Morgan Meis doesn’t give a crap about COVID. And then takes on Auden’s (arguably) most famous line.


Morgan Meis, a contributor to The New Yorker, doesn’t want to hear what you have to say about coronavirus. (We wrote last week about his new book here.) His latest, “Assist One Another,” from Close Reading, the Slant Books blog:

“You may have noticed that there are a lot of writers writing a lot about the coronavirus. As every day passes, I want to read these pieces less and less. I don’t care about the subtleties of your daily experience under lockdown, Sensitive Writer Person. I don’t care about your analysis of how everything is going to change or about how everything is actually not really going to change, Journalist. I am indifferent as to your recommendations, Pundit. I give not a crap about your brilliant reading of Camus in light of COVID-19, Essayist. I’m in a boycott, a deep boycott. I will read nothing about coronavirus until 2030; this is my current and most solemn pledge.”

Then he breaks his word immediately by taking on the soggy thinking of Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller, a political science prof, in a March 19 opinion The New York Times, who wrote, “But apart from sheer destruction, crises could lead to something more constructive: a commitment to mutual aid, a sense, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, that we must assist one another or die.”

That’s quite a drift from Auden’s original “we must love one another or die,” or the poet’s later correction, “we must love one another and die.”

He reconsidered…and rewrote.

“Müller, however, wasn’t especially comfortable with the word ‘love’ in that beyond-famous line by Auden, and decided that Auden’s point would be improved if he permitted himself some off-the-cuff paraphrasing and changed the word “love” to the word “assist.” Assist one another. People helping one another step down from the bus and whatnot, I suppose. A nice thing to do. I mean, I’m not sure anyone is really going to die if they don’t get some assistance with whatever task is at hand. We must assist one another getting our luggage into the overhead compartments—or die! We must pick up the pencil that someone in line at the DMV just dropped—or die! We must hold the door open at the supermarket. Or die!”

I disagree with the revision from Auden’s original, for reasons I’ve discussed here. Morgan favors the revision, “We must love one another and die.” But he has a lively riff on love I thought I’d share here:

“One loves because one loves. Love itself is the reward for love. Pain is also the reward. And suffering. And the gnawing ever-present, if generally repressed knowledge, that whatever and whoever one loves will ultimately die, be lost in the overwhelming flow of time, and that we too will die. The point of loving is to be exposed to all of this. The point of loving is to be raw to all that will never be controlled or understood or managed, but which must be what it is, and in so being, in being the utterly unaccountable reality that is so very real and true and beautiful and terrifying and insurmountable, in being in love with all of this we will somehow also be adequate to it, right there with the big swirling beautiful mess of the world, and only insofar as we allow ourselves to receive it, all of it. We must, in other words, love one another and die.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s short, and worth it.

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