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diacritics 35.4 (2005) 23-41

"With Conscious Artifice"
Auden's Defense of Marriage
Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb

1 "Auden Said That?"

The greatest lesson of life comes from Auden—sort of.

In Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson, a line attributed to Auden forms the lesson around which the "runaway bestseller" revolves. As the first paragraph of the book explains and the last paragraph repeats, the book recounts a pedagogical encounter between Mitch and a retired Brandeis professor of Social Psychology, Morrie Schwartz, who is dying of ALS: "The last class of my old professor's life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life" [Albom, 1, 192]. Several years earlier Mitch had written his senior thesis under Morrie's direction. Upon learning of Morrie's condition from an episode of Nightline entitled "Life's Lessons," Mitch visits his dying teacher and finds his own feelings of "confusion and depression" [44] healed under Morrie's tutelage. From the first "class" of their renewed relationship Morrie emphasizes that contemporary culture condemns those under its influence to a "meaningless life" [43] and that the confusion Mitch experiences belongs to the entire era—and so, too, an urgent need for clarity. Mitch, in turn, sees in Morrie someone who, by virtue of his life-affirming wisdom and his proximity to death, can identify those "important things" that can fill the cultural vacuum about which he, as a sports reporter, knows all too well. On the fifth of their unofficial Tuesday "office hours," Morrie begins to fulfill his former student's expectations. Clarity comes in an imperative the old professor attributes to Auden:

"Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, 'Love each other or perish.'"

"Love each other or perish." I wrote it down. Auden said that?


The line in question could scarcely be clearer, for it represents life in terms of a stark decision: love or death. Despite the simplicity of this choice, however, the scene is curiously complex, as if Mitch, against his explicit intentions, wants to dampen the effect of Morrie's wisdom. That Mitch writes down the line "Love each other or perish" is itself odd—even more so that he writes that he writes it down. As the beginning of the chapter explains at length, the conversation is being recorded, so that all of Morrie's wisdom may be preserved. The act of writing under these circumstances is less a sign of confidence in the supreme importance of the quotation in question than an indication of a degree of unresolved confusion: "Auden said that?" The confusion in this case cannot be attributed [End Page 23] to contemporary culture; rather, it consists in certain philological problems of citation: is Auden the author of the line, and if so, is it correctly rendered? Perhaps under the direction of another Brandeis professor, Mitch had learned and retained the famous last line of the penultimate stanza of Auden's "September 1, 1939": "We must love one another or die."1 Perhaps Mitch, or his publisher, having done some research, wants to signal an awareness of Morrie's misquotation but nevertheless remain faithful to the exact words of his teacher. And in any case who would care about such matters when something of great importance, indeed "life's greatest lesson," has just been articulated?

Mitch's curiously inappropriate question does not, however, altogether disappear from Tuesdays. In response, Morrie does not so much insist on the accuracy of the quotation as on its goodness and truth:

"Love each other or perish," Morrie said. "It's good, no? And it's so true. Without love, we are birds with broken wings.

"Say I was divorced, or living alone, or had no children. This disease—what I'm going through...