In these dark days before the budget cuts and as we suffer the effects of an unfair system, I remember a poem that was written on the eve of World War II. It was by W H Auden, September 1939. The reason it came to mind, probably, was the line where he mentions bright lights dotted here and there on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere which countered reason to madness. I also recall the 1993 Reith Lectures by Edward Said, who is mostly remembered in art circles for his book Orientalism. But in the Reith lectures, in the very same year Derrida published Specters of Marx, Said argues cogently and passionately for engagement, commitment, in the face of adversity too.

And now for the hinge. I say to my students that the hinge is the turning point. Not the spin, the hinge. Doors need them, so does logic and art-logic too, if you’ll allow me to invent a new word. Metaphorically, of course, Auden’s bright lights belong to a long genealogy of light symbolism opposed to darkness. The opposite, though, is not Evil, but just something we need to sort out. I’m tempted to pursue this line of thinking, but better not. Let’s just say that artists are bright lights or can be. Sometimes they need to navel-gaze, everyone does; sometimes they need to do something else, everyone does.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W H Auden, September 1939, last stanza

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