September Then and Now
American journalist William Shirer was in Berlin as a correspondent for CBS Radio, and he wrote in his diary today in 1939:
"It has been a lovely September day, the sun shining, the air balmy, the sort of day the Berliner loves to spend in the woods or on the lakes nearby. I walked the streets. On the faces of the people astonishment, depression. Stunned."But we just don't learn.
Wars everywhere. Chronic wars. Decades-long wars. Wars we cease to notice, and wars that suddenly flare up and catch our brief attention - until the next one comes along. We don't seem to be able to do so much: pay attention to it all, understand any of it ... stop it. And it does get worse.
As WH Auden wrote in his 'September 1, 1939':
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
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.
In The Daughter of Time the hero mused over the Wars of the Roses, and thought how the battles might take place near your village, but didn't spill over into them. Nowadays someone fires a rocket at "militants" and kills and cripples people walking about their daily business. Someone plants cluster bombs and mines to keep the enemy away and decades later children die while playing. Someone patrols streets in an armored vehicle and someone else wears a bomb onto a bus.
We are all kin. Culture separates us - religion especially, teaching us to love each other but defining "each other" so very narrowly, and teaching us that we will receive our reward after we die... even if we die doing horrible things in the name of our god. Because we die doing horrible things in his name.
But we are all kin. We share the same DNA. If any of us are god's children, we all are. And maybe it's no coincidence that the first murder in the Bible is a fratricide (and a religiously motivated one at that), but sibling rivalry is something we need to grow out of.
What we have to hold on to is what Auden said at the end of that poem:
All I have is a voiceWe can burn with that affirming flame if we want to.
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.
And we need to want to. We need that very badly. Because we are here, and it is now. And the only future we have is also here - us, our children, and their children - here. Unless we burn with the flames of hatred, whatever fuels them and even if we call them god's love.
The world is really very small, and we are all we really have. And we cannot afford the sort of gods that set us at each other's throats as if those wars are better than wars of greed or territorial ambition or injured pride.
We have managed great things - music and art and poetry. Something inside us does indeed burn with a flame the other animals on this planet, this little planet, don't seem to have. But all too often that flame is destructive, hateful, exclusionary, and if we aren't careful it will catch the whole world on fire.
And from that blaze no one will escape, not even those who set it. No matter why they set it, or in whose name.