Assist One Another

Morgan Meis in Close Reading:

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.

That said, I read one thing that was pretty amazing. It was published in The New York Times, an opinion piece put into print on March 19, 2020. The piece was written by one Jan-Werner Müller—who, the byline informed us, is a politics professor at Princeton University. He 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.”

The reference is, of course, to Auden’s famous poem September 1, 1939. That poem contains the well-known line “we must love one another or die.” I say a well-known line, but that doesn’t really capture it now, does it? The line is more than well-known—it verges into the realm of sacred writings of our time, a scrap of prophecy left to us from the 20th century. 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.

More here.