Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 8
- By Michael Thurston
(Station platform in London. The Independent: Getty Photo)
“Save my skin and damn my conscience.”
Remember when the sun shone easy, say eight years ago, about this time of year? Remember when life was comfortable, life was fine? Sure, plenty remained undone, but we’d come out of the worst of a disastrous economic downturn, the machinery of electoral politics looked to be functioning smoothly, neither the incumbent president nor his opponent was a raving sociopathic sexual harasser and white nationalist pseudo-fascist, and “life went on—for us went on the same.” The eighth section of Autumn Journal finds MacNeice casting this kind of retrospective gaze, indulging in this kind of nostalgia:
The steaks were tender, the films were fun,
The walls were striped like a Russian ballet,
There were lots of things undone
But nobody cared, for the days were early.
. . .
We slept in linen, we cooked with wine,
We paid in cash and took no notice
Of how the train ran down the line
Into the sun against the signal.
I’m fondly recalling the halcyon days of 2012, when certain current public figures were easily dismissed reality television personalities and the President of the United States was intelligent, compassionate, engaged in governing, and erred largely in the direction of premature and overly generous compromise with his antagonists. MacNeice remembers Birmingham in 1931, where he had gone to live with his first wife, Mary, after taking his degree at Oxford (and where he hung out, from time to time, with W. H. Auden’s father). At Birmingham, he began his career as a teacher: “Teaching classics to Midland students” only “To hear the prison-like lecture room resound / To Homer in a Dudley accent.”
His fond memories of the city and his time there are provoked by a quick visit during the Munich negotiations, an excursion out of frightening London, a couple of days’ relief sought in nostalgia and music hall comedy at the Hippodrome. Such breaks, though, bring with them their own moments of painful contrast. Whereas back then he was happily coupled and comfortably housed, now he has “No wife, no ivory tower, no funk hole.” Whereas back then the only worries were “the slump” and the occasional fact of “little on the plate and nothing in the post,” now he confronts “Black-out practice and A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions].” The recognized contrast, the fallenness of the present in comparison with a sepia-tinted past, opens the mental door again to the anxieties of the current situation. MacNeice finds himself once again “Listening to bulletins,” imagining both Nazi “eagles” at the “zero hour” and the vultures that would follow them.
And me? From a brief reverie of October, 2012 (the month in which I married my beloved and, caught by a superstorm, members of my family had to extend their stay, so that the party kept going for a few more days), I find myself slammed back into news not only of more than 200,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus but also the monstrous performance of the incumbent in a presidential debate, his rants topped off by refusals to commit to the peaceful transfer of power and to condemn our home-grown black-shirts. What if he loses but won’t go? What if the contested election is thrown to the Court these bastards have stacked by violating first the Constitution and then their own principle for the original violation? What if violence breaks out at the polls? What if the votes aren’t counted and these anti-democratic kakistocrats steal yet another election? It’s all too easy to imagine the remains of the Republic as so much carrion for the circling vultures to descend upon.
In the last few lines of this section, MacNeice’s anxieties are relieved, when news arrives that “the crisis is put off.” Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (neither named nor quoted in these lines), steps from a plane in London to announce “peace in our time.” Looking back from our perch eighty-two years later, we can see the awful irony of that line. Even at the moment, though, MacNeice finds his relief inextricable from guilt: “Save my skin and damn my conscience.” The negotiations have won, for the moment, and forestalled war for England, but at the cost of Czechoslovakian sovereignty: “only the Czechs / Go down and without fighting.”
As I reread this section of the poem, I listened to an episode of David Runciman’s “Talking Politics” podcast and heard a discussion between Runciman, Cambridge political economy professor Helen Thompson, and Harvard historian Gary Gerstle, all of whom had watched the presidential debate the evening (or morning) before. Trying to draw from the frightening garbage of the American political landscape some hopeful scenario of national reconciliation, Gerstle offered one, with the warning that this bright cloud would carry (and perhaps conceal) a bleakly dark lining. Recalling the presidential election of 1876, Gerstle played out a thought experiment in which a conservative-majority Supreme Court decided a contested election in favor of the Democratic candidate. Such a cross-partisan resolution might, as the compromises of 1876 had done, heal some of the rifts in our polity. But the “healing” following 1876 had come at the expense of Black Americans, whose civil rights and struggle for equality were set back with Reconstruction cut short, allowing white supremacy to put off the end of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement for another ninety years.
In Gerstle’s speculative scenario, who would bear the cost of the suggested “healing”? Those same Black Americans, no doubt, given that conservatives on the Court have already dismantled some of the legal machinery that had protected their right to vote. Women, certainly, whose reproductive rights would be dismantled. The entire progressive agenda, definitely, as conservatives in thrall to corporate and executive power continue to erode the rights of the many. The climate, absolutely, which is to say all of us, eventually, sooner rather than later. Since we know that the guilty relief MacNeice felt in 1938 merely postponed the cataclysm for just a year, we ought to realize that any resolution to our own partisan divides achieved by “negotiation,” rather than an irrefutable landslide victory at the polls, would buy us only a short reprieve before the deluge.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.