The same morning I began writing what became my darkest, most frankly bitter blog, I marked for reading an essay on one of my very favorite poets, W.H. Auden, by the editor of his Collected Poems that sits on my shelf, Edward Mendelson. Had I chosen to read it first, I don’t know that I’d have made it to the blog fodder I compiled into my screed.
There’s a même that whatever agitates one is bad, and a counter-même that whatever distracts one from evil and injustice is bad. I lean toward the latter, so I suspect I and the world are better off than if I’d not written yesterday’s screed.
But enough’s enough. Time to wag more, bark less, at least for a while.
W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
Auden was, of course, deeply Christian if not conventionally Christian. To do alms without seeking fanfare, to not let one’s right hand know what one’s left hand is doing, is a deeply Christian thing, and all too unconventional these days. But to act like a total ass in order to do alms takes a poet’s genius:
At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.
With Auden as Christian, there’s always the 800 pound gorilla in the room: his homosexuality, and (if memory serves) his eventual giving up on chastity. Perhaps that sheds some light here:
He was always professional in his dealings with editors and publishers, uncomplainingly rewriting whole essays when asked—except on at least two occasions when he quietly sacrificed money and fame rather than falsify his beliefs. In 1964, for his translation (with Leif Sjöberg) of Dag Hammarskjöld’s posthumous Markings, he wrote a foreword that mentioned Hammarskjöld’s “narcissistic fascination with himself” and alluded almost invisibly to Hammarskjöld’s homosexuality, which Auden perceived as something entirely inward to Hammarskjöld and never acted upon:
A “thorn in the flesh” which convinces him that he can never hope to experience what, for most people, are the two greatest joys earthly life has to offer, either a passionate devotion returned, or a lifelong happy marriage.
He also alluded to Hammarskjöld’s inner sense of a messianic, sacrificial mission—something he seems to have recognized as a version of the messianic fantasy to which he had himself been tempted by his youthful fame as a revolutionary left-wing poet.
Auden had been Hammarskjöld’s candidate for the Nobel Prize, and was widely expected to win it in 1964. Soon after Hammarskjöld’s executors and friends saw Auden’s typescript, he was visited by a Swedish diplomat who hinted that the Swedish Academy would be unhappy if it were printed in its present form, that perhaps it could be revised. Auden 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.”
He saw about 48 years before I did the … well, let him say it:
Two years later, Life magazine offered him $10,000 for an essay on the fall of Rome, the last of a series by multiple authors titled “The Romans.” Auden’s typescript ended with his reflections on the fall of two empires:
I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.
The editors refused to inflict this on their patriotic mass-market readership in the era of the Pax Americana, and asked Auden to rewrite it. He declined, knowing that the piece would be dropped and that he would be paid nothing.
I once emceed the Indiana Right to Life Banquet, and my featured presentation was Roast Cuomo. I must have been pretty good. Auden writing a friend about his 1939 emigration from England to America:
I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring…. It is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.
It took me some years to be a bit ashamed of demonizing even so worthy a demon as Mario, whose spawn Andrew surpasses even him in odiousness.
But, believe it or not, I don’t think eliminating Mario, Andrew and their ilk would “immanentize the Eschaton,” and it didn’t take Auden to teach me:
Auden took intellectual pleasure in sorting people into types and anti-types. 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.
I share with Auden one more thing:
“All the poems I have written were written for love,” he said; “naturally, when I have written one, I try to market it, but the prospect of a market played no role in its writing.”
No, I don’t have a secret stash of poetry. But I write this blog mostly for “an audience of one.” It has become my de facto Journal, the first time in my life that I’ve exercised that discipline of Journaling. Only occasionally do I say to my audience of one “should I really publish that, or should that go to the super-secret, really not ready for prime time incubator/memory hole?” (And I don’t sell since this is avocational, not vocational.)
(Okay, I sometimes notice the little bar graph in WordPress editor showing how many people have read my blog, hour by hour. It recently spiked as high as nine, having in my memory only gone as high as six previously. Part of me wishes I could make the bar graph go away. The other part will be particularly mortified, I hope, over the next seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week.)
if you haven’t realized it yet, I highly recommend Mendelson’s essay, and I even left some surprises for you.
I’m pleased to report that the title “Understanding the Mechanics of the Incarnation” grossly over-promises and under-delivers on its apparent meaning. That is its great virtue, since heresy often (always?) starts with a sincere effort to understand or to explain what is intrinsically beyond our ken.
What the article achieves is looking at another facet of why it’s beyond our ken. Read it as poetry, not as prose.
‘Our society would be proposing to couples seeking marriage that they prepare their own divorce settlement before making the life-long promises of marriage. ‘It is a legal provision which would surely empty the words of the marriage promise “for better for worse… to love and to cherish till death do we part” of all meaning. ‘Pre-nuptial agreements would render these promises provisional by the legal preparations which anticipate divorce. ‘We must ask ourselves, what message does this send to couples considering marriage? What message does this send to the young at a moment when the institution of marriage stands at such a historically, low ebb.’
(The Rt. Rev Mark Davies on a British Law Commission’s proposals for a new approach to dividing assets after a failed marriage via prenuptial agreement.)
Now for my own 2¢ worth.
In this, as in many things, the Church (in this case only, I mean the Roman Catholic Church, which has codified and systematized a lot – perhaps too much, but that’s for another day) has been there and thought about this sort of thing. The Rt. Rev. Davies appears at least passingly familiar with that thought, and probably more than I. But it’s my understanding that a preuptial agreement that provides for what shall happen in case of divorce per se proves that the parties did not consider marriage indissoluble and thus were not validly married.
I think there’s a heck of a lot of wisdom there for Christians of any tradition.
But I believe a second marriage may be licitly proceeded by an agreement about what happens as between “yours, mine and (if any) ours” after the certainty of death, even though that implies a less-than-complete “mine is thine, thine is mine.” Check with your canon lawyer on that.
“I learned who Rachel was in church,” muses a troubled character with the same name in the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.” “Jacob fell in love with her while she was watering a lamb, and she became his wife after he worked seven years to earn her hand in marriage. Rachel had one son, Joseph. He became a king.” There’s only one problem with this account: It’s wrong. Jacob agreed to work for Rachel for seven years, but ended up working 14. She had two sons, not one. And Joseph did not become king, but rather Pharaoh’s deputy in ancient Egypt.
(Yair Rosenburg) Uh, well, you could add that Rachel was watering a whole flock, too, not just “a lamb.”
When I was a small boy in grade school, we had no cartoons of naked men and women, boys and girls, strutting and slouching across the pages of “health” books. We had no sly suggestive come-ons into the world of porn and trivial sex. We were not encouraged to abuse ourselves, or given hints as to how many ways we could do it, or with whom. We did not know that our bodies were tools for mutual and meaningless seizing and consumption.
We were not, in other words, the objects of massive, publicly sponsored, selfish, soul-flattening child abuse.
(Anthony Esolen on why our culture needs the message of Dawn Eden’s book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints)
I’ve ranted and raved about the the frenzied and deeply dishonest P.R. campaign and subsequent veto of Arizona’s clarifying amendments to its RFRA, but there is one thing due the devil on this issue: He and his minions are apparently speaking the truth when the say it was the first Bill of the legislative session to pass and land on the Governor’s desk.
I’m just not clear on whether the legislator had any idea that the Bill would be the subject of a Two Minutes Hate. They probably were thinking “let’s start with a no-brainer as a warmup,” unaware that “no-brainers” can be deeply offense to those who’ll readily sell their souls for, e.g., a damned SuperBowl.
Speaking of Lent and Holy Week, I don’t believe I’m going to be able to maintain the pace of this blog for the next seven weeks at least.
That’s true every Lent just because of obligations I have that are visible, like singing beaucoups services in 50 days.
But this year, I find myself in a particularly unsatisfying spiritual place approaching Lent, so it’s time for some private work, too, as it should be every Lent but too rarely, or too leniently, has been for me. What I can write or link in coming weeks is apt to be spiritual material.
I can’t promise everything will “return to normal” in seven weeks because part of the purpose of Lent is to effectuate lasting change, and sometimes we can be surprised if what we discover needs to change. So this is not “farewell,” nor even hasta luego, but more like “if things seem a little weird for a while, this may be why.”
That or a psychotic break.
* * * * *
“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)