There’s been a lot of griping, of late, about the decade just passed. That seems appropriate for a decade that began in terrorism and war, and ended in economic turmoil (never having gotten the terrorism and war out of its system along the way). It was crap. TIME magazine, a reasonably polite rag most of the time, called it the “Decade from Hell.” Gallup polls over the last 10 years recorded all-time lows in the collective low. Those inclined to dabble in the marketing of stocks have collectively labeled the last decade, “the worst ever.” And so on.
Whenever people get to the business of condemning decades, I think of W.H. Auden. That’s because of his famous poem “September 1, 1939”, which opens with the following lines:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
Auden tries to pick things up at the end of the poem, with a showing of his “affirming flame.” Still, it is a poem thick with dread. It’s all the more powerful in retrospect since we know that Auden’s fears were to be fully realized and then some. The ’30s were heady with the anticipation of doom. The ’40s were wrecked in the confirmation of that doom and the resultant hangover.
So what it is that we’re feeling today, really? Are we scared as Auden was? Do we experience “waves of anger and fear?” Are our September nights offended by the “unmentionable odour of death?” I think not. I very much think not.
Indeed, I detect a certain jauntiness in all the complaining. The bitching feels too comfortable and even a little contrived. Surely, people are genuinely suffering. We all weep for those who were lost on 9/11, our hearts ache for the troops, and we shudder for the fates of those recent converts to the ranks of the unemployed. Weeping, we shudder and ache.
All in all, though, we’re rather impatient to get back to the business of pursuing our happiness. That pursuit, after all, constitutes a full third of the American promise. For the vast majority of us, the question of life and liberty has not been one iota in doubt. This is in some contrast to Auden and his contemporaries, especially those not lucky enough to make it from European shores to the dives on 52nd Street. And how the hell was Auden supposed to be sure, in 1939, that the Atlantic Ocean was going to prove a sufficient buffer zone to the expansion of European madness? The attack on Pearl Harbor, after all, was looming in the near future.
More than that, the decade of the ’30s saw a continued escalation of ideological turmoil, the sense that something huge was at stake, perhaps the course of civilization itself. The clash of ideas was being confirmed by clashes in the streets, clashes of arms. Writing about the ’30s in an essay about Tess Slesinger’s novel, The Unpossessed, Lionel Trilling said, “the political tendency of the ’30s defined the style of the [intellectual] class — from that radicalism came the moral urgency, the sense of crisis, and the concern with personal salvation that mark the existence of American intellectuals.” The discontent expressed by Auden is, shall we say, existential in nature. He gazes upon his fellow human beings and realizes, sadly, that they are children who have “never been happy or good.”
No, our discontent is of an entirely different flavor. We did know happiness once. It was called the 1990s. That entirely unremarkable decade that now looks so very nice in the afterglow of retrospect. For all the crises of the last 10 years, the aggregate does not a Crisis make. The mood is neither of radicalism nor the push toward moral urgency, cable news notwithstanding.
And what else, dear friends, are we really supposed to do? I feel the occasional need for moral urgency just as much as the next guy. We all feel nostalgic, at times, for the meaningful struggles, in mind and body, of yesteryear. Meaning always looks more meaningful when seen in the past tense. But the pursuit of happiness is probably not, after all, to be scoffed at. Americans have always been a little nervous and apologetic when it comes to that pursuit. It seems the very picture of crass materialism and superficiality so often lobbed at us from other shores.
But I always think of the words of Adam Michnik. Michnik lived through times of crisis with a big “C.” As a leader of Solidarity in Poland, he was imprisoned (actually imprisoned!) for his political beliefs. A couple of times, he could have died. In many ways, his life makes up the bookend to the era Auden characterized in his poem. The Cold War and the Soviet Empire, which Michnik helped to end, was the final legacy of the terrible period that Auden was living through.
As he was living the Big Life, though, Michnik kept wishing things could be more boring. He wanted a politics of boring, of the small-scale struggles of civil society where nothing grand is at stake and yet everything is contested. “Grey is beautiful,” he said, and “democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of passions, emotions, hatreds, and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.”
Surely there are crises and more crises on the horizon. Human civilization, we keep being reminded, is both more durable and more insanely fragile than we care to admit. For those who simply cannot bear to have radicalism replaced by boring, the best policy is probably to wait. Things will get rough again before long.
For the rest of us, it turns out that there is quiet a lot to be done in playing around with the mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business. There is much meaning to be generated there as well. It requires, though, a willingness to shift the register. In the world of gray, meaning is generated in little twirls, blips, and bumps. There is no such thing as civilization. Not existing, it has no direction. There are no decades either, barely even years. More appropriately, there is an infinite stretch of afternoons, each one just a little bit different from the last, sometimes amazingly so. Sure, when a tasty date like 2010 rolls around we can all say, “What a horrible decade!” But we say it with an unavoidable levity. It’s more or less fun to say. We aren’t “lost in a haunted wood” as was Auden in 1939. The woods have all been replaced by parks. The only thing haunted is the past, memory.
To accept this as good is, in a funny way, the hardest thing of all. It means saying goodbye to all that. Goodbye Decade of the Aughts. Hello this afternoon. Today it is cold, and the sun never bothered to do much. The street is filled with people. It is not so hard to gaze upon their comings and goings and say, with Auden:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
• 5 January 2010