W.H. Auden

Some notes from e-land


W.H. Auden on reading Franz Kafka

Work’s dictates mean that postings will be a little infrequent over the next fortnight or so. But here’s a few thoughts from W.H. Auden on reading Franz Kafka that I’ve been ruminating on this morning over a cup of lukewarm tea. It comes from Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York: Random House, 1962):

‘Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, “This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens,” but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognises as Kafkaesque, while one would never call and experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian … Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on whose whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful … I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness’. (pp. 160, 166)

[H/T: Time’s Flow Stemmed]

‘Lines to Dr Walter Birk on his Retiring from General Practice’, by W.H. Auden

When you first arrived in Kirchstetten, trains had
long been taken for granted, but electric
light was still a surprise and as yet no one
had seen a tractor.

To-day, after forty-five years, as you leave us,
autobahns are a must, midwives are banished
and village doctors become museum pieces
like the horse-and-buggy.

I regret. The specialist has his function, but
to him we are merely banal examples of
what he knows all about. The healer I have faith in is
someone I’ve gossipped

and drunk with before I call him to touch me,
someone who admits how easy it is to misconsider
what our bodies are trying to say, for each one
talks in a local

dialect of its own which can alter during
its lifetime: so children run high fevers on
slight provocation, while the organs of old men
suffer in silence.

When summer plumps again, our usual sparrows
will phip in the eaves of the patulous chestnuts
near your old home, but none will ask: “Is Dr.
Birk around to hear me?”

For nothing can happen to birds that has not
happened before: we though are beasts with a sense of
real occasion, of beginnings and endings,
which is the reason

we like to keep our clocks punctual, as Nature’s
never is. Seasons she has, but no Calendar:
thus every year the strawberries ripen
and the autumn-crocus

flares into blossom on unpredictable
dates. Such a Schlamperei cannot be allowed an
historian: with us it’s a point of honor
to keep our birth-days

and wedding-days, to rejoice or to mourn, on
the right one. Henceforth the First of October
shall be special for you and us, as the Once when
you quit the Public

Realm to private your ways and snudge in a quiet
you so deserve. Farewell, and do not wince at
our sick world: it is genuine in age to be
happily selfish.

– Wystan Hugh Auden, ‘Lines to Dr Walter Birk on his Retiring from General Practice’, in Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1972), 10–11.

Advent III: But then … they appear

After W.H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s c.1558 work, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following cynical words:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain, wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon rightly suggests (and we might add Rembrandt), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may ‘see’ what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, called ‘moments of great calm’:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

[This meditation was first written for the Advent series over at Hopeful Imagination, and I have posted other Advent reflections here.]