The Secret, Saintly Auden
A reader sends this Edward Mendelson piece from the New York Review of Books, exposing a hidden side of the poet W.H. Auden’s life. Auden had a reputation for being somewhat aloof, but it wasn’t true. He was alwys performing quiet acts of charity. For example:
From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, with a new set of orphans every few years, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.
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.
There were more examples, and they astonish. This man was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, and yet without telling anybody, he did so many kindnesses to people. The one that touches me the most has to do with the poor and frightened student at a literary party. Read the essay and see how it played out; you and I have been that person, once. How would it have changed things had one of the world’s great poets treated us that way in that anxious moment?
Why did he keep all these things so quiet? Mendelson says it has to do with his humility, and his distrust of his own motives, and those of artists:
In 1939 he left England for America, partly to escape his own public status. Six months later, after making a speech at a political meeting, he wrote to a friend:
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.He was disgusted by his early fame because he saw the mixed motives behind his image of public virtue, the gratification he felt in being idolized and admired. He felt degraded when asked to pronounce on political and moral issues about which, he reminded himself, artists had no special insight. 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.
In an age when writers as different as Hemingway and Eliot encouraged their public to admire them as heroic explorers of the mind and spirit, Auden preferred to err in the opposite direction, by presenting himself as less than he was.
By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.
On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.
What a superb example of humility, and the need for humility to rein in our passions, Auden gives us. The reader writes, “I have always loved him, now more than ever.” Yes. I will take up some Auden in my Lenten reading.
The other night a couple of friends who were passing through town stopped by to return a book. Standing at my door, we got to talking, and went at it for a good 20 minutes. I don’t even know how we went down this rabbit hole so fast, but we found ourselves talking about the impossibility of explaining to ourselves, much less to people outside the South, how evil can live side by side with good, within a single person, and a single culture. Oh, I remember how it got started: one of my friends for some reason mentioned an old man who lived in her neighborhood when she was growing up, who had been beloved as a grandfatherly gent who was kind to all. She learned later that the old man, who has since died, she said, had a terrible, villainous past, of which he never, to her knowledge, repented. We all three, being Southerners, began sharing stories of this mysterious aspect of the human character, and how it seems so vividly incarnate in the South.
We all agreed that it’s not something that can be explained well to people not from the South, because showing any sympathy for those who have done evil comes off sounding like an apology for evil; in fact, it is more often than not an expression of humility in the face of humanity’s nature and evil’s mystery. The topic was race, and the racial — and racist — history of our region, and all of us agreed that if we, as white people, had been born and raised two or three generations earlier, we would almost certainly have held the same prejudices as those older white people whose views are so mysterious to us today. And we all agreed that we will be judged by our grandchildren in the same way for some views we hold that seem normal and uncontroversial to us now — just as the racist views held by our ancestors seemed perfectly reasonable and normal to them in their time and place.
It seems to me that when you are face to face with the reality of human beings, it becomes hard to judge with icy clarity. The genial grandfather who was a terrorist in his youth: his character is both things. His gentleness and kindness in old age does not obviate his ferocious villainy in his youth, but nor does that villainy obviate the sweetness in his late character. One has to hold both things in one’s judgment simultaneously, and that is hard, and even painful. So we come down on one side or the other to dispel the anxiety. Doing so also relieves in ourselves the anxiety that comes from examining our own character, in humility. Sure, we think, we have our faults, but at least we’re not like Them.
Auden seems to have been afraid of this moral complacency and capacity for deception within himself. About ourselves, so should we be. What is so unnerving about the genial grandfather who was once a terrorist is his palpable humanity. If he can be both things, and be unaware of the contradiction, then what, absent humility, is to prevent us from the same fate?