At the beginning of autumn in 2001, finding myself in New York, I went to a high-end reading put on by the Poetry Foundation. It was the sanctioned return of culture into a world of mourning. The participants read poems by others that seemed germane to 9/11. Someone, I don’t recall who but let’s say Robert Pinsky, read W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” I remember thinking, That’s a good poem. I remember thinking, I am glad to be hearing this. It would circulate a lot that fall. One can see immediately how it suited the occasion. Here is the opening stanza.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
I remember thinking, You have it all wrong.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland is 4,000 miles from our man in Manhattan. That distance matters. That a world war has begun but the speaker is not of that world—yet—matters. That fascism is reaching across the land and yet is for the moment present only as a shadow, as something that must be made real in the mind . . . it all matters. The simultaneous actual and almost that demands our imaginative powers even as it feels ruinous. The being alive, being in some sense in normal conditions, yet aware of the incipient deaths of people you will never meet.
This is distinct from 9/11 in New York. The catastrophe was not elsewhere. That is one difference, but there are others. It was not an invasion. It would not start a world war. For all the jingoistic rubbish about a clash of civilizations, there was no “Islamofascism” in the sense that the policy hawks so obviously wanted there to be. But Pinsky is a smart guy. I like to imagine that, foreseeing as we all did the wave of US invasions that would follow, he was already running ahead—that when he read Auden’s line about “imperialism’s face” he was thinking of 2002, 2003, all the years after, America’s low and dishonest jihad. Maybe. But that still reduces the shadow spreading itself across the globe to imperial adventure, tanks and airpower. Still not quite right.
On October 25 of this year I sat in a scruffy university classroom in Buenos Aires with comrades from Argentina, from India and Mexico, from the United States and Chile. Also some from Brazil. Many others had worked or lived there, had close friends and family there. Maybe everyone. The news was coming through that the universities of Brazil had been raided, antifascist signs torn down, courses rousted based on their content, students and faculty threatened by forces sympathetic to Jair Bolsonaro, who three days later would be elected president. Bolsonaro is an avowed fan of the two-decade dictatorship that ended in 1985, and has committed to designating broad social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement as terrorists, possibly extending this to the previous ruling party, the Workers’ Party. This would be like Margaret Thatcher outlawing the Labour Party, had she had the courage. (Hey Maggie, say hi to Satan for me!) It is worth mentioning that, although the Workers’ Party had lost after suffering a debilitating corruption scandal, Bolsonaro’s victory did not arise from the destruction of the left. Rather, the centrist parties and even your basic conservatives were obliterated. Brazil is yet another demonstration of the polarization thesis and arguably the oscillation thesis, with global crisis leading to ever-widening swings and now reaching inarguably into fascism.
Perhaps the doings of universities are small beer in this light, though history intimates otherwise. Bolsonaro would declare that students should report faculty who offer any “expressions that humiliate or offend your freedom of faith and conscience.” The point person for this campaign identified herself as “anti-snowflake, anti-Marxist and anti-feminist,” if you want a sense of who will be reported. By reported I mean purged. They will be lucky if they survive.
Here I want to clarify that the people I was sitting with in this scruffy room—we were just trying to have a conference, share some things we had studied—were all scholars and/or Marxists and/or feminists. This fact would be clear, should someone start to inquire, from looking at course listings, or online profiles, or publications. Every single one of us including those due back in Brazil that weekend. They radiated waves of anger and fear. I am fortunate. I would be home in California on the day Bolsonaro was elected, home in my dark apartment rinsing out some jet lag.
It was also on that day that I felt for the first time the feeling conjured by “September 1, 1939,” felt it on my own, without the poem. I have purposely avoided mentioning the US president thus far. The comparisons are obvious and facile. I find the debates about whether he is a fascist tedious and demoralizing, as it is clear that the only proof which would satisfy skeptics will be when the camps open, if then. But let’s say it doesn’t matter. Trump, or his man Bolton, whatever their mystical inner natures, have already embraced Bolsonaro (and Duterte) (and Orbán). The shadow is on the move. Indeed, everything that is said about the caravan of refugees headed toward the United States should be said instead about the approach of fascism, coming toward us relentlessly, bearing terror within itself. We’re in the dive bar now.
We are compelled now to give imaginative actuality to what is almost here, we hope it is almost. To give actuality to people known and unknown in Brazil, and not just there, and to understand that the shadow will fall here, that it has already begun to fall, that even if the world around you, the dive bar, the university hall, the half-filled street, even if these look more or less normal, just a little bit more grim, that what is going to happen has already started happening. It is time to figure out what to do.