Thinking Blue Guitars

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Tag: Christianity

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.

Beyond Truth

Aristotle chilling with Plato

Plato chilling with Aristotle

In yesterday’s post I touched briefly upon how the Kantian ethics of duty has distorted our thinking on morality. Today, I shall focus on the ways in which it might even be said to have infiltrated our thinking about truth.

In a valuable recent exchange with a few ardent atheists, I came across a classic argument that runs something like this: people turn to religion because it makes them feel better about themselves and their lives, and, even though sometimes this mindset can actually lead people to do better in real life, what atheists are concerned with is not ‘feeling good’ but the ‘truth’. Now, in yesterday’s post I outlined both why Christianity in particular cannot be said to be a ‘feel-good’ religion (it has a crucified Jew at its core!), and I also observed that the fact that Christianity may well succeed in making people feel better about their lives is not necessarily a bad thing (bizarre that that even needs to be said). But here the argument is slightly different.

The underlying logic of the atheist thesis is thus: people who turn to religion feel good about themselves therefore it cannot be true. Now, even ignoring the fact that the first half of this proposition is patently false, and that ‘religion’ in the abstract is senseless, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the logical connector (‘therefore’) is illogical. It is a confusion of categories. Since when has it been a pre-requisite of truth that it make you feel miserable? Traditionally, and in everyday practice, truth can be defined via the Aristotelian concept of adequatio: ‘saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’ It is a supposedly perfect equivalence between mind and world. Of course, philosophically, this is highly problematic, but even if we accept this workaday definition it is obvious that whether or not one feels good regarding a particular truth has nothing to do with its veracity. I may feel sadistically delighted that I’ve just dropped a meat cleaver on my bare foot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true and that I need immediate surgery.

The most boring genius in history?

The most boring genius in history?

But even this doesn’t get us very far, for it still relies on Kant’s archetypally bourgeois separation of pure reason, practical reason (ethics), and aesthetic judgement. In fact, the ‘moment of truth’ in the atheist’s logical short-circuit is that it attempts – in spite of itself – to reunite rationality and the sentient body. In medieval scholastic thinking, the tripartite Kantian scheme would have been almost literally unthinkable. ‘Reason’ was a way of life – a way of moving, loving, thinking, feeling and praying in harmony with the world – not something you confined to a white-washed lab and a textbook. So, even if at the level of content the atheist argument that feeling good equates to falsehood is totally wrong, at the level of form their unintentional attempt to unify body and mind is spot on.

When it comes to faith, the ‘adequation’ concept of truth is, ironically, inadequate. It remains trapped within the realm of bourgeois alienation. This form of ‘truth’, removed from the lived context of human community with its squabbles and fracas, its murders and lovers, its sweethearts and heart-attacks, is like a small squib of a phantom at one’s command. Facts and figures I can dominate; I am their lord. But to critically and willingly submit myself, through making sacrifices and putting myself at the service of those in need, that is something over which I have no mastery. In the messy, difficult and tangled web of human relations, truths of the Kantian kind remain important, but they can only get you so far. At best, you will remain unchanged – just like the world around you – but, as compensation, you will have an army of dates and theses at your command. (This, of course, is perfect for the capitalist status quo, which spreads injustice like disease.) But the real truth is a holistic totality of lived, empirical and imaginative worlds, and the forms of loving human interaction that can arise within it. If that doesn’t sound like what we traditionally mean by ‘truth’, then all the better: truth is, ultimately, beyond truth.

Contra the Atheists: In Defence of Joy and Losers

Painting by Blake

'Sconfitta' by Blake

Common perceptions of Christians may well include the following: they are gullible, scarily amicable,  sexually unadventurous, irrational, zealous, happy-clappy, generally very boring, teetotal, cheesy, disconnected from reality, hypocritical, and in need of a heart-warming fable that they can believe in in order to feel better about their pathetic selves and less afraid of death. Now, if we’re honest, much of that is often true. After all, the Church is not meant to be a gathering-place of perfect human beings, but rather a communion of losers and failures – or, to put it as Eagleton once did, the shit of the earth. Jesus was, of course, contrary to what right-wing American zealots might argue, history’s all-time greatest loser.

What I want to focus on in this post is the last of these stereotypes: that Christians seek refuge from the real world in a cosy, cockle-warming tale. Those who think like this (and I was once a most vociferous proponent) generally tend to view themselves as enlightened, rational beings who have the fortitude to see reality for what it really is, not through any rose-tinted spectacles. Their world is one guided by ‘science’, by which I mean their faith in the capacity of practising scientists to solve the mysteries of human existence and to explain presently inexplicable phenomena. History, in general, is perceived to be an endless march of linear progress which is roughly in line with scientific and technological advancements, and the transcendent never much exceeds a hazy agnosticism. As for death, that’s the end: the great abyss.

With such a gloomy and unimaginative horizon, is it any wonder that certain people turn to Christianity? Atheists get Darwin. Not bad, all things considered, but Christians get Darwin and flame-engulfed angels! Atheists get an abyss, but Christians get – more terrifyingly – a bodily resurrection of all humans who must then give an account of themselves before the source of all being…who died for them! You couldn’t even write this shit! So, whilst it is, of course, true that many people take shelter in the Church so as to feel better about their lives, we might well want to stop to ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s rather like the whole ‘altruism versus egoism’ debate: did I help this little old lady with her shopping because I really wanted to help her, or did I do so because really I wanted to feel good about myself? Why couldn’t it be both?! Helping an old lady is good and doing good makes one feel good. Our popular conceptions of morality have been corrupted by the sadistic Kantian concept of duty: doing good must make us feel bad. Absurd!

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

No, Christianity is not for fools (well, it is but it isn’t, if you catch my drift). It is all very well for atheists to spout on about ‘proof’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but when it comes to the crunch it is secularists who are often (not always) the most gullible and least critical thinkers. It is totally acceptable for an atheist to invoke the dominant ideology of scientific rationalism – the great ‘opium of the people’ of our age – without having any specialist scientific knowledge whatsoever, whereas a Christian is forced to fight her intellectual corner in terms of science, history, theology, philosophy, etc. An atheist is under no obligation (other than worldly law) to accept responsibility for the state of the world or for the wrong of a particular situation; all they have to do is bemoan it, and go on reproducing the status quo which gave rise to it. A Christian, on the other hand, must accept that for all wrong that exists in the world, she is personally responsible; moreover, as if that weren’t enough already, she must do all in her power to ‘make God possible’ in no matter how dire a context. That Christians often don’t (à la moi) is not always a sign of their hypocrisy (although with me it sometimes is), but rather of their humanity.

Of course, many atheists are wonderful people who do wonderful things (the socialists the greatest amongst them), and they’re often a damn sight better than most Christians: give me Dawkins the Banal over Bush the Destroyer any day. But at the heart of Christianity is a political prisoner who was mutilated and then crucified by an imperial regime. It doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. Now, many atheists appreciate the horror and evil of the world – they are absolute realists – and for that I applaud them, but Christians know the darkness too. The difference for them is that they know a second, more potent, darkness – darker than the most infernal obscurity. So dark, in fact, that it is known to them as light. For them, death and evil have been conquered: to remind them that, despite this fact, we must still do all we can here on earth to stay true to that message is absolutely legitimate and necessary; but to deny them joy by claiming that it is only happy-clappy claptrap is nothing but the purest bourgeois ideology.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

It’s not long since Terry Eagleton informed us that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like encountering someone who has read only the Book of British Birds and who then feels qualified to hold forth for over five hundred pages on biology. Indeed, fans of Eagleton’s ‘acerbic wit’, a quality which has become to ‘Eagleton’ what ‘yellow’ is to ‘submarine’ or ‘finger lickin’ good’ to ‘KFC’, are in for a treat with David Bentley Hart’s latest publication: Atheist Delusions. In delectable prose, the likes of which is exceedingly rare within the confines of the rhetorically deaf academic community (besides Comrade Eagleton’s, of course), Hart flays and scourges Dawkins and his ilk, whom he refers to under the endearingly archaic collective putdown: ‘gadflies’. Contrasting them with their far superior forbears – Celsus, for example, or, more recently, Nietzsche – Hart often appears decidedly disappointed that history has deigned to offer him such philosophically infantile and imaginatively vapid opponents. If at times he appears to teeter dangerously too far on the wrong side of ‘condescending’, then at others the sheer force of his erudition, so rhythmically and articulately performed, do more than enough to convince us that he has every right to be!

The majority of the book is taken up with methodically demolishing, one by one, the popular myths that are peddled about the role of Christianity in human history. Such myths include the following: that ‘religion’ (Hart rightly observes that ‘religion’ means nothing in itself, since no one advocates ‘religion’ per se, but rather a particular manifestation of it), or, more precisely, Christianity, has been responsible for the most despicable atrocities ever to have stained the annals of time; that Christianity is always and everywhere opposed to ‘scientific truth’; that it was the Enlightenment that rescued mankind from the yoke of Christian darkness, rekindling humanity’s moral and intellectual flames after centuries of obscurity under irrational faith; and so on. Several chapters begin with quotations from popular literature on Christian history which are then shown to be based on false assumptions, dubious historical sources, or downright ignorance.

All of this is not to say, however, that Hart naively celebrates a Church that has only and could only ever bring good into the world. He is far too astute and honest for such intellectual child’s play. No, rather, what it comes down to most often is this: whether or not, throughout history, someone was a Christian or a pagan, by the sheer fact that he or she was also ‘human’ (yet another category that Christianity pretty much invented), they were necessarily potential monsters. Supposed lovers of Christ were often just as susceptible to brutality as were their heathen counterparts, but not more so, and quite likely less so.

That said, however, Hart is not backward in coming forwards: where Christianity deserves credit, he is sure to give it in abundance. Take the overarching celebration of the book, for example: the Christian Revolution. Unlike what he deems to be false revolutions, those violent and explosive outbursts that fundamentally change nothing, the Christian Revolution changed everything. Our consciences, as he rightly observes, are historically conditioned. That little voice in the mind demanding us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, no matter if they are one of ‘our kind’ or not, is not something that has existed eternally. It has come to be through the slow, gradual, but ultimately tectonic, shift in Western human morality that began with a Jewish political prisoner who was executed by an imperial regime, and who, three days later, was resurrected. Hart demonstrates time and again that, where a Christian community was present, there was to be found the sick tended to, orphans cared for, the hungry fed, and the downtrodden uplifted.

But perhaps the most powerful chapters of the book are those concerning modern conceptions of freedom and the fate of Christianity in the modern world. For Hart, to be entirely modern (which, he points out, very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. Not just figuratively, but literally: to believe in nothingness itself. We are the great nihilists:

[we] place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology.

Moreover, the logical (and metaphysical) consequence of modernity’s consumerist nihilism is the following one: ‘if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.’ Suddenly, the ruling elite’s current obsession with choice (‘Choose your school!’ ‘Choose your hospital!’ ‘Choose your dildo!’) comes to sound a little more ominous than its civilized façade might admit.

Yet, despite the implicit nihilistic metaphysics of modernity, and despite his initial triumphalist rampages through the ranks of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, David Bentley Hart ends on a note of lament. Far from foreseeing an inevitable resurgence of Christian faith in the West, one which would carry on the work of the Christian Revolution before it was co-opted by the temporal state of Constantine, Hart envisages its steady decline, as Fortune’s Wheel revolves once more. If in one sense Christianity permeates everything we are – right down to our knee-jerk ethical reactions in our everyday lives – then in another sense it is disappearing, and something new is gradually taking its place. ‘If the principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can absorb it, perish.’ And if that happens, he warns, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, even in their darkest hours, could not imagine what a West purged of all Christian presuppositions would look like. It is time, he notes, mournfully, that Christians prepare themselves once more for the desert.

Auden’s Sonnets

W. H. Auden perceived in the sonnet the incarnation of lopsided equilibrium. The sonnet is split by nature, and its two halves are unequal; yet this imbalance is the source of its creative potential. What Auden does in his two major sonnet sequences, ‘In Time Of War’ and ‘The Quest’, is to exploit this immanent structural wound and to seek therein its resolution. It is no wonder, then, that the latter sequence should appear in a work entitled The Double Man. Somehow, it would seem, the fissured sonnet form is bound up for Auden with his perception of man’s duality. Given the limited space of this essay, it is to ‘The Quest’ that most attention shall be paid, since it is in this sequence of poems that Auden most profoundly articulates the sonnet’s essence.

Not one major Auden scholar has noticed that the opening sonnet of ‘The Quest’ is, among other things, a reflection on the sonnet form.[1] ‘The Door’ is indeed Kafkaesque, just as it clearly draws on Alice’s barrier to the wonderland, but it is also symbolic of the sonnet. Out of it step ‘Enigmas, executioners, and rules’:[2] the sonnet was twinned at birth with the enigma of the Golden Mean and Fibonacci numerology;[3] one of its most pioneering English exponents, Henry Howard, was wrongly executed for treason by Henry VIII; and it is one of the most rule-bound poetic forms in existence. Likewise, ‘Great persons eye it in the twilight for/ A past it might so carelessly let in’ (p. 99). The sonnet’s history is so deeply inscribed into its form that the poets (‘Great persons’) who choose to wield it cannot subject it to their individual whims; there will always exist a superabundant residue of their predecessors. And this temporal obsession of the octave then gives way to a spatial exploration in the sestet:

We pile our all against it when afraid,

And beat upon its panels when we die:

By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland

That waited for her in the sunshine, and,

Simply by being tiny, made her cry.            (p. 99)

Like a claustrophobe, the less adroit verse practitioner, who finds the narrow confines of the sonnet stifling, panics and consequently ‘piles [his] all against’ the potentially restricting form. The dead, moreover, ‘beat upon its panels’: the sonnet can be used as a prosodic sarcophagus, whose metrical beats become the pulse of the deceased they enshrine. Finally, ‘Enormous Alice’, the human creator, espies in this segmented quatorzain a ‘wonderland’, a space which encloses some mysterious essence of the temporal and spatial nature of human existence. The wonderland is ‘tiny,’ just like the sonnet form, and it remains only partially accessible, there but not there. It is also worth noting that ‘The Door’ is a hybrid of the English and Italian sonnet, fusing rima baciata (rima chiusa) with rima alternata. What this opening poem does, then, is to appropriate a typical feature of the sonnet form – the blason – and use it methodically and metaphorically to catalogue the essential traits of the very form in which it is written.

But if Auden here consciously aligns himself with earlier exponents of the form, then he also wittingly challenges them. In order better to understand this, one must turn to sonnet XIII of ‘In Time of War’. It is located roughly at the centre of the sequence, uniting a broad history of man and his consciousness with a series of more historically specific sonnets upon the Sino-Japanese war. It opens with a translation of Rilke’s ‘Rühmen, das ists!’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, I. vii), and its octaval structure (‘Certainly…But…’) mirrors Rilke’s ‘dennoch preisen’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii).[4] In terms of Auden’s thinking on both the sonnet form and on the dual nature of man during the late 1930s, this sonnet could be said to be its embodiment. The volta appears at line 5, whereas at line 9, where one traditionally expects the turn, there is the following: ‘History opposes its grief to our buoyant song’ (p. 71). In other words, for a balanced rhetorical progression of the ideas articulated in the first quatrain, as a reader expects from a second quatrain of rime baciata, Auden substitutes the transformation which should only appear four lines later; at the opening of the sestet, on the other hand, the site where tradition locates antithesis, he inscribes balance. By manipulating expectations of the sonnet form, the poem enacts at the formal level the idea contained in its matter. The ‘buoyant song’ is this sonnet, propped up by the ‘history’ of the sonnet tradition, and it is necessarily impossible to experience one in isolation of the other. In more complex terms, sonnet XIII captures Auden’s overarching philosophy of healed rift, of simultaneously entertaining mutually contradictory possibilities. If the structure of this particular sonnet is ‘Certainly…But…’, then this could be said of the structure of the sonnet form tout court. It is the poetic form of innate contradiction; it opposes the Positive Way of the octave, where a thesis is logically developed, to the Negative Way of the sestet, in which it is undermined in some way. Indeed, much of ‘The Quest’ is a warning against pursuing either of these paths exclusively: in ‘The Presumptuous’, for example, people pursue the ethics of the octave in perceiving only the monumental, and by ignoring that which raised up the monument in the first place; the ascetic desert fathers of ‘The Adventurers’, on the other hand, ‘went the Negative Way toward the Dry’ (p. 108), they focussed so intensely on the sestet’s antithetical deeps that they became ensnared and forgot the positive purpose which had led them there in the first place. Ultimately, then, unifying contradictory entities seems to be at the heart of ‘The Quest’.

This is the point at which Auden ceases his exploitation of the sonnet form for its philosophical virtues. While the sonnet does indeed uphold at least two antithetical dimensions, traditionally it also ends in resolution. The type of resolution which Auden seeks, however, is not closure, but ‘opening’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1). His archetypal Hero, apart from delighting ‘in details and routine’ (‘The Hero’, p. 108; l. 11), which are hallmarks of the sonnet form, ‘was always glad to[…]/ Pour liquids from large bottles into small,/ Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.’ (ll. 12-14). According to John Fuller, the last two lines represent respectively the objective practice of taxonomy and the subjective nature of points of view; in a verse form which traditionally achieves resolution, Auden suggests that the ‘novelist must transcend both attitudes by absorbing them’, thereby enabling him to ‘reach his strange Christian conclusion beyond the self-destructive scenario of dualism.’[5] Auden has found a way of keeping the door open. The solution is to become Rilke’s Orpheus: ‘Erst in dem Doppelbereich/ werden die Stimmen/ ewig und mild.’[6] One must inhabit the Doppelbereich, the double realm. Like Orpheus, who descended to the land of shades and subsequently returned, man’s conscious foreknowledge of his own death renders him dual.[7] His duality is embodied in the ‘longed-for answer’: ‘but’ (‘The Waters’, p. 109; l. 14). This single word incarnates being and non-being, thesis and antithesis; it denies the illusory finality, ‘the angler’s lie’ (l. 6), with which men attempt to plug the temporal holes of their being. Humans are the ratio-animalistic form of the ‘but’, in opposition to themselves, and in a state of constant becoming. And yet, there is a certain way of living, that of Auden’s Double Man, and within Rilke’s double realm, which overcomes these fissures to enable the attainment of the wonderland.

The octave of the final sonnet of ‘The Quest’ opens thus: ‘Within these gates all opening begins’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1); while the sestet commences ‘All journeys die here’ (l. 9). The restrictive sonnet form pens in the poet, just as it simultaneously releases her. Likewise, it is here that the inherent ‘journey’ of human beings – their ineluctable state of becoming – must die. Don Paterson succinctly summarises Rilke’s similar conclusions when he says that for a human to sing is to unite ‘the time-based events of our words by recalling them back into the presence of one another through the repetition of their sounds.’[8] The exacting rhyme schemes of the sonnet, then, defy time’s passing; they create the sense of the infinite within the finite: they are paradise regained. It is for this that Rilke wrote:

Wir, gerecht nur, wo wir dennoch preisen,
weil wir, ach, der Ast sind und das Eisen
und das Süße reifender Gefahr.[9]

To ‘praise nevertheless’ is to re-enter into that ‘perfect circle time can draw on stone’ (‘The Garden’, l. 6). It heals the wound of becoming and transmutes into pure being. And in the final line, the very point at which a sonnet should resolve itself, one reads the following: the gaunt and great ‘felt their centre of volition shifted.’ Finality is not here, it is elsewhere; the sonnet form can simulate this realm inaccessible to man, one devoid of nullity, but man’s only means of approaching it is through a will which is not his own. The good sonneteer, like the good human, Auden seems to suggest, is she who is neither active nor passive, but who simply tries to hold in equilibrium all subjective and objective entities. The crux is never herself, but she becomes akin to one by praising nevertheless.

In short, Auden made a quite deliberate decision to align his work with previous exponents of the sonnet form. He made the sonnet articulate itself by employing certain of its attributes to express others. And in exploiting its dialectical nature he tried, ultimately, to redeem it. If the sonnet tradition dictates the necessity of resolution and closure, Auden, like his forebear Rilke, turned this resolution on its head: in order fully to purge the sonnet, and oneself, of the agonizing temporal nullity of becoming, one must first become the glorifying void in which all things are held in eternal balance.


[1] By ‘major Auden scholar’ I mean, among others: Edward Mendelson, John Fuller, Anthony Hecht, Rainer Emig, and Arthur Kirsch. For their respective principal works, please see the Bibliography.

[2] W. H. Auden, ‘The Door’, in Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 99. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[3] Phillis Levin, ed., The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. xlii-xliii.

[4] John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 237. Edward Mendelson makes the same observation in his Early Auden, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 351. For all further discussion of Rilke in the original German, however, I am indebted to the aid of Julia Kröger, who provided me with word by word translations (into French) of selected passages, enabling me to perceive crucial links between the ‘Santa Claus of loneliness’ (‘New Year Letter’) and his English counterpart. Rilke’s sonnets can be accessed here: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/rilke/orpheus/orph.htm.

[5] John Fuller, Commentary, pp. 342-343. Whilst here it is specifically novelists of whom Auden is speaking, the idea applies to all writers in general: ‘Most writers, except the supreme masters who transcend all systems of classification are either Alices or Mabels.’ W. H. Auden, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 30.

[6] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, I, ix. Don Paterson, in Orpheus (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 11, renders these lines ‘Only in the double realm/ is the voice both infinite/ and assuaged.’

[7] Paterson says as much in his afterword, ibid., p. 68.

[8] Paterson, p. 69.

[9] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii. Paterson has: ‘Only when singing are we just and true -/ for then we are at once the axe, the bough/ and the sweet and ripening danger in between.’ Paterson, p. 53.

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