Mar 10, 2014
The Normal Heart and Nijinsky’s Faun
Posted on Jan 10, 2012
By Scott Tucker
Do I agree with every line and idea to be found in this one poem by Auden? No, I do not. For example, Auden proclaiming, “There is no such thing as the State” is just too close to Margaret Thatcher proclaiming, “There is no such thing as society.” Auden took care to put a capital S on state (which actually emphasizes precisely the thing-like alienation we may associate with the state, and makes Auden’s poem belong in the anti-authoritarian tradition). One of Thatcher’s defenders (in the U.K. Telegraph) claimed that she was using the word society with polemical quotation marks, namely, with irony directed at left-wingers who demanded rights for all and responsibilities for none. (That is one construction of her words in context.) Readers can decide for themselves what Auden and Thatcher each intended to say on the subject of public life and personal responsibility.
Auden gave direct aid to Dorothy Day (a social gospel Catholic who was living and working among the poor), but not any direct help (as far as I know) to the secular social revolutionaries of the second half of the 20th century. In most respects, he accommodated himself to his milieu in later life, rather than breaking from it—even before his heavy smoking and drinking had ruled out front-line resistance. Auden was contemptuous of “The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout”—note once again the capital P, for capital letters are never accidental with Auden—and yet he lived long enough to live under a regime of militarists in the United States shouting windy trash about democracy while firebombing vast tracts of Vietnam. Auden did not show the civic courage of other poets and writers in defending civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese more truly call the American war). Solidarity with feminists and gay activists played no part in Auden’s public persona. Yet if we read him, personally and politically, only as a reactionary “in the last analysis,” then we miss the motions of a mind trying to respond with sanity to a culture gone crazy.
Those interested in a conservative defense of Thatcher’s most infamous words should read The Telegraph article.
We just lived through a year of uprisings round the world, including the Occupy Wall Street movement. In culture, in science and in politics we have every reason to expect that the opening years of this century will be as dangerous and as transformative as the first decade of the 20th. We must work to make sure the next century is not also an era of wars and hunger and reckless plundering of nature. Some of you believe such political work is compatible with the ordinary functioning of “our two party system,” and I most surely do not share such a belief. But for once that is not my main message in Open Letter.
Following a good general rule for open letters, the personal dimension is properly subsumed in the political. Let politics unite or divide us as necessary, but in common humanity the bloody basement of the Lubyanka and the militarists in our own government must both be ruled out of order. The impersonal, and indeed lethal, machinery of the state is all too real. That was one lesson of the last century we are still learning in 2012. Obama, for example, may be commander in chief, but he can hardly be said to be in full command of the busy drones, which have a momentum of their own backed up by the whole power of capital and of military industries. He chose his current job, but he truly serves at the discretion of the ruling class.
Each in our own sphere of influence, each in our own job or calling, we at least may choose to live with fewer illusions. Only certain adolescents and lifelong romantics believe art has all the answers. No, art is one human activity among others, and no more innocent of class culture than science and politics. But this much we can say soberly: In this global movement toward democracy and human rights, artists and writers also take our place.
“Show an affirming flame,”
By W. H. Auden
I sit in one of the dives
Accurate scholarship can
Exiled Thucydides knew
Into this neutral air
Faces along the bar
The windiest militant trash
From the conservative dark
All I have is a voice
Defenceless under the night
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