Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: criticism (page 1 of 1)

Soyinka and the mythical method

I have an essay in the new issue of Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It traces the interest in myth and myth-making from Giambattista Vico to George Lucas, tries to explain why myth has ceased to be an appealing and useful category to our intelligentsia, and asks whether there might be a case for restoring it to a place in our conceptual toolbox. 

I do think such a case can be made, and while I do not in this essay make that case in any formal way, I conclude by pointing to the example of Wole Soyinka, who (I’ve been saying this for decades) just may be our greatest living writer. If you don’t know anything about Soyinka, here’s an introductory essay I wrote about him more than twenty years ago. 

I’d love to make a few converts to Soyinka. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend two of the plays in the first volume of his Collected Plays: The Strong Breed and The Swamp Dwellers. Then move on to his greatest play, and one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, Death and the King’s Horseman

Soyinka has also written several volumes of memoirs, the best of which are the first two: Aké: The Years of Childhood and Ìsarà: A Voyage around “Essay” — “Essay” being the nickname of Soyinka’s father, S. A. Soyinka. The former is still in print and easy to find; the latter has been ignored, which is a great shame. They are wonderfully rich, evocative, and perceptive accounts of childhood, and a window into a certain class of Nigerian Christians around the time of the Second World War. (The passages in Aké about the widespread fear that Hitler would invade Nigeria are very funny. In fact, you will find yourself smiling often as you read these memoirs.) 

The next level of difficulty would be his more ambitious plays (A Dance of the Forests and — I discuss this one in my essay — his Yoruba/Christian/Greek version of Euripides’s Bacchae), and then his remarkable novel The Interpreters

Also, here are some photographs of the Soyinka family I put up for one of my classes and have yet to annotate. The third photo is of the formidable Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, whose women’s march for tax relief is the climactic scene of Aké — she was a pioneering Nigerian feminist and activist, Soyinka’s great-aunt, and the mother of the great Fela Kuti. Which means the one of the greatest African singer-songwriters and one of the greatest living writers are cousins. 

Finally, here are some photos I took in 1991 when I visited the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in the heart of Yorubaland. 

influence and citation

I have an essay coming out in the July issue of Harper’s which I titled “The Mythical Method” but which will probably end up with the title “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It concerns the rise and fall of myth as a central, or perhaps at times the central, concept of humanistic study; and therefore it has some things to say about Northrop Frye’s former influence over the humanities and especially over literary criticism. 

Perhaps the most prominent scholar of Northrop Frye’s work is Robert D. Denham, who has repeatedly written — see for instance this 2009 essay — that the rumors of Frye’s repetitional demise are greatly exaggerated, and that “if Frye is no longer at “the center of critical activity,” as he was in the mid-1960s, he still remains very much a containing presence at the circumference.” Denham continues, 

In 1963 Mary Curtis Tucker wrote the first doctoral dissertation on Frye. The period between 1964 and 2003 saw another 192 doctoral dissertations devoted in whole or part to Frye, “in part” meaning that “Frye” is indexed as a subject in Dissertation Abstracts International. The number of dissertations for each of the decades falls out as follows: 1960s = 5; 1970s = 28; 1980s = 63; 1990s = 68; and in the first four years of the present decade, 29.3. These data obviously indicate that during the twenty-year period following the height of the post-structural moment, interest in Frye as a topic of graduate research substantially increased. 

I mention all this because this is an interesting case of how statistics can mislead when context is eliminated. In citing these numbers Denham omits some important information: 

  • The rise of literary theory as a subset of literary studies. When Mary Curtis Tucker wrote that first dissertation on Northrop Frye, people in English studies simply didn’t write dissertations on other academic literary critics. The rise of theory as a sub-discipline changed that. 
  • The overproduction, especially in the humanities, of PhDs — something that has been worried over since I was in grad school

If in 2009, when Denham published that essay, we saw (a) far more PhDs in English being produced than had been the case in in 1963 — a trend that, inexplicably and indefensibly, continued for several more years — and (b) a far larger percentage of dissertations focusing on contemporary literary criticism and theory than had been the case in 1963, then it becomes clear that citations of Frye could rise in absolute numbers during the same period when Frye’s influence was significantly decreasing proportionate to the whole discourse

In a recent book, Denham goes beyond his 2009 argument to say that there has been an “exponential progression” to Frye’s influence. But here he is relying on dissertations from places like the University of Peking and even the University of Inner Mongolia in Hoh-Hot (now known as Inner Mongolia University). But how many dissertations on any topic in English literature or literary theory and criticism would have been produced in those universities forty or forty years ago? Denham is making comparative judgments without a fixed or appropriate baseline of comparison. “People say that the Sega Genesis console is obsolete, but far more people use them today than used them in 1987!” 

(In so doing — I say this only in passing — Denham is missing what could be a really fascinating point: I’d be willing to bet that Chinese students of Western literary criticism and theory will, generally speaking, find Northrop Frye more interesting and useful than, say, Judith Butler. That would be a topic worth exploring.)  

There is another issue also: “citation” is a word that captures a wide range of possibilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, Frye’s work could be cited to clinch a point — if you could get Northrop Frye on your side you could win an argument. But since then Frye has typically been cited in North America and Great Britain as a representative of a Eurocentric false universalism, a residual Christian imperialism, a putatively apolitical totalizing discourse of patriarchy — that kind of thing: citing him not because he’s on the winning side but because his side isn’t winning any more, thank God. 

But of course, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. 

of bad book reviewers and writerly cults

A book can go wrong in a nearly infinite number of ways, but a book review has a narrower range of ways to fail. In what follows I’ll be writing about book reviews that are published in professional venues, not what people write on their blogs and on social media. (Those reviews tend to be more honest.)

The chief modes of book-review failure are as follows:

Reviewer A didn’t read the book at all. This happens more often than most people think, especially now that information about a book can be searched for online. I’d say maybe 10% of book reviews are written by people who haven’t read the book they’re reviewing.

Reviewer B read the book only in part or cursorily, and is aware of his or her limited knowledge and consequently is careful and measured in criticism. This kind of reviewer thinks you may have failed to mention something X, but realizes that you may well have done so, somewhere in your too-long-to-read book, and so says something like “More attention to X would have been welcome.”

Reviewer C read the book only in part or cursorily but is unaware of or indifferent to his or her carelessness. This is the kind of reviewer who asserts with breezy confidence that the author failed to acknowledge X, when in fact the author at five different points in the book – all of which are findable in the index – acknowledged X. This is the kind of reviewer who gathers some vague sense that the author probably believes Z and then flatly asserts that the author said Z. (And if the author replies “I never said Z!” this kind of reviewer says “Well, you implied it.”)

Reviewer D has an axe to grind and either isn’t sufficiently self-aware to know it or deliberately obscures it – and the “or” there indicates that I’m putting into this one category attitudes and approaches that perhaps could be separated into different categories. Axe-grinding could be seen as a single flaw, but there are many and various axes. Maybe the reviewer has a personal hostility to the author that has nothing to do with the book, but the book provides a convenient outlet for that hostility. Maybe the reviewer thinks that he should have been asked to write the book, or is angry that his own book on a similar subject didn’t get widely reviewed. Maybe the reviewer has turf to protect.

Reviewer E just wants to show off. Auden: “Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for 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.” And if you want to show off, then you will contrive to say a book is bad even when it’s not. 

I have these thoughts in mind because I just read my old friend Charles Marsh’s brief book Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand, in which he responds to some critics of his powerful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Now, this immediately raises the question: Should a writer respond to negative reviews at all? Many writers say no, but opinions vary. My own feeling is that when the reviewer says something that is just factually wrong, and can be shown to be factually wrong, then it’s fine for the writer to say so – in some cases it’s necessary to say so. But you can’t effectively contest someone’s judgments about your work.

The matter gets complicated, though, when a critic combines factual errors with implausible judgments. That’s the case with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, who seems recently to have made a career of criticizing Marsh’s biography, largely on the Bulverist logic that since Americans can’t really understand Bonhoeffer and Charles Marsh is an American, Marsh’s biography must be wrong – it remains only to discover how it is wrong. Schlingensiepen takes his task seriously enough that when he discovers that Marsh has misnamed a Berlin department store, he cries that such an error is “grotesque.” Can you really answer someone who thinks that way? I doubt it.

But Marsh’s attempt to do so leads into some really interesting reflections on – here’s where the book’s title comes in – how a certain kind of author can become the object of a branding exercise, in a way that blurs the boundaries between a brand and a cult.

I’ve written before about the pleasure of working with Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, who has consistently aided and abetted Auden scholars, extending the same courtesy to those whose views of Auden he strongly disagrees with as to those whose views resemble his own. That is to say, Mendelson has refused to be the custodian of a cult. This attitude is rarer than it should be. For instance, it’s clear that there is a strong network of Bonhoeffer scholars, centered in Germany but not confined there, for whom Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge is the one authoritative Keeper of the Bonhoeffer Flame, whose judgments must be acknowledged correct and thus made the grounding of all future scholarship on Bonhoeffer. Marsh knew and greatly admires Bethge but does not take quite that view. (How American of him!) And even mild dissent from the Authorized View – Strange Glory is certainly no “revisionist” biography of Bonhoeffer, though it has many new insights – must be policed by (see Reviewer D above) the protectors of turf. Thus: turf protection as brand management; and book reviews as an instrument of brand management.

ALl this interests me because precisely the same kind of behavior can be seen in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship. Here Walter Hooper plays the role that Bethge plays for Bonhoeffer: the officially designated custodian of the Cult. The majority of Lewis scholars, I think, see themselves as continuing and extending the work of Hooper, and are typically not happy with work that dissents from Hooper’s understanding of Lewis. (Everyone who reads deeply in Lewis is indebted to Hooper for his energetic editorial labors, but his interpretations of Lewis are another matter.) Thus A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis – which is to some degree a revisionist one – was generally excoriated by the Lewisites, though it is in fact a mixed bag, deeply insightful in some ways and grossly mistaken in others. My own biography of Lewis has been largely ignored by the disciples of Hooper, I think because I am neither fish nor fowl: by no means a revisionist or skeptic, but also not following in Hooper’s interpretative footsteps. I am outside the Cult, but the way in which I am outside the Cult is not legible to them.

The interesting question for me is this: Is there a specific kind of thinker who generates a cult, a cult that then creates and manages a brand? There are certainly thinkers who intend to build a cult around themselves – Ayn Rand comes first to mind – but that’s not something that Bonhoeffer or Lewis would ever have done. Yet readers’ devotion to them is so intense that cults happen, as it were. By contrast, though Auden is just as celebrated as Bonhoeffer and Lewis, it is impossible to imagine a cult growing up around him. Perhaps this is because he saw one starting to grow when he was a young writers and took measures to prevent it from happening.

In any event, Marsh’s little book is a really interesting one – and I haven’t even mentioned the thing that mosts interests me, which is its meditations on the relationship between theology and biography. I’ll come to that another day, another way. 


Brad Mehldau

I began to learn that instrumentalists and singers often didn’t want or need … validation from the accompanist. Actually, most of the time, they preferred that you supply your steady support by staying clear of their path, not answering their every idea, but rather laying something down more locked into the bass and drums, even grid-like. If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea they present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking — you are hijacking their ideas in a sense, and putting the focus on what you’re doing instead. It becomes more, “Look at me everyone, I’m so hip and adept at catching the soloist/singer’s ideas!” But what it’s really saying to the soloist/singer (and the audience) is: “Please like me!” It’s overbearing. It feels like one of those people you know who, when in a conversation with you, is constantly affirming what you’re saying — “Yeah … totally … exactly!” — before you’ve even finished your thought.

Mehldau started thinking back to his teenage years when he worked in a pizza joint in West Hartford, Connecticut:  

I remembered the guy Jeremy at Papa Gino’s who was flipping pies within a few short months while I struggled at the grill. He didn’t give a shit — it was 5:45 evening rush hour, the place was packed and customers were eyeing him impatiently. But he was as cool as a cucumber, getting the pizzas in and out of the big oven. Maybe the thing was to just not give a shit with comping as well — not to throw away your taste and sensibility, mind you, but to bring a little of that cavalier pie-flipping thing into it. I started watching this less sensitive kind of comping going on at jam sessions or on gigs, and I didn’t always dig it. But I also noticed that other people often did — most importantly, the soloists they were comping behind. So what did it matter what I thought? 

What a great analogy.

“Comping” is a universal term in jazz. It probably derives from “accompaniment,” maybe also from “complement,” but it has a distinctive valence: the good comper is the musician who can support the soloist in meaningful ways without becoming a rival for the audience’s attention. The best comper improves and strengthens the audience’s response to the soloist without anyone ever noticing

Albert Murray, whom I’ve been thinking about a lot — see this post, and I’ll have an essay on him in the next issue of Comment, which I will no doubt call your attention to when it appears — used to say that his role was to comp for other artists: his friend Ralph Ellison (who was a music major in college and played the trumpet) was a great soloist, but Murray’s job was so support that kind of high-flying virtuosity with an imaginative but also reliable groove. 

I love this idea of critical and essayistic writing as a kind of comping for the artists and thinkers I admire and learn from. I’d like to think that my best work exhibits some of the virtues of the quiet, cool, comping jazz pianist. 

How Moral Panic Has Debased Art Criticism – Alice Gribbin:

Artwords are not to be experienced but to be understood: From all directions, across the visual art world’s many arenas, the relationship between art and the viewer has come to be framed in this way. An artwork communicates a message, and comprehending that message is the work of its audience. Paintings are their images; physically encountering an original is nice, yes, but it’s not as if any essence resides there. Even a verbal description of a painting provides enough information for its message to be clear.

This vulgar and impoverishing approach to art denigrates the human mind, spirit, and senses. From where did the approach originate, and how did it come to such prominence? Historians a century from now will know better than we do. What can be stated with some certainty is the debasement is nearly complete: The institutions tasked with the promotion and preservation of art have determined that the artwork is a message-delivery system. More important than tracing the origins of this soul-denying formula is to refuse it — to insist on experiences that elevate aesthetics and thereby affirm both life and art. 

I wonder if this move is driven, in large part, by the demands of the ancient warfare between art and criticism: the critical defining of art as a message-delivery system is a way of saying that art merely does what criticism does, just not as well. For critics are habitually in the message-delivery business. 

less Tono, more Bungay

After writing my reflection on Tono-Bungay, I read Adam Roberts’s thoughts in his excellent literary biography of Wells — you can read almost the same account in this blog post — and was interested to see that Adam talked about all sorts of really important things that I had totally neglected. And yet I still think that my take on the book is valid and useful. It’s an indication of the book’s quality, I think, that such widely divergent readings can nevertheless capture real insights into its world.   

One brief thought: Adam’s portrayal of Uncle Ponderevo as a cokehead — twitching, full of nervous energy, increasingly obese and yet simultaneously somehow withered — echoes Wells’s portrayal of modern London as hypertrophied, massively diseased. Uncle Ponderevo as London in microcosm; London as a macrocosmic Uncle Ponderevo. (Which is, by the way, a very Adam-Robertsian theme: see, e.g., Swiftly, the first novel of his I read, with its conceit that Gulliver’s Travels was reportage, not fiction.) 


My friend Adam Roberts has written extensively about this book, but because I knew I wanted to read it, I have avoided reading Adam’s account. I’ll now go back to see what he says, which may make me repent of everything I say here. But there’s value in just getting your thoughts down without too much editing. Also: many spoilers ahead. 

H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay is a powerful but oddly constructed novel. It’s a bit difficult to describe that structure but here are what I believe to be the key elements:

1) It is most famously a story about commerce, and especially commerce based in advertising. Tono-Bungay is a patent medicine that does no one any good and might do them a little bit of harm – though its inventor, Edward Ponderevo, thinks that it might have positive psychological benefits that would justify his selling it. (Placebo effect, etc.) So the part of the novel most often commented on, what many critics would describe as the story, is about how Tono-Bungay is manufactured, advertised, and distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The business is, of course, a house of cards that is bound to collapse and eventually does.

2) But this is also a story about a man who is repeatedly thwarted in love. George Ponderevo, the narrator and protagonist, has a failed marriage, some casual affairs, and an unrequited or at least unfulfilled love for a woman – named, ironically enough, Beatrice – whom he meets when they are children and whom he definitively loses when they are middle-aged. One of the first important scenes in the book concerns his initial infatuation with Beatrice and – except for a coda which I will describe later – the book concludes with his final sight of her. (Because they are mismatched socially, the whole situation is quite like that of like Pip and Estella, with the unhappy rather than the happy ending.) Because his love for Beatrice is so prominent at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and because the middle of the novel is so occupied by his failed marriage to a woman named Marion, if I had to say whether this book is a story about commerce in advertising or a story about failed love, I would choose the latter.

3) The third element of the story is a contrast between the fixed character of social life in the world of English countryside and its small towns — a world controlled by a declining and ossifying aristocracy — and the immense energy and mobility of life in London. After early chapters establishing the rigidity of life on a country estate where George’s mother is the housekeeper, and in a sleepy small town dominated by another aristocratic family, the scene moves to London. We’re then treated to an extended panoramic celebration of the city narrated by the awestruck young George. “I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.” More:

I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station — a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.

Afterwards I drove in a cab down a canyon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside — it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days — seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men.

This contrast between country and city is really key to everything else: surely Tono-Bungay is one of the great London novels. When Edward Ponderevo, George’s uncle, lives in a small town, trying to eke out a living as a chemist, he continually complains about the impossibility of making anything happen in such a catatonic place, and only when he is forced by bankruptcy to move to London and take up a menial job does he actually have the opportunity to create Tono-Bungay – and more important, to create a market for Tono-Bungay. It is the concentration of people in London that enables his creation to go viral. London, the viral city, in multiple ways.

London also puts people in touch with one another who in the countryside or in small towns would either not meet at all or meet only in constrained circumstances. George marries Marion, whom he has little in common with – something he comes to understand even before their marriage – but it’s only because they both live in London that they ever encounter one another. They have certain trivial habits or quasi-interests in common; everything between them arose from a chance encounter of strangers, the kind that almost never happens in the countryside but happens a dozen times a day in London. Their marriage ends because George has an affair with a young woman who works as a typist for his company – again, a connection that only the energy, congestion, and economic drive of the city makes possible.

It is noteworthy that George’s failed relationship with Beatrice happens almost wholly in the countryside, while his failed marriage to Marion happens in the city. His love for Beatrice is doomed by a world that’s too inflexible; his attachment to Marion – which he sees as a “hunger,” not as genuine romantic love – is produced by a world that’s too unbounded.

So one of the things that Wells wants to talk about here is London as a kind of universal solvent, a force powerful enough to disintegrate the long-established social structures of British life, and while we know where Wells’s sympathies lie – he despises the old division of social classes – nevertheless he is quite aware that a universal solvent will occasionally end up dissolving things that shouldn’t be dissolved.

At the end of the book, we get an epilogue in which we’re treated to another vista of London, this time as it appears from the Thames:

To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England. Behind us are Kew and Hampton Court with their memories of Kings and Cardinals, and one runs at first between Fulham’s episcopal garden parties and Hurlingham’s playground for the sporting instinct of our race. The whole effect is English. There is space, there are old trees and all the best qualities of the home-land in that upper reach. Putney, too, looks Anglican on a dwindling scale. And then for a stretch the newer developments slop over, one misses Bladesover [the country house in which the book begins] and there come first squalid stretches of mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums. What a long slow crescendo that is, mile after mile, with the houses crowding closelier, the multiplying succession of church towers, the architectural moments, the successive bridges, until you come out into the second movement of the piece with Lambeth’s old palace under your quarter and the houses of Parliament on your bow! Westminster Bridge is ahead of you then, and through it you flash, and in a moment the round-faced clock tower cranes up to peer at you again and New Scotland Yard squares at you, a fat beef-eater of a policeman disguised miraculously as a Bastille.

We are moving through time: from the ancient English countryside to the city whose function was, for a long time, to consolidate the power of the rural elite, and now into modernity:

And then the traditional and ostensible England falls from you altogether. The third movement begins, the last great movement in the London symphony, in which the trim scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up. Comes London Bridge, and the great warehouses tower up about you, waving stupendous cranes, the gulls circle and scream in your ears, large ships lie among their lighters, and one is in the port of the world. Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy.

Somehow we have moved, in the course of one novel and about forty years, from social sclerosis to “fatty degeneration.” Varieties of poor health: one world in which, as Edward Ponderevo always said, “nothing happens,” and another in which too much is happening; atrophy and hypertrophy. “Amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key of it all. Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew, grew insensibly monstrous, and first this man made a wharf and that erected a crane, and then this company set to work and then that, and so they jostled together to make this unassimilable enormity of traffic.”

And from there out into the Sea – the strongest possible contrast. “The river passes — London passes, England passes…”

Wells tries at the end of the story to make an accounting of What It All Means, but I will set that aside. I think what he narrates tells a rather different story than what he means to tell, though in a way he knows that there is a key “symbol,” as he calls it, here. George Ponderevo is making this final passage through London on a warship, a “destroyer” that he has built. It’s worth noting that he had begun his career as an engineer in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from Marion; and has returned to it after his final goodbye to Beatrice. A classic case of sublimation: “Eros, builder of cities” – but in this case Eros, builder of warships. At this point George has seen the loss of some he loves and the deaths of others; indeed, he himself is a murderer; and after the failure of all his loves he motors down the Thames and through the great city of London as an avatar of Thanatos. And that, I think, is what this powerful and sad book is all about: not the manic energies of Commerce but rather the end of Eros and the triumph of Thanatos.

Barbara Graziosi:

Strong readings of the Iliad tend to focus on the final encounter between Achilles and Priam, and Achilles’ return of the body of Hector, Priam’s son, whom he has killed. To [Jasper] Griffin, that scene affirms the value of a human life in the face of death. To [James] Porter, it makes the Iliad a poem of war, not death: Homer, “however we understand the name,” reveals the inexplicable, violent loss of life, not just the finality of death. I agree with Porter, as it happens. But while Porter and Griffin engage in critical single combat, we may want to listen to how the Iliad actually ends. The last word does not belong to Priam or Achilles, but to the women of Troy. At the funeral of Hector, their ritual laments insist on one theme: their dependence on the deceased. He meant different things to each, we learn, but they all relied on him. This is a theme that Achilles, in his great wrath, has difficulty grasping. It is also a theme that, from the position of combative criticism, can escape attention. From the perspective of the women of Troy, however, it is painfully obvious that people can only flourish when they look after each other and, in shared ritual, take care of the dead.

Blake Smith:

His apocalypticism may be disturbing, or indeed mad, but it is not compatible with conservatism — or even with politics as such. Girard is not merely a source of stimulating or useful ideas for Silicon Valley. He is a messianic man of faith, for whom the decline of religion, and of the West, makes straight the way of the Lord. 

Maybe; but Girard is also a great purveyor of nonsense. As Joshua Landy has shown in devastating detail, “Girardian doctrine is a theory of everything, on the cheap. It’s one of those systems that make you feel as though you know everything about everything while in fact requiring you to know almost nothing about anything.” 


Edward Mendelson

Many academics are far too sophisticated to take seriously the thought that literature is a special form of intimacy. Academic discourse tends to think of literature in impersonal, collective terms, typically as something that almost everyone, it seems, calls ‘cultural production’. It is of course true that works of literature are artefacts of cultural production, but true in the same trivial way that persons are artefacts of genetic production. It omits everything that makes a work interesting in itself, everything that makes it matter. The whole idea of literature as impersonal production rather than as a form of intimacy seems intellectually self-defeating. 

literary journalism

In the preface to Continuities, a collection of his reviews and essays written for magazines, the late great Frank Kermode makes a strong assertion: “Good literary journalism is valuable and rare…. [T]o dismiss it as irremediably ephemeral, and at the same time to promote the preservation of the average doctoral dissertation, is to fall into what could very well be named ‘the common cant’.”  

One of the essays in the book concerns Edmund Wilson, and in that preface Kermode uses the example of Wilson to illustrate his point:

Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the nonspecialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain. Of course I agree that they do not always come. 

I’ve written a lot of literary journalism and will continue to do so — for instance, I have an essay-review on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads coming out in Harper’s in a couple of months — and I couldn’t agree more with Kermode’s general commendation. Literary journalism is often belittled by academics who haven’t tried to write it and couldn’t write it if they tried. To speak to interested nonspecialists “without loss of intellectual integrity” is an extremely difficult challenge, and while it’s not for me to say whether I have ever managed it, I have certainly made every effort to do so. And that effort seems to me not only worthwhile but often more worthwhile than to publish one more article for a scholarly journal. (Though of course many universities, including my own, don’t recognize the value of such work. My essay on Franzen will not “count” as scholarship because it’s not peer-reviewed.) 

I especially admire Kermode’s list of the desiderata of good literary journalism: “mental activity, fresh information, and civility.” 

no, this isn’t about deconstruction

Everyone’s got their wishlist, and mine, like yours, starts with an effective vaccine for COVID–19 and peace and justice in the world. But after than mine probably diverges from yours: I want an end to essays and articles about literary and cultural theory written by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Like this one by Elizabeth Powers:

These dogmas go by various names (among others, “postmodernism,” “multiculturalism”), but I will gather them under the term “deconstruction,” as it best encapsulates what is at their core. It consists of critiquing the writings of past authors, especially male ones, “deconstructing” them, which means exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel. This French cultural product, which began to occupy a prominent place in American university literature departments in the 1970s, has had the effect, over several student generations, of bringing literature departments, especially those of foreign languages, to extinction. Why? It is in the DNA of adolescents, even of those who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, to deconstruct, to tear apart the assumptions of their forebears. When professors stopped talking about Milton’s prose and began pointing out his treatment of his daughters, students got the point immediately. Why would 18-year-olds hang around to confirm what they knew only a year or two earlier, anyway: that anyone born before their own birth year doesn’t have a clue?

In the immortal words of Bob Marley, I got so much things to say.

I will try to set aside my small annoyances — If students think anyone older than them is clueless, why would they listen to Derrida? Don’t literature classes read texts other than novels? — and focus on the bigger problem.

All the strategies of reading Powers despises — “exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel” [sigh] — are not examples of deconstruction, they are repudiations of deconstruction.

Several generations of students, and their professors too, have learned what literary theory is about primarily from one book: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, now in its third edition (the first was published in 1983). I think almost everyone in my profession, including me, has assigned it at one time or another. A 2001 article in Times Higher Education says that at that point it had sold 750,000 copies, so surely it’s well over a million at this point.

Here’s Eagleton’s wittily polemical summation of deconstruction:

Anglo-American deconstruction largely ignores this real sphere of struggle, and continues to churn out its closed critical texts. Such texts are closed precisely because they are empty: there is little to be done with them beyond admiring the relentlessness with which all positive particles of textual meaning have been dissolved away. Such dissolution is an imperative in the academic game of deconstruction: for you can be sure that if your own critical account of someone else’s critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of ‘positive’ meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.

There are several things to be learned from this passage:

  1. Deconstruction is fundamentally an inquiry into language and meaning, and in that sense continues the “close reading” model that traditionalists in our time tend to like, especially when it’s exemplified by the American New Critics rather than foreigners. It’s essentially formalist, even if it’s concerned with the dissolution of form rather than formal coherence.
  2. It is therefore politically quietist.
  3. Eagleton, as a Marxist, deplores this.

I think literary scholars were already tiring of deconstruction at this point — it seemed to offer a rather limited repertoire of critical gestures, and they had begun to feel rather foolish hunting around for some text that hadn’t been deconstructed yet in order to perform that repertoire on it — but Eagleton hammered some big nails into deconstruction’s coffin. And he did so by arguing that deconstruction “ignores this real sphere of struggle” — the struggle for social justice.

I don’t want to overstress this point. There were influential critics — Robert Scholes most notable among them in his 1985 book Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English — who tried to redescribe deconstruction as a tool in the toolbox of the politically motivated professor. Scholes’s book is important because it explicitly describes the task of the teacher as liberating students from texts that have power over them, and giving those students the power to dominate texts. But in general the rise of theories of power — above all those articulated by Michel Foucault — meant an end to the dominance of theories of language. Deconstruction was not the beginning of our current regime of critique, it was the end of the previous regime.

on misunderstanding critical theory

Recently there’s been a lot of talk among conservatives about “critical theory,” and it’s been puzzling me. So finally I looked into the matter and think there’s some confusion that needs to be sorted out.

The person who has been leading the charge in the identification and denunciation is James Lindsay, of the grievance studies hoax fame, and he has helped to generate a whole discourse about critical theory, much of which you can find at Areo Magazine. If you look at the essays there, you’ll see some that identify critical theory quite closely with the works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — the leading members of the so-called Frankfurt School — but then others, who clearly think that they’re talking about the same phenomenon, lump Adorno and Horkheimer together with thinkers who differ from them quite dramatically, like Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lindsay himself uses the term “critical theory” in extraordinarily flexible ways, sometimes quite narrowly and sometimes expansively. It can be hard to tell in any given sentence of his what the intended range of reference is.

To someone like me who has been studying and teaching and writing about this stuff for thirty years, the whole discourse is pretty disorienting because, frankly, so much of it is just wrong. It’s like listening to people talking about a “Harvard school” of political theory that features John Rawls and Robert Nozick; or a “California school” of governance to which both Ronald Reagan and Gavin Newsom belong.

However, the folks who write for Areo didn’t arrive at this confusion all by themselves. It’s endemic to the humanistic disciplines, in which “theory” can be used in many ways, some of which involves the acts of social and cultural and literary “criticism” — which of course is also an ambiguous word, since it can denote close attentiveness or a negative view of something. I am an Auden critic, but that doesn’t mean I am critical of Auden. All these things get mixed up together, and have done so for a long time. Decades ago, when I started teaching a class on these themes at Wheaton College, the class was called “Critical Theory,” but what it was really about was “Literary Theory.” I asked for the name of the course to be changed because I thought that the phrase “critical theory” should be reserved for the Frankfurt School tradition, but several of my colleagues were puzzled by this request, thinking that “critical theory” and “literary theory” were functionally synonymous terms. I seem to recall one saying that the existing description was better because the class was really about literary criticism rather than literature as such. Theory of criticism = critical theory.

So no wonder Lindsay and his colleagues get confused. But let’s try to straighten things out a bit.

In the broadest sense, literary theory and cultural theory are academic disciplines based on the conviction that the ways we think about our humanistic subjects are not self-evidently correct and require investigation, reflection, and in some cases correction. This impulse arises in part from the experience of teaching, in which we discover that our students tend to do things with literary and historical texts — for instance, decide whether they like a book or a historical account on the basis of whether or not they “relate” to its most prominent characters — that we would prefer them not to do. But also, there was some 80 years ago a fight in America (it happened earlier and rather differently in the U.K.) to convince academic administrations that the study of literature was not simply impressionistic, like some higher book club, and writing about literature was not merely belletristic. Rather, we’re doing serious, disciplined academic work over here! And to prove it, and then to teach our students, we’re developing a theory.

All this ferment is of course related to science envy: the need to reckon with the fear that science has a method and humanistic study does not. A theory at least approximates a method, and there arose some considerable agitá about whether there’s anything scientific (truly methodical) about what literary critics do. The most influential literary critic of the middle of the twentieth century, Northrop Frye, said in his landmark book Anatomy of Criticism that literature is not a science but literary criticism is, or should be. Not everyone agreed, but everyone did seem to think that literary criticism needed to give an account of itself, needed to specify and enumerate its procedures. In a famous essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels defined theory as “the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.” They didn’t think this could actually work, which is why they called their essay “Against Theory,” but even people who agreed that it didn’t work, like Stanley Fish, still acknowledged the necessity of “theory talk.”

So this theory talk — which started in Europe well before the likes of Northrop Frye came around — spawned a proliferation of schools, and not just in literary study but also in other humanistic disciplines, among which there was a great deal of overlap in terminology and approach. And, in relation to the arguments that James Lindsay makes, almost none of this was closely related to the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” Adorno and Horkheimer and friends had some influence, to be sure, but not not nearly as much as, say, the structuralism that made its way into literary study via Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, or the various psychological theories that stemmed from the work of Freud and Jung. Then came post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, gender theory, body theory, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism — all of which were critical and theoretical but usually had only minimal overlap with the concerns of the Frankfurt School. (The figure that I think most generative for Critical Race Theory, Franz Fanon, was in no way connected to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, as far as I can tell. All of his guiding lights were French.) Certainly each movement operated according to their own internal logic.

But there is among all of these a family resemblance, just not one in which the Frankfurt School has any kind of initiating role. All of these movements assume that (a) most of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing and (b) we’d rather not know, because if we did know why we do the things we do we might not like it. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously wrote that all of these recent movements descend from the three great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “destroyers” of the common illusions from which we derive so much of our placid self-satisfaction. So if you’re going to blame anyone for the corrosive skepticism of Critical Race Theory and the like, you’ll need to start well before the Frankfurt School.

And one more thing: as Ricoeur knew perfectly well, there were other great destroyers of illusions in the nineteenth century, perhaps chief among them Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky — but those two did it in the name of the Christian faith. Because no less than Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky knew that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and added that it is deceitful in ways that we cannot through our own efforts fix. Perhaps the chief problem with the masters of suspicion, and their heirs, is not that they are too suspicious but that they are not suspicious enough. Especially about themselves.

attention and sympathy

The Richard Brody review of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a reminder of something that’s quite pervasive in criticism, though rarely talked about: the way that a lack of sympathy with a work of art can lead to a lack of attention to it. For instance, Brody says — and he’s not the only critic to have said this – that there aren’t any doubts in the movie, but of course everyone except Franz doubts the wisdom of what he has done. His wife struggles with it, his mother blames his wife for having made him too religious, the people in the village condemn him … and he is not unaffected by these judgments. We don’t know just how affected he is until a moment near the end of the story, when he has the last of his encounters with the last of his questioners, the judge who will pass sentence on him (played with extraordinary power by Bruno Ganz, in his final film role). Franz intuits that this man is different than the others who have interrogated him. All the others have been asking him questions to try to push him in a particular direction, or to fulfill their assigned role, but this judge asks questions because he wants to know their answers. And Franz tells the judge plainly that he simply doesn’t know whether he’s doing the right thing. Even though this is one of the most powerful and affecting scenes in the entire film, Brody manages to miss it.

It’s not the only thing Brody misses. For instance, he says that the Nazis speak German and Franz and his wife Fani speak English. In fact that is incorrect. Most of the movie is in English — for obvious reasons, I trust — but German is used on varying occasions and for varying purposes. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when the imprisoned and beaten and almost despairing Franz prays the Lord’s Prayer – in German. His family also prays in German. In this story German is both the most public and the most private of languages, while English occupies the conversational middle. The strategy is quite complex, but Brody’s lack of sympathy and interest in film disables him from noticing it.

UPDATE: I keep seeing Brody’s claim recycled by other people — it’s kind of astonishing that a criticism of a film can become a demi-meme when it’s flatly false. So, for the record: What does the angry Nazi mayor of St. Radegund speak when he rails against Franz or immigrants or whatever else he rails against? English. What does the elegant pinstripe-suited interrogator of Franz speak? English. What does the judge speak when he asks Franz, “Do you judge me?” English. What does Fani speak when she prays the Lord’s Prayer with her children? German. What does Franz speak when he prays the Lord’s Prayer in his cell at Tegel? German. These are matters of fact, not interpretation. Again: the movie is mainly in English, for obvious reasons, but uses German very occasionally, and when German is used, both decent and nasty people use it.

the late history of modernism

first outline of some ideas to be developed later

The long-standard account of literary modernism posits a kind of Heroic Age of High Modernism marked by a series of titanic masterpieces by writers of fiction — Joyce, Proust, Mann — and large bodies of revolutionary poetic work by Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Rilke, and so on. One might add to this the writers of smaller fictions who serve as a kind of bridge linking the poets and the epic chroniclers: Woolf, Kafka, and so on. The goal of these writers, again in the standard account, is to produce what Wallace Stevens called “supreme fictions”: comprehensive accounts of experience by which experience might be grasped. The unnamed singer in Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” might be seen as the model and aspiration of all the High Modernists.

In this account, the heroic age effectively concludes with the publication of Mann’s The Magic Mountain in 1924, or at the latest with the appearance of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in 1927. Yes, there are a few stragglers: Yeats’s late poetry, Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Pound’s endlessly unfinished Cantos — perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets, though those might better be seen as a repudiation of modernism than a fulfillment of it. But by the late 1920s the torch was being passed to a next generation, a passing that may be said to begin with the (private) publication of Auden’s first small book of poems in 1928, and may be said to end with he death of Samuel Beckett in 1989.

I’d like to argue that even if this standard narrative bears a lot of truth, something else happens that has not been widely noticed: the shifting of the ambitions of High Modernism into genres other than the novel, the epic, the lyric. Here are the last great High Modernist masterpieces and their genres:

  • Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941, historical travelogue)
  • Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (1946, literary history)
  • David Jones, Anathemata (1952, fragmented collage)
  • Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955, memoir)
  • Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971, literary/art criticism)

I really do think that The Pound Era is the last achievement of High Modernism, and not the least in that company. It’s a really great book. Kenner’s day job as an English professor misleads us: he should be thought of not (or not primarily) in the context of academic literary criticism, but rather as a writer, like the writers he writes about.

The way in which literary history and criticism can extend and develop modernism is suggested by Colin Burrow, in his introduction to a recent reissue of Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages:

This particular book certainly is a world. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages belongs with Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis as one of the three most inspiring works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century. All three of these works demonstrate a kind of literary criticism that involves looking for the large patterns and histories behind a wide range of texts, and which requires the critic to work across large swathes of time and national boundaries. All three books also combine that breadth of vision with the philologist’s microscopic concern for detail.

As will be clear, I think Burrow ought to add The Pound Era to his list, but I like the list, and I like what he says about the particular kind of greatness those books embody. Those authors’ ambitions, and the skills that underwrite such ambitions, are closely related to those than enabled Ulysses, the Cantos, and the longer poems of Stevens. (The Sense of an Ending, as Kermode freely admits, is Stevens modulated into critical prose.)

But why did High Modernism end in 1971? why have there not been further pursuits of its distinctive ambitions? Kenner himself makes a fascinating suggestion, though it is only a suggestion, in his book The Mechanic Muse: “Technology alters our sense of what the mind does, what are its domains, how characterized and bounded.”

In this book he associates the work of some of the great modernists with particular technologies: Eliot with the telephone and its “disembodied voices,” Pound with the typewriter and its techniques of spacing, Joyce with the print shop (and especially, though not exclusively, that of the newspaper). “There’s a real connection, in short, between literary Modernism and what Richard Cork has called The Second Machine Age: the age, say 1880 to 1930, that saw machines come clanking out of remote drear places (Manchester, Birmingham) to storm the capitals and shape life there.”

Telephone Switchboard Operators in the Past  27

What the telephone, the typewriter, and the print shop in the early 20th century have in common, says Kenner, is that they are socially transformative but also transparent — you can watch them and see, at least generally, how they work.


What starts happening in the middle of the century, in the aftermath of Turing’s work on computable numbers and Claude Shannon’s contributions to information theory, is the disembodiment of information, its removal to an impenetrable, unobservable digitally-generated world. And Kenner sees this transformation encoded in the work of Beckett, for whose characters information, or what wants to be information, is increasingly detached from all material contexts, social and technological alike. Thus, says Kenner in an especially brilliant moment, you can take a sentence our of a Beckett novel and readily turn it into computer code, in this case Pascal:

IMG 3726

(In candor, Kenner admits that while this is “reasonably idiomatic Pascal, … if you’re fluent in the language you’ll have noticed that it doesn’t give the computer anything to do.” Which perhaps makes it even more Beckettesque.)

At the outset of the book, Kenner notes that

High Modernism did not outlast transparent technology. Beckett, its last master, already carries it into the intangible realm of information theory. And Beckett, it’s become commonplace to say, is a bridge to the so-called Post-Modern. That is: to our present world of enigmatic “text,” or foregrounded codes and redundancies, of microchips through which what moves may be less interesting than the process of moving it elegantly. All of that absorbs, in Silicon Valley and at MIT, intelligence of a rarified order. It’s another subject.

A subject Kenner does not take up in The Mechanic Muse, or indeed elsewhere. But what a prodigious suggestion! One might anticipate an argument going something like this:

In an especially beautiful poem, Richard Wilbur speaks of Creation as a manifold word in which we read ourselves: “What should we be without / The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return, // These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?” But what if this is true of our technologies as well? What if we require, in order to stimulate deep reflection, technologies that are transparent to us, or at least translucent? It is already widely understood that the opacity of our technological order has socio-political consequences — see, for instance, this reflection by James Bridle on “the wider, networked effects of individual and corporate actions accelerated by opaque, technologically augmented complexity” — but what if it has imaginative consequences as well, that is, what if it depletes imagination altogether? In that case, then what we write produce “may be less interesting” than the code that makes the transmission of our writing possible. In that case the next book for us to read will be Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime

But Kenner — a man shaped and formed by older tools but preternaturally attentive to newer ones — did not live to make that argument. And I am not inclined to make it myself, in large part because I have been instructed by David Edgerton that old technologies, old technological environments, do not simply go away when new ones arrive. But still, I might hazard a thesis like this: As people grow more fully immersed in opaque technologies, their work becomes progressively less interesting than the work of (a) those whose work remains responsive to transparent technologies and (b) those who created the opaque technologies. 

But the question remains: might it be for people to contract and order their technological environments in such a way that the ambitions of High Modernism might be living ones for them? I’m not sure. But this much I do know: If there are such people, few very, if any, of us know who they are.

CODA: In the very last of the hundreds and hundreds of letters, one thousand eight hundred pages of letters, gathered in this two-volume set, Hugh Kenner types to Guy Davenport: “Are you still non-tech, or have you by any chance an e-mail address by now?”

the politics of long joy

Ten years ago I briefly wrote an online column for the late lamented Books & Culture, and what follows was the first entry. It still seems relevant, to me anyway.

Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp.

Moreover, Fish notes, Abdiel himself doesn’t think that God owes him success, or indeed owes him anything at all. In Abdiel’s understanding of what it means to be a creature, all the owing is on his side; all the rights are on God’s. As it happens, there are moments in the story when things don’t go as Abdiel expects, where his efforts seem futile or pointless — or seem so to us. Yet this doesn’t bother him at all. Why not? Because in each case he did what he was made to do: he obeyed. Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God.

In the long and brilliant preface that Fish wrote for the second edition of his landmark book Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, he calls Abdiel’s attitude “the politics of long joy,” and sees Milton as a passionate advocate for that politics. Milton himself strove to live by it: having made an impassioned case for freedom of the press in his tract “Areopagitica,” he pauses to say that his argument “will be a certain testimony, if not a Trophy.” That is, whether his argument succeeded or not (and in fact it didn’t), he wrote it simply in order to testify to his convictions. It was within his power to make such a testimony; it was not within his power to control the minds of the members of Parliament.

“The politics of long joy” is an odd phrase, but a rich one. Fish derives it from another moment in Paradise Lost, when the archangel Michael reveals to Adam a vision of “Just men” who “all their study bent / To worship God aright,” who then are approached by a “bevy of fair women” and determine to marry them. Adam likes this vision; two earlier ones had shown pain and death, but this one seems to Adam to portend “peaceful days,” harmony among peoples. But Michael immediately corrects him. This is in fact a vision of the events described in Genesis 6, when, after the “sons of God” become enamored with the “daughters of man,” God discerns that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Judge not what is best / By pleasure,” Michael warns Adam, “though to nature seeming meet.” Instead, Adam should judge according to the “nobler end” for which he was created: “conformity divine,” that is, obedience to God. And when Adam hears this rebuke Milton tells us that he was “of short joy bereft.” Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call “outcomes,” is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God’s is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being—the politics of long joy—is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.” Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan’s forces that “each on himself relied” as though “only in his arm the moment lay / Of victory.” Or, in Fish’s summary, “each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn’t.”

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do?

Central to this discipline, for me anyway, is a constant striving to remember who human beings are and what we are made for. Which brings me to the title of this column. On Bruce Cockburn’s 1980 recording Humans there’s a song called “Rumours of Glory”—a song about “the extremes / of what humans can be,” but also about the imago Dei which each of us bears, the divine image that waits always for the discerning eye to notice it. In the song, perhaps his best (which is saying a lot), Cockburn sees the “tension” between what we were made to be and what we in fact are; he sees that human culture is produced by that tension, which generates “energy surging like a storm.” At once attracted and repelled by that energy, “you plunge your hand in; you draw it back, scorched.” And the hand that has been plunged truly into the human world is always marked by that plunging: it’s “scorched”, yes, but beneath the wound “something is shining like gold — but better.” The truth of who we are, given the extremes of divine image and savage depravity, is hard to discern; perhaps we can only achieve it in brief moments; perhaps we only catch rumors of the glory that is, and is to be. But even those rumors can sustain us as we walk the pilgrim path.

Notes for a Book I Won’t Write

I’m always getting ideas for books that are very much worth writing but which I know I’ll never get around to writing because other projects come first. Here’s one — I bequeath it to the world.

It is perhaps only from this vantage point, in the second decade of the twentieth century, that we can see the ways in which the most lasting contributions of twentieth-century literary criticism are extensions of the great Modernist project. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism might fruitfully be seen as an embodiment, in criticism’s vocabulary and in accordance with criticism’s procedures, of Joyce’s Ulysses. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis may be said have a similar relationship to the fiction of Thomas Mann, especially The Magic Mountain and Joseph and his Brothers. George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle translates the concerns of Beckett’s Endgame into an impassioned critical idiom. Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending might best be understood as a late work of modernist aesthetics, an homage to and extension of the major poems of Wallace Stevens — specifically, Stevens’s idea of the “supreme fiction.” Stepping outside the realm of literary criticism as such, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques is a Proustian gem, a exceptionally rich and subtle work of narrative art. And Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, with epic scope and its obvious echoes of Pound’s unfinished Cantos, might be seen as the final masterpiece of magisterial Modernism. Each of these works draws on deep scholarship but also commands deep resources of narrative art, metaphorical imaginativeness, structural ingenuity.

I think it would be fascinating and rewarding to explore these great works of criticism as artworks. And such a book would also demonstrate that we academics, who love to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of thought, are typically running about half-a-century behind the novelists and poets.

Auden and the Dream of Public Poetry

This essay was originally published in this book. I’m posting it here because I think fairly well of it — though I would write it very differently today — and wish it had had more readers. (Nothing makes an essay disappear as thoroughly as publishing it in an edited collection on a scholarly press.)


The first of “Two Songs for Hedli Andersen,” written by W. H. Auden in 1936 and never considered one of his major works, found new and unexpected life in 1994 when it was featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. A young man asked to speak at the funeral of his beloved finds that the words of ‘another splendid bugger’ speak for him, and reads the poem, in a cracking voice, to the assembled mourners.

Much of the credit for the strong response to this poem must go to John Hannah, the actor who plays the bereaved lover and whose recitation of the poem is indeed affecting; moreover, one should not discount the appeal of the film’s portrayal of a devoted gay couple whose relationship is the envy of all their straight friends; but clearly Auden’s poem itself struck something of a chord in many viewers. Within months of the film’s release one could purchase a recording of Hannah reading ‘Funeral Blues’ — as Auden called the poem in his 1940 collection Another Time, and as it is called on the recording, though as we shall see it was given different titles both before and after — and several other poems by Auden. A small chapbook-like edition of a dozen or so love poems by Auden was released, to be followed within the year by a substantial collection of Auden’s songs and occasional poems; both of these included, and prominently featured, ‘Funeral Blues’.

Those of us who love and celebrate poetry, especially modern poetry, must of course be gratified by this unexpected burst of attention. But we may also ask ourselves why it happened to this particular poem, especially since it is not one of Auden’s acknowledged masterpieces. I do not know of an anthology in which it appears, and Edward Mendelson did not include it among the hundred poems he chose for the second edition of Auden’s Selected Poems (though Auden himself selected it for the first edition, which he compiled in 1958). And one does not have to read the poem very closely before noting that it is in some ways peculiar: for instance, the way it juxtaposes distinctive and even bizarre metaphors with shamelessly deployed clichés. The ‘black cotton gloves’ of the traffic policemen seem faintly comic, and the presence of such an image in a funeral lament is rather suspicious. Still more dubious is the skywritten news bulletin: ‘He is dead’ instead of, say, ‘Eat at Joe’s’. But even if the reader feels the dissonance between what I. A. Richards would call tenor and vehicle in these metaphors, they are at least new, something which cannot be said for a line such as ‘I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong’. The poem seems to hover, or to cause its reader to hover, uneasily among sentimentality, parody and (especially in the final stanza) deep pathos.

It is clear, then, that a traditional new-critical close reading of ‘Funeral Blues’ (the kind of reading I have just sketched an outline of) is bound to discover features of the poem which by the criteria of that theory can only be called faults. Close readers tend to value irony and paradox, but not tonal inconsistency, and cannot abide the use of cliché. But these ‘faults’ come into view, are identifiable as faults, primarily because close reading is just that, a way of reading, and this poem was not, at least at first, made to be read. It is not evident that a good poem-for-reading will possess the same characteristics of a good poem-for-singing, and Auden makes it clear that ‘Funeral Blues’ is primarily a song, intended for public and aural, rather than private and visual, appropriation. It is a ‘Blues’, that is, among other things, a song in a popular idiom. In the last edition of his Collected Poems that he oversaw Auden placed it in a group of ‘Twelve Songs’.[1] In the 1958 Selected Poems it is identified as one of ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’,[2] Hedli Anderson being an actress and singer whom Auden first met in the thirties, when both of them were working with the Group Theatre. And indeed, the first version of the song appeared in The Ascent of F6, the play that Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote for the Group Theatre in 1936 (and which was performed for the first time in early 1937).[3] Only in 1938 did the poem we now have emerge from this song: it was published in an anthology called Poems for To-day (Third Series) under the title ‘Blues’.[4]

In light of this complicated textual history one could argue that Four Weddings and a Funeral has rescued ‘Funeral Blues’ from a context — that of private, solitary reading — essentially foreign to its means and purposes, and placed it within a more congenial environment, thereby releasing its power and making evident its virtues. (The cinema in no sense identical to the stage — as we will later have cause to reflect — but approximates it more closely than does the printed word.) When read aloud or sung ‘Funeral Blues’ works in a way that it may not on the page, and shows itself a significant and powerful work of art. The human voice, as John Hannah has demonstrated, gives resonance to the assortment of strange tropes and flat clichés; the utterance of the poem by a person knits up these heterogenous linguistic threads into a tightly woven garment of grief. We understand, hearing that utterance, that clichés and strained metaphors alike are resources called upon in the disarray of bereavement.

Or so I contend, by way of explaining the poem’s sudden popularity. But that Auden would write such a song only to have it disappear into the great jumble of his Collected Poems — this is a fragment of literary history worthy of a little attention. The immediate origins of this phenomenon lie, not in Auden’s work, but in a brief and relatively little-known essay by T. S. Eliot. For the early Auden inherits from Eliot a great dream, one in which both poetry and English society are restored to some imagined earlier state of wholeness and integration. ‘Stop all the clocks,’ in each of its forms, is a tentative but hopeful step toward the realization of that dream; but the story I want to tell describes the dream’s abandonment.


Consider: Auden is known to students and teachers of literature almost exclusively through the poems he wrote for the page, while his dramatic poetry — though it fills approximately a thousand pages in the edition of his Complete Works which Edward Mendelson is in the process of editing — remains almost completely unknown. The case of T. S. Eliot is quite similar in this respect: critics often speak of Four Quartets as Eliot’s ‘farewell to poetry’ even though he wrote verse plays for another two decades; and the fame of The Waste Land could never console Eliot for his failure to complete what he often considered his most important project, the ‘Aristophanic melodrama’ Sweeney Agonistes.[5]

What is particularly ironic about these case studies in poetic reputation is that for Auden and Eliot dramatic poetry was absolutely central to a vision they (with many other modern artists) shared: the vision of a culture of unified sensibility. That term, of course, derives from Eliot’s famous historical thesis about a European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that ‘set in’ in the seventeenth century, and ‘from which we have never recovered’.[6] As Eliot’s thoughts on this subject developed, it became more and more clear to him that individual sensibilities could only be unified and integrated if civil society were reunified and reintegrated. In short, Eliot came more and more to believe that only a fully functioning public sphere could rescue us from our long agony — and to hope that a ‘reconstruction’ or ‘restoration’ of the English tradition of poetic drama could serve in the building of that public sphere.

Eliot’s first significant, if tentative, move to articulate his hopes for the drama comes in an essay first published in 1919 and called ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama.’ Eliot’s speculations are animated by a conviction quite prominent in his criticism of those years:

The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own [i.e., the drama] which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison with its contemporary France or Italy.[7]

Eliot here attributes to Elizabethan society as a whole something very like what he attributes to certain individual writers in his articulation of the difference between a unified and dissociated sensibility: ‘The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.[8] But note that in the first passage social integration is the consequence of the possession of integrated minds by the society’s poets, especially its dramatic poets. He admits that ‘the drama is only one among several poetic forms,’ but contends that it ‘is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other,’ and further claims that ‘when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too’.[9] And not just literary forms, but also, presumably, forms of social life were lost with the demise of poetic drama.

This social integration, according to Eliot, was not the achievement of heroic figures like Marlowe or Shakespeare: rather, such poets were the beneficiaries of a general development. When he makes this point Eliot fairly drools with envy: ‘To have, given into one’s hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities — Shakespeare was very fortunate. And it is perhaps the craving for some such donnée which draws us on to the present mirage of poetic drama’.[10] For if we were to understand just how much is given to the dramatic poet in such an age ‘we should see then just how little each poet had to do; only so much as would make a play his, only what was really essential to make it different from anyone else’s. When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted’.[11]

Eliot’s account suggests that an age which lacks such a donnée, such a preexisting dramatic form, will be not just artistically but politically impoverished and imperiled. But Eliot’s little cultural history is thoroughly anti-heroic: it offers no hope that a single poet, or even a collection of gifted poets, will be able simply to create the needful form if it is missing. So he looks again at his contemporary scene: is anything appropriate ‘given’ to us? In the last paragraph of his essay, as (it appears) an afterthought, Eliot tosses out a suggestion:

The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make… [12]

Then follow three ambiguous sentences that distinguish, in a vague way, treating art seriously, treating it solemnly, and treating it as a joke. End of essay.

But having fled unceremoniously from his own notion, Eliot found himself unable to ignore it, and when Marie Lloyd died in 1922 he discovered an occasion to return to the idea and give some hint of its potential importance. Lloyd was, for Eliot as for many others, the greatest of the music-hall entertainers. And what made her great, says Eliot, was her ability to use her art to forge a temporary but powerful union with her audiences. While other performers could ‘amuse their audiences as much [as] and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art’.[13] ‘The working man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the act; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art’.[14]

Throughout this brief eulogy Eliot hints at, though he never specifically mentions, ancient Athenian drama. In the sentence just quoted one might think of the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenidies, when the audience quite literally ‘joins in the chorus’ and marches with the actors out of the Theater of Dionysus to celebrate the past, present, and future of Athens. And when Eliot says that Marie Lloyd’s audiences were ‘not so much hilarious as happy’ he seems to be invoking that complex Greek word commonly if inadequately translated as ‘happiness,’ eudaimoniaeudaimonia for the citizens of Athens being the ultimate goal of Athenian drama (and philosophy too, for that matter).

But if Marie Lloyd’s music-hall is the closest equivalent in postwar London to the Theater of Dionysus, the parallel is not after all as close as Eliot would like. For the music-hall is a class-specific phenomenon — it is, in Habermasian terms, a ‘partial’ rather than a ‘universal’ public sphere, or (more specifically) in Nancy Fraser’s language a ‘subaltern counterpublic’: Marie Lloyd, says Eliot, is ‘the expressive figure of the lower classes.’ In her music and comedy, working people ‘find the expression and dignity of their own lives.’ Such a gift is not available to either the aristocracy, who ‘are subordinate to the middle class, which is gradually absorbing and destroying them,’ or to the middle classes (Eliot shifts to the plural here) themselves, who ‘have no such idol’ as Marie Lloyd because they ‘are morally corrupt.’ And even the lower classes, who have tragically just lost their ‘idol’ and ‘expressive figure,’ may not last much longer, since their representative dramatic form is being replaced by the ‘cheap and rapid-breeding cinema’ which threatens to reduce the lower classes to ‘the same state of protoplasm as the bourgeoisie’.[15]

This is strong language for the Eliot of 1922, though it would become pretty characteristic of him when another dozen years had passed. His frustration was no doubt intensified by the fact that he was not and could never be a member of the lower classes; Athenian drama was in its own way a class-specific phenomenon too, but it was at least the product of a class with whom Eliot could identify. What is needed, one may clearly infer from the essays I have been citing, is a modern form that in some way combines the energies and resources of the music-hall with the energies and resources of Athenian drama. This combination is represented in the very title of Eliot’s great theatrical project, which he started working on soon after the completion of The Waste Land [16] and only a few months after the death of Marie Lloyd: Sweeney Agonistes. But, as I have noted, he never finished the play; perhaps his theory of the sociological origins and development of great dramatic traditions, or rather of their failure to originate and develop, found empirical confirmation in his own work. ‘When he was engaged on Sweeney Agonistes,’ writes Peter Ackroyd, ‘he complained to Virginia Woolf that, in the absence of illustrious models, the contemporary writer was compelled to work on his own and that was, perhaps, the essential problem’.[17]


For Auden and the other Left writers of the Thirties — that is, almost every writer in England among that ‘second generation,’ the younger siblings as it were of Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Yeats, and Joyce — a primary attention to the public and political was not laboriously pursued, it was simply given. From the start of Auden’s career the drama held itself forth to him as a genre in which public dreams could be realised (thus paving the way for private satisfactions to follow): his first collection, Poems (1930), begins with his dramatic ‘charade’ Paid on Both Sides, and his criticism in the Thirties frequently recurs to the question of how a meaningful public role for poetry can be achieved. Thus the avowedly Leftist Auden, and the Eliot who in the preface to his 1928 collection of essays For Lancelot Andrewes deemed himself ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,’ alike focused a remarkable amount of their time and energy in the Thirties on the construction of a poetic drama (with an accompanying dramatic theory) oriented toward the reconstitution of the public sphere. In one of the most interestingly condensed ironies of modern literary history, when the Group Theatre inaugurated its first public season in the autumn of 1935, it featured a double bill: Auden’s medievalist masque The Dance of Death and Eliot’s still fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes.

To understand how odd this juxtaposition is, one needs to compare, however briefly and inadequately, Eliot’s argument about the European ‘dissociation of sensibility’ with Habermas’s account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The two arguments have the same form, in that they describe how cultural and historical circumstances first enabled and then disabled a vibrant public sphere (to which vibrancy literature made a major contribution); but the differences are enormous. For Eliot, the European mind began to disintegrate in the seventeenth century, just about the time at which Habermas sees the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ beginning to assemble itself. Moreover, Eliot’s understanding of ‘unified sensibility’ depends upon a certain valorization of poetry, especially dramatic poetry, while for Habermas the literary genre that played the greatest role in establishing the ‘literary public sphere’ (literarische Öffentlichkeit) is the novel. Eliot has nothing to say about the novel, but one can readily infer that for him it is a debased genre. It is only a slight oversimplification to say that Habermas’s understanding of a workable public sphere is social-democratic, Eliot’s aristocratic: while Habermas thinks that ‘a robust civil society can develop only in the context of a liberal political culture,’ Eliot would surely reply that that’s just the kind of culture in which a ‘robust civil society’ is impossible. (Indeed, he makes such a case pretty explicitly in his suppressed 1934 volume After Strange Gods and, in a different way, in The Idea of a Christian Society.) This contrast is worth noting because Auden, whose politics were much closer to Habermas’s than Eliot’s, had to work with the only strong model of literary ‘publicness’ (again, Öffentlichkeit) available to him, and this meant that he had to engage in a long process of revising the Eliotic understanding of the potential public role of poetic drama.

Thus, as the young Auden worked through his understanding of what drama and poetry should be, Eliot could provide, if not a model for dramatic composition, a (contestable) model for dramatic theory; and indeed Auden often responds, usually covertly, to Eliot’s pronouncements. In a 1934 review, for instance, though he never mentions Eliot’s name he extends and meditates upon Eliot’s suggestion about the music-hall as a potential model for modern poetic drama — and pauses for an ironic echo of a sentence from ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama’:

If the would-be poetic dramatist demands extremely high-brow music and unfamiliar traditions of dancing, he will, of course, fail; but if he is willing to be humble and sympathetic, to accept what he finds to his hand and develop its latent possibilities, he may be agreeably surprised to find that after all the public will stand, nay even enjoy, a good deal of poetry.[18]

A year later, in writing a kind of manifesto for the Group Theatre, Auden seems to adapt ideas from Eliot’s essay on Marie Lloyd: ‘Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally there would be no spectators. In practice every member of the audience should feel like an understudy’.[19]

So it seems that Eliot provided Auden with certain coordinates to help him fix his proper artistic tasks. But, in what may be an example of the anxiety of influence — I have already spoken of a kind of revisionary swerving — Auden seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the literary models which Eliot tended to favor. If he was influenced by Athenian or Elizabethan tragedy, he preferred not to acknowledge it. He had moved to America before he could reckon directly with Shakespeare, in what may be his greatest poem, The Sea and the Mirror; in the Thirties he was determined to find medieval models. He told a friend that for anyone wanting to understand Paid on Both Sides — the title of which is taken from a line in Beowulf — ’literary knowledge of the Mummers’ play with its Old-New year symbolism is necessary’.[20] Similarly, his Dance of Death is an adaptation of both the medieval danse macabre and the English mystery plays — one of which, The Deluge from the Chester cycle, was, at Auden’s bidding, coupled with The Dance of Death in two private performances by the Group Theatre in 1934.

But if this was to some degree a swerving from Eliotic influence, it was surely also an illustration of the common tendency to idealize medieval society, to understand it as having had a unity of purpose and (as Eliot would say) sensibility that the modern world so noticeably lacks. If Eliot fixed on the last years of Elizabeth I as his Golden Age, Auden usually looked further back.[21] And above all what he found in that earlier time was a significant public role for poets, and for artists more generally. It was largely in hopes of restoring or recovering such a role for poets that he wrote plays and served as ‘secretary of ideas’ for the Group Theatre.[22]

But Auden was aware of the temptations of nostalgia, and understood that it could quickly render inauthentic any would-be appropriation of the poetic or cultural past. From the start of his career he had been determined to write poetry of the world he actually lived in, and his propensity for working industrial equipment, power stations, airplanes, and (especially) pylons into his verse was so immediately noticeable that it quickly became a focus for parody. All of his plays have contemporary settings. For Auden medieval drama exemplified a public poetry rooted in its lifeworld, but for that very reason its protocols and techniques could not simply be transferred to another and radically different time. The example of the medieval dramatists had to be followed, rather than their productions imitated. And Auden devoted a great deal of his poetic energies in the decade of the Thirties to following that example, especially in the plays he wrote with Christopher Isherwood.

But even as Auden worked so hard in and for the theater (as theorist, as manifesto writer, as ‘secretary of ideas,’ as solitary and collaborative playwright), he was simultaneously working at the development of another kind of public poetry — as though he were preparing for the possible failure of his projects in drama. Auden throughout the Thirties sought to develop a public poetry that did not require for its sustenance the apparatus of the theater. Almost from the beginning of his career, Auden understood that public poetry comes in more than one variety. In a journal entry from 1929, he asked: ‘Do I want poetry in a play, or is Cocteau right: ‘There is a poetry of the theatre, but not in it’?’[23] The different versions of ‘Stop all the clocks’ indicate that several years later he had not decided whether his poetry should live inside or outside the theater — or rather, that he was seeking to maintain a double poetic presence, patrolling a boundary that demarcated genres and social institutions alike. ‘Stop all the clocks’ stands at the juncture of these two related but different attempts to reassociate the poetic sensibility and reinvigorate the public sphere.


The Modernist emphasis on the dramatic as the impersonal — Pound’s personae, Yeats’s masks, Joyce’s (or Stephen Dedalus’s) deus absconditus paring his fingernails — is well known. What is less well known is the history that we have seen a bit of in the preceding pages: the transformation of that emphasis in the next generation of British writers, especially in Auden. (Following the example of Paul Fussell, I will call Auden and his contemporaries the Moderns as opposed to the Modernists.[24]) The dramatic is important to Auden not because it is impersonal and hence a repudiation of the Romantic cult of personality: his immediate poetic predecessors had worked that line of argument about as thoroughly as it could be worked. Instead, the drama for him represented the public and the communal. In this respect Eliot, as his comments on poetic drama and the music hall indicate, serves as a kind of bridge between the two generations. (Imagine Yeats saying such things about Marie Lloyd! She utterly lacked the cachet of the Galway peasant.)

The Modernists and the Moderns alike write plays. But when they employ other poetic genres in which there is the possibility of retaining at least some of the characteristics of drama they make very different choices. As Carol Christ has so effectively argued, the Modernists prove themselves to be the true heirs — not, after all, the enemies — of the Victorian poets by making the dramatic monologue their normative genre (see especially her second chapter). This supports their anti-Romanticism, because it allows for the creation of a poetic persona clearly marked as different from that of the author. But Auden — who was followed in this practice by others, but led the way in this as in so much else — wrote almost no dramatic monologues: instead he wrote songs.

The speaker, or rather the singer, of a song is not necessarily, and in some cases demonstrably not, the poet. The singer-songwriter is a creation of the 1960’s, and as a cultural standard owes almost everything to Bob Dylan — who had inherited it from bluesmen like Robert Johnson and folk singers like Woody Guthrie. But the pre–1960’s popular song invested very little energy in creating a distinctive personality for its singer: the character expressed in a song lyric is attenuated and stylized, typical rather than idiosyncratic. ‘Stop all the clocks’ features a bereaved lover, not J. Alfred Prufrock or Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. And in this it shows itself to be truly derived from the songs of the music hall or the cabaret.

This heritage is nicely limned in Richard Hoggart’s famous account of working-class life in early twentieth-century England, The Uses of Literacy. In the sections devoted to music, he describes the semi-professional singers who performed at ‘working-men’s clubs,’ clubs that retained the characteristics of an ‘older environment,’ that of the music halls (in Hoggart’s childhood the music hall had been displaced by the cinema). Hoggart contrasts the singing style favored in such clubs with the more idiosyncratic approach of American ‘crooners’:

The manner of singing is traditional and has fixed characteristics. It is meant to embody intense personal feeling, but is much less egocentrically personal and soft-in-the-middle than the crooning styles; it aims to suggest a deeply felt emotion (for the treachery of a loved one, for example), but the emotion has not the ingrown quality shown by the crooners. With the crooners, … one is in the world of the private nightmare; here [in the clubs], it is still assumed that deep emotions about personal experiences are something all experience and in a certain sense share.[25]

Moreover, when Hoggart notes the unpopularity in England of certain well-known American songs, he attributes that failure to ‘the lack of sufficiently generalised emotion’[26]: they are insufficiently typical, one might say too much like the dramatic monologue. Few of us are inclined to sing along with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ But in ‘Stop all the clocks,’ the rich profusion of tropes makes the simply direct last line, which calls attention to itself by the measured tread of its six stresses (‘For nothing now can ever come to any good’), exceptionally potent: it can be readily echoed by bereaved lovers, or lovers who can imagine bereavement. Its emotion is ‘sufficiently generalised.’

Hoggart’s description of the musical preferences of the working-class English is relevant to Auden’s songs in another way as well. Earlier I mentioned, briefly, the way that ‘Stop all the clocks’ seems to hover between pathos and parody, and this is true of many of Auden’s songs. In the 1958 Selected Poems, for instance, the second of the ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’ also combines the stunningly new and the banal in a way that can almost make a reader queasy:

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; ‘O Johnny, let’s play’:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away. [27]

That’s the first stanza; by the last the effect is surreal:

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You’d the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Hoggart makes it clear that the working-class people who listened raptly to sentimental songs knew perfectly well that the songs were sentimental, and that some kind of corrective was sometimes called for, perhaps in the form of parody. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘the limits of this are intuitively defined: I once heard a young man deliver his own mocking version of a popular sentimental song, and not only fail to make the company laugh, but raise in them the strong, though unexpressed, sense that he had been guilty of a lapse of taste. He … had not so much laughed affectionately at the emotions as destroyed them’.[28] What is remarkable and disorienting about Auden’s practice is that he combines the direct expression of emotion and its parody in a single song in such a way that it becomes hard to distinguish affectionate laughter from destructive contempt.

This technique places a great responsibility on the reader, who must find her way through this passional maze or accept being lost in it. For the actual listener of the song the problem can be (though it is not always) simplified by the music written for the poet’s words. In the case of ‘Stop all the clocks,’ Benjamin Britten decided to play it straight in the tune he wrote for its Ascent of F6 version, for, though those lyrics are still stranger and apparently more parodic than the ones the appear in Auden’s collections (see note 4 above), listeners seem to have been deeply moved by the song: Christopher Isherwood refers to it as an ‘overwhelming funeral dirge’, while Michael Sidnell calls it a ‘magnificent blues number’.[29]

Without the music, though, the reader is on her own, and judgments about Auden’s songs can be diverse indeed. For instance, ‘Miss Gee,’ one of the ballads Auden was so fond of writing in this period, describes the illness and death, from cancer, of a repressed spinster. To me, and to a number of other critics, this is a sober and sobering poem; but Valentine Cunningham refers to it as one of Auden’s ‘savagely jaunty sick-joke lyrics’,[30] and when Christopher Isherwood found out that Auden wanted to write a ballad about Isherwood and his boyfriend Heinz, he ‘objected absolutely’ to having his experiences depicted in the ‘heartless comic style’ of ‘Miss Gee’.[31]

One can imagine several motives for Auden’s writing this ambiguous kind of song. For Michael Sidnell — describing similar tendencies in the verse of Auden’s plays — ‘in such verse Auden seems to be working both sides of the stylistic street. If it was taken at face value as the language of poetic tragedy (as it often was) well and good; if not, the bolt hole of burlesque had been prepared’.[32] There is probably something to this view; Auden was not above playing games with his audience (especially in political matters, about which, throughout the Thirties, he was more ambivalent than he felt he could acknowledge himself to be). But whatever he was up to in his plays, it may well be that in his songs Auden was taking the public and dialogical dimensions of such verse seriously — seriously enough to encourage the reader/listener to become a co-maker with him, a participant in the establishment and elaboration of poetic meaning. In the absence of the complex context of the theater, Auden in poems like ‘Stop all the clocks’ may have been violating the singularity typically associated with the lyric voice in order to build a kind of community of voices: song becomes the means by which a ‘partial’ (and quite temporary) public sphere is established.

In ‘Stop all the clocks’ a number of voices may be discerned. We have, of course, the modern inventive poet with his ‘original’ tropes (e.g., the white ‘public doves’ whose necks bear funereal bows); but there is also, especially in the third stanza, the exaggeration conventional to popular love poems and poetic elegies alike; and the methodical deconstruction of the cosmos depicted in the final stanza reads like a parodic inversion of creation myths, or nursery rhymes. Are these competing or complementary ways of representing loss? If one understands the lyric voice to be essentially singular — as is common in post-Romantic reflection upon the genre of lyric — then the song must be convicted of vocal incoherence. But this is to neglect an ancient tradition of lyric poetry, one which despite its great lineage is so little understood that it has no agreed-upon name. Nietzsche, who is responsible more than anyone else for calling this tradition to the modern attention (in The Birth of Tragedy), uses its old Greek name and names it the dithyrambic; W. R. Johnson in his admirable The Idea of Lyric seeks a somewhat broader designation and calls it the choral.

Johnson, who mentions Auden but rarely, seems to be invoking the Auden we have been investigating when he writes that, ‘if the name of choral has almost disappeared from our literary vocabulary, the choral imagination and the choral act have, so far from disappearing, made an extraordinary comeback in modern times.’ The choral lyric is necessary, contends Johnson, because ‘Human beings have, after all, not only private emotions and selves but also public emotions and selves.’ The role of the ‘solo lyric’ may be, in part, to ‘clarify the limits and the nature of the private self’; but ‘the choral poet imagines those emotions which lead us to want to understand both the possibility of our communion with each other and the possibility of our communion with the world… . [T]he modern choralists, in their different ways, attempt to countervail [the characteristically modern] process of alienation by reaffirming our kinship with each other and with the world that begets us and nourishes us’.[33]

This is the specifically literary tradition on which Auden draws as he writes his songs and ballads of the Thirties. It dovetails neatly, I think, with the tradition of popular music discussed earlier, especially in its need for a properly typical and stylised representation of emotion: the energies of ‘Stop all the clocks’ derive from Pindar and Marie Lloyd alike. Such emotive representation draws explicitly on readily identifiable artistic models in order to emphasize its continuity with other utterances, other people, a continuity which yields at least a momentary sense of community.

But is this ‘sense of community’ in any way authentic? Can the solitary reader of a poem ever experience what Hoggart’s (perhaps idealised) participants in the culture of the working-men’s clubs knew? Can she even feel what the audience at The Ascent of F6 felt?[34] These are questions that take on ever greater significance as the music halls, and the working-class culture described by Hoggart, retire further into the recesses of the past; and, as Faber allows The Ascent of F6 to go out of print while collections and selections of Auden’s poems succeed one another with impressive regularity. The community in the reader’s mind may be the only one which poets can now hope to cultivate.


I have said that Auden resisted nostalgia. But as the Thirties drew to a close, along with his theatrical partnership with Christopher Isherwood — and as the doubts I have enumerated grew stronger in his mind — the nostalgic note began to creep into his critical writings, and as it did so the Eliotic influence which Auden had earlier tried to suppress found its outlet.

The great project of the Group Theatre was failing, as perhaps it had to. Its hope to become a place of meeting and reconciliation for the classes of Britain never was realised. Though it repeatedly announced its solidarity with working people, the reality was rather different, as Valentine Cunningham explains (citing a 1935 article in the New Statesman):

Group’s handful of Sunday nighters were scarcely the masses: ‘small Sabbatical assemblies’ of bourgeois Lefties in ‘juvenile beards, dark-blue shirts, and horn-rimmed spectacles, which are not the representative insignia of the working class,’ was how Ivor Brown saw them… . Brown couldn’t ‘see much point’ in audiences who ‘either see the point of the propaganda already or see the point of nothing but their own importance.’ The amateurism of the Group’s acting was often criticised; more damagingly, [Stephen] Spender found Auden and Isherwood’s plays ‘undergraduate smoker’ (he meant Oxford and Cambridge) stuff. Group was run, in fact, very like an undergraduate society, with its programme cards, bottle parties, and its intimate revues before invited audiences. A comparison Auden cannot have found welcome.[35]

The comparison would certainly have been unwelcome: Auden’s hopes for the Group Theatre, and for English poetic drama more generally, involved their bringing him and people like him out of the narrow world of the intellectual cadres and into the society from which they had been exiled not only by the persistence of the British class system but also by (as we shall see) the advent of Romantic aesthetic isolationism. Auden had no interest in a very partial public sphere which deceived itself into believing that it was the universal one. As it became clear that his theatrical work was not succeeding in its integrating mission, he turned more and more to the choral or dithyrambic traditions which I have just outlined — but could not see them as offering the social salvation which he had earlier hoped to find in the theater.

In 1938 Auden edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse and, strange to say, did so in such a way that the task came to illuminate the questions with which this essay is occupied. In Auden’s utterly idiosyncratic definition, light verse is written ‘when the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one.’ In such a case the poet ‘will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech’.[36] Auden is at pains to insist that ‘light verse can be serious,’ and that it is only because we still live ‘under the social conditions which produced’ Romanticism that we fail to understand this. Since the Romantics, ‘it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes’.[37]

Romanticism is in this view the Fall of Poetry, or more specifically an especially tragic consequence of the Fall of Society. Auden explicitly invokes what Raymond Williams calls the myth of the ‘organic community of Old England’[38]: ‘As the old social community broke up, artists were driven to the examination of their own feelings and to the company of other artists. They became introspective, obscure, and highbrow’.[39] The ‘interests and perceptions’ of the post-Romantic poet ‘are not readily acceptable to his society’; he is, therefore, ‘acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language’.[40] As it happens, this is a pretty good description of Auden’s early lyric poetry, so famous for its obscurity; but it is just what he sought to avoid in the plays he wrote alone or with Isherwood.

One might infer from the passages just quoted that Auden like Eliot longs for an unselfconscious absorption in the rituals and practices of an organic community, but this is not quite so. ‘The more homogeneous a society, the closer the artist is to the everyday life of his time, the easier it is for him to communicate what he perceives, but the harder for him to see honestly and truthfully, unbiased by the conventional responses of his time. The more unstable a society, and the more detached from it the artist, the clearer he can see, but the harder it is for him to convey it to others.’ Either extreme, absorption or detachment, disables the artist from productive engagement with society. What is called for, Auden posits, is a productive tension, in which the poet is ‘still sufficiently rooted in the life of his age to feel in common with his audience,’ but the society as a whole is ‘in a sufficient state of flux for the age-long beliefs and attitudes to be no longer compulsive on the artist’s vision.’ Was there a time in the history of English literature when this balance was best achieved, when the tension was most productive? Yes: it was the Elizabethan age.[41]

Here the young lion of English poetry unexpectedly rejoins Old Possum; the hero of the intellectual Left meets the voice of classicism, royalism, anglo-Catholicism. But let us also note that Auden’s picture of Elizabethan requires less unanimity than Eliot’s; it is actually closer to the Habermasian claim (noted in the Introduction to this volume) that ‘a lifeworld in which cultural traditions are open to criticism’ is the medium in which civil society can best flourish. Moreover, at the end of this odd introduction Auden seeks once more to keep Eliot at arm’s length. He does so by reminding himself of the larger socio-political context in which nostalgia is unacceptable:

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.[42]

Or, as Eliot had written twenty years earlier, ‘Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour’.[43] But Auden is arguing for neither royalism nor aristocracy, but ‘a democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few.’ Only ‘in such a society will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity,’ to write what Auden calls light verse: ‘For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free’.[44]

This is indeed a compelling vision, as far as it goes. But on the obviously vital question of how such a society may be achieved, Auden is silent. There is no hint from him that the drama, or any other form of art, could contribute to the formation of a genuine public sphere. In this sense he repudiates the dream Eliot first formulated in ‘The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,’ and seems covertly to employ the Marxist distinction between base and superstructure: the whole introduction implies that art, as a superstructural phenomenon, is utterly dependent for its health and its character on the health and character of the economic base. Socio-political conditions determine poetry, not the other way around; and the social conditions which produced Romanticism may not be reversible.[45]

Already in 1936 Auden had written in The Highway (the magazine of the Workers’ Educational Association), ‘personally the kind of poetry I should like to write but can’t is ‘the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people’’ (English 360); but by the end of the decade he was wondering if anyone could write that kind of truly choral or dithyrambic poetry, and, if they could, whether it would make any difference. Less than a year after writing the introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse Auden would sound a note for which he would later become notorious. This is from the defense counsel’s speech in ‘The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats’ (an essay, in the guise of courtroom arguments, which takes up the vexed question of Yeats’s politics):

Art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged. (393)

Many experiences led Auden to this disillusionment about the public role of art — not least the history of the Group Theatre — but one, perhaps, was crucial. Like many European and American artists he had gone to Spain during the Civil War there and tried to serve the Republican side; but he was frustrated not only by his own inability to make a difference (and that of almost all his fellow artists, whom he came to see as playing a self-gratifying and ultimately self-deceptive game) but also by his discovery that the Spanish war was not as morally unambiguous as the artistic partisans of the Republicans were leading everyone to think. Among the many atrocities committed by Republican supporters, one in particular stood out for Auden in a way that, at the time, he could not understand:

On arriving in Barcelona [in January 1937], I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed. The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then? (Pike 41)

Thus even as he was writing what many thought the great poetic anthem of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Spain’ (with its refrain ‘But to-day the struggle’), he knew he was telling only a small portion of what he knew to be true, and was therefore for all practical purposes lying. Which is why ‘Spain’ and political poems like it — most notably the famous ‘September 1, 1939’ — were later condemned by Auden and excluded from his Collected Poems.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Auden’s loss of faith not just in the politically transformative power of art (in which he never had full confidence) but in any social role for art would lead him to search for another faith — the one represented by the closed and shuttered churches of Barcelona.

When Auden came to America, he retained his interest in and commitment to poetic drama; but he had shed the political imperatives which which shaped the projects he and Isherwood pursued in the Thirties. His first poetic drama in America was a collaboration with Benjamin Britten on the operetta Paul Bunyan — a distinctively American subject to match Auden’s new country; a subject indebted to the folk sources of American culture (just as The Dance of Death had drawn on English folk sources like the Mummers’ Play); but a work with no pretense whatever to political relevance or social leadership. From this beginning Auden went on, with Chester Kallmann, to the rarefied air of opera proper. It is not likely that the masses would have much interest in a libretto about the hubris of a modern artist (Elegy for Young Lovers) or an adaptation of a play by Euripides (The Bassarids), especially when the words are accompanied by the dissonant tonalities and strange orchestrations of Hans Werner Henze. Auden was free to pursue such projects precisely because he was a Christian: if God had saved the world, the artist didn’t have to, and the project of reconstituting the public sphere only made sense if it were conducted within the context of Christian theology. To such hopes and dreams poetry (whether private or public, dramatic or lyric) is utterly irrelevant, which is why Auden makes this request in one of his greatest poems, ‘At the Grave of Henry James’:

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks. (Collected 312)

Eliot too seems to have lost his hopes for public poetry, as he abandoned the experimental Sweeney Agonistes and the explicitly, insistently communal lyrics he wrote for The Rock (a church pageant, of all things) in favor of a set of rather conventional Shaftesbury Avenue plays, starting with The Family Reunion in 1939. It is noteworthy that as Eliot strove to learn the craft of theatrical writing he was also developing, in The Idea of a Christian Society (which was delivered as a series of lectures in the very month that The Family Reunion debuted in London) and Notes toward the Definition of Culture (1948), a theology of culture — a project in which Eliot retains his old preoccupation with cultural unity but in which literature has no evident place.

As for Auden, it is no accident that one of his closest friends and deepest influences in his first years in America was Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian of the public realm, who never for a moment would have taken seriously any claims by poetry to orient and give structure to society. That is theology’s job. So perhaps it is not surprising that, just as Auden’s quest for a theater of social integration metamorphosed into a desire to write words in service of music — Auden always insisted on the subordinate role of the librettist (see, e.g., Dyer’s 473) — his dithyrambic or choral songs were replaced by a fascination with occasional poetry and a virtual compulsion to dedicate poems to friends. Auden became a proponent of local culture — the chief locality being the page on which a poem is printed. The poet as liberator became the poet as servant, the poet as friend. As Lucy McDiarmid has argued, much of Auden’s later poetry takes the form of a retractio: an oft-repeated act of penitence for his former and long-standing poetic arrogance. In Auden’s Christian understanding this change in tone and restriction of ambition represent moral and spiritual progress; but those with a higher view of the potential social value of art have not always been so complimentary.[46]


In some respects it is clear why things fell out this way for Auden and Eliot. Neither man had a particular gift for dramatic composition. Eliot understood and admitted this deficiency, yet determined to overcome it;[47] Auden, as far as I know, never admitted his limitations directly, but acknowledged them by recruiting collaborators — Christopher Isherwood in the Thirties and Chester Kallman after his move to America — who could provide him with narrational and structural forms upon which he could poetically elaborate. The critical consensus is that neither poet ever wrote a wholly successful play, and on a more general level it is intriguing that the great English modernists (particularly Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats) tended to celebrate the drama, or the dramatic, in ways that later critics would take careful note of without ever bothering to pay much attention to the plays those modernist titans wrote. Few courses in modern British literature include Exiles or The Countess Cathleen.

It is conceivable that larger cultural forces are at work here, that, for instance, as literacy and the habit of literary reading increased people became less comfortable with, or felt less need for, the public experience of going to the theater; or (more likely) that they ceased to think of the theater as a place where their more refined tastes could find satisfaction. Middlebrow drama — from J. M. Barrie and Arthur Pinero to J. B. Priestly and Terence Rattigan — dominated the London stage in the first half of this century, but surely this is the usual state of affairs wherever the drama flourishes. Even acknowledged masters of their craft like Brecht, Pirandello, and Beckett are perennially unlikely candidates for boffo box-office; what then can the less practiced and accomplished highbrow dramatist hope for?

To take a still longer and broader perspective, we have Michael Sidnell’s sobering contention, in his excellent history of the Group Theatre, that attempts to reclaim legitimate public space by means of the theater will inevitably fail:

The attempt to create a theatre in which actors, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, poets, and a ‘participating audience’ would engage in collaborative creation informed the European theatre at its very beginnings and has eluded it ever since. If such a ‘total theatre’ is impossible to achieve it may be because — as theorists from Aristotle to Brecht have explained — the consuming reality of ritual actions is incompatible with a thoroughly self-conscious art.[48]

If, as some of the Romantics dreamed, the Fall into Self-Consciousness can be reversed, this incompatibility is not eternal; there is hope for reconciliation of dramatic art and the community. But in any case the ‘total theatre’ must happen, it cannot be willed into existence; a viable public culture will create the ‘total theatre’, not the other way around.

This seems to be, as I have argued, the conclusion reached not just by Auden but also by Eliot; and it is hard not to think that Christianity had a great deal to do with their reaching this conclusion. In Eliot’s case the conversion to Christianity came first, and skepticism about the cultural power of art developed gradually. But Auden’s experience was differently ordered: because he lacked religious faith he struggled mightily for several years to maintain faith in art. When he could not succeed in that work of maintenance — when his experiments in poetic drama failed and his choral songs were absorbed by the silent world of printed verse — he left his native England for an America where he hoped to start from zero. It didn’t work out that way: the Old World followed him to the New. But the nightmarish persistence of that Old World which he had fled was, ironically, instrumental in his reclamation of Christian faith and practice and in the solidification of his conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

In November of 1939, less than two months after the Nazis completed their staggeringly rapid conquest of Poland, their own cinematic record of the victory (called Sieg in Polen) was being shown in a theater in Yorkville, a neighborhood in Manhattan then predominantly German. Not surprisingly, especially since the United States was not yet involved in the war, the moviegoers were quite sympathetic to the Nazi cause; they knew what Hitler had done to restore German pride and economic and cultural stability; many of them had come to the U. S. during the economic crises that debilitated Germany in the 1920’s.

But Auden, when he saw Sieg im Polen, was not prepared for the extremity of the viewers’ reactions to this film. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen — always as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht — the audience would shout, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’ Auden was stunned. ‘There was no hypocrisy,’ he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no ‘civilized’ face upon them. ‘I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value’.[49] On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more humane response? Not only was the kind of culture that supports poetry unable to shape the public sphere, unable to make anything happen; it was unable to sustain or defend itself before those who preferred evil and brutality. Late in his life Auden often said, as he did in this interview, that his inability to account for, much less justify, his own horror ‘brought [him] back to the Church.’


  1. Auden, Collected Poems (rev. ed.), ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1991), pp. 116–21.  ↩
  2. Auden, Selected Poems (New York: Random/Modern Library, 1958), pp. 31–3.  ↩
  3. In The Ascent of F6 the first two stanzas of the poem are the same, but the last two stanzas of the poem as it appears at the beginning of this essay did not appear and were apparently the result of a later revision. Here is how the song concludes in F6, where it is sung by Lord Stagmantle and Lady Isabel Welwyn over the body of James Ransom (the names in this song are those of characters in the play):  ↩
  4. For an excellent survey of Auden’s work in popular poetic genres during this period of his career, see Nicholas Jenkins’s ‘Introduction’ to some of Auden’s ‘Uncollected Songs and Lighter Poems, 1936–40’, in W. H. Auden: ‘The Language of Learning and the Language of Love’: Uncollected Writings, New Interpretations (Auden Studies 2), ed. Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 49–59.  ↩
  5. See Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber, 1933), p. 153.  ↩
  6. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1951), p. 247.  ↩
  7. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1928), p. 62.  ↩
  8. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 247.  ↩
  9. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 61.  ↩
  10. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 63.  ↩
  11. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 64.  ↩
  12. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, p. 70.  ↩
  13. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 406.  ↩
  14. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407.  ↩
  15. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 407. Raymond Williams has provided a shrewd and precise account of the commonly used contrast in modern British thought between the ‘organic’ and the ‘mechanical’ in a given culture (see Culture and Society: 1780–1950 [New York: Columbia UP, 1983], p. 138): the music-hall represents the former, the cinema the latter. The easy and potentially infinite reproducibility of a film is for Eliot part of the problem. (Clearly, Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ remains utterly germane to these issues.)  ↩
  16. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 135.  ↩
  17. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 147.  ↩
  18. Auden, Complete Works, Volume I, p. xxii.  ↩
  19. The English Auden, p. 273.  ↩
  20. Auden, Complete Works, I:xvi. The validity of this claim is borne out by Mendelson’s analysis in Early Auden (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), pp. 50–51. Incidentally, Auden may have first come across the Mummers’ play — an ancient but long-lived Christmas pantomime — in his beloved Hardy’s The Return of the Native, where a performance of it plays a key role in the developing relationship of Bathsheba Everdene and Clym Yeobright.  ↩
  21. But not as far back as Yeats with his celebration of ‘Byzantium in the age of Justinian’ or Pound with his praise for the Troubadours and Trouveres; the High Middle Ages were more to Auden’s taste, even if he tended to identify with populist figures like Langland. This particular kind of idealization of the past, with its emphasis on social harmony and religious and intellectual unity, is neatly skewered by Raymond Williams in the famous second chapter of his The Country and the City (New York: Oxford UP, 1977).  ↩
  22. So Rupert Doone, the artistic director of the Group, called him. See Michael Sidnell, Dances of Death: the Group Theatre of London in the Thirties (London: Faber, 1984), p. 24.  ↩
  23. The English Auden, p. 301.  ↩
  24. Paul Fussell, ‘Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden’, in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Ballantine, 1988), p. 211.  ↩
  25. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992), p. 113.  ↩
  26. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 118.  ↩
  27. Auden, Selected Poems (1958), p. 32, and The English Auden, p. 213.  ↩
  28. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. 123.  ↩
  29. Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (New York: Farrar, 1976), p. 268; Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 197. Sometimes, though, even music is insufficient to direct the stubborn audience. Auden’s The Dance of Death, which purports to describe the decline and fall of the bourgeoisie, ends with Karl Marx appearing on the stage to announce, ‘The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated’ (Complete Works I:107). But Marx’s arrival is heralded by a chorus singing these words to the tune of Mendelson’s wedding march (!):  ↩
  30. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 97.  ↩
  31. Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, p. 288. ‘A year or so later, Christopher withdrew his veto, fearing that he might have aborted a masterpiece. Wystan, however, said he had now forgotten all his ideas for it’.  ↩
  32. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 204.  ↩
  33. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982), p. 177.  ↩
  34. Walter Ong has made the following sobering claim: ‘There is no collective noun or concept for readers corresponding to “audience”. The collective “readership” — this magazine has a readership of two million — is a far-gone abstraction. To think of readers as a united group, we have to fall back on calling them an ‘audience,’ as though they were in fact listeners’. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 74.  ↩
  35. Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 323.  ↩
  36. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  37. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  38. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 11.  ↩
  39. The English Auden, p. 365.  ↩
  40. The English Auden, p. 363.  ↩
  41. The English Auden, p. 364.  ↩
  42. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  43. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 4.  ↩
  44. The English Auden, p. 368.  ↩
  45. In December of 1938 Auden delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne on ‘The Future of English Poetic Drama,’ the text of which has not survived (perhaps because there was no text and the lecture was extemporaneous). But something purporting to be a transcription of Auden’s remarks has survived, and it is interesting to note that Auden apparently concluded his lecture by echoing his Light Verse introduction and connecting those ideas specifically to the question of poetic drama: ‘Now, what will happen to the stage, I do not know, but I do know this: that the search for a dramatic form is very closely bound up with something much wider and much more important, which is the search for a society which is both free and unified’. Then, hinting at the possibility of European war and the danger such war would pose to France: ‘If we sometimes, at this moment, look towards France in apprehension mingled with hope, it is because we realise that while these values have disappeared in one country after another, we know that unless they are safeguarded here, in our country liberty, culture, drama are made impossible’ (Complete Works, I:522). Here too the future of art is dependent upon the strength of the political fabric; art is not seen as a contributor to that strength.  ↩
  46. I have discussed some of these issues at length in Chapter 4 of my book, What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998).  ↩
  47. See Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, p. 285.  ↩
  48. Sidnell, Dances of Death, p. 257.  ↩
  49. A. Levy, ‘On Audenstrasse: In the Autumn of the Age of Anxiety’. The New York Times Magazine, 8 August (1971), pp. 10–12, 42.  ↩

Two kinds of critics in the world….

I’m very interested in Andrew Piper’s new work on the “conversional novel”:

My approach consisted of creating measures that tried to identify the degree of lexical binariness within a given text across two different, yet related dimensions. Drawing on the archetype of narrative conversion in Augustine’s Confessions, my belief was that “conversion” was something performed through lexical change — profound personal transformation required new ways of speaking. So my first measure looks at the degree of difference between the language of the first and second halves of a text and the second looks at the relative difference within those halves to each other (how much more heterogenous one half is than another). As I show, this does very well at accounting for Augustine’s source text and it interestingly also highlights the ways in which novels appear to be far more binarily structured than autobiographies over the same time period. Counter to my initial assumptions, the ostensibly true narrative of a life exhibits a greater degree of narrative continuity than its fictional counterpart (even when we take into account factors such as point of view, length, time period, and gender).

Now — and here’s the really noteworthy part — Piper defines “conversional” largely in terms of lexical binaries. So a novel in which a religious conversion takes place — e.g., Heidi — is no more conversional than a novel whose pivot is not religious but rather involves a move from nature to culture or vice versa — e.g., White Fang.

As I say, I’m interested, but I wonder whether Piper isn’t operating here at a level of generality too high to be genuinely useful. Computational humanities in this vein strikes me as a continuation — a very close continuation — of the Russian formalist tradition: Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale — especially the section on the 31 “functions” of the folk tale — seems to be a clear predecessor here, though perhaps the more radical simplifications of Greimas’s semiotic square are even more direct a model.

Two thoughts come to my mind at this point:

  1. I would love to see what would happen if some intrepid computational humanists got to work on filtering some large existing of corpus of texts through the categories posited by Propp, Greimas, et al. Were the ideas that emerged from that tradition arbitrary and factitious, or did they draw on genuine, though empirically unsupported, insights into how stories tend to work?
  2. A good many people these days emphasize the differences between traditional and computational humanists, but the linkage I have just traced between 20th-century formalists and Piper’s current work makes me wonder if the more important distinction isn’t Darwin’s opposition of lumpers and splitters — those who, like Piper in this project, are primarily interested in what links many works to one another versus those who prefer to emphasize the haecceity of an individual thing … which of course takes us back to the ancient universals/particulars debate, but still….

UPDATE: via Ted Underwood on Twitter, I see some people are already moving towards Propp-inspired ways of doing DH: see here and here.


One must not, however, imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect…. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and significance; abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, from a late essay translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. This is one of my foundational beliefs: it governs many of my choices, especially about what I read and whom I converse with — and on social media also. Choose wisely and carefully the people you follow on Twitter and you can create a digital version of Bakhtinian/Dostoevskian polyphony.

The need for interpreting arises when a text with which we find ourselves concerned resists immediate absorption into the ongoing stream of our practical life. In this moment of our incomprehension, understanding cannot be coerced by argument or manufactured by method or technique. It occurs when an interpreter finds a responsive word through which the text speaks to us again, so that the varied meanings and force of the text are activated in new and diverse concerns. What word will accomplish this reactivation cannot be predicted or guaranteed. But our capacity to find that word is interpretation’s humane significance and the reason it remains at the heart of literary study.

— Donald Marshall, “Literary Interpretation” (1992)

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline — housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition — not in English literature — justifies the existence of the English department… . People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

— Brian McRae, from Addison and Steele Are Dead (1991)

I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it. People have given up accepting the tender. There is real value being created, but it is in the gray market, so to speak, in the barter economy of coteries and sometime hermits. It is no one’s fault—America in its wisdom has figured out how to get lots of poems, things that are nominally poems, printed. Recognizing this is important, as I wouldn’t want to ascribe to general venality and the Decline of the West what may just be contingencies in the means of production. Why are the shows on HBO awesome and Hollywood movies terrible, when they are made by the same class of people—the same people, sometimes—in the same place, using the same processes and techniques? Maybe it is that one sells subscriptions to affluent households and the other fishes for fourteen-year olds’ pocket money, that is, one is in a long-term relationship with its audience and the other is not. It may be that vaguely analogous impersonal factors—parameters of our media industries, of our patronage systems, and so on—have pushed our dispensation into a place where it is better at producing Halo 4 than lyric poetry. For the time being.

I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike them—but not this book. So since we find ourselves, as we cyclically do here, in the middle of another massive Gatsby ­recrudescence, allow me to file a minority report.

— Kathryn Schulz. And yet, despite not being free to dislike the book, you somehow manage to do so. How are we to account for this?

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

Faulkner is no thinker — his occasional reflections on politics or the race question do not illuminate their subjects; he is no poet — his purple passages are embarrassingly bad; he is not even, in my opinion, a profound psychologist, but he is a very great magician who can make twenty years in Yoknapatawpha seem to the reader like twenty minutes and make him want to stay there forever. Furthermore, he employs white magic, that is to say, his charms have a moral purpose: he would teach and, I believe, succeeds in teaching us both to love the Good and to realize the price which must be paid for that love.

— Auden on Faulkner’s The Mansion (1960)

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay. A democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few, is the only kind of society which in the future is likely to survive for long.

In such a society, and in such alone, will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity, to write poetry which is simple, clear, and gay.

For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free.

— W. H. Auden, Introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938)

[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.

Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.

Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.

By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.

For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.

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

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.”