“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” — W. H. Auden
“There must always be two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.” — W. H. Auden, 1932.
My critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety will be out later this year, I hope, though it hasn’t shown up on Amazon yet . . . but hey, while I’m handing out excerpts, how about one more? This is from my Introduction to the poem:
The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. In even this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden once called “local understanding.” Certain anxieties may be overcome not by the altering of geopolitical conditions but by the cultivation of mutual sympathy — perhaps mutual love; even among those who hours before had been strangers.The Age of Anxiety is W. H. Auden’s last book-length poem, his longest poem, and almost certainly the least-read of his major works. (“It’s frightfully long,” he told his friend Alan Ansen.) It would be interesting to know what fraction of those who begin reading it persist to the end. The poem is strange and oblique; it pursues in a highly concentrated form many of Auden’s long-term fascinations. Its meter imitates medieval alliterative verse, which Auden had been drawn to as an undergraduate when he attended J. R. R. Tolkien’s lectures in Anglo-Saxon philology, and which clearly influences the poems of his early twenties. The Age of Anxiety is largely a psychological, or psychohistorical, poem, and these were the categories in which Auden preferred to think in his early adulthood (including his undergraduate years at Oxford, when he enjoyed the role of confidential amateur analyst for his friends).The poem also embraces Auden’s interest in, among other things, the archetypal theories of Carl Gustav Jung, Jewish mysticism, English murder mysteries, and the linguistic and cultural differences between England and America. Woven through it is his nearly lifelong obsession with the poetic and mythological “green world” Auden variously calls Arcadia or Eden or simply the Good Place. Auden’s previous long poem had been called “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” and Shakespeare haunts this poem too. (In the latter stages of writing The Age of Anxiety Auden was teaching a course on Shakespeare at the New School in Manhattan.)But it should also be noted that this last long poem ended an era for Auden; his thought and verse pursued new directions after he completed it.
It’s an amazing poem, I think, but an extraordinarily difficult one. If you plan to read it, as surely you should, you might want to look for a carefully annotated edition with a detailed contextual introduction. Just sayin’.
The critical judgment “This book is good or bad” implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to the readers future a book is good now if its future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide therefore is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later.
It’s interesting to consider how the kind of work I’ve just been doing will change as more and more books assume digital form. For instance, I had to look at several different editions of The Age of Anxiety — and to buy them from the wonderful AbeBooks — and compare them page by page in order to discover any significant variations. Will scholars someday have multiple digital versions that they can compare with version control software or a simple diff command? Or will the very notion of different “printings” and “editions” disappear when digital versions can be altered and corrected instantly? People who specialize in texts of the digital era will still do textual editing, but it’s likely to look a lot different than what I’ve been doing lately.
For those who may be interested, here are just a few words from the end of my Introduction to The Age of Anxiety:
The Age of Anxiety remains a vitally important poem — in some ways a great one. It is surely Auden’s most ambitious work: formidably complex as his previous two long poems are, their themes are more bounded. “For the Time Being” meditates on the entry of the Divine into history; “The Sea and the Mirror” on the relationship between art and religious belief. These are large concerns, to be sure, but delimited. The question of what makes for an age of anxiety, on the other hand, is vaster and more amorphous: the condition itself must be described, and its etiology traced. A common anxiety manifests itself differently in those with and without religion; and for both groups alike it is fed by political, social, familial, and personal disorders. In The Age of Anxiety Auden tries to account for all of these, and if he falls short, that is a necessary result of such comprehensive ambition. . . .In 1953 Auden would write of the moment when, each morning, we emerge from our private worlds: “Now each of us / Prays to an image of his image of himself.” The Age of Anxiety is an extraordinarily acute anatomy of our self-images, and a diagnosis of those images’ power not just to shape but to create our ideas. And it contains some of Auden’s most powerful and beautiful verse: the compressed lyric “Hushed is the lake of hawks,” the great Dirge of Part Four, the twin final speeches of Rosetta and Malin. This poem, for all its strangeness and extravagant elaboration of theme and technique, deserves a central place in the canon of twentieth-century poetry.
Posting has been light around here for a number of reasons, chief among them being (a) my recovery from surgery and (b) the last stages of my most recent major project: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety), to be published by Princeton University Press later this year. (I think.) I just mailed off the typescript yesterday, and am still reeling a bit. Textual editing, let me say, is really, really hard work — at least if you want to do it well.A few years ago Edward Said — thinking of the great humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century — wrote, “This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.” Thanks be to God, I did not need the skills of Auerback and Spitzer to edit The Age of Anxiety, but I did need skills I hadn’t been taught in graduate school, and it cost me a good deal of time and energy to acquire them. If I hadn’t had the ongoing assistance and direction of Edward Mendelson I’m not sure what I would have done, but I know that the final product would have been inadequate.And it may be inadequate still — who knows? But I have worked as hard on this project as I have ever worked on anything, and at the moment I am pleased and proud. There’s something especially rewarding about doing all this work — visiting libraries and archives, working through vast tracts of mostly useless materials, trying to decipher Auden’s terrible handwriting, comparing multiple editions of the poem, reading much of what Auden read as he wrote the poem, carefully marking up the typescript in order to preserve the poem’s intricate formatting — not for the sake of my own critical reputation, but in order to make the work of a poet I love more useful and accessible and comprehensible. I can truly call this a labor of love. But boy, am I tired.
Read James Poulos’s post on lists. Done? Okay, now read these selections from W. H. Auden’s essay “Infernal Science”:
All exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. (Bertrand Russell). If so, then infernal science differs from human science in that it lacks the notion of approximation: it believes its laws to be exact. [. . .]
The first anthropological axiom of the Evil One is not All men are evil, but All men are the same; and his second — Men do not act, they only behave. [. . .]
One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn’t care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thousand-and-third in Spain.”
One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the Proper Name and address of every electron in the Universe. But Hell could not have one, for in Hell . . . its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.
From The Dyer’s Hand (1962).
For the past couple of years I have been working on the most challenging — and maybe the most fascinating — project of my scholarly life: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s immensely difficult long poem The Age of Anxiety. A few years ago Princeton University Press published Arthur Kirsch’s critical edition of the same poet’s The Sea and the Mirror, and that book did pretty well; thus my assignment. The gifted and resourceful Nick Jenkins is also working on an edition, in the same series, of The Double Man.All of us have had the great pleasure of working with The Literary Executor Than Whom No Greater Can Be Conceived, Edward Mendelson. Edward was just in his mid-twenties when Auden asked him to oversee his literary estate, and has been hard at it ever since. In addition to his own brilliant critical work on Auden — Early Auden and Later Auden are the major texts — he has been for many years editing the poet’s complete works. (I’ve written often about these labors of Edward’s: see, for example, here and here.)And in the midst of all that Edward has been immensely — staggeringly — helpful to others of us working in the same vineyard. Here’s just one instance among many: a couple of months ago I sent him a complete draft of my Age of Anxiety edition, and after reading it he thought there might be some significant background material I had overlooked. So he went to the magnificent Berg Collection of the New York Public Library — which holds vast tracts of Auden material — and spent all day looking for documents that would make my edition better. Sure enough, I had overlooked some valuable documents, so I’ll be visiting the Berg soon to incorporate their content into my edition’s notes. But I never even would have known what I was missing had it not been for Edward’s acute eye, excellent memory, and — above all — his willingness to take time away from his own work to make my work better.When I think what my scholarly life would have been like if I had had Stephen Joyce or Valerie Eliot to deal with, I shudder. But instead I have been blessed and honored to work with Edward Mendelson. Thanks, Edward!
I’ve been reading a number of mysteries lately — something about which I may have more to say later on — so I was pleased to see this post by Nick Baldock on Agatha Christie, the mystery as a genre, and Christianity. But Baldock doesn't mention the single most important essay on these themes, the one that W. H. Auden wrote for Harper’s in 1948: “The Guilty Vicarage”. Everyone should read it. Excerpt:
I can, to some degree, resist yielding to these or similar desires which tempt me, but I cannot prevent myself from having them to resist; and it is the fact that I have them which makes me feel guilty, so that instead of dreaming about indulging my desires, I dream about the removal of the guilt which I feel at their existence. This I still do, and must do, because guilt is a subjective feeling where any further step is only a reduplication–feeling guilty about my guilt. I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin. From the point of view of ethics, desires and acts are good or bad, and I must choose the good and reject the bad, but the I which makes this choice is ethically neutral; it only becomes good or bad in its choice. To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however “good” I may become, remains unchanged. As St. Paul says: “Except I had known the law, I had not known sin.”