At the risk of coming across all Holden Caulfield, this is a seriously phony age. Everywhere you look there are people objecting to things they think other people have said or would like them to have said. This past Saturday provided a fine example when in Washington and various other Western capitals some people decided that a fine response to the Trump administration is to pretend that it is ‘anti-women’ in some way.
Various politicians, Guardian journalists and others without lives walked around for a day tilting furiously at this imaginary enemy. Some took their daughters with them, as though it is a good idea to inebriate the next generation with the same cocktail of phantoms and lies. I have said many times that when it comes to fascism in the modern West there is a serious supply and demand problem: there aren’t enough fascists to meet the demand. Now relations between the sexes appear to be reaching a similar imbroglio. The women marching on Saturday behaved as though the new American President is going to legalise rape, or perhaps make rape compulsory. Their main – perhaps only – justification for this stance is one unarguably ugly tape recording of a private conversation which took place more than a decade ago. March against an ugly off-record boast from over a decade ago by all means, if you absolutely have nothing better to do. But why make out that the new President is going to ‘legitimise assault’ or ‘make rape ok’? Other than, that is, in order to get out all those ‘Get off my Bush’ placards from a decade ago that had such a very profound impact on the last Republican Presidency.
It caused me some amusement, I must say, to see that one co-chair of the American march at the weekend was Linda Sarsour – a young woman who I had the misfortune of meeting a couple of years ago. The fact she was involved and spoke speaks louder than her co-convenors could possibly know. For it is obvious from even a moment spent listening to Sarsour that for this self-styled ‘Palestinian-American activist’ the ‘American’ part is purest camouflage. Sarsour is a Palestinian activist who evidently loathes America. At any and every opportunity she attacks the country and defends its enemies. So she consistently presents investigations into Muslims on terror charges as an example of ‘Islamophobia’ among other inherent prejudices on the part of law enforcement. She would appear to be one of those people who wants to dismantle law and order of the type most of us enjoy in order to usher in a form of law of quite another kind. When people talk about Trump taking back women’s rights several decades it’s worth noting that the people doing the complaining are happy to be led by people like Sarsour.
Meanwhile at a protest in Germany some feminists decided to do the full ‘Allah Akbar’ business in a sort of open mic, freestyling way, presumably as some sort of display of intersectionality. Personally if I were a Muslim seeking to take offence nothing would be more likely to make me come across all choppy-choppy than a bunch of women waving vagina signs doing poor cover versions of the call to prayer.
Which brings me to WH Auden and Madonna. Like a radical feminist and the Muslim call to prayer, the two are not natural bedfellows. But lies and phoniness have a tendency to reach a confluence on occasion. When I watched Madonna’s speech I felt just such a happy confluence occur. All the public attention on her speech has centred on her claim that she had thought ‘an awful lot about blowing up the White House’. But what made my ears prick up was later in her speech when Madonna said ‘we cannot fall into despair’ and you just knew that a line from a poetry anthology was coming on. Sure enough Madonna went on to say, ‘As the poet WH Auden once wrote, on the eve of World War II, “We must love one another or die”.’ The crowd didn’t go as wild for the line as they did for her earlier repetitions of ‘F— you’. But once Madonna started declaring ‘I choose love’ the crowd got going. The Auden line allowed Madonna to ask the crowd if they were with her and then to join in shouts of ‘We choose love’.
I don’t know what WH Auden would have thought of Madonna. Like a lot of us he would probably have enjoyed some of the early stuff and thought she’d gone off rather from around the time of ‘Sticky Sweet’. But at least we now know what Madonna thinks about WH Auden, which is not very much. Because what anybody who cares about Auden would know is that the line Madonna quoted is the line of his that he hated most. It comes from, ‘September 1st, 1939’ – a poem he said he left England in order not to write again. For the rest of his lifetime he banned its inclusion in all collections of his work. Most of us think this is a little harsh, because portions of it – especially the final stanza – are deeply memorable and moving. But on the overall point the poet was right. The poem unarguably suffers from a sort of insincerity and indeed phoniness. Its portentousness has always appealed to a type of person who cites it in order to flatter themselves that they live in an era precisely akin to that in which Auden found himself in that dive on 52nd Street. But the build-up does not excuse the climax that Madonna ignorantly pillaged.
By Auden’s own admission, no line he ever wrote was more dishonest as well as almost meaningless as the one Madonna relayed. But as I say, these things have an almost happy tendency to cohere. Grandiloquent exaggerations were common enough in the 1930s. They are even more common – as well as infinitely less justifiable – today. But there is something undeniably poetic about the fact that in order to sustain the grandiloquent phoniness of our own time people are unwittingly reaching back to the most grandiloquent phoniness of earlier days.