W. H. Auden and the Great Divide Between People


Here is a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books this week called The Secret Auden by Edward Mendelson.  Unlike so many articles today, this one does not reveal the secret vices of a famous person.  Instead this article reveals the kind acts of generosity that W. H Auden did but kept hidden from the public.

 But the main point of the article is to show us W. H. Auden’s views of life and of people.   Auden was a sensitive supremely intelligent man who was able to put the whole world into his poems.

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table …”
                                            ‘Herman Melville’, by W. H. Auden

The key time in our world history is just after World War II.   Civilization had just been through two major wars, the second much worse than the first. Auden said, ‘War may be necessary, but it is still murder.’  Many people were pessimistic that a third world war, much worse than the second, was inevitable.    Auden addressed this fear with the following lines.

“More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively,
all is possible.”

‘The Cave of Making’ by W. H. Auden

Somehow we have muddled through these almost seventy years since World War II without that third world war occurring, although we have built and stockpiled the weapons for it.

As Mendelson points out in his article, there are two sides to our current argument, two ways of looking at things.  Since Mendelson presents this idea so persuasively, I will let him explain.

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.

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.”

                             ‘The Secret Auden’, Edward Mendelson

So here is the great divide between people.  The members of one group say, without irony, ‘We are good persons and it is all those other evil people that are causing all the trouble’.  However the members of the second group say, ‘We ourselves, as well as everyone else, have the potential to commit evil.  It is up to each of us to curb our own evil instincts.’

AudenVanVechten1939Auden and I strongly support the second group.  If Hitler and all the Nazis could have figured out for one second that they themselves were the problem, tens of millions of people would not have had to die in World War II.

Over the last few days, I’ve discovered much more in Auden’s poems than his views of evil and good.  Only now am I beginning to realize the full extent of his accomplishment.

Another line from Auden seems appropriate here.

“You shall love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart.”

             ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ by W. H. Auden


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