’s been a lot of dying going on, both here in the U.S. and around the world. Auden closes his poem with these lines:
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.
Even though the institutions of human civilization have utterly failed to keep peace and promote human well-being, Auden says, the light of hope still flashes out. Therein lies the irony — the outcome that’s contrary to expectations. The light comes from individuals — from men and women who are made of love and dust, who find themselves beleaguered by negation and despair. Even so, despite the failure of the state, individuals — the just, Auden calls them — show an affirming flame.
We need to become the irony — the irony that a culture forged by violence can produce tender individuals, that a culture steeped in an aggressive, hyper-sexualized masculinity can produce compassionate men, and that a culture founded upon institutionalized racism can produce institutionally-reconstructionist white people.
How is this possible? We have to learn to imagine — or reimagine — other people. In so doing, we will become the irony, helping to dispel the waves of anger and fear that even now circulate through our nation and our world.
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