soothing W.H. Auden


In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” I don’t know that Auden gets the joke of Bruegel’s “Landscape….” (Click the image for a large-sized view.) Apparently, he does not see the humor (alluding to a fable from Ovid, well-known to Bruegel’s viewer), as he sees the painter’s self-effacing point as an instance of the poet’s disillusioned view of religious life. After all, Icarus is not a Christ figure; he’s an enterprising dude. And he’s no figure of human suffering, while one would expect that a largely illiterate, provincial society of Bruegel’s time would be largely ignorant of others’ suffering. They would be no reminder of the willful ignoring by modernity’s leisured class.

To Auden, “everything turns away” from Icarus’ fall, though actually there’s no evidence that the fall was even noticed, as everyone is obviously turned toward their own interests. Of course, the sun does nothing at all, as the clouds allow something to be highlighted in a land-and-seascape otherwise pervaded in light. And we know nothing about the ship. We do know that a couple of generations have passed since sailors established that the world is round, and this is revolutionizing how a farmer or a shepherd may hope to profit. We know that painting is the photography (the craftwork) of the millennium, as well as a mode of art. As fine artist in an agrarian world, one might as well be Icarus, relative to the market for appreciation. The painter had better be a great craftsman, if he wants to survive as a fine artist. Indeed, the ambitions of The Artist are like those of Icarus, and the artist who learns to swim is the one who finds a sense of distance, even humor, toward his strivings—and, so, survives.

I can’t overstate the importance of understanding suffering in the world; nor overstate the importance of ultimate questioning. I’m at least a progressive political philosopher toward the suffering and purely a philologist—no: lover—of ultimate questioning. I empathize with Auden’s own perspective. But it’s got nothing to do with Bruegel.

I empathize, but I don’t endorse. I never had the depressiveness of the Great Depression, and it’s folly to pretend that the world back then largely ignored the suffering that Christianity never had the power to prevent. It was the wealthy who commonly ignored the suffering. How silly to map into children or animal life the poet’s disillusionment with religious life. Yes, the incongruities of life’s unfathomable Simultaneity and innocent ignorance and self-possession are heartrending and heartbreaking. But ultimately (to my very embodied mind), the diversity of life, the incomprehensible complexity, is awe inspiring. Relative to what does a loved one need consolation?: That indeed, life goes on after death? That the beautiful afterlife is we whose love may keep the departed part of us? Be consoled, dear. Heaven is Earth, the astronauts show us (or rather, Earth is the best we’re going to get, inasmuch as we make it so, and that is enough, inasmuch as we can be enough).

In fact, the old Masters did not know how suffering takes place, “its human position.” Indeed, though, pretenses of human aspiration do take place while a non-aspiring world goes along obliviously, just like the wealthy who may understand as much about suffering as a sheepherder understands art. (The theme of the leisure class lamenting the suffering of the world was especially pertinent to socialist Auden’s time.)

Auden’s arm is “faithless” in “Lullaby” (written before but near to “Musee…,”), but my arm’s not faithless. It’s just that my faith isn’t religious; it’s deeply humanistic. But I’m with W.H. in valuing beauty (such as he aspires to do, though it’s not enough to him), but myself favoring a Rilkean, non-sentimentalist melancholy at the end of “Duino Elegies” (which is appreciation enough of our finitude).

Someone quotes Auden online, at a page about “Musee…,” saying that “In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” Auden is simply wrong (a child of the century’s growing nihilism?). I’ll presume he’s quoted out of context. In any case, one response to proper disillusionment toward commonly religious understanding is to appreciate the integrity of our evolving world in its ownmost emergence, striving, persistence, and finitude.

Indeed, “Lullaby,” can be read to contradict Auden’s sometime stance on poetry’s invalidating purpose, though the poem is haunted by finitude as The Shadow of devaluation: death, guilt, ultimate aloneness, betrayal. This is a man who wants beauty to prevail over despair, but his depressive, guilt-ridden stance (his “boring cry”?) betrays him, as if certainty in an evolving world had ever belonged to us—not even to children.

Time gives gravity to prettiness, from which beauty emerges. Beauty belongs to children only in the eyes of our appreciating potential. The child, the miraculous child in our humanity, is as eternal as we make our form of life. The child is the eternal promise of our humanity. And this, love, is “entirely beautiful.”

“Soul and body have no bounds” to those who keep this true, as one may feel inhabited by elating, overwhelming diversity in life’s being, the world’s being, where lovers’ first love is life, then aspirations for and of deep friendship and our everpresent potential for anewal that we can make and hold sacred. We can keep wholly alive to the day, to our kindredness, our luscious passions, our creative oddness, and our powers of appreciation we may give to mind, self, body, history, and so on.

Loving tenderness can be made eternal by what we can keep alive across generations. Whispers, thoughts, kisses, and soft winds can be brought to prevail over the haunting, as the potential for and of blessing always did belong to us, though made into a god that would fall as we go on doing as we aspire.