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Auden on good and evil

It is not uncommon, WH Auden observed, to find many a “dedicated anti-fascist” who conducts his erotic life as if he were invading Poland.

Edward Mendelson, in a fine essay in The New York Review of Books (March 20th), muses on the “The Secret Auden” – the “secret” being that the poet had in his private life a leaning towards doing good quietly when circumstances allowed. And while he was certainly aware of what good is (aren’t we all?) the notion of “being good” made him intensely uncomfortable since he saw its fragility. As for evil, against the view that it was an aberration and only to be found in cases of (thankfully rare) “moral monsters”, Auden upheld a position, according to Mendelson, more akin to that of Hannah Arendt: In a verse from 1939:

Evil is unspectacular and always human
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Auden derived pleasure from dividing people into types, one possible division being that between Arcadians (fond of pleasure and of being left “harmlessly” alone) and Utopians (intent on schemes to make us all efficient, virtuous and of course happy). The terms employed here might be taken to suggest that Auden favours one and fears the other, but in fact each type must bear a certain guilt. When the two encounter each other neither speaks but each knows what the other thinks:

Both simultaneously recognize
his Anti-type: that I am an
Arcadian, that he is a Utopian.
He notes, with contempt, my
Aquarian belly: I note, with
alarm, his Scorpion’s mouth.
He would like to see me cleaning
latrines: I would like to see him
removed to some other planet.

Isaiah Berlin was a lifelong friend of Auden’s but he demurred, writes Mendelson, from the implications of these fine words of the Russian master: “The dilemma of morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at a time of acute polarization of opinion has ... grown acute and worldwide.” For who are these morally sensitive, honest and intellectually responsible people but you and I, dear reader? And if we are such, then all the fault in the matter at hand must surely be on someone else’s side.

Mendelson concludes with some observations on Auden and religion which are worth quoting at length.

Auden’s sense of his divided motives was inseparable from his idiosyncratic Christianity. He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation – which he knew he could never fulfill – to love his neighbor as himself, and he alluded to that commandment in a late haiku: “He has never seen God / but, once or twice, he believes / he has heard Him.” He took communion every Sunday and valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a “link between the dead and the unborn,” a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves. The book he wrote while returning in 1940 to the Anglican Communion of his childhood was titled The Double Man. It had an epigraph from Montaigne: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”

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