Or Die


Rock Island, IL

The parade to mark the holiday made possible by a Grover Cleveland signature survived without me. A pilot in the local air show was not so lucky. A fireball and then a plume of slowly drifting smoke served as a grim reminder that earth, not the sky, is probably the place for us.

It has been a full seventy-three years this week since Germany invaded Poland. The previous century of progress (not to be confused with the current one) began not with collapsing towers but with, among other things, the publication of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. James, perhaps unaware that after his example the Queen of the Sciences would descend into sociology, asked one of his subjects, “what things work most strongly on your emotions?”

Lively songs and music [came the answer]. The Star-Spangled Banner, America, Marseillaise, and all moral and soul-stirring songs, but wishy-washy hymns are my detestation. . . . I never go to church, but attend lectures when there are any good ones. All of my thoughts and cogitations have been of a healthy and cheerful kind, for instead of doubts and fears I see things as they are, for I endeavor to adjust myself to my environment. This I regard as the deepest law. Mankind is a progressive animal. I am satisfied he will have made a great advance over his present status a thousand years hence.

Less than two-score years later, in his poem “September 1, 1939,” Auden would write, “We must love one another or die.”

“What is your notion of sin?” James asked.

“It seems to me that sin is a condition, a disease, incidental to man’s development not being yet advanced enough. Morbidness over it increases the disease. We should think that a million of years hence equity, justice, and mental and physical good order will be fixed and organized that no one will have any idea of evil or sin.”

Thank God—sorry: thank progress, rather—for that million-year window, which, if necessary, can always be made larger. Since 1859 the great intellectual labor-saving device has been to posit more time.

Meanwhile, as another election slouches toward November to be held, and as the unending national conflict dating back now almost a hundred years continues, like the heathen of holy writ, furiously to rage, and as a new cohort of unsuspecting undergraduates, trusting and forsaken, delivers itself to its Institutions of False Promise, where all the thinking is forward and the progressivist gospel is on everyone’s lips, I am inclined, with Auden of old, to bethink me of love—of love or death.

Like James’ interlocutor, I’m for equity, justice, and mental and physical good order. But it is because of doubts and fears rather than instead of them that I have striven, probably with meagre success, to see things as they are and to filter out illusion, nor can I shake the rather heightened sense of evil and sin that have gripped me from my youth.

Progress, improvement—whose ideas were these?

Odd—is it not?—how, given such forbears as Winthrop, Edwards, Mather, Hooker, Bradford, and after them Hawthorne and Melville, that in our national discourse we could exhibit such a deplorable lack of interest and be so ineloquent in the language of love and evil and sin. We still send people to the penitentiary, it is true, but not for penitential reasons. And as for love—well, “positive regard” will do. It’s less metaphysical.

The Labor-Day parade, the air-show catastrophe, the remembrance of September 1, 1939 (both the day and the poem), the Varieties and their influence, the raging current political fiasco, the promises, mostly false, of another academic year: it is well that, against these and all other reasons for despair, there is love, which holds the universe together. “Gravity” is a fine word, I warrant, but it represents a force ineffectual by comparison. Tell me, you who have seen, against all odds, families held together, who have seen lives pulled from the wreckage, who have seen the right triumph, that gravity did the heavy lifting, or that progress did it. It did not.

We cannot hope to realize love in the universe, not fully, if we do not enact it in place. And this, I take it, is the meaning of “love one another as I have loved you.”

“One another” is not an abstraction. There is no One-Another-Day Parade, and loving the friendly skies is not the same as flying them—and certainly not the same as falling from them. And as for September 1, 1939—well, we must love one another or die. Progress is not a safe enough bet.

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