W. H. AUDEN: FROM MYTH TO PARABLE

Edward Mendelson

Auden could not think about myth without also thinking about questions of justice.  When he started writing in the late 1920’s, he was an heir to the great first generation of modernists -- Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Yeats -- all of whom were interested in myth, the primitive, that which is essential and hidden inside human beings.  Auden thought of these issues differently from the preceding generation.  From the start, he was interested in the idea of myth as a way of identifying that which was universal among human beings for the purpose of escaping the injustice of divisions -- ethnic, sexual, racial, national.  He thought that by finding the myth, by identifying that original element in human beings, it would be possible to find the kind of justice which seemed to have evaded the societies around him.   The kinds of mythical and  deep qualities of human beings that interested him  at the time were the Freudian unconscious and  the Marxist idea of history as a force superior to human beings, a flood carrying human beings with it toward a single goal.

But as he worked in this way,  Auden, whose mind was always dialectical, could not help noticing that to the degree that one thought  mythically, or that those around him thought mythically, there were two temptations:  one, to forget the reality of individual human beings who suffered and were the victims of injustice;  and the other,  that the sophisticated believer in these primal forces also tended, in too many cases not to notice, to believe in the embodiment of knowledge -- the strong man, the seer, the master, the leader or the party able to embody these future forces.  He was aware of the idea that the avant garde,  as Baudelaire pointed out, was a military metaphor of those who carried the fight forward against others. 

Auden began to suspect this.  In 1936 when he went to Iceland, he found himself writing a poem in which he began to worry about the loss of the sense of the unique persons he was photographing, this man and that woman  lost in history hostile as a flood everywhere overriding our will.  He thought of truth as something not available to any of us, but which, by definition, someone  must have, some strong person we waste our foolish lives  in looking for.

At this same time, he felt that this sense of  focus on the unique individual human being might be a moral luxury -- this was the time of the Spanish Civil War -- and he found himself writing poems in which, on the one hand, he emphasizes a mythical belief in an inevitable historical movement, some primal myth that will ultimately unite everyone, and yet he sensed that real justice and injustice involves unique persons.

It was really with this in mind that he came to the United  States, partially to clear himself of his public status as a poet with a particular political message, a kind of heroic figure whose travel to Spain in 1937  got him on the front page of a newspaper.  Around the time the Second World War broke out, Auden began to embrace more actively what had interested him somewhat before, Jungian archetypes.  He started using Jungian vocabulary  in his early twenties, and around 1939 began using it wholeheartedly, as in the poem, September 1st,1939, where

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth

paraphrased Jung’s book on psychology and religion.   When he wrote we must love one another or die,  he was thinking of love as an instinctive primal force that cannot be refused. (He later said that this was the worst line he ever wrote, having come to believe that love is a matter of conscious intention and covenant.)

But it was in that earlier mood, partially through reading Paul Tillich, that  he returned to the Anglican communion in 1940.   For a while, he was fascinated by Tillich (although Auden said, "I can’t suppose I could wish he could write the King’s English), and the poems became full of Tillich’s idea of the intersection of fate and time.  For the next six or seven  years, Auden’s poems were filled with the Jungian vocabulary, as in The Christmas Oratorio,  chosen by Halverson for his book on religious drama. There the four Jungian faculties have long speeches, very uninteresting speeches, I should say, and Auden wrote later on in the margin, "BOSH -- STRAIGHT FROM JUNG!"  but at this point that was his  commitment. 

In The Age of Anxiety (1944-46) almost the whole poem is an exploration of archetypes with an archetypal journey into the primal self.  In the middle, four characters sing a lament for a figure who is not quite Joseph Campbell’s hero, but very close, a figure who has always just disappeared, always just gone away,  some figure who harrowed hell and stormed the stupids and went through all these mythical events.  In the background of this is Finnegan’s Wake, which Auden had read with the help of Joseph Campbell and Henry Robinson’s commentary, as  he was exploring the circular, the mythical, the deep qualities of human beings.

The Age of Anxiety  is an interesting poem, but it lies flat on the page until the last ten pages when the archetypes disappear.  Two of the four characters -- one a Jewish woman and  one clearly a believing Christian, a doctor -- suddenly take personal responsibility for their faiths and for their lives.  The Jewish woman looks at the sleeping non-boyfriend and thinks of her relation to her father and to her past. (The poem is written in a variety of Old English meter, because the archaic language represents the archaic truth.) There is an extraordinary moment in which Rosetta -- whose name has echoes of the Rosetta Stone and going to the past -- is no longer interested in the myth she makes up of a magical  place; she talks about the moment when she is going to  face a real historical suffering;  and she says she must wait for the coming of God.

. . . . . .    Moses will scold if
We’re not all there for the next meeting
At some brackish well or broken arch,
Tired as we are.    We  must try to get on
Though mobs run amok and markets fall,
Though lights burn late at police stations,
Though passports expire and ports are watched,
Though thousands tumble.  Must their blue glare
Outlast the lions?  Who’ll be left to see it
Disconcerted?  I’ll be dumb before
The barracks burn and boisterous Pharoah
Grows ashamed and shy.  Sh’ma’ Yisra’el.
‘Adonai ‘elohenu, ‘adonai ‘echad.
(The Jewish Creed)

Then Malin, the Christian character, suddenly drops away from all thought of myth and talks about how difficult it is to climb the cross of the moment and  let  our illusions die--

For the new locus is never
Hidden inside the old one
Where Reason could rout it out,
Nor guarded by dragons in distant
Mountains where Imagination
Could explore it; the place of birth
Is too obvious and near to notice,
Some dull dogpatch a stone’s throw
Outside the walls, reserved
For the eyes of faith to find. 

This idea of the personal commitment to one’s belief is what suddenly affects Auden’s thinking for the next fifteen years of his life.   What happens in the first person is what matters to him in religious thought, not what happens in some universal sense that takes away the sense of personal responsibility.

Auden immediately abandons the idea of the archetype, except as a kind of joking reference, as he starts writing about the human body, as that which is universal to human beings,  the ordinary human body, not with any mythical quality.  He is not interested in myths.  The body speaks in one of his poems:

I rode with Galahad on his Quest for the San Graal; without understanding I kept his vow.

The body couldn’t possibly imagine why anyone would want to be chaste, but was the one that had to keep that vow.  He says

Now, as desire and the things desired
Cease to require attention,
As, seizing its chance, the body escapes,
Section by section, to join
Plants in their chaster peace which is more
To its real taste. . .

At the same time, he starts to focus on the way in which,  explicitly (it was implicit in his work before), injustice and suffering are endured, not by archetypes and universals, but by unique individuals;  and the degree to which the great myths of the 20th century, by denying the reality of those unique individuals, were  colluded in the injustice that caused that suffering.

Suffering is experienced  by historical persons; and he starts making a distinction between the the myth that the poet likes and the history that the historian likes:  the pure poet, who is always thinking about verse forms and heroic figures and myths, is not a very appealing figure, because  he is not very interested in human beings;  the historian is not very interested in aesthetics, but he is constantly reminding the poet about the real historical event.  These two figures -- the poet and the historian -- oppose each other in Auden’s work. 

Auden started out, as I said,  thinking about the search for the universal as a way of achieving justice. He said to a class around 1946 that he had studied anthropology as a way of working himself out of the prejudices of his culture; but, he said,  You don’t fight racism by studying anthropology; you right racism by inspiring  in others a passion to love their neighbors as themselves.

From here on, Auden developed an aesthetic which contrasted the myth and  the parable. Both of these are present in every work of art.  There is no way of dividing or separating the two.  Both are there in all our imaginations of the world.  The myth is that quality of the work of art or the way of thinking which is always the case, which is natural, not chosen.    It corresponds to the sonnet form. It is always present, cyclical, inevitable.  He thought of myth as an explanatory story, a tall tale. Men have always lounged in myths, in tall tales.  They are explanations of what happens.  The id and the superego are explanations of the human mind as the myth of Athena or the war god is an explanation of what happens.  But the explanation is not in any way a help when you have to decide how to act, how to  decide what to do in the first person.

For that, he looks toward that quality in the poem and in all human stories which is the parable.   The parable is  the story which is told to you, and it is up to you what you are going to make of it.  It is not a mystery held by the master for the disciples to work their way through -- it may be so in the case of a religious master, but not among human masters -- but the parable is something that each person must historically decide on.  What does it mean to me?  How will I take responsibility for it?

For Auden,  the fall is very much a historical event:

That Pliocene Friday when,
At His Holy insufflation
(Had He picked a teleost
Or an arthropod to inspire,
Would our death also have come?)
One bubble-brained creature said:--
‘I am loved, therefore I am’--:
And well by now might the lion
Be lying down with the kid,
Had he stuck to that logic..

That was his description of that event, of that initial assertion of self-love to the exclusion of mutuality and responsibility--the lounging in myth.   Myth claims to be  always true, eternally there in the psyche.  The parable cannot do anything of the sort.  It simply says here is a story, you decide what you are going to do with it.   Christianity is not a myth, but a history that the creed talks about:   Jesus being born and living in the reign of Caesar, a specific historical moment.  

There is a telling discussion reported in ARC Directions back in the sixties on the topic, “Literary Myths as Bearers of Meaning.”  Gradually and inevitably, Campbell and Auden started to intersect.  (They had intersected earlier.  Auden was delighted to read Campbell on the hero in 1946.  In 1953 Campbell lectured at Smith and said [though this may be a parody, it is telling] that Jesus and the Buddha were the same in effect:  they were both attacked by spears, but in the Buddha’s case, the spears turned into flowers.  And Auden shouted from the back of the room, "ON GOOD FRIDAY THE SPEARS WERE REAL.")   

Now Campbell says here of the mythological form, It is true, I am sorry to say, but myths are the same everywhere.   (I love that wonderful kind of self confidence -- sorry to say you’re a fool,  There is no apology going on here.)  They become attached to different historical circumstances in different places but they remain myths.  The historicity is not the main point.  And later on, Campbell continues, That is what is meant by an archetype.  When a mythology disintegrates, a new one comes.  But where does it come from?  Right out of the psyche, right out of man, anthropocentric. Out of the audience comes Auden’s question,  "HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT, JOE?"

Now that is the right question. Because there is no personal commitment in what Campbell is saying.  Whereas Auden says, I believe this because I’m an Englishman, because I write poems, because I am 60 years old -- Auden refuses to yield to the collective authority.  What I should think in 1967 is not a question.  What I should believe when I am 52 years old, that is a question.  So much for any discussion of what the millennium might mean. 

What Auden is saying is not, “This is always true,”  but "This is what I take responsibility for, believing. I cannot impose it on you, I have no status as a master --  Someone in an audience asked Auden, “Could you please lead us as you did in the 1930’s?” and Auden, deeply embarrassed, turned red, because he knew perfectly well that the myth of the leader was always a falsehood. He associated the myth with the kind of weakness that allows yourself to be battered around  by those who believe very strongly what they believe and who may not believe something that is to your benefit or anyone else’s but theirs.

Now when I hear in a talk a theory of life or of myth, I find myself asking why I should believe in a theory if the speaker seems uninterested in living by it.   And that’s different from asking whether it is modern, sophisticated, radical etc. I notice in reading, say, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot that the sophisticated  intelligence, which sees through all the illusions of the unique personality or the cohesive self or all those things that the 20th Century thinks it so successfully demolished, the sophisticated intelligence believes this always ends up prostrating itself before large historical forces and deep movements in the psyche that take away the responsibility for one’s individual actions.  

Now, when I think about the 20th century’s ideas about myth, it is obvious to me that it is a great intellectual triumph in many ways that has seen through errors and prejudices.  It is sophisticated, it is intellectually probing, it is modern, radical, up to date in preference to the parable, which asks what you are going to do with what you have on your plate; that clearly is naive, intellectually weak, not impressive, something that almost anybody could believe, like a carpenter, for example, or a bunch of fishermen.  It is pretty clear which one is more sophisticated; but I have no doubt at all about which one is worth living by.

Edward Mendelson is an ARC Fellow and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  In 1972 Auden appointed him Literary Executor of his estate, and since Auden’s death, Mendelson has been responsible for all editions of Auden’s works.  His most recent book is Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).  He is also a Contributing Editor to PC Magazine and writes on the literary aspects of computing, including evaluations of word processing programs, fonts and typography.

 

             

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