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Readings for Writers: Auden’s Mandate

When the Apocalypse comes, I will have a dirty bum, for the righteous will have bought every last square of toilet-paper. Standing in my third grocery store of the day, the thought makes me laugh, makes me release any assumption of what I should or should not expect to find on a store shelf, makes me remember the shelves in Havana the last time I was there, and the hard-scrabble life most people here, in this country, can’t quite imagine, much less associate with the US embargo.

If you ask me to pick between a skirmish with cabin fever or mortal combat with this novel virus, I will choose the former every time and tell you how, by staying home, washing my hands methodically, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing, I am helping those struggling on the front lines of this pandemic. My contribution is meager. As a writer and a teacher, I have the privilege of being able to work from home, as well as easy access to the requisite technologies.

In stark contrast, there are the caregivers doing the hard work of tending to the sick and the dying; and those who directly support them and make their work possible. We refer to people on the front lines as “essential workers” because they are necessary to our survival–though we deem unnecessary the idea of paying them well. As for the undocumented, the men, women, and children who ensure we have food to put on the table, we choose not to see them: they don’t count, and we don’t count them.

Contagion strips us of habit. What was hidden is revealed, and it becomes impossible to look away. The moment demands our attention as writers. “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” Auden confesses in “September 1, 1939 [1],” a poem that memorializes the Nazi invasion of Poland. As a poet, Auden wields one weapon against two types of lies: the “romantic lie” and “the lie of Authority.” He sets the sensual, momentary distractions of the common man against the avaricious will to power of the very wealthy.

Both lies distort our relationship to the world, leading us to delude ourselves, to believe that somehow we are separate, better, different, more important than others; that freedom is the ability to do as we please, whenever we please, and without consideration for others. Auden directly refutes those distortions:

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.

Auden struggled with the last line of that penultimate stanza. He went back and forth between “and” and “or.” If we must love and die, then love is a purely ethical imperative. If we must love or die, then love carries with it the promise of spiritual salvation. Either way, we are inter-connected. What one of us does affects others–for better and worse, for better or worse.

In the final stanza, the poet describes a world that “in stupor lies.” The only relief from the inertia are the “ironic points of light,” visible whenever “the Just” speak. Confronted with the approaching darkness of the Second World War, Auden aligns himself with light, insisting that he,

…composed like [the Just] Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

The Just speak and write against the inertia, the stupor. In this context, writing and speaking are acts of love. We have to memorialize this moment–in our daily reflections, in the stories we tell. We have to acknowledge and then move past our fears. We have to “show an affirming flame.”

What sort of reflections and stories about the pandemic are you writing?

About Elizabeth Huergo [2]

Elizabeth Huergo [3] was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel. You can learn more about Elizabeth on her website [3], and by following her on Twitter [4].