Auden and Poggioli

This lovely remembrance by Sylvia Poggioli of her father, the literary scholar Renato Poggioli, features a letter to her father from W. H. Auden, and the handwritten poem he submitted for publication in the journal Professor Poggioli edited, Inventario. Sylvia Poggioli speaks of her discovery as “a true literary find,” but the letter might be better described as a biographical find, since the poem itself has not been unknown: it’s duly recorded in Bloomfield and Mendelson’s W. H. Auden: A Bibliography, 1924-1969 (1972).

Also, it’s not quite right to say, as Poggioli does, that “Auden later included these verses in a much longer piece, perhaps one of the most powerful poems of the mid-twentieth century, The Age of Anxiety”: he had already written the stanzas as part of The Age of Anxiety and was simply excerpting them for Poggioli’s journal, something he did with several other chunks of that longest of his poems. Auden truthfully told Renato Poggioli that it was an “unpublished poem,” but it would be published, along with the rest of The Age of Anxiety, just a few months later.

The thought that first comes to my mind when looking at the above image is the devout wish that Auden had always taken so much care to make his handwriting legible. Alas for my eyes, which have spent so many hours poring over his notebooks, he did not.


“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant….

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been….

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead….

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany…. From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by … the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here’s a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: “The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested.”

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade’s belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular “myth” and “faith” of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which “sacred time,” the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive “sacred time” because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of “the eternal return” by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don’t know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade’s thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, “leave the self alone” and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade’s account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one,” which clearly invokes Eliade’s definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: “revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself.” I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists’ interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn’t this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower “the soul’s talent for consensus” among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden’s comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears…. As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.

the Roman world and ours

So why am I reading about — I’m gonna coin a phrase here — the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? It started as part of my work on Auden.

I first learned about Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture from reading Auden’s review of it, published in The New Republic in 1944. Auden began that review by saying that in the years since the book appeared (it was first published in 1940) “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of its importance to the understanding not only of the epoch with which it is concerned, but also of our own, has has increased with each rereading.” I thought: Well, now, that’s rather remarkable. I figured it was a book I had better read too.

Auden concludes his review with these words:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

That metaphor — “spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” — is brilliantly suggestive. (And Auden knew all about benzedrine.)

More than twenty years later, in a long essay on the fall of Rome that was never published for reasons Edward Mendelson explains here, Auden wrote:

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.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neoplatonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats … instead of mortification of the flash, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered about television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheater, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

And then the comically dyspeptic conclusion: “I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (For those interested, the unpublished essay may be found in this collection.)

Clearly for Auden, the story Cochrane tells was one that had lasting relevance. Elements of Cochrane’s narrative turn up, in much more complex form than in the late-career bleat just quoted, for decades in Auden’s poetry: “The Fall of Rome,” “Memorial for the City,” “Under Sirius,” “Secondary Epic,” and many other poems bear Cochrane’s mark. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m now reading Christianity and Classical Culture for the fourth time, and it really is impossible for me also not to see the Roman world as a distant mirror of our own. How can I read this passage about the rise of Julius Caesar and not think of Donald Trump?

In the light of these ancient concepts, Ceasar emerges as a figure at once fascinating and dangerous. For the spirit thus depicted is one of sublime egotism; in which the libido dominandi asserts itself to the exclusion of all possible alternatives and crushes every obstacle in its path. We have spoken of Caesar as a divisive force. That, indeed, he was: as Cato had put it, “he was the only one of the revolutionaries to undertake, cold-sober, the subversion of the republic”; … A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?

And how can I read about this extension of the Emperor’s powers and not reflect on the recent hypertrophy of the executive branch of American government?

The powers and duties assigned to the emperor were broad and comprehensive. They were, moreover, rapidly enlarged as functions traditionally attached to republican magistracies were transferred one after another to the new executive, and executive action invaded fields which, under the former system, had been consecrated to senatorial or popular control. Finally, by virtue of specific provisions, the substance of which is indicated in the maxim princeps legibus solutus, the emperor was freed from constitutional limitations which might have paralyzed his freedom of action; while his personal protection was assured through the grant of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) as well as by the sanctions of the Lex Maiestatis. The prerogative was thus built up by a series of concessions, made by the competent authority of senate and people, no single one of which was in theory unrepublican.

But the more I read Cochrane, the more I suspect that we may not be talking about mere mirroring, mere analogies. Last year, when I read and reviewed Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, I was struck by Siedentop’s tracing of certain of our core ideas about selfhood to legal disputes that arose in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire and its immediate aftermath. And this led me in turn to think about an ideas that Mikhail Bakhtin meditated on ceaselessly near the end of his life: great time. David Shepherd provides a thorough account of this idea here, but in short Bakhtin is trying to think about cultural developments that persist over centuries and even millennia, even when they have passed altogether from conscious awareness. Thus this staggering passage from one of his late notebooks:

The mutual understanding of centuries and millennia, of peoples, nations, and cultures, provides a complex unity of all humanity, all human cultures (a complex unity of human culture), and a complex unity of human literature. All this is revealed only on the level of great time. Each image must be understood and evaluated on the level of great time. Analysis usually fusses about in the narrow space of small time, that is, in the space of the present day and the recent past and the imaginable — desired or frightening — future.


There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time.

If we were take Bakhtin’s idea seriously, how might that affect our thinking about the Roman Empire as something more than a “distant mirror” of our own age? To think of our age, our world, as functionally extensive of the Roman project?

I’ll take up those questions in another post.

the devil’s bargain: part 1


So wrote R. P. Blackmur, an eminent poet and critic from Princeton University, writing in the Sewanee Review in 1945. His essay is called “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” and his chief question is whether it is possible for literary writers to make a living. Plus ça change, oui? An essay very much worth reading for anyone, but especially for people who think that the problem of the aspiring-artist-piecing-together-a-rough-living is a phenomenon of the millennial generation.

Anyhow, Blackmur is concerned because he has run some numbers.


In these circumstances, where can the necessary money — money sufficient to allow artists to pursue their art full-time (or nearly so) — come from?

From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? We know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.

Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” Social and technical service stations: a prophetic word if there ever was one. The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.

One of my favorite things about W. H. Auden is his tendency, when he has something very serious to say, to cast it in comic terms. In 1946 Auden wrote a poem for the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It is called “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” and you may listen to the poet read it here. As Adam Kirsch has noted, Harvard had played an important role in the war:

Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had perished. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Now that the Cold War was under way, the partnership between the University and the federal government was destined to grow even closer. 

But as Kirsch only hints, Auden was deeply suspicious of the capture of intellectual life by what, fifteen years later, President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex”; and he presented his poem as a direct, if superficially light-hearted, attack on that capture. For Auden, Conant was a perfect embodiment of the “new barbarian” who was breaking down the best of Western culture from within. (See more about this here.)

Soon after his return from Harvard, Auden told his friend Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

first of a series of posts

the internet and the Mezzogiorno

Auden on Ischia, by George Daniell

From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, W. H. Auden spent part of each year on the Island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. When he bought a small house in Austria and left Italy, he wrote a lovely and funny poem called “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno” in which he reflected on how he, as the child of a “potato, beer-or-whiskey / Guilt culture,” never became anything more than a stranger in southern Italy.

As he thinks about the people of that region, he wonders if, despite the liveliness of the culture, they might be “without hope.” And he muses, 

                                This could be a reason
Why they take the silencers off their Vespas,
    Turn their radios up to full volume,  

And a minim saint can expect rockets — noise
    As a counter-magic, a way of saying
Boo to the Three Sisters: “Mortal we may be,
    But we are still here!”

I thought of this poem the other day when I saw this story about how NPR played a little trick on its Facebook fans: giving them a headline that was not accompanied by an actual story, but that people commented on — vociferously, confidently — anyway. Writing like this, and it constitutes the vast majority of all online commenting, is not so much an attempt at communication or rational conversation as it is an assertion of presence: “Mortal we may be, / But we are still here!” And the more assertive your comments are, the harder it is to deny your presence. Abusing people whose (often imagined) views you disdain is like taking the silencer off your Vespa; writing in all caps is like turning your radio up to full volume.
Which raises the question of why so many people feel so strongly the need to announce their presence in the internet’s comboxes. Surely not the for same reason that people like me write blog posts! 

more on knowledge and value

The tl;dr version of this post: In late capitalism, “Useful Knowledge” can take care of itself, and does. Let’s concern ourselves with other things.

In my earlier post on the value of knowledge I said I would return to some questions raised there. About some recent academic research Aaron Gordon had said, “Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things?” I spoke to the the first question in that post, and will return to it here; then I’ll get to the important stuff.

Let’s consider this recent story from the New York Times:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation….

That personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment. Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries — for a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.

Please read the whole article, which treats vitally important issues.

And now let’s perform a thought-experiment. Read this list of 20th-century scientific discoveries and ask yourself: How many of them would have happened under the kind of funding regime American science is headed towards — or rather, that is already largely in place? (Those philanthropists may be funding their pet projects more directly now, but they’ve been giving to universities, with plentiful strings attached, for a long time.) Or consider something not even on that list — perhaps because it separates mathematics and technology from science: You want to talk about “esoteric”? What could possibly be more esoteric than David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem? And yet it was Alan Turing’s answer to that problem that gave us digital computing — a result that no one could possibly have foreseen.

I think this thought-experiment, coupled with the NYT article on science, suggests to us a few points:

1) No one knows, and no one can know, what the future uses will be of the knowledge people are discovering, or want to discover, today.

2) Knowledge which is obviously useful, especially in the widespread sense of “potentially lucrative,” will always, in a free-market or mostly-free-market system, have its patrons.

3) Therefore it’s reasonable for society to sponsor institutions and scholars that work on the apparently esoteric, on the same principle that pharmaceutical companies pay for research into new drugs. Very, very little of that research makes its way to market — but what does pays for the rest.

All that if you want to make a largely economic, use-oriented case for the value of the apparently esoteric.

But I don’t want to make that case.

In Auden’s greatest poetic achievement, the sequence Horae Canonicae, he writes with wonder of the incomprehensibility, the unpredictability, the wholly gratuitous nature, of vocation — of obedience to a calling. “To ignore the appetitive goddesses … // what a prodigious step to have taken.”

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

For Auden, there is nothing more delightfully and distinctively human than this obedience to an inexplicable desire to learn, to study — a desire that in some can suspend our habitual animal obedience to appetite — including, I would like to note, not just the appetites for food and sex, but also for economic security and social prestige. To heed this call to an utterly non-utilitarian studiousness is a mark of civilization in an individual — and also in a society, which, if it can afford it, should create and sustain institutions in which such studiousness can flourish.

So, to the question of whether anyone in our tremendously wealthy and astonishingly wasteful society should pay people to study the body temperature of the nesting red-footed Booby (Sula sula), I say: Absolutely. Take the money out of the athletic department’s budget if need be. And when you’re done paying them, build a freakin’ monument to them.

“It is good just by being knowledge”

Here’s a post on a familiar theme: academic papers that no one reads. Let’s take it as a given that there is too much academic publishing, that academic writing is often used to achieve or mark status rather than to add to or disseminate knowledge, and so on. Duly noted, once more. But there’s another point in the post I want to call attention to.

The author, Aaron Gordon, runs some random word searches in an academic database and lists some of the articles he finds. For instance: “Complexity of Early and Middle Successional Stages in a Rocky Intertidal Surfgrass Community,” by Teresa Turner, Oecologia, Vol. 60, No. 1 (1983), pp. 56-65. And “Darwin and Nietzsche: Selection, Evolution, and Morality,” by Catherine Wilson, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 354-370. And “Body Temperature of the Nesting Red-Footed Booby (Sula sula),” by R. J. Shallenberger, G. C. Whittow, R. M. Smith, The Condor, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1974), pp. 476-478.

Then Gordon comments, “Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things?” And later: “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric.”

But I want to say: What’s not interesting here? Darwin and Nietzsche aren’t interesting? The ecological complexities of surfgrass beaches aren’t interesting? How birds regulate their body temperature — that’s not interesting? I actually wanted to click through to many of those articles to find out more. Moral: Don’t allow your own lack of intellectual curiosity to be a guide to the value of research.

And to the claim that “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric”: no, there mustn’t, and there almost certainly isn’t. Moreover, and more important, I’m reminded of Auden’s prophecy in “Under Which Lyre” of the dangerous powers of Apollo: “And when he occupies a college, / Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge.” Thus also the speech of the old A. E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love:

A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.

Obviously my view of things — Auden’s view, Stoppard’s Housman’s view — has implications for the economics of university life. And maybe I’ll get to that in another post, soon. But for now I just wanted to register some irritation and suggest a different way of thinking about these matters than Gordon’s.

Auden’s two cheers for democracy

The major project I am currently working on concerns Christian humanism in a time to total war — in particular, in World War II. In the midst of a an unprecedentedly vast war, a number of prominent and highly accomplished intellectuals saw the need for a renewal of a rich and subtle humanism — which is surprising in itself, it seems to me — and for many of them that humanism needed to be grounded in a doctrinally robust Christianity. This seemed odd enough to me that I thought it needed to be accounted for. Thus this book.

One of the major figure in the story I’ll tell is W. H. Auden, and I’ll give significant attention to a little-known lecture he gave at Swarthmore College, where he taught during much of the war. Swarthmore has, to my great pleasure, made available online its collection of Auden memorabilia — including the full typescript of the lecture, entitled “Vocation and Society”. (How cool is that?)

In the book I’ll explore this lecture at some length, but right now I’ll just say something about the end of his talk, where he introduces an interesting and important question: Is democracy after all sustainable? Or, to put the question more precisely, Is it self-sustaining? Auden echoes a famous essay by E. M. Forster in offering “Two Cheers for Democracy,” but he withholds the third cheer for rather different reasons than the atheist Forster had. “Two cheers for Democracy,” says Auden: “one because it admits vocation, and two because it permits contrition. Two cheers are quite enough. There is no occasion to give three. Only Agape, the Beloved Republic, deserves that.” What he would later call “our dear old bag of a democracy” is sustained, not by itself, but by belief in something deeper and greater than itself. So Auden concludes his talk not with those cheers, but with the reading of a few lines of a very recent poem.

Just four months earlier T. S. Eliot had published “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, and Auden finished his talk by reading the poem’s concluding lines:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Auden’s vision, then, is of a vocation-based education sustained by a democratic polity, and a democratic polity sustained by Christian faith. This vision stood against the commanding power of the nation-state, against pragmatism, against modern technocratic canons of efficiency.

Just after the war Auden visited Harvard to read a poem to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One of the dominant figures of American culture at that time was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president, who, captured by the techno-utopian mood of the war years, was striving to modernize the university and transform it into a research powerhouse focused on science and technology. In so doing he emphasized the humanities, especially the classics, far less than Harvard had done through much of its history. Auden told Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

Franz und Kraus

Most of what I have to say about Jonathan Franzen’s ridiculous essay in the Guardian is communicated by the image above, and by this Hilary Kelly piece on his utter deafness to irony, but I want to add one small note.

Like many people who complain about the limitations of Twitter, Franzen seems unaware that you can write more than one tweet. If you don’t get everything said in your first tweet, then you can write another one — and another after that! It’s endless, actually! Rather like writing a novel, which, as I understand it, you do one sentence at a time.

For Franzen, though, frequency of publication seems to be all-important. If you reflect on your experience in tweets it’s “yakking about yourself,” but if you save up all those thoughts until you have a two-hundred-page memoir it’s literature.

Which makes it very odd, then, that Franzen should choose Karl Kraus as his exemplar of excellence, for Kraus was a journalist whose particular writerly excellence lay in the creation of — yes — aphorisms. He produced many hundreds of these, the best of which have been collected in this book. They are not all tweet-sized, but a great many of them are — enough that I’m tempted to create a Karl Kraus Twitter account.

Kraus’s aphoristic power was particularly striking to W. H. Auden, who, with Louis Kronenberger, produced an anthology of aphorisms in which Kraus features prominently and, following Kraus’s example, became a devoted practitioner of the aphoristic art himself.

So it turns out that there’s yet another way in which Franzen is deaf to irony. The man he sets heroically against the world of tweeters might very well have been the best tweeter of them all.

poetry on page and screen

Here’s a really thoughtful post by Siobhan Phillips on the highly fraught relationship between e-readers and verse. Phillips wants to argue that poetry’s concern with lineation and space ought to cause us to rethink what books and texts are. Poetry is not just a problem for e-reading, but a challenge to us to reconsider what we think is intrinsic, and what extrinsic, to a text, especially a literary text.I was thinking along similar lines when I was working on Auden’s Age of Anxiety, because Auden was so concerned about the appearance of his work on the page. He frequently quarreled with his American publisher, Random House, about the appearance of his books. “It isn’t that I don’t realise that, as such things go, the fount [font] is well designed,” he wrote to Bennett Cerf in 1944. “It’s a matter of principle. You would never think of using such a fount for, say, ‘The Embryology of the Elasmobranch Liver’, so why use it for poetry? I feel very strongly that ‘aesthetic’ books should not be put in a special class.” And then, in 1951, he told Publishers Weekly, “I have a violent prejudice against arty paper and printing which is too often considered fitting for unsalable prestige books, and by inverted snobbery I favor the shiny white paper and format of the textbook. Further, perhaps because I am near-sighted and hold the page nearer my nose than is normal, I have a strong preference for small type.” Nick Jenkins, a wonderful Auden scholar, has written: “In 1946, when he told Random House what he wanted for The Age of Anxiety, he loaned them his copy of A Treatise on a Section of the Strata from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Cross Fell, with Remarks on Mineral Veins, by Westgarth Forster, a book originally published in 1821 but that he seems to have owned in the third edition of 1883, and instructed them to copy its appearance. They did. A Treatise on a Section of the Strata had been set in Scotch, an extremely popular 19th century typeface, and the Kingsport Press in Tennessee used the Linotype version of Scotch for Auden’s book.” (We couldn’t use it for our edition, though.)

The photo above is from my copy of the first edition of the poem.