Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 7
- By Michael Thurston
“a howling radio for our paraclete”
As September winds to a close, leaves beginning to turn color and fall, warm days washed out by rains moving from west to east or up the coast, protests continue in parks and public squares. The cooling air is charged with tension as critical moments of decision loom. Though democratically elected, autocratic leaders have used crises real and manufactured to amass power, they have gutted the institutions long supposed to stand as bulwarks against just such abuses, and they have passionately argued on one occasion for the inviolable necessity of one principle only, when circumstances change, to argue with equal fervor for the opposite principle. And so do they break yet another agreement or convention and sharply elbow their way into further expansion or consolidation of power. All of this, of course, is said and done on behalf of the people, the “real” people, those folk in need of further room for living, their life chances having been cramped by cosmopolitan elites and stabs in the back by home-grown ingrates and provocateurs (some of whom are the very citizens protesting, even as they’re whisked anonymously into black cars by un-uniformed agents of the state and, uncharged, off to holding cells, or else are shot by paramilitary volunteers, who get thanked for their service and cheered on by police).
In the twenty years during which I have regularly reread Autumn Journal, never has the season of my reading felt as much like the season I’m reading about. This fall, after appeasement brought about by long habits of learned helplessness, the frail, democratic opposition will succumb to the next step in a quiet coup as a “justice” is confirmed to the “Supreme” “Court,” and the right-wing thugs whose agenda this coup advances will smirk and nod. And not for the first time I will think that some suburban analog for the Piazzale Loreto will at some far-off moment be my only happy place.
In the last week of September, 1938, Londoners prepared for war and Louis MacNeice’s borzoi went missing. The smaller crisis was quickly resolved: MacNeice “found the police had got her at St. John’s Wood station.” The larger one persisted, as did the poet’s own ambivalence. On the one hand, preparations for a possible war presses him to consider “The need to hold the ditch” as “Hitler yells on the wireless.” The ditch had long been a moving line on Europe’s map, since March, when Germany annexed Austria. By early September it had moved into Czechoslovakia, even after Edvard Beneš, the country’s president, had agreed to every demand that German Czechs made. By September 21, after Britain and France forced Beneš to concede, the way was opened for the Sudetenland became part of the greater Germany. When Hitler further demanded the immediate German occupation of this part of Czech territory, the Britons balked, the Foreign Office threatened retaliation for German attacks on Czech sovereignty, and the fleet was mobilized. It seemed at last, after numerous attempts to forestall war by giving in to Hitler’s fits and threats, the time to hold the ditch had come. Yet those same preparations cause MacNeice to wonder whether, twenty years after the “Great” one had devastated Europe, another continental war was justified:
And we who have been brought up to think of ‘Gallant Belgium'
As so much blague
Are now preparing againt to essay good through evil
For the sake of Prague.
That rhyme does a lot of work here, sonically equating the Czech capital, as well as the justification for British entry into the First World War, with French nonsense.
The seventh section of Autumn Journal derives its power from the resolve MacNeice has made over the preceding sections, not only to attend to the movements of the intellect, but also, as he was provoked to do by his relationship with Nancy Coldstream or his experience of Spain, but to consider the affective and the bodily registers of experience. The abstract threats of “Conferences, adjournments, ultimatums” take on bodily form when
The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
Each tree falling like a closing fan;
No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
Everything is going to plan;
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
The guns will take the view
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
With narrow wands of blue.
Notice how MacNeice appeals to multiple senses as the dull sounds give way to the precisely rendered look of the felled trees (augmented by similes to domestically available images) and the scene—as it is figured and as MacNeice patterns sound within and between the roughly rhythmic lines—takes on a tactile presence. MacNeice continues to ground his anxious ambivalence in the palpable when he weighs alternative futures on the fulcrum of curtains (I’m noticing only now how window treatments recur in this poem, from the “pelmets” of the first section to this consideration of fabrics): should he bother to choose material for curtains or just stuff something into cracks and under doors against the possibility of gas?
What ultimately worries MacNeice the most about a coming war, though, is not the threat of physical harm. He ends the section, instead, by zeroing in on the moral damage done by taking up rhetorical arms. Citizenship in a country at war necessarily interpellates subjects into morally simplified (and morally compromised) positions; MacNeice worries that he and his fellow citizens must “become uncritical, vindictive, / And must, in order to beat / The enemy, model ourselves upon the enemy, / A howling radio for our paraclete.” That last word needs a gloss: “paraclete” comes from Greek, where it refers to an advocate (one who calls alongside, who speaks along with), and in the Gospel of John describes the Holy Spirit as an advocate and comforter, the presence of the divine in the act of speech. Interpellated into one pole of a binary opposition (if we’re at war with them, then we must consolidate our identification with “our own” and see the Other as intractably antagonistic), “we” during wartime are connected to meaning and salvation through the voice of the Spirit, now fallen from its sacredness into the profane form of a howling radio. Moreover, the howling radio here echoes Hitler yelling “on the wireless” in an earlier passage, so that we-at-war are not only fallen but are also equated with our enemies. This double damnation, even more than the destruction of the view from his apartment or the threat of bombing or gas attacks (both loudly worried over in the contemporary press), troubles MacNeice as the rejection of the Godesburg ultimatum seems to threaten imminent war.
Brought into our own troubled domestic divisions, this parallel should, perhaps, trouble me too. What is implied about my own endangered morality when my imagined “happy place” is a relocation of the square where Mussolini and his mistress were summarily shot, their bodies desecrated and hung upside-down, when I grimly but gladly imagine not a bald head but a wisp of orange brushing the pavement, and when I crane my imagined gaze so that I can read in its reverse orientation the legend on the back of a designer jacket: “I don’t really care. Do you?”? Perhaps a howling partisan website for my paraclete? I worry not only for the future of this benighted, hateful, and corrupt country, but also that, in dissent, I might descend to the level of the thugs who destroy it.
MacNeice would never put it this way, but George Bernard Shaw does: It’s no use wrestling with a pig; you just get muddy and the pig likes it.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.