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

Camus and the “Wild Longing for Clarity”

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

It’s a few days late to honor the official 100th birthday of Albert Camus (November 7), but the commemorations I’ve been seeing remind me how refreshingly pertinent the core of his thought remains to our everyday lives. Aspects of it are obviously dated, but – it seems to me – nowhere nearly as much as the grim, sour, mid-century theorizing so many of his Continental peers.

Probably a key underlying reason for that freshness is Camus’ literary gift. Jerry Delaney, who adapted La Chute for a stage production in Santa Fe in 1999, offers an especially discerning recent assessment for The American Scholar, reminding us of the writer’s claim that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists.”

I retain strongly physical memories of my first time reading L’Étranger – of summer, the heat around me, which melded with Camus’ descriptions of the beach and the merciless sunlight. But even the more challenging essays offered little explosions of insight and recognition similar in kind to the fiction.

Delaney describes how Camus’ idea of the “absurd” could move us so profoundly:

It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

How astonishing it is to recall that Camus wrote the epochal Le Mythe de Sisyphe while still only in his 20s. From my teenage vantage point when I first encountered this essay, it seemed the scripture of a very wise man, of someone who had lived through more than I could begin to imagine. Delaney ponders why Camus’ essay has such staying power:

Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.

Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.

We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is Camus’ famous formulation – an existentialist update of Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”? But the context for this imagined Sisyphean contentment is far more reminiscent of Nietzsche’s version of eternal recurrence (in Zarathustra and elsewhere): the ceaseless cycle of life, repeatedly infinitely, without escape, as a “fate” to be affirmed with joy.

And what of the phantom of “engagement” that preoccupied Camus and his followers? Well, the wisdom arrived at in Sisyphus “is not a conclusion but a point of departure.” Delaney refers to L’Homme révolté, the essay which followed in 1951, as the political response to that wisdom: “Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel” – in contrast to the posture of revolution. According to Delaney, for Camus the difference was that “rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution.”

Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.

…More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Filed under: ethics, literature, philosophy

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