MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Arcadians and Utopians

W.H. Auden in 1939

W.H. Auden in 1939

Edward Mendelson’s new essay “The Secret Auden” in the New York Review of Books is a provocative read. The literary executor of the Auden estate and an authority long familiar to Audenites, Mendelson reveals some of the poet’s best-kept secrets.

Not tabloid secrets, not the gossipy stuff. Auden’s “secret life” lay hidden “because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.” Mendelson starts by touchingly recounting several instances of the poet’s under-the-radar generosity to war orphans, prisoners, people in need. And “when he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue,” writes Mendelson,”he did so without calling attention to himself” — in contrast to Robert Lowell, “whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective.”

A potent example Mendelson adduces: Auden’s preface to his co-translation of Dag Hammarskjöld’s diary reflections, Markings, implicitly referred to the UN Secretary General’s closeted sexuality — in gently diplomatic terms — and prompted objections from the Hammarskjöld estate before he published it. At the time, it was widely believed that Auden would win the Nobel Prize, but he refused to revise his copy. Mendelson notes that he “ignored the hint, and seems to have mentioned the incident only once, when he went to dinner with his friend Lincoln Kirstein the same evening and said, ‘There goes the Nobel Prize.’ The prize went to Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused it.”

So why did Auden in later years cultivate a curmudgeonly, cantankerous image precisely when he was at his most generous? “In part,” suggests Mendelson, “he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left … Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, he had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.”

From this tendency toward keeping his good deeds secret, Mendelson draws out far deeper implications about moral self-awareness and the crucial debates of modernity:

One of many forms this argument takes is a dispute over the meaning of the great totalitarian evils of the twentieth century: whether they reveal something about all of humanity or only about the uniquely evil leaders, cultures, and nations that committed them. For Auden, those evils made manifest the kinds of evil that were potential in everyone.

How familiar and easy is that Manichean division of the universe into good and evil. Auden, though, “was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed.”

In his own poetry and essays, Auden loves to play with binaries in a different — and humanely metaphorical — way:

Much of his work dramatizes a distinction between gentle-minded Arcadians, who dream of an innocent past where everyone could do as they wanted without harming anyone else, and stern-minded Utopians, who fantasize, and sometimes try to build, an ideal future in which all will act as they should. He identified himself as an Arcadian, but he never imagined that Utopians, no matter how much he disliked being around them, were solely to blame for public and private injustice, and he always reminded himself that Arcadians were not as innocent as they thought.

Find the whole essay here.

Filed under: aesthetics, ethics, poetry

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