what is your Eden like?

W. H. Auden used to say that he could only evaluate someone’s thinking — and especially their critical judgments — if he knew what their imaginary Eden looked like. He suggested that everyone fill out the survey below, and indeed filled it out himself. He wrote, for example, that his ideal religion was “Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.” He believed that public statues should be “Confined to famous defunct chefs,” and insisted that the only sources of public information should be technical journals and gossip. For self-examination:

• landscape:

• climate:

• ethnic origin of inhabitants:

• language:

• weights & measures:

• religion:

• size of capital:

• form of government:

• sources of natural power:

• economic activities:

• means of transport:

• architecture:

• domestic furniture and equipment:

• formal dress:

• sources of public information:

• public statues:

• public entertainments:

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937). I thought of this passage yesterday as I was re-reading Mansfield Park, which I take to be Austen’s greatest novel, one of the greatest novels ever written, and a terrifyingly blunt and unblinking revelation of the selfishness and cruelty that most ordinary people are capable of. I read this book and I wonder how many monsters there are in the world who simply lack the power to inflict the pain on others — especially on the weak — that they want to inflict.

(Also: apologies for my inability to get Tumblr to format the verse properly.)

W. H. Auden, “Song of the Master and Boatswain”

At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s
We drank our liquor straight,
Some went upstairs with Margery,
And some, alas, with Kate;
And two by two like cat and mouse
The homeless played at keeping house.

There Wealthy Meg, the Sailor’s Friend,
And Marion, cow-eyed,
Opened their arms to me but I
Refused to step inside;
I was not looking for a cage
In which to mope my old age.

The nightingales are sobbing in
The orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others;
Tears are round, the sea is deep:
Roll them overboard and sleep.

(from The Sea and the Mirror)

modernity, as explained in a single poem by W. H. Auden

So an age ended, and its last deliverer died
In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:
The sudden shadow of a giant’s enormous calf
Would fall no more at dusk across their lawns outside.

They slept in peace: in marshes here and there no doubt
A sterile dragon lingered to a natural death,
But in a year the spoor had vanished from the heath:
A kobold’s knocking in the mountain petered out.

Only the scupltors and the poets were half sad,
And the pert retinue from the magician’s house
Grumbled and went elsewhere. The vanished powers were glad

To be invisible and free; without remorse
Struck down the sons who strayed in their course,
And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.

In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.

— W. H. Auden, “The Joker in the Pack” (in The Dyer’s Hand)

more on bad religion

I want to go back to say a few more words about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, a book for which I wrote a commendatory blurb, and some of the critiques of it. Ross begins the book with a kind of rough-and-ready overview of American religious history, but his chief concern is to look at the last sixty years or so, and the decline during that period of the broad cultural influence of orthodox Christianity. To the claim that there has been such a decline, there are, generally speaking, three responses. The first is that there has been no such decline. The second is that there has indeed been such a decline, but it’s largely the result of an increasingly anti-Christian cultural elite, especially as manifested in American universities and major newspapers and magazines. The third is that the decline exists and is largely (though not wholly) attributable to the failures of American Christianity itself. That’s Ross Douthat’s view, and mine.

To the first response — that there has been no such decline — I would suggest reflection on a few facts. First, that in 1947 Time magazine featured an adulatory cover story on C. S. Lewis — “His Heresy: Christianity” — followed a few months later by an equally reverent cover story on Reinhold Niebuhr. T. S. Eliot, a self-avowed conservative Anglo-Catholic, was the best-known poet in the English-speaking world. W. H. Auden’s explcitiy Christian poem The Age of Anxiety won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and Auden wrote explicitly Christian and deeply theological essays and reviews for The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and many other prominent and intellectually serious periodicals. In the mid-1950s Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television program Life is Worth Living ran on ABC opposite Milton Berle’s show, with which it was highly competitive in the ratings.

Can anyone seriously imagine that such generally public prominence for explcitly Christian ideas and beliefs would be possible in mainstream American media today? Of course not.

The only thing preventing people from acknowledging this strikingly obviously fact is a prima facie insistence that decline-and-fall narratives are always nostalgic and always wrong. But neither of these is the case. One can acknowledge that Christanity has a less powerful public presence today than it had in the 1950s without seeing that decline as inevitable, without seeing it as irreversible, and without seeing it as a wholly bad thing. But to deny that historically orthodox Christianity had a stronger presence in the general American culture in the 1950s than it has today — that’s just crazy talk.

The remaining question is: Why the change? To that there are many answers. For secularists, a Relentless-March-of-Truth account is appealing; for many religious believers, a Perfidious-Mainstream-Media narrative is irresistible. There are other explanations that might accompany these without necessarily excluding either of them: for instance, the rise of broader media contexts that allowed Christian television stations, Christian publishing houses, Christian magazines, and even Christian movie studios to emerge. But even if you take the rise of these Christian subaltern counterpublics seriously — as you should — the question remains: Why did Christians prefer them?

If you’re a Christian, it’s tempting to say (drawing on the Perfidious-Mainstream-Media account) that we were forced into these subaltern modes by the relentless hostility of the cultural elites. That’s a very comforting narrative: we get to cast ourselves as the persecuted minority, and who can resist that temptation? Ross is offering a less consoling explanation: that Christians lost their cultural influence in large part because they lost their connection to historic orthodoxy, preferring comfortably flaccid theologies — of the Right and the Left — that were pretty much indistinguishable from what most religiously indifferent Americans believed anyway.

So for those readers especially hostile to Ross’s account, I have a question: Are you sure it’s not because he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear? — That if you have a marginal place in American culture, the situation may be largely your own fault?

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.

— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.

The effect of beauty, therefore, is good to the degree that, through its analogies, the goodness of created existence, the historical fall into unfreedom and disorder, and the possibility of regaining paradise through repentance and forgiveness, are recognized. Its effect is evil to the degree that beauty is taken, not as analogous to, but as identical with goodness, so that the artist regards himself or is regarded by others as God, the pleasure of beauty taken for the joy of Paradise, and the conclusion drawn that, since all is well in the work of art, all is well in history. But all is not well there.

— W. H. Auden, “Making, Knowing, and Judging” (in The Dyer’s Hand)

some things I published this year

First of all, two books, both of which are linked to on the right side of your screen: my little essay The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and my critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety.

I published a few things that aren’t online, but here are the things that are: a few words for The Atlantic on Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary and a commemoration for the same digital rag of Tom Wolfe’s account of the space program.

For the Wall Street Journal I wrote a little piece about Pitzer College’s proposed “secular studies” program that — I discovered soon after when people from Pitzer started writing to me — relied on highly contested information. They’re having a vigorous debate about this program at Pitzer and I’m eager to hear what comes of it.

I wrote a few words about The Best Technology Writing 2010. I produced a longish essay-review on Auden, focusing on his critical magnum opus The Dyer’s Hand, and a probably-too-short review of some recent books about managing information and acquiring recondite knowledge.

I am relatively pleased with my pretty long piece about Marshall McLuhan but I don’t think anyone else is. So it goes.

I was glad to offer a commendation (coupled with a little critique) of the remarkable Iain Sinclair, too little-known on this side of the Atlantic.

And I wrote at great length about “Christianity and the Future of the Book”.

There were many blog posts and a few thousand tweets too, but I’m not listing those here. I wonder what next year will bring… .

Think of the 18th–century artist Piranesi, for example, whose engravings of picturesquely decaying Rome are certainly fantastic in some respects—he places just enough disproportionately tiny people in his cityscapes to make us think those ancient buildings were absolutely colossal—but also reflect a real and deep desire to capture the ancient Romans’ remains and to make knowledge of the city available to distant lands and later generations. Or John James Audubon’s obsessive quest to paint all of America’s birds. That documentary impulse was once central to illustration, if not to what we now call “fine art,” and its passing is something to be lamented, especially since our belief that photography straightforwardly captures the–thing–in–itself is a sadly naïve one. (Beginning birdwatchers always want photographic guides because they think photography captures birds “as they really are,” but skillful paintings, like those of Roger Tory Peterson, are often more useful: they portray birds as the human eye sees them, or is likely to see them in the field, which is not invariably as the camera’s lens captures them. The common belief that photographs record simply and objectively both diminishes the documentary power of illustration and underrates the artfulness of photography.)

So Gregory Blackstock’s drawings are a pleasant and instructive reminder of a time when the artist had to record the world because there was no other way to document its beauties. Such illustrations may not approach the depth and subtlety of truly “fine” art, but they represent a wonderful union of what the poet W. H. Auden, in an essay on “The Poet and the City,” calls the “gratuitous” and the “utile.” Auden reminds us that there was once a time when all the arts had a dimension of usefulness: poetry aided the memory, even on as humble a level as “Thirty days hath September,” and we should never forget the sheer and astonishing craftsmanship that enabled Bach to crank out all those cantatas, which were invariably useful to the church and as a bonus contain more beauty than seems possible.

Blessedly Unnecessary. Now that the internet seems suddenly to have discovered the drawings of Gregory Blackstock, I’d like to point out that I wrote this reflection in 2007. You’re welcome.

Comedy … is not only possible within a Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because classical comedy is based upon a division of mankind into two classes, those who have arete and those who do not, and only the second class, fools, shameless rascals, slaves, are fit subjects for comedy. But Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge others and that it is our duty to forgive each other. In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.

— W. H. Auden

Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: “O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.”

— King Herod, in Auden’s For the Time Being

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

— W. H. Auden

Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.

W. H. Auden, “Fugal-Chorus” (from For the Time Being)

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The First was the Kingdom of Abstract Idea:
Last night it was Tom, Dick and Harry: to-night it is S’s with P’s;
Instead of inflexions and accents
There are prepositions and word-order;
Instead of aboriginal objects excluding each other
There are specimens reiterating a type;
Instead of wood-nymphs and river-demons,
There is one unconditioned ground of Being.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Second was the Kingdom of Natural Cause:
Last night it was Sixes and Sevens: to-night it is One and Two;
Instead of saying, “Strange are the whims of the Strong,”
We say, “Harsh is the Law but it is certain;”
Instead of building temples, we build laboratories;
Instead of offering sacrifices, we perform experiments;
Instead of reciting prayers, we note pointer-readings;
Our lives are no longer erratic but efficient.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Third was the Kingdom of Infinite Number:
Last night it was Rule-of-Thumb, to-night it is To-a-T;
Instead of Quite-a-lot, there is Exactly-so-many;
Instead of Only-a-few, there is Just-these;
Instead of saying, “You must wait until I have counted,”
We say, “Here you are. You will find this answer correct;”
Instead of nodding acquaintance with a few integers,
The Transcendentals are our personal friends.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fourth was the Kingdom of Credit Exchange:
Last night is was Tit-for-Tat, to-night it is C.O.D.;
When we have a surplus, we need not meet someone with a deficit;
When we have a deficit, we need not meet someone with a surplus;
Instead of heavy treasures, there are paper symbols of value;
Instead of Pay at Once, there is Pay when you can;
Instead of My Neighbour, there is Our Customers;
Instead of Country Fair, there is World Market.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fifth was the Kingdom of Inorganic Giants:
Last night it was Heave-Ho, to-night it is Whee-Spree;
When we want anything, They make it;
When we dislike anything, They change it;
When we want to go anywhere, They carry us;
When the Barbarian invades us, They raise immovable shields;
When we invade the Barbarian, They brandish irresistible swords;
Fate is no longer a fiat of Matter, but a freedom of Mind.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Sixth was the Kingdom of Organic Dwarfs:
Last night it was Ouch-Ouch, to-night it is Yum-Yum;
When diseases waylay us, They strike them dead;
When worries intrude on us, They throw them out;
When pain accosts us, They save us from embarrassment;
When we feel like sheep, They make us lions;
When we feel like geldings, They make us stallions;
Spirit is no longer under Flesh, but on top.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Seventh was the Kingdom of Popular Soul:
Last night it was Order-Order, to-night it is Hear-Hear;
When he says, You are happy, we laugh;
When he says, You are wretched, we cry;
When he says, It is true, everyone believes it;
When he says, It is false, no one believes it;
When he says, This is good, this is loved;
When he says, This is bad, that is hated.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

C’est pourtant le grand défi de l’Occident, s’adapter au monde qu’il a créé. Un beau sujet philosophique.

— Michel Serres. The concluding sentences of that interview. As concise and pressing a way of describing the current situation as I have seen. We have made a cultural (and material) environment that we do not yet know how to adapt to. I think of some lines from Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child” about the human Mind:

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

The Quest Hero often encounters an old beggar or an animal who offers him advice: if, too proud to imagine that such an apparently inferior creature could have anything to tell him, he ignores the advice, it has fatal consequences; if he is humble enough to listen and obey, then, thanks to their help, he achieves his goal. But, however humble he may be, he still has the dream of becoming a hero; he may be humble enough to take advice from what seem to be his inferiors, but he is convinced that, potentially, he is a superior person, a prince-to- be. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, not only knows that he is a person of no account, but also never expects to become anything else; till his dying day he will remain, he knows, a footler who requires a nanny; yet, at the same time, he is totally without envy of others who are or may become of some account. He has, in fact, that rarest of virtues, humility, and so he is blessed: it is he and no other who has for his servant the godlike Jeeves.

— W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden, “Voltaire at Ferney”

Perfectly happy now, he looked at his estate.
An exile making watches glanced up as he passed
And went on working; where a hospital was rising fast,
A joiner touched his cap; an agent came to tell
Some of the trees he’d planted were progressing well.
The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.

Far off in Paris where his enemies
Whispered that he was wicked, in an upright chair
A blind old woman longed for death and letters. He would write,
“Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight
Against the false and the unfair
Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilize.

Cajoling, scolding, screaming, cleverest of them all,
He’d led the other children in a holy war
Against the infamous grown-ups; and, like a child, been sly
And humble, when there was occasion for
The two-faced answer or the plain protective lie,
But, patient like a peasant, waited for their fall.

And never doubted, like D’Alembert, he would win:
Only Pascal was a great enemy, the rest
Were rats already poisoned; there was much, though, to be done,
And only himself to count upon.
Dear Diderot was dull but did his best;
Rousseau, he’d always known, would blubber and give in.

Yet, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions. Soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working. Overhead,
The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.

The Incarnation, the coming of Christ in the form of a servant who cannot be recognized by the eye of flesh and blood, but only by the eye of faith, puts an end to all claims of the imagination to be the faculty which decides what is truly sacred and what is profane. A pagan god can appear on earth in disguise but, so long as he wears his disguise, no man is expected to recognize him nor can. But Christ appears looking just like any other man, yet claims that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that no man can come to God the Father except through Him. The contradiction between the profane appearance and the sacred assertion is impassible to the imagination.

— W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

Starting from the idea of historical uniqueness, Auden developed an elaborate vocabulary for different kinds of social order and for the analogous kinds of formal order that give shape to poems. Unique persons create different kinds of social order from those generated by impersonal forces. Historical individuals, Auden wrote, join into communities united by their shared voluntary love of something; a community is historical because it has no bureaucratic impersonal structure. Communities tend to create societies that can carry out their purposes; societies are natural, not historical, because they have a bureaucratic structure in which individual members have roles distinct from their unique personalities. A group of music-lovers is a community but its love accomplishes nothing; a string quartet is a society that puts into effect the community’s love.

A crowd, unlike a society or community, is a mere plurality of things that happen to be together. “The subject matter of poetry”, Auden wrote in 1949, “is a crowd of past historic occasions of feeling”, some portion of which the poet hopes to convert into a community; but the poem in which that community is embodied is a society, something that the poet must assume will remain unchanged and eternal once it is written. Crowds of feelings are not especially dangerous; but in the real world the extreme version of the crowd was the Public, that faceless purposeless mass that anyone can join when one is no one in particular.

The Public has always existed, but one effect of the mass media is to make it easier than ever to be faceless and impersonal. The culture of celebrity is one result of the growth of the Public: “the public instinctively worships not great men of action or thought but actors, individuals who by profession are not themselves.” The moral consequences are all too clear: “The public, therefore, can be persuaded to do or believe anything by those who know how to manage it. It will subscribe thousands of dollars to a cancer research fund or massacre Jews with equal readiness, not because it wants to do either, but because it has no alternative game to suggest.”

To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?

— W. H. Auden, “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier”

not quite “times of war,” but still…


I just read this quote from W. H. Auden: “In times of war even the crudest kind of positive affection between persons seems extraordinarily beautiful, a noble symbol of the peace and forgiveness of which the whole world stands so desperately in need.”

And it reminded me of the picture everybody, including me, has been passing around on the internet.

Just wanted to note the connection.

W. H. Auden, “At the Manger”


Oh shut your bright eyes that mine must endanger
With their watchfulness: protected by its shade
Escape from my care: what can you discover
From my tender look but how to be afraid?
Love can but confirm the more it would deny.
Close your bright eye.

Sleep. What have you learned from the womb that bore you
But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?
Sleep. What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to teach His son to weep?
Little one, sleep.

Dream. In human dreams earth ascends to Heaven
Where no one need pray nor ever feel alone.
In your first hours of life here, O have you
Chosen already what death must be your own?
How soon will you start on the Sorrowful Way?
Dream while you may.

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