Archive for the ‘W. H. Auden’ Category


Auden Across the Decades – J. M. Pressley

May 20, 2013
Auden's journey began with the mind and ended with the spirit. His rationality gave way to passion, which in turn opened the door to religious rediscovery. It is due to, not despite, this journey that Auden still reigns as a poetic master, and his depth progressively grows with study across the decades of his career. But, as Auden would undoubtedly argue, it is the poet's duty to discover the relevant questions of one's times -- and to do so requires the type of journey which comprised the life of W. H. Auden

Auden’s journey began with the mind and ended with the spirit. His rationality gave way to passion, which in turn opened the door to religious rediscovery. It is due to, not despite, this journey that Auden still reigns as a poetic master, and his depth progressively grows with study across the decades of his career. But, as Auden would undoubtedly argue, it is the poet’s duty to discover the relevant questions of one’s times — and to do so requires the type of journey which comprised the life of W. H. Auden

Mr Pressley’s website is here and filled with interesting stuff.


Wystan Hugh Auden died in 1973 having accomplished a remarkable journey that spanned decades — and left him established as one of the premier poets of the 20th century. This journey began in England, deepened in America, and ended in Vienna, leaving an unrivaled legacy. It is a journey of both body and poetic voice, and is expressed forever in his verses. For a serious discussion of Auden the poet, it is necessary to explore the journey of Auden the wanderer, constantly reinventing himself along the way.

Auden was the son of a doctor, which had a profound and lasting effect upon his style of verse. As Stephen Spender says, “There is a dualistic idea running through all [Auden's] work which encloses it like the sides of a box. This idea is Symptom and Cure” (Spears, Auden: A Collection of Critical Essays, 28). Moreover, the early interest of Auden in things scientific — he originally wished to pursue a career in biology or medicine like his father — shows heavily in his use of detail and his approach to verse.

Quite frequently, Auden’s lines are densely analytical in nature, or “diagnostic” as many critics have put forth. At the beginning of Auden’s career, this scientific-rational tendency was the predominant quality of Auden’s poetry. His intellectualism and psychology predilections are demonstrated markedly in works prior to 1932, such as “The Letter” (published in 1928).

The Letter

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way.
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed

A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through,
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much, but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question much the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

(Ellmann and O’Clair, Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction 410)

The above lines represent Auden in his youth, a prodigy, according to some critics. There is no playfulness of craft to this work reminiscent of Auden’s later periods — the syllabic meter is strict, using rhymed couplets of nine syllables per line in the first stanza and eight per line in the second with barely a hint of variety. There is, however, a cool analytical approach to the subject matter, almost impersonal. The central theme is the cycle of life as represented through a failed love.

Most interesting — and typical of Auden — is the usage of scientific, in this case electrical, imagery in the poem. He uses terms like “arc,” “circuit,” and “shunting” in the context of the work, which I read as comparing the connection of a relationship to the connection of an electrical circuit. This provides a contrast with the more pastoral/natural elements of the poem: storm, bird, seasons, Spring and Autumn, etc.

This is Auden the post-Romantic; we don’t necessarily feel the grief of the voice character in this work, but are presented with a dialectical insight through the varying details provided within the poem. Although “The Letter” may be construed as more technically primitive and somewhat obscure as compared with Auden’s later craft, it reflects a style that would be refined and evolve into clever twists of form and content.

Auden began teaching at a school in Herefordshire in the Fall of 1932, and this marks a major milestone in his poetic development. To quote The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry:

In that mellow world his poetry opened like a bud, becoming more expansive and richer in surface detail. This is the start of the second “chapter,” the phase when Auden, drawing on Marx and Freud, was able to make a brilliant stream of connections between individual guilts and pleasures and the crisis that seemed to be eating away at European civilization. Simultaneously, his interests in the possibilities of verse forms burst out in a profusion of beautifully adroit sonnets, sestinas, and ballads (Hamilton, 22).

The period from 1932 to 1940 earned Auden the praise of his contemporaries as well, including T. S. Eliot who once said, “This fellow is about the best poet I have discovered in several years” (Davenport-Hines, Auden, 121). The following poem shows a more unrestrained Auden at work; Auden has latched onto the theme of grand Love, and shows an emotion in his poetry not entirely present in “The Letter”:

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good

(Mendelson, As I Walked Out One Evening: W. H. Auden, 43).

Once again, Auden chooses his details carefully, considering each one for their effect, and each detail is given even more prominence within the poem by the use of end-stops on each line. The poem operates on two distinct levels. First, the literal interpretation of a love who has died — it is that inner state of grief over love’s loss which his younger poems lack. Can the third stanza be more plain, or more eloquent in its understated grandiosity? Here Auden is less the clinician and more the participant, for all he decried showing oneself as a poet within the poetry.

On a more ephemeral level, one can read “Funeral Blues” as bemoaning the death of God, not an altogether unfamiliar theme following the first world war and with Europe facing the prospect of another. This poem was also written after Auden’s service in Spain, which left him disillusioned with the state of the world in many respects. Stanza four is as huge as stanza three is compact.

Because of this, however, and because of this departure from Auden’s usual detachment from subject matter, I view this poem as more of an elegy for God than for a lost lover. Although Auden uses hyperbole with elan in other works, it seems somehow misplaced given the circumstances if the subject is a loved one. In a sweeping gesture, Auden calls for an end to the world in the space of four lines, dismissing the notion that there can be any good left in the world with the passing of the subject of the poem. The imagery of the stars being dampened, or pouring out the oceans, is the utter annihilation of creation — as such, it represents the death of the Creator.

The final stage of Auden’s poetic journey, and the most problematic from the critical perspective, is comprised of the years after 1946 (when Auden officially became a U. S. citizen). Age and a rediscovery of Anglicism gave new artistic bents to Auden’s poetry. 1948′s The Age of Anxiety won Auden the Pulitzer, and his verses after began to take on a more meditative air — “too religious,” according to many of the critics who had earlier hailed Auden as a poetic genius. Or, as his biography suggests, “He was now widely misunderstood as a reactionary coward who had reneged on the radicalism of his youth” (Davenport-Hines, 266).

Auden’s quest for Love in the divine sense is typified within the tercets of his poem, “Archaeology”, which was published in the posthumous volume, Thank You, Fog:


The archaeologist’s spade
delves into dwellings
vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence
of life-ways no one
would dream of leading now,

concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
but guessing is always
more fun than knowing.

We do know that Man,
from fear or affection,
has always graved His dead.

What disastered a city,
volcanic effusion,
fluvial outrage,

or a human horde,
agog for slaves or glory,
is visually patent,

and we’re sure that,
as soon as palaces were built,
their rulers,

though gluttoned on sex
and blanded by flattery,
must often have yawned.

But do grain-pits signify
a year of famine?
Where a coin-series

peters out, should we infer
some major catastrophe?
Maybe. Maybe.

From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the Old Ones bowed down to,

but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders.

Poets have learned us our myths
but just how did They take them?
That’s a stumper.

When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?

No, I’d say: I’d swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories,

that their real earnest
has been to grant excuses
for ritual actions.

Only in rites
can we renounce our oddities
and be truly entired.

Not that all rites
should be equally fonded:
some are abominable.

There’s nothing the Crucified
would like less
than butchery to appease Him.


From Archaeology
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.

(Mendelson, As I Walked Out One Evening: W. H. Auden, 302-304)

The analytical muse in this poem has been turned introspective, and ultimately the internal inquisition leads to a conclusion of morality. Auden uses science to demonstrate its own weaknesses, the frailty of human knowledge with such lines as “…has not much to say that he can prove: the lucky man!” and “guessing is always more fun than knowing”. Simply put, Man can be quantified, whereas faith cannot. Science, as represented through archaeology, can but give us temporal answers at best. But does study and human learning provide deeper insight? In this poem, Auden states with his typical, unique verve: “That’s a stumper.”

The end stanzas and coda provide the keys to unlocking Auden’s meaning in the poem. He has not succumbed to religion as Eliot did in later years, yet ends the work on the note of a sermon. History is merely a recording of the misdeeds of men, whereas there is a suffusing “goodness” that exists outside the boundaries of learning. If our collected knowledge is fallible concerning ourselves, then it cannot be expected to approach an understanding of God – only the endurance of faith suggested by the final line of the poem can provide that.

By comparison with his earlier work, Auden as represented in “Archaeology” is wistful. While he does not, as I read it, repudiate his scientific bent toward detail and analysis, he admits in this poem that it means little if not coupled with faith in something beyond the human experience. Love must have its place in the world.

Auden’s journey began with the mind and ended with the spirit. His rationality gave way to passion, which in turn opened the door to religious rediscovery. It is due to, not despite, this journey that Auden still reigns as a poetic master, and his depth progressively grows with study across the decades of his career. But, as Auden would undoubtedly argue, it is the poet’s duty to discover the relevant questions of one’s times — and to do so requires the type of journey which comprised the life of W. H. Auden.


Second Thoughts on Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden

March 22, 2012

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Kierkegaard reflected on the question of how to communicate the truths that we live by -- that is the truths about ethics and religion. In the process, he devised a method of indirect communication, which involved the use of pseudonyms. Writing in “The Concept of Anxiety” under the guise of Vigilius Haufniensis (watchman of the harbor), Kierkegaard observes that anxiety “is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite.” He continues, “Anxiety is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy,” a simultaneous feeling of attraction and repulsion. Kierkegaard explains: “In observing children, one will discover this anxiety intimated more particularly as a seeking for the adventurous, the monstrous, and the enigmatic.”
Deeper into this text, it becomes plain that the ledge that we both want and do not want to look over runs along the abyss of our own possibilities. In some of his most immortal lines, the watchman of the inner world notes: “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

A Knight Of Doleful Countenance
Sooner or later it was bound to happen, though for an “Existentialist” writer it is a slightly comic fate: Kierkegaard has become a Classic, to be published in a definitive edition with full scholarly apparatus.
The English translation of his Papirer (Journals and Papers) is to be issued in five volumes, of which the first has now been published by the Indiana University Press [From the New Yorker in 1968]. The translators and editors, Howard and Edna Hong — their translation, by the way, reads very well indeed — have decided to group the entries by subject matter instead of printing them in their chronological order.

This decision seems to me wise for two reasons. In the first place, the journal is a chronicle of ideas, not of events; in the second, it is of enormous length and frequently repetitive. For this we have no right to blame Kierkegaard, since he did not write it for publication, but I cannot imagine any human being reading straight through it without skipping. Classification by subject matter is a question of editorial judgment, which must to some extent be arbitrary. For example, this volume begins with “Abstract” and ends with “The Exception.” Under the “C” entries expected to find some devoted to what Kierkegaard himself always calls “Catholicism,” but found none; I presume they will appear in a later volume, under “R.”

Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.

Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life — a derangement which, though it may, and probably does, include some kind of sexual neurosis, extends far beyond the bounds of the sexual; it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.

It is significant, surely, and sad, that though Kierkegaard was the most brilliant Dane of his time and a famous, even notorious, figure, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no references to him in the memoirs of his contemporaries, no descriptions, friendly or hostile, of what he seemed like to others. All we know about Kierkegaard is what he tells us himself.

I hope that someone will soon write a fully documented history of the Corsair affair. All I know about it is that Kierkegaard challenged its proprietor, Meyer Goldschmidt, who had hitherto praised his writings, to attack him, which Goldschmidt thereupon proceeded to do, and my only information about the nature of the attack comes from the account given by David Swenson in his Something About Kierkegaard:

For several months thereafter, there appeared little articles in the Corsair satirizing one or another feature of the pseudonymous writings. The articles were illustrated with pictures of Kierkegaard walking through the streets, his umbrella under his arm, and one trouser leg depicted as considerably longer than the other. The result of this campaign was that Kierkegaard could not show himself on the streets without being followed by a gaping and howling mob of boys and young men. So deeply did the attack sink into the popular consciousness of Copenhagen that we have from Brandes a narrative of how his nurse used to bring him back from the error of his ways, whenever his clothes were not properly put on, by pointing at him a warning finger and saying reprovingly, “Soren, Soren!”

This must have been very disagreeable, but can it really be considered, as Kierkegaard himself considered it, an example of a righteous man’s being martyred for the sake of the truth? As a scandal sheet, the Corsair was clearly a social evil, and Kierkegaard was not alone in thinking so. For a writer, the normal way of trying to abolish a social evil is to write attacks on it, demonstrating by quotations and facts the kind of evil it represents and does. Such attacks are likely to be the more effective the less the writer draws attention to himself and the more he seems to speak as the voice of public conscience.

But instead of attacking, Kierkegaard demanded to be attacked, and this. I must confess, I find distastefully egotistic. Goldschmidt, incidentally, must have been a stupid man: a moment’s thought should have told him that if he really wished to torment Kierkegaard he should ignore the challenge and go on praising his work to the skies.

If I, suffering, were to have become an object of attack by mob-vulgarity, admiration for me would have increased. But the fact that I myself demanded it shocked men. They felt alienated by anything that went over their heads.

Thus Kierkegaard in his Journals. But was it so unnatural that they should be shocked? Further, is there any evidence, outside his own testimony, that nobody sympathized with him in the persecution to which he was subjected?

Then there is the question of the persecution itself. When a newspaper proprietor has it in for somebody, his usual procedure is to publish innuendos (or facts, if he can get them) about the private or public morality of his victim: it is suggested that he has a taste for young girls or has been involved in some shady financial or political deal. All that Goldschmidt was able to do was to make fun of Kierkegaard’s writings — one would be curious to know if these criticisms were at all funny — and to make fun of his physical appearance.

Caricature exaggerates, but it is only possible if there is some peculiarity to exaggerate. If the Corsair caricatures showed one of Kierkegaard’s trouser legs considerably longer than the other, then it seems certain to me that he must have been somebody, like myself, who was careless about the way he dressed. One would have expected him to laugh and say, “Yes, I am a careless dresser, but I don’t care.” On the other hand, if his feelings were seriously hurt, as it seems they were, he had only to dress more carefully in the future for the caricatures to lose their sting. If the vulgar laughed at him on the streets, it was because they could recognize him as the original of the caricatures. His second attempt to get himself persecuted for the Truth’s sake — his polemic against Bishops Mynster and Martensen–was even less successful.

The public may have been shocked and thought his articles in bad taste, but they read them. Nobody tried to silence him. For all his contempt for the press, he made use of it, and the editors of Fædrelandet were perfectly willing to publish what he wrote. Far from getting stoned or imprisoned, he made the headlines. One has to draw attention to this failure to get martyred not as a personal reproach, which would be cheap and unjust, but because Kierkegaard was continually attacking the Danish clergy of his time for failing to achieve something which, under the circumstances of his time, he was unable to achieve himself.

Of what he calls the “wilting” of Christianity, Kierkegaard says:

It will appear most easily in a Protestant country that does not have the counterweight of Catholicism in the same country. Furthermore, it will appear most readily in a small country, which by being small is only too close to pettiness, mediocrity, spiritlessness; and, again, it will appear most readily in this little land if it has its own language entirely by itself and does not even through its language participate in possible movements elsewhere. It will most readily appear in such a small country if the people are prosperous, have no great differences in life, and have a common and regularized abundance, which is related all too easily to secular security. It will most readily appear in or show itself as the fruits of good days of peace.

Leaving aside the first sentence for later consideration, let us examine the rest of this passage. To condemn a society for being small and provincial is to condemn it not for being worldly, but for not being worldly enough: a provincial society lacks the worldly virtues of broad-mindedness and cynical tolerance exhibited by more cosmopolitan societies. As someone who had to write in Danish, Kierkegaard could reasonably complain that this severely limited the size of his potential audience, but this is a worldly objection.

Further, I cannot believe that the cultural situation in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s day was radically different from what it today there or in any other country, like Holland or Sweden or Hungary, where few strangers can be expected to understand its mother tongue: in such countries both intellectuals and businessmen are obliged, like Kierkegaard himself, to learn the more cosmopolitan languages. I should be extremely surprised, for example, to hear that Bishop Martensen or any other members of the Danish Ecclesiastical Establishment could only read and speak Danish.

Kierkegaard then goes on to reproach Denmark for qualities which common sense surely would regard as blessings — the absence of serious poverty, the freedom from sharp class distinctions, the lack of involvement in war; for being, in other words, a society without gross and obvious social evils. Whether this was really the case I do not know, but it must certainly have been Kierkegaard’s opinion, for never, when he is attacking the Danish clergy for worldly prudence and cowardice, does he specify a concrete issue about which he thinks it their Christian duty to protest.

In England during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of issues one can think of — the slave trade, the treatment of the industrial poor in mines and cotton mills, the criminal law, the unjust treatment of Catholics — about which, to their shame, most of the Anglican clergy remained silent, though a few did have the courage to protest, at the cost of losing preferment. Were there really no comparable issues in Denmark? I have the uneasy feeling that if there were, Kierkegaard would have considered them unimportant.

About Roman Catholicism as a “counterweight” Kierkegaard was acute. In Catholic countries one may find, as in all countries, worldly, even immoral, prelates, but one also finds monastic orders of men and women vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience: a parish priest may be more stupid and tiresome than many of his congregation, but he is a celibate, who has made a sacrifice which they know they would not or could not make themselves. By doing away with the monasteries and fasting, by not only permitting but encouraging the clergy to marry, by abolishing all visible “works” of self-sacrifice, Luther and Calvin made piety a matter of internal conscience. As C. S. Lewis has said of Calvin:

The moral severity of his rule … did not mean that his theology was, in the last resort, more ascetic than that of Rome. It sprang from his refusal to allow the Roman distinction between the life of “religion” and the life of the world, between the Counsels and the Commandments. Calvin’s picture of the fully Christian life was less hostile to pleasure and to the body than Fisher’s, but then Calvin demanded that every man should be made to live the fully Christian life. In academic jargon, he lowered the honours standard and abolished the pass degree.

Similarly, Kierkegaard says of Luther:

Luther set up the highest spiritual principle: pure inwardness. . . . And so in Protestantism a point may be reached at which worldliness is honored and highly valued as — piety. And this — as I maintain — cannot happen in Catholicism. . . . Because Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals. And why can it happen in Protestantism? Because the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation — and of those there are not many in any one generation.

There is another aspect of Protestantism which Kierkegaard seems to have overlooked — one which makes the position of a Protestant minister more ambiguous and vulnerable than that of a Catholic priest; namely, that in the Lutheran and Calvinist churches, and increasingly so as time went on, the sermon, the ministry of the Word, took precedence over the Sacraments, the ritual acts of worship. The Catholic priest, of course, also preaches, but his primary function is to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and give absolution. His right to perform such actions depends not on his moral character or even his faith but on the fact that he has been ordained by a bishop.

But when a man preaches, all kinds of questions begin to arise. While it is meaningless to ask of a priest “Does he celebrate Mass well or badly?” the question “Does he preach well or badly?” is a real one, with a real answer. Preaching, like lecturing, demands an aesthetic gift: a preacher may himself be a hypocrite but still have the power to stir the hearts of his congregation; conversely, he may be personally a holy man but because he lacks a gift for verbal expression he leaves them cold.

Also, the preacher must necessarily address his congregation not as individuals but as a group. As long as his sermon is confined to doctrinal instruction, to telling them what the Church believes and what her creedal formulas mean, this presents no problem, but the moment he turns to moral exhortation, to telling them what they should or should not do here and now, he is in difficulties, for each member of his congregation has his or her unique spiritual problems.

At confession, a priest may give a confessant stupid, even harmful, advice, but at least this is given to a particular sinner, not to sinners in general. But the preacher in the pulpit is confronted by sinners in general. If he is to avoid generalities which will leave most of them exactly as they were before, he must speak of some concrete situation in which he knows they are all equally guilty, and this, in practice, usually means one about which they not only feel no guilt but are convinced that they are righteous. As Bonhoeffer said:

The preacher must be concerned so to incorporate the contemporary situation in his shaping of the commandment itself relevant to the real situation. It cannot be “War is evil” but, rather, “Fight this war,” or “Don’t fight this war.”

He will have small occasion to say either, unless he knows his congregation are going to be shocked; that, in the first case, they are willing, out of cowardice, to appease a tyrant, or, in the second, that they are jingoist patriots who say, “My country, right or wrong.” In doing so, he risks martyrdom. Attacking sinfulness in general is always perfectly safe, for each listener will assume that it is not he personally but people in general who are being attacked. It is only when a preacher attacks a concrete case of worldliness that he is likely to get into trouble. A clergyman in Mississippi can scold his congregation for not loving God and their neighbor, and they will sit there in smiling agreement, but if he tells them that God demands that they love Negroes as themselves the atmosphere will soon change.

Of the Danish clergy in his day, Kierkegaard complains:

Like children playing war games (in the security of the living room), so all of Christendom (or the preachers insofar as they are the actors) plays at Christianity; in the security of worldliness they play the game that the Christian is persecuted (but no one persecutes him, the speaker), that the truth is crucified (but the speaker himself already ranks with the court justices).

This complaint seems to suggest either that they only preached on such texts as “Sell all thou hast and give to the poor” and “Marvel not if the world hate you,” which cannot have been the case, or that such texts are the only ones on which a true Christian may preach, which is heretical. Secondly, it lacks effectiveness, because Kierkegaard does not or cannot specify any concrete issue for which it was their duty to invite persecution and crucifixion.

It is curious that the author of “Repetition,” who could analyze so subtly the difficulty for human beings in their daily life of having to live in and with time, should have failed to see that any church, as a visible organization on earth, has the same problem. Ideally, of course, everyone who calls himself a Christian, whether a clergyman or a layman, should be an apostle, but to imagine that at any time in history this has been, or could be, the case is a sheer Donatist fantasy. It is true, as Kierkegaard says, that “Christianity cannot be `introduced’ into a country as one introduces improved sheep breeding,” but if an individual is ever to become a Christian he must be introduced to the Christian faith, and this is one of the church’s functions.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard II

March 21, 2012

"The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. And yet, historically speaking, the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers, have all but repressed thinking about that amorphous feeling that haunts many of us hour by hour, and day by day. The 19th-century philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard stands as a striking exception to this rule. It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless.
Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me….”
Gordon Marino, The Danish Doctor of Dread, NY Times article March 17, 2012

Revealed Religion (Judaism and Christianity)
A revealed religion is one in which God is not present as an object of consciousness, either as a feeling or a proposition. He is not begotten by the world, nor does he impose order on its coeternal flux but creates it out of nothing, so that while God and the world are at every moment related, God is not knowable as an object.

While in the aesthetic religion the feelings, and in the ethical religion, the ideas were the presence of God, they are now only my feelings, my ideas and if I believe that what I feel (e.g., God is present) or think (e.g., God is righteous) is caused by my relation to God, this belief is a revelation, for the cause is outside my consciousness.

As one term of a relation, the other term of which is God, I cannot overlook the whole relation objectively and can only describe it analogically in terms of the human relation most like it, e.g., if the feeling of which I have immediate certainty is one which I would approximately describe as sonship, I may speak of God as Father.

There is no longer a question of establishing a relation between God and myself for as my creator he is necessarily related to his creature and the relation is presupposed by my existence; there is only a question of the right relation. The uniqueness of the relation is that it is a relation to an Other yet at the same time as continuous and inescapable as my relation to myself. The relation of the aesthetic worshipper to his gods is intermittent and depends on their pleasure — they do not have to get in touch with him at all. The relation of the ethical worshipper to the Ideas is intermittent or not depending on his pleasure. They are always there to be contemplated if he choose, as a river is always there to be drunk from if one is thirsty, but if he doesn’t choose to contemplate them, there is no relation.

But the relation to the creator God of revealed religion is unbreakable: I. his creature, can forget it as I can forget my relation to myself when I am thinking of other things, but it is permanently there, and, if I try to banish it permanently from consciousness, I shall not get rid of it, but experience it negatively as guilt and despair. The wrath of God is not a description of God in a certain state of feeling, but of the way in which I experience God if I distort or deny my relation to him.

So Dante inscribed on the portals of Hell: “Divine Power made me, Wisdom supreme and Primal Love” — and Landor justly remarked about the Inferno that its inhabitants do not want to get out. To both the aesthetic and the ethical religion, evil was a lack of relation to God, due in the one case to God’s will, in the other to man’s ignorance; to the revealed religion, evil is sin, that is to say, the rebellion of man’s will against the relation.

The aesthetic commands cannot be codified because they are arbitrary commands of the gods and always novel. The ethical commands ought to be able to be completely codified as a set of universal moral laws. Revealed religion shows why this is impossible. A law is either a law of or a law for. Laws of, like the laws of science, are patterns of regular behavior as observed by a disinterested observer. Conformity is necessary for the law to exist, for if an exception is found, the law has to be rewritten in such a way that the exception becomes part of the pattern, for it is a presupposition of science that events in nature conform to law, i.e., a physical event is always related to some law, even if it be one of which scientists are at present ignorant.

Laws for, like human legislation, are patterns of behavior imposed on behavior which was previously lacking in pattern. In order for the laws to come into existence, there must be at least some people who do not conform to them. Unlike laws of which must completely explain how events occur, laws for are only concerned with commanding or prohibiting the class of actions to which they refer, and a man is only related to the law when it is a question of doing or not doing one act of such a class; when his actions are covered by no law, e.g., when he is sitting alone in his room, he is related to no law at all.

If the commands of God were laws of man, then disobedience would be impossible; if they were laws for man, then his relation to God would not be permanent but intermittent. The commands of God are neither the aesthetic fiat, “Do what you must” nor the ethical instruction, “These are the things which you may or must not do,” but the call of duty, “Choose to do what at this moment in this context I am telling you to do.”

Christ the Offense
To one who believes that Jesus was what he claimed to be, the incarnation as an existing individual of the Son of God begotten of his Father before all worlds, by whom all things were made, his birth, life and death are, first, a simultaneous revelation of the infinite love of God — to be righteous means to love — and of the almost infinite sinfulness of man — without the gift of the Holy Spirit it is impossible for him to accept the truth; secondly, a revelation that God is related to all men, but to each of them uniquely as an existing individual, i.e., God is the father of all men, not of a chosen people alone, and all men are exceptions, not aesthetically, but as existing individuals — it is their existence not their natures which makes each of them unique; thirdly, a revelation that the Life is not an object for aesthetic admiration nor the Truth an object for ethical appropriation, but a Way to be followed, an inclination of the heart, a spirit in which all actions are done. Insofar as collectively they considered their relation to God to be aesthetically unique, and individually an ethical relation to his Law, this revelation is an offense to the Jews; insofar as it proclaims that God the Father is not a God but the God, that Christ is not a teacher of truths but the Truth, it is an offense to the Gentiles.

The Jews would have welcomed a Messiah for them alone, but not one who demanded that they give up their claim to be the unique people of God or their belief that the Law covers the whole duty of the individual; the Gentile imagination could have accepted another culture-hero to add to its old ones, the Gentile reason, another teacher to add new stores to its knowledge, but could not accept one who was a passive sufferer, put faith before reason, and claimed exclusive attention. The Jews crucified Jesus on the serious charge that he was a blasphemer, the Gentiles, on the frivolous charge that he was a public nuisance.

Preaching to the Non-Believer
“It is,” Newman observed, “as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.”
However convincing the argument, however holy the arguer, the act of faith remains an act of choice which no one can do for another. Pascal’s “wager” and Kierkegaard’s “leap” are neither of them quite adequate descriptions, for the one suggests prudent calculation and the other perverse arbitrariness.

Both, however, have some value: the first calls men’s attention to the fact that in all other spheres of life they are constantly acting on faith and quite willingly, so that they have no right to expect religion to be an exception; the second reminds them that they cannot live without faith in something, and that when the faith which they have breaks down, when the ground crumbles under their feet, they have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.

There are only two Christian propositions about which it is therefore possible to argue with a non-believer:

(1) That Jesus existed;
(2) That a man who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is in despair.

It is probably true that nobody was ever genuinely converted to Christianity who had not lost his “nerve,” either because he was aesthetically unfortunate or because he was ethically powerless, i.e., unable to do what he knew to be his duty. A great deal of Kierkegaard’s work is addressed to the man who has already become uneasy about himself, and by encouraging him to look more closely at himself, shows him that his condition is more serious than he thought.

The points that Kierkegaard stresses most are, firstly, that no one, believer or not, who has once been exposed to Christianity can return to either the aesthetic or the ethical religion as if nothing had happened. Return he will, if he lose his Christian faith, for he cannot exist without some faith, but he will no longer be a naive believer, but a ruse one compelled to excess by the need to hide from himself the fact that he does not really believe in the idols he sets up.

Thus the aesthetic individual is no longer content with the passive moderation of paganism; he will no longer simply obey the passions of his nature, but will have by will power to arouse his passions constantly in order to have something to obey. The fickle lover of paganism who fell in and out of love turns into Don Giovanni, the seducer who keeps a list so as not to forget.

Similarly, the ethical philosopher will no longer be content to remain a simple scientist content to understand as much and no more than he can discover; he must turn into the systematic philosopher who has an explanation for everything in existence except, of course, his own existence which defeats him. Nothing must occur except what he can explain. The multitude of ordinary men and women cannot return to the contented community of the Greek chorus for they cannot lose the sense that they are individuals; they can only try to drown that sense by merging themselves into an abstraction, the crowd, the public ruled by fashion. As Rudolf Kassner says in his fascinating book, Zahi and Gesicht:

“The pre-Christian man with his Mean (Mitte) bore a charmed life against mediocrity. The Christian stands in greater danger of becoming mediocre. If we bear in mind the idea, the absolute to which the Christian claims to be related, a mediocre Christian becomes comic. The pre-Christian man could still be mediocre without becoming comic because for him his mediocrity was the Mean. The Christian cannot.”

To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.

Preaching to Believers
The danger for the Christian in an officially Christian society is that he may think he is a Christian. But nobody except Christ and, at the end of their lives perhaps, the saints are Christian. To say “I am a Christian” really means “I who am a sinner am required to become like Christ.” He may think he believes as an individual when all he is doing is believing what his parents said, so that he would be a Mohammedan if they had been. The task of the Christian preacher is therefore first to affirm the Christian commands and arouse the consciousness of sin, and secondly to make the individual’s relationship with Christ real, that is, contemporary.

The world has changed greatly since Kierkegaard’s time and all too many of his prophetic insights have come to pass. The smug bourgeois Christendom he denounced has crumbled and what is left is an amorphous, despairing mass of displaced persons and paralyzed Hamlets. The ubiquitous violence of the present age is not truly passionate, but a desperate attempt to regress from reflection into passion instead of leaping forward into faith. The worst feature, for example, of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis is not its cruelty but its frivolity; they did not seriously believe that the Jews were a menace as the Inquisition believed about heretics; no, it was rather a matter of “We must do something. Why not kill all the Jews?”

It is almost bound to be the fate of Kierkegaard, as of so many polemical writers, to be read in the wrong way or by the wrong people. The contented will not read him or read him only scientifically as an interesting case history. The unhappy and, for the most part, agnostic intellectuals who will read him, will confine themselves to his psychological analyses like The Sickness unto Death or his philosophical polemics like Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which they will read poetically as sympathetic and stimulating reflections of their feelings and thoughts, but they will fight shy of books like Training in Christianity or The Works of Love, either because they are not as unhappy as they pretend or because they really despair of comfort and cling in defiance to their suffering.

Kierkegaard is particularly vulnerable to such misunderstanding because the only force which can compel us to read an author as he intends is some action of his which becomes inexplicable if we read him any other way, e.g., Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. In Kierkegaard’s case there is indeed such an action, but the action is another book, The Attack upon “Christendom.” The whole of his writings up to this one, written in the last year of his life, even the sermons, are really “poetical,” i.e., Kierkegaard speaks in them as a genius not as an apostle, so that they all might have been published, as many of them were, anonymously.

The Attack upon “Christendom,” on the other hand, is that contradiction in terms, an “existential” book. What for the author was the most important book of his life is for us, as readers, the least, for to us the important point is not what it contains, but the fact that Kierkegaard wrote it. For this reason, no selection from it appears here.


W.H. Auden on Søren Kierkegaard I

March 20, 2012

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (b. 1813, d. 1855) was a profound and prolific writer in the Danish “golden age” of intellectual and artistic activity. His work crosses the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction. Kierkegaard brought this potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom. At the same time he made many original conceptual contributions to each of the disciplines he employed. He is known as the “father of existentialism”, but at least as important are his critiques of Hegel and of the German romantics, his contributions to the development of modernism, his literary experimentation, his vivid re-presentation of biblical figures to bring out their modern relevance, his invention of key concepts which have been explored and redeployed by thinkers ever since, his interventions in contemporary Danish church politics, and his fervent attempts to analyze and revitalize Christian faith. Statue in Copenhagen.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I am not Christian severity contrasted with Christian leniency. I am … mere human honesty.
Søren Kierkegaard


Though his writings are often brilliantly poetic and often deeply philosophic, Kierkegaard was neither a poet nor a philosopher, but a preacher, an expounder and defender of Christian doctrine and Christian conduct. The near contemporary with whom he may properly be compared is not someone like Dostoevsky or Hegel, but that other great preacher of the nineteenth century, John Henry, later Cardinal, Newman: both men were faced with the problem of preaching to a secularized society which was still officially Christian, and neither was a naive believer, so that in each case one is conscious when reading their work that they are preaching to two congregations, one outside and one inside the pulpit.

Both were tempted by intellectual ambition. Perhaps Newman resisted the temptation more successfully (occasionally, it must be confessed, Kierkegaard carried on like a spiritual prima donna), but then Newman was spared the exceptional situation in which Kierkegaard found himself, the situation of unique tribulation.

Every circumstance combined to make Kierkegaard suffer. His father was obsessed by guilt at the memory of having as a young boy cursed God; his mother was a servant girl whom his father had seduced before marriage; the frail and nervously labile constitution he inherited was further damaged by a fall from a tree. His intellectual precociousness combined with his father’s intense religious instruction gave him in childhood the consciousness of an adult.

Finally he was fated to live, not in the stimulating surroundings of Oxford or Paris, but in the intellectual province of Copenhagen, without competition or understanding. Like Pascal, whom in more ways than one he resembles, or like Richard III, whom he frequently thought of, he was fated to be an exception and a sufferer, whatever he did. An easygoing or prudent bourgeois he could never become, any more than Pascal could have become Montaigne.

The sufferer by fate is tempted in peculiar ways; if he concentrates on himself, he is tempted to believe that God is not good but malignantly enjoys making the innocent suffer, i.e., he is tempted into demonic defiance; if he starts from the premise that God is good, then he is tempted to believe that he is guilty without knowing what he is guilty of, i.e., he is tempted into demonic despair; if he be a Christian, he can be tempted in yet a third way, because of the paradoxical position of suffering in the Christian faith. This well expressed by the penitent shade of Forese when he says to Dante:

“And not once only, while circling this road, is our pain renewed:
I say pain and ought to say solace.”

For, while ultimately the Christian message is the good news: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good-will towards men — “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you”; it is proximately to man’s self-love the worst possible news — “Take up thy cross and follow me.”

Thus to be relieved of suffering in one sense is voluntarily to accept suffering in another. As Kafka says: “The joys of this life are not its own but our dread of ascending to a higher life: the torments of this life are not its own but our self-torment because of that dread.”

If the two senses of suffering are confused, then the Christian who suffers is tempted to think this a proof that he is nearer to God than those who suffer less.

Kierkegaard’s polemic, and all his writings are polemical, moves simultaneously in two directions: outwardly against the bourgeois Protestantism of the Denmark of his time, and inwardly against his suffering. To the former he says, “You imagine that you are all Christians and contented because you have forgotten that each of you is an existing individual. When you remember that, you will be forced to realize that you are pagans and in despair.” To himself he says, “As long as your suffering makes you defiant or despairing, as long as you identify your suffering with yourself as an existing individual, and are defiantly or despairingly the exception, you are not a Christian.”

Kierkegaard and the Existential
However complicated and obscure in its developments it has become, Existentialism starts out from some quite simple observations.

  1. All propositions presuppose the existence of their terms a ground, i.e., one cannot ask, “Does X exist?” but only, “I this existing X the character A or the character B?”
  2. The subjective presupposition “I exist” is unique. It is certainly not a proposition to be proven true or false by experiment, yet unlike all other presuppositions it is indubitable and no rival belief is possible. It also appears compulsive to believe that other selves like mine exist: at least the contrary presupposition has never been historically made. To believe that a world of nature exists, i.e., of things which happen of themselves, is not however invariably made. Magicians do not make it. (The Christian expression for this presupposition is the dogma, the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.”)
  3. The absolute certainty with which I hold the belief that I exist is not its only unique characteristic. The awareness of existing is also absolutely private and incommunicable. My feelings, desires, etc., can be objects of my knowledge and hence I can imagine what other people feel. My existence cannot become an object of knowledge; hence while, if I have the necessary histrionic imagination and talent I can act the part of another in such a way that I deceive his best friends, I can never imagine what it would be like to be that other person but must always remain myself pretending to be him.
  4. If I take away from my sense of existence all that can become an object of my consciousness, what is left?

    a.   An awareness that my existence is not self-derived. I can legitimately speak of my feelings. I cannot properly speak of any existence.

    b.   An awareness that I am free to make choices. I cannot observe the act of choice objectively. If I try, I shall not choose. Doctor Johnson’s refutation of determinism, to kick the stone and say, “We know we are free and there’s an end of it” is correct, because the awareness of freedom is subjective, i.e., objectively undemonstrable.

    c.   An awareness of being with time, i.e., experiencing time as an eternal present to which past and future refer, instead of my knowledge of my feelings and of the outer world as moving or changing in time.

    d.   A state of anxiety (or dread), pride (in the theological sense), despair or faith. These are not emotions in the way that fear or lust or anger are, for I cannot know them objectively; I can only know them when they have aroused such feelings as the above which are observable. For these states of anxiety or pride, etc., are anxiety about existing, pride in existing, etc., and I cannot stand outside them to observe them. Nor can I observe them in others. A gluttonous man may succeed when he is in my presence in concealing his gluttony, but if I could watch him all the time, I should catch him out. But I could watch a man all his life, and I should never know for certain whether or not he was proud, for the actions which we call proud or humble may have quite other causes. Pride is rightly called the root of all sin, because it is invisible to the one who is guilty of it and he can only infer it from results

    These facts of existence are expressed in the Christian doctrines of Man’s creation and his fall. Man is created in the image of God; an image because his existence is not self-derived, and a divine image because like God each man is aware of his existence as unique. Man fell through pride, a wish to become God, to derive his existence from himself, and not through sensuality or any of the desires of his “nature.”

Kierkegaard’s Three Categories
Every man, says Kierkegaard, lives either aesthetically, ethically, or religiously
. As he is concerned, for the most part, with describing the way in which these categories apply in Christian or post Christian society, one can perhaps make his meaning clearer by approaching these categories historically, i.e., by considering the Aesthetic and the Ethical at stages when each was a religion, and then comparing them with the Christian faith in order to see the difference, first, between two rival and incompatible Natural Religions and, secondly, between them and a Revealed Religion which neither is destroyed or ignored, but the Aesthetic is dethroned and the Ethical fulfilled.

The Aesthetic Religion (e.g., The Greek Gods)
The experience from which the aesthetic religion starts, the facts which it sets out to overcome, is the experience of the physical weakness of the self in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful not-self.
To survive I must act strongly and decisively. What gives me the power to do so? Passion. The aesthetic religion regards the passions not as belonging to the self, but as divine visitations, powers which it must find the means to attract or repel if the self is to survive.

So, in the aesthetic cosmology, the gods are created by nature, ascend to heaven, are human in form, finite in number (like the passions) and interrelated by blood. Being images of passions, they themselves are not in their passion — Aphrodite is not in love; Mars is not angry — or, if they do make an appearance of passionate behavior, it is frivolous; like actors, they do not suffer or change. They bestow, withhold or withdraw power from men as and when they choose. They are not interested in the majority of men, but only in a few exceptional individuals whom they specially favor and sometimes even beget on mortal mothers. These exceptional individuals with whom the gods enter into relation are heroes.

How does one know that a man is a hero? By his acts of power, by his good fortune. The hero is glorious but not responsible for his successes or his failures. When Odysseus, for instance, succeeds, he has his friend Pallas Athene to thank; when he fails, he has his enemy Poseidon to blame. The aesthetic either/or is not good or bad but strong or weak, fortunate or unfortunate. The temporal succession of events has no meaning, for what happens is simply what the gods choose arbitrarily to will. The Greeks and the Trojans must fight because “hateful Ares bids.” To the aesthetic religion all art is ritual, acts designed to attract the divine favors which will make the self strong, and ritual is the only form of activity in which man has the freedom to act or refrain from acting and for which, therefore, he is responsible.

The facts on which the aesthetic religion is shattered and despairs, producing in its death agony Tragic Drama, are two: man’s knowledge of good and evil, and his certainty that death comes to all men, i.e., that ultimately there is no either/or of strength or weakness, but even for the exceptional individual the doom of absolute weakness. Both facts it tries to explain in its own terms and fails. It tries to relate good and evil to fortune and misfortune, strength and weakness, and concludes that if a man is unfortunate, he must be guilty.

Oedipus’ parricide and incest are not really his sins but his punishment for his sin of hubris. The Homeric hero cannot sin, the tragic hero must sin, but neither is tempted. Presently the observation that some evil men are fortunate and some good men unfortunate brings forth a doubt as to whether the gods are really good, till in the Prometheus of Aeschylus it is openly stated that power and goodness are not identical. Again, the aesthetic religion tries to express the consciousness of universal death aesthetically, that is, individually, as the Fates to which even the gods must bow, and betrays its failure to imagine the universal by having to have three of them.

The Ethical Religion (The God of Greek Philosophy)
To solve the problem of human death and weakness, the ethical religion begins by asking, “Is there anything man knows which does not come and go like his passions?” Yes, the concepts of his reason which are both certain and independent of time or space or individual, for the certainty is the same whether a man be sick or well, a king or a slave.

In place of the magnified passions of the aesthetic religion, the ethical sets up as God, the Ideas, the First Cause, the Universal. While to the former, the world begot the gods who then ruled over it because they were stronger than any other creature, in the latter God and the world are coeternal. God did not create the world of matter; he is only the cause of the order in it, and this not by any act of his — the neuter gender would be more fitting to him — for to be divine means to be self-sufficient, “to have no need of friends.”

Rather it is matter which, wishing to escape from the innate disorder of its temporal flux, “falls in love” with God and imitates his unchangeableness in such ways as it can, namely by adopting regular movements. (Plato’s introduction of a mysterious third party, the Demiurge who loves the Ideas and then imposes them on matter, complicates but does not essentially alter the cosmology.) Man, however, being endowed with reason, can apprehend God directly as Idea and Law, transcend his finite bodily passions, and become like God.

For the aesthetic either/or of strength or weakness, fortune or misfortune, the ethical religion substitutes the either/or of Knowledge of the Good or Ignorance of the Good. To the aesthetic, evil was lack of power over the finite world, for all finiteness, all passion is weakness, as goodness is gained by transcending the finite world, by a knowledge of the eternal and universal truths of reason which cannot be known without being obeyed. To the aesthetic, time was unmeaning and overwhelming; to the ethical, it is an appearance which can be seen through. The aesthetic worshipper was dependent on his gods who entered into relationship with him if and when he chose; the ethical worshipper enters into relationship with his god through his own efforts and, once he has done so, the relationship is eternal, neither can break it. The ethical hero is not the man of power, the man who does, but the philosopher, the man who knows.

Like his predecessor, however, he is not tempted and does not choose, for so long as he is ignorant he is at the mercy of his passions, i.e., he must yield to the passion of the moment, but so soon as he knows the good, he must will it; he can no more refuse assent to the good than he can to the truths of geometry.

As in the case of the aesthetic religion, there are facts with which the ethical religion cannot deal and on which it founders.

  1. Its premise “Sin is ignorance; to know the good is to will it” is faced with the fact that all men are born ignorant and hence each individual requires a will to know the universal good in order to will it. This will cannot be explained ethically, first because it is not a rational idea so that the ethical has to fall back on the aesthetic idea of a heavenly Eros to account for it.
  2. Secondly, it is not a universal; it is present or appeals to some individuals and not to others, so that the ethical has to call in the aesthetic hero whom it instructs in the good, and who then imposes justice by force. Art to the elect is no longer a religious ritual, but an immoral sham, useful only as a fraudulent but pragmatically effective method of making the ignorant masses conform to the law of virtue which they do not understand.
  3. Lastly, there comes the discovery that knowledge of the good does not automatically cause the knower to will it. He may know the law and yet not only be tempted to disobey but yield to the temptation. He may even disobey deliberately out of spite, just to show that he is free.

W. H. Auden on G. K. Chesterton’s Non-Fictional Prose

March 19, 2012

W. H. Auden

Auden casts a critical eye on Chesterton’s journalistic pieces and non-fiction essays: a tour of what’s good and what is not.

Oh, and happy 65th birthday to me. Old, sick and alone, I keep myself endlessly entertained — all thanks to being Catholic.


I have always enjoyed Chesterton’s poetry and fiction, but I must admit that, until I started work on a selection for a publisher, it was many years since I had read any of his non-fictional prose.

The reasons for my neglect were, I think, two. Firstly, his reputation as an anti-Semite. Though he denied the charge and did, certainly, denounce Hitler’s persecution, he cannot, I fear, be completely exonerated.

“I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of any other nation on the planet: it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual…. I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.”

The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation. to the term race. It is always permissible to criticize a nation (including Israel), a religion (including Orthodox Judaism), or a culture, because these are the creations of human thought and will: a nation, a religion, a culture can always reform themselves, if they so choose. A man’s ethnic heritage, on the other hand, is not in his power to alter. If it were true, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suppose that it is, that certain moral defects or virtues are racially inherited, they could not become the subject for moral judgment by others.

That Chesterton should have spoken of the Jews as a race is particularly odd, since few writers of his generation denounced with greater contempt racial theories about Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, etc. I myself am inclined to put most of the blame on the influence of his brother and of Hilaire Belloc, and on the pernicious influence, both upon their generation and upon the succeeding generation of Eliot and Pound, exerted by the Action Francaise Movement. Be that as it may, it remains a regrettable blemish upon the writings of a man who was, according to the universal testimony of all who met him, an extraordinarily “decent” human being, astonishingly generous of mind and warm of heart.

My second reason for neglecting Chesterton was that I imagined him to be what he himself claimed, just a “Jolly Journalist,” a writer of weekly essays on “amusing” themes, such as What I found in my Pockets, On Lying in Bed, The Advantage Of Having One Leg, A Piece of Chalk, The Glory of Grey, Cheese and so forth.

In his generation, the Essay as a form of belles-lettres was still popular: in addition to Chesterton himself, there were a number of writers, Max Beerbohm, E. V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, for example, whose literary reputations rested largely upon their achievements in this genre. Today tastes have changed. We can appreciate a review or a critical essay devoted to a particular book or author, we can enjoy a discussion of a specific philosophical problem or political event, but we can no longer derive any pleasure from the kind of essay which is a fantasia upon whatever chance thoughts may come into the essayist’s head.

My objection to the prose fantasia is the same as my objection to “free” verse (to which Chesterton also objected), namely, that, while excellent examples of both exist, they are the exception not the rule. All too often the result of the absence of any rules and restrictions, of a meter to which the poet must conform, of a definite subject to which the essayist must stick, is a repetitious and self-indulgent “show-off” of the writer’s personality and stylistic mannerisms.

Chesterton’s insistence upon the treadmill of weekly journalism after it ceased to be financially necessary seems to have puzzled his friends as much as it puzzles me. Thus E. C. Bentley writes:

To live in this way was his deliberate choice. There can be no doubt of that, for it was a hard life, and a much easier one lay nearby to his hand. As a writer of books, as a poet, he had an assured position, and an inexhaustible fund of ideas: the friends who desired him to make the most of his position were many. But G. K. Chesterton preferred the existence of a regular contributor to the Press, bound by iron rules as to space and time. Getting his copy to the office before it was too late was often a struggle. Having to think of a dead-line at all was always an inconvenience

Whatever Chesterton’s reasons and motives for his choice, I am quite certain it was a mistake. “A journalist,” said Karl Kraus, “is stimulated by a dead-line: he writes worse if he has time.” If this is correct, then Chesterton was not, by nature, a journalist. His best thinking and best writing are to be found, not in his short weekly essays, but in his full-length books where he could take as much time and space as he pleased. (In fact, in my selection, I took very little from his volumes of collected essays.) Oddly enough, since he so detested them, Chesterton inherited from the aesthetes of the eighties and nineties the conviction that a writer should be continuously “bright” and epigrammatic. When he is really enthralled by a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English literature, but, when his imagination is not fully held he can write an exasperating parody of himself, and this is most likely to happen when he has a dead-line to meet.

It is always difficult for a man as he grows older to “keep up” with the times, to understand what the younger generation is thinking and writing well enough to criticize it intelligently; for an overworked journalist like Chesterton it is quite impossible, since he simply does not have the time to read any new book carefully enough.

He was, for example, certainly intelligent enough and, judging by his criticisms of contemporary anthropology, equipped enough, to have written a serious critical study of Freud, had he taken the time and trouble to read him properly: his few flip remarks about dreams and psycho-analysis are proof that he did not.

Chesterton’s non-fictional prose has three concerns, literature, politics and religion.

Our day has seen the emergence of two kinds of literary critic, the documentor and the cryptologist. The former with meticulous accuracy collects and publishes every unearthable fact about an author’s life, from his love-letters to his dinner invitations and laundry bills, on the assumption that any fact, however trivial, about the man may throw light upon his writings. The latter approaches his work as if it were an anonymous and immensely difficult text, written in a private language which the ordinary reader cannot hope to understand until it is deciphered for him by experts.

Both such critics will no doubt dismiss Chesterton’s literary criticism as out-of-date, inaccurate and superficial, but if one were to ask any living novelist or poet which kind of critic he would personally prefer to write about his work. I have no doubt as to the answer. Every writer knows that certain events in his life, most of them in childhood, have been of decisive importance in forming his personal imaginative world, the kinds of things he likes to think about, the qualities in human beings he particularly admires or detests. He also knows that many things which are of great importance to him as a man, are irrelevant to his imagination. In the case of a love-poem, for example, no light is thrown upon either its content or its style by discovering the identity of the poet’s beloved.

This Chesterton understands. He thought, for example, that certain aspects of Dickens’ novels are better understood if we remember that, as a child, Dickens was expected to put on public performances to amuse his father, so he informs us of this fact. On the other hand, he thought that we shall not understand the novels any better if we learn all the details about the failure of Dickens’ marriage, so he omits them. In both cases, surely, he is right.

Again, while some writers are more “difficult” than others and cannot therefore hope to reach a very wide audience, no writer thinks he needs decoding in order to be understood. On the other hand, nearly every writer who has achieved some reputation complains of being misunderstood both by the critics and the public, because they come to his work with preconceived notions of what they are going to find in it. His admirers praise him and his detractors blame him for what, to him, seem imaginary reasons. The kind of critic an author hopes for is someone who will dispel these preconceived notions so that his readers may come to his writings with fresh eyes.

At this task of clearing the air, Chesterton was unusually efficient. It is popularly believed that a man who is in earnest about something speaks earnestly and that a man who keeps making jokes is not in earnest. The belief is not ill-founded since, more often than not, this is true. But there are exceptions and, as Chesterton pointed out, Bernard Shaw was one. The public misunderstood Shaw and thought him just a clown when, in fact, he was above all things a deadly serious preacher. In the case of Browning, Chesterton shows that many of his admirers had misunderstood him by reading into his obscurer passages intellectual profundities when in fact the poet was simply indulging his love of the grotesque.

Again, he shows us that Stevenson’s defect as a narrator was not, as it had become conventional to say, an over-ornate style but an over-ascetic one, a refusal to tell the reader anything about a character that was not absolutely essential. As a rule, it is journalism and literary gossip that is responsible for such misunderstandings; occasionally, though, it can be the author himself. Kipling would certainly have described himself as a patriotic Englishman who admired above all else the military virtues. In an extremely funny essay. Chesterton convincingly demonstrated that Kipling was really a cosmopolitan with no local roots, and he quotes in proof Kipling’s own words:

If England were what England seems,
How soon we’d chuck her, but She ain’t.

A patriot loves a country because, for better or worse, it is Is. Kipling is only prepared to love England so long as England a Great Power. As for Kipling’s militarism, Chesterton says:

Kipling’s subject is not that valour which properly belongs to war, but that interdependence and efficiency which belongs quite as much to engineers, or sailors, or mules, or railway engines…. The real poetry, the “true romance” which Mr. Kipling has taught is the romance of the division of labor and the discipline of all the trades. He sings the arts of peace much more accurately than the arts of war.

Chesterton’s literary criticism abounds in such observations which, once they have been made, seem so obviously true than one cannot understand why one had not seen them for oneself. It now seems obvious to us all that Shaw, the socialist, was in no sense a democrat but was a great republican; that there are two kinds of democrat, the man who, like Scott, sees the dignity of all men, and the man who, like Dickens, sees that all men are equally interesting and varied; that Milton was really an aesthete whose greatness “does not depend upon moral earnestness or upon anything connected with morality, but upon style alone, a style rather unusually separated from its substance”; that the Elizabethan Age, however brilliant, was not “spacious,” but in literature an age of conceits, in politics an age of conspiracies. But Chesterton was the first critic to see these things. As a literary critic, therefore, I rank him very high.

For various reasons I selected very little from his writings on historical and political subjects. Chesterton was not himself an historian, but he had both the gift and the position to make known to the general public the views of historians, like Belloc, who were challenging the Whig version of English History and the humanists’ version of cultural history. It must be difficult for anyone under forty to realize how taken for granted both of these were, even when I was a boy. Our school textbooks taught us that, once the papist-inclined and would-be tyrants, the Stuarts, had been got rid of, and the Protestant Succession assured, the road to Freedom, Democracy and Progress lay wide open; they also taught us that the civilization which had ended with the fall of the Roman Empire was re-born in the sixteenth century, between which dates lay twelve centuries of barbarism, superstition and fanaticism.

If today every informed person knows both accounts to be untrue, that the political result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was to hand over the government of the country to a small group of plutocrats, a state of affairs which certainly persisted until 1914, perhaps even until 1939, and that, whatever the Renaissance and the Reformation might signify, it was not a revolt of reason against fanaticism — on the contrary, it might be more fairly described as a revolt against the over-cultivation of logic by the late Middle Ages — Chesterton is not the least among those persons who are responsible for this change of view. The literary problem about any controversial writing is that, once it has won its battle, its interest to the average reader is apt to decline. Controversy always involves polemical exaggeration and it is this of which, once we have forgotten the exaggerations of the other side, we shall be most aware and critical.

Thus, Chesterton’s insistence, necessary at the time, upon all that was good in the twelfth century, his glossing over of all that was bad, seems today a romantic day-dream. Similarly, one is unconvinced by Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, that if, when the monasteries were dissolved, the Crown had taken their revenues instead of allowing them to fall into the hands of a few of its subjects, the Crown would have used its power, not only to keep these few in order, but also for the benefit of the common people. The history of countries like France where the Crown remained stronger than the nobility gives no warrant for such optimism. Absolute monarchs who are anxious to win glory are much more likely 4 to waste the substance of their country in wars of conquest than plutocrats who are only interested in making money.

Chesterton’s negative criticisms of modern society, his distrust of bigness, big business, big shops, his alarm at the consequences of undirected and uncontrolled technological development, are oven more valid today than in his own. His positive political beliefs, that a good society would be a society of small property-owners, most of them living on the land, attractive as they sound, seem to me open to the same objection that he brings against the political ideas of the Americans and the French in the eighteenth century: “Theirs was a great ideal; but no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great.” In the twentieth century, the England he wanted would pre-suppose the strictest control of the birth-rate, a policy which both his temperament and his religion forbade him to recommend.

On the subject of international politics, Chesterton was, to put it mildly, unreliable. He seems to have believed that, in political life, there is a direct relation between Faith and Morals: a Catholic State, holding the true faith, will behave better politically than a Protestant State. France, Austria, Poland were to be trusted: Prussia was not. It so happened that, in his early manhood, the greatest threat to world peace lay, as he believed, in Prussian militarism. After its defeat in 1918, he continued to cling to his old belief so that, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he misread this as a Prussian phenomenon.

In fact, aside from the economic conditions which enabled it to succeed, the National Socialist Movement was essentially the revenge of Catholic Bavaria and Austria for their previous subordination to Protestant Bismarckian Prussia. It was not an accident that Hitler was a lapsed Catholic. The nationalism of the German-speaking minority in the Hapsburg Empire had always been racist, and the hot-bed of anti-Semitism was Vienna not Berlin. Hitler himself hated the Prussian Junkers and was planning, if he won the war, to liquidate them all.

Chesterton was brought up a Unitarian, became an Anglican and finally, in 1922, was converted to Roman Catholicism. Today, reading such a book as Heretics, published in 1905, one is surprised that he was not converted earlier.

If his criticisms of Protestantism are not very interesting, this is not his fault. It was a period when Protestant theology (and, perhaps, Catholic too) was at a low ebb, Kierkegaard had not been re-discovered and Karl Barth had not yet been translated. Small fry like Dean Inge and the ineffable Bishop Barnes were too easy game for a mind of his caliber. Where he is at his best is in exposing the hidden dogmas of anthropologists, psychologists and their ilk who claim to be purely objective and “scientific.” Nobody has written more intelligently and sympathetically about mythology or polytheism.

Critical Judgment and Personal Taste are different kinds of evaluation which always overlap but seldom coincide exactly. On the whole and in the long run, Critical Judgment is a public, matter; we agree as to what we consider artistic virtues and artistic defects. Our personal tastes, however, differ. For each of us, them are writers whom we enjoy reading, despite their defects, and others who, for all their virtues, give us little pleasure. In order for us to find a writer “sympathetic,” there must be some kinship between his imaginative preferences and our own. As Chesterton wrote:

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about.

This is equally true of every reader’s mind. Our personal patterns, too, unlike our scale of critical values, which we need much time and experience to arrive at, are formed quite early in life, probably before the age of ten.

In “The Ethics of Elfland” Chesterton tells us how his own pattern was derived from fairy stories. If I can always enjoy reading him, even at his silliest, I sure the reason is that many elements in my own pattern are derived from the same source. (There is one gulf between us: Chesterton had no feeling for or understanding of music.) There are, I know, because I have met them, persons to whom Grimm and Andersen mean little or nothing: Chesterton will not be for them.


J.R.R. Tolkien’s Trilogy The Lord Of The Rings – W.H. Auden

March 7, 2011

W. H. Auden


Wystan Hugh Auden was born in 1907 in York, England, the third son of a physician. In 1908 his father became Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham. Auden attended private schools and then Oxford, taking his degree in 1928.

During the Thirties Auden became by common consent the principal poet of his generation, and other writers such as Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, in spite of their considerable differences from him, were to be writing under his banner. He supported himself at first by teaching, and was to do this sporadically for much of his life.

But his urge to travel became conspicuous. In 1937 he and MacNeice published their Letters from Iceland, after making a trip to that country at their publisher’s expense. The same year Auden went to Spain in support of the Loyalists. A year later he and Christopher Isherwood went to China, and Auden wrote Journal to a War. In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood left England with the intension of residing permanently in the United States. He became an American citizen in 1946.

Most of his time in later years was shared equally between two residences, one in Greenwich Village (New York City) and the other in Kirchstetten, Lower Austria. But in 1972 he was invited to take up lodgings at his old college, Christ Church, Oxford, and consented to do so. In Vienna, where he had been invited to lecture on his poetry, he died suddenly on September 28, 1973.

The Setting
Many Quest tales are set in a dreamland, that is to say, in no definite place or time. This has the advantage of allowing the use of all the wealth of dream imagery, monsters, magical transformations and translations, which are absent from our waking life, but at the cost of aggravating the tendency of the genre to divorce itself from social and historical reality. A dream is at most capable of allegorical interpretation, but such interpretations are apt to be mechanical and shallow. There are other Quest tales, a thriller like The Thirty-Nine Steps, for example, which are set in places which we can find in the atlas and in times we can read of in history books. This gives the Quest a social significance, but the moral ambiguities of real history clash with the presupposition which is essential to the genre, that one side is good and the other bad.

Even in wartime, the sensitive reader cannot quite believe this of the two sides which the writer of thrillers takes from real life. He cannot help knowing that, at the same time that John Buchan is making the heroes English and American and the enemies German, some German author may be writing an equally convincing thriller in which the roles are reversed.

Tolkien sets his story neither in a dream world nor in the actual world but in an imaginary world. An imaginary world can be so constructed as to make credible any landscape, inhabitants, and events which its maker wishes to introduce, and since he himself has invented its history, there can be only one correct interpretation of events, his own. What takes place and why is, necessarily, what he says it is.

But the construction of a convincing imaginary world makes formidable demands upon the imagination of its creator. There must be no question which, according to our interests, we ask about the real world to which he cannot give a convincing answer, and any writer who, like Tolkien, sets out to create an imaginary world in the twentieth century has to meet a higher standard of concreteness than, say, his medieval predecessor, for he has to reckon with readers who have been exposed to the realistic novel and scientific historical research.

A dream world may be full of inexplicable gaps and logical inconsistencies; an imaginary world may not, for it is a world of law, not of wish. Its laws may be different from those which govern our own, but they must be as intelligible and inviolable. Its history may be unusual but it must not contradict our notion of what history is, an interplay of Fate, Choice, and Chance. Lastly, it must not violate our moral experience.

If, as the Quest generally requires, Good and Evil are to be incarnated in individuals and societies, we must be convinced that the Evil side is what every sane man, irrespective of his nationality or culture, would acknowledge as evil. The triumph of Good over Evil which the successful achievement of the Quest implies must appear historically possible, not a daydream. Physical and, to a considerable extent, intellectual power must be shown as what we know them to be, morally neutral and effectively real: battles are won by the stronger side, be it good or evil.

To indicate the magnitude of the task Tolkien set himself, let me give a few figures. The area of his world measures some thirteen hundred miles from east (the Gulf of Lune) to west (the Iron Hills) and twelve hundred miles from north (the Bay of Forochel) to south (the mouth of the River Anduin). In our world there is only one species, man, who is capable of speech and has a real history; in Tolkien’s there are at least seven. The actual events of the story cover the last twenty years of the Third Historical Epoch of this world. The First Age is treated as legendary so that its duration is unknown, and its history is only vaguely recalled, but for the 3,441 years of the Second Age and the 3,021 years of the Third he has to provide a continuous and credible history.

The first task of the maker of an imaginary world is the same as that of Adam in Eden: he has to find names for everyone and everything in it and if, as in Tolkien’s world, there is more than one language, he has to invent as many series of names as there are tongues.

In the nominative gift, Tolkien surpasses any writer, living or dead, whom I have ever read; to find the “right” names is hard enough in a comic world; in a serious one success seems almost magical. Moreover, he shows himself capable of inventing not only names but whole languages which reflect the nature of those who speak them. The Ents, for example, are trees which have acquired movement, consciousness, and speech but continue to live at the tempo of trees. In consequence their language is “slow, sonorous, agglomerated, repetitive, indeed long-winded.” Here is only a part of the Entish word for hill:


The extremes of good and evil in the story are represented by the Elves and Sauron, respectively. Here is a verse from a poem in Elvish:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna miriel
o menel alglar elenath! Na-chaered palan diriel.
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aer, si nef aearon.

And here is an evil spell in the Black Speech invented by Sauron:

Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakata-luk, agh burzum-ishi-krimpatul.

An imaginary world must be as real to the senses of the reader as the actual world. For him to find an imaginary journey convincing, he must feel that he is seeing the landscape through which it passes as, given his mode of locomotion and the circumstances of his errand, the fictional traveler himself saw it. Fortunately, Mr. Tolkien’s gift for topographical description is equal to his gift for naming and his fertility in inventing incidents. His hero, Frodo Baggins, is on the road, excluding rests, for eighty days and covers over 1800 miles, much of it on foot, and with his senses kept perpetually sharp by fear, watching every inch of the way for signs of his pursuers, yet Tolkien succeeds in convincing us that there is nothing Frodo noticed which he has forgotten to describe.

Technologically, his world is preindustrial. The arts of mining, metallurgy, architecture, road and bridge building, are highly developed, but there are no firearms and no mechanical means of transport. It is, however, a world that has seen better days. Lands that were once cultivated and fertile have gone back to the wilderness, roads have become impassable, once-famous cities are now ruins. (There is one puzzling discrepancy. Both Sauron and Saruman seem to have installed heavy machinery in their fortresses. Why, in that case, are they limited to waging untechnological warfare?) Though without machines, some people in this world possess powers which our civilization would call magical because it lacks them; telepathic communication and vision are possible, verbal spells are effective, weather can be controlled, rings confer invisibility, etc.

Politically, the commonest form of society is a benevolent monarchy, but the Shire of the hobbits is a kind of small-town democracy, and Sauron’s kingdom of Mordor is, of course, a totalitarian and slave-owning dictatorship. Though the unstated presuppositions of the whole work are Christian, we are not told that any of the inhabitants practice a religious cult.

The Elves, the Wizards, and Sauron, certainly, and perhaps some others, believe in the existence of the One and the Valar, to whom He has entrusted the guardianship of Middle-earth, and a Land in the Uttermost West which I take to be an image of Paradise.

The Quest Hero
In our subjective experience, of which the Quest is, I have suggested, a literary mimesis, what we ought to become is usually dependent upon what we are; it is idle and cowardly of me if I fail to make the fullest use of any talent with which I have been endowed, but it is presumptuous of me to attempt a task for which I lack the talent it requires. That is why, in the traditional Quest story, the hero desires to undertake the quest and, even when to others he appears lacking in power, he is confident of success. This problem of vocation is specifically dealt with in one Quest tale, The Magic Flute. Prince Tamino is the typical hero, who must dare the trials by Fire and Water to attain wisdom and win the hand of the Princess Pamina.

But beside him stands Papageno, who is, in his own way, a hero too. He is asked whether he is prepared to endure the trials like his master, and he answers no, such dangers are not for the likes of him. “But,” says the priest, “if you don’t, you will never win a girl.” “In that case,” he replies, “I’ll remain single.” This answer reveals his humility, and he is rewarded with his mirror image, Papagena. In contrast to him stands the villain Monostatos. Like Papageno, he is incapable of enduring the trials, but unlike him, he lacks the humility to forego the rewards of heroism; he is even unwilling to accept an equivalent of Papagena and demands nothing less than the Princess.

But there is another kind of vocation which may be called religious. Not everybody experiences it, and even for those who do, it may concern only moments of their life. What characterizes the religious vocation is that it comes from outside the self and generally to the self’s terror and dismay, as when God calls Abraham out of the land of Ur, or when a man, by nature physically timid, is called to enter a burning building to rescue a child because there is no one else around to do it.

Some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and Aragorn, for instance, are expressions of the natural vocation of talent. It is for Gandalf to plan the strategy of the War against Sauron because he is a very wise man; it is for Aragorn to lead the armies of Gondor because he is a great warrior and the rightful heir to the throne. Whatever they may have to risk and suffer, they are, in a sense, doing what they want to do.

But the situation of the real hero, Frodo Baggins, is quite different. When the decision has been taken to send the Ring to the Fire, his feelings are those of Papageno: “Such dangerous exploits are not for a little hobbit like me. I would much rather stay at home than risk my life on the very slight chance of winning glory.” But his conscience tells him: “You may be nobody in particular in yourself, yet, for some inexplicable reasons, through no choice of your own, the Ring has come into your keeping, so that it is on you and not on Gandalf or Aragorn that the task falls of destroying it.”

Because the decision has nothing to do with his talents, nobody else can or should try to help him make up his mind. When he stands up at the Council of Elrond and says: “I will take the Ring though I know not the Way,”‘ Elrond replies: “It is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right” (I, 284).

Once he has chosen, Frodo is absolutely committed; the others who set out with him are not:

“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom; on him alone is any charge laid — neither to cast away the Ring nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy, nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside to other paths as chance allows. The further you go the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid upon you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts and you cannot foresee what each may meet on the road.”
“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.
“Maybe,” said Elrond; “but let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall.”
“Yet sworn vow may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli. “Or break it,” said Elrond. “Look not too far ahead. But go now with good hearts.” (I, 294)

The Conflict Of Good And Evil
If it is a defect in the usual Quest tale that Good triumphs over Evil simply because Good is more powerful, this is not a defect that can be avoided by giving Good no power at all. Quite rightly, Tolkien makes the elves, dwarves, wizards, and men who are Sauron’s opponents a formidable lot indeed, but in sheer strength, Sauron is, even without his Ring, the stronger. Yet their power has its part to play, as Gandalf points out:

Victory cannot be achieved by arms…. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dizr, and the hope of Sauron…. If he regains it, your valor is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again…. This, then, is my counsel. We have not the Ring. In wisdom or great folly, it has been sent away to be destroyed, lest it destroy us. Without it we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.” (III, 154-56)

The Quest is successful, and Sauron is overthrown. One of Tolkien’s most impressive achievements is that he convinces the reader that the mistakes which Sauron makes to his undoing are the kind of mistakes which Evil, however powerful, cannot help making just because it is Evil. His primary weakness is a lack of imagination, for, while Good can imagine what it would be like to be Evil, Evil cannot imagine what it would be like to be Good. Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn are able to imagine themselves as Sauron and therefore can resist the temptation to use the Ring themselves, but Sauron cannot imagine that anyone who knows what the Ring can accomplish, his own destruction among other things, will not use it, let alone try to destroy it. Had he been capable of imagining this, he had only to sit waiting and watching in Mordor for the Ring-bearer to arrive, and he was bound to catch him and recover the Ring. Instead, he assumes that the Ring has been taken to Gondor where the strongest of his enemies are gathered, which is what he would have done had he been in their place, and launches an attack on that city, neglecting the watch on his own borders.

Secondly, the kind of Evil which Sauron embodies, the lust for domination, will always be irrationally cruel since it is not satisfied if another does what it wants; he must be made to do it against his will. When Pippin looked into the Palantir of Orthanc and so revealed himself to Sauron, the latter had only to question him in order to learn who had the Ring and what he intended to do with it. But, as Gandalf says: “He was too eager. He did not want information only: he wanted you, quickly; so that he could deal with you in the Dark ‘Power, slowly” (II,199).

Thirdly, all alliances of Evil with Evil are necessarily unstable and untrustworthy since, by definition, Evil loves only itself and its alliances are based on fear or hope of profit, not on affection. Sauron’s greatest triumph has been his seduction of the great wizard Saruman, but though he has succeeded in making him a traitor to the cause of Good, he has not yet completely enslaved him, so that Saruman tries to seize the Ring for himself.

Lastly, unforeseeable by either side, is the role played by Smeagol-Gollum. When Frodo first hears about him from Gandalf, he exclaims:

“What a pity Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” .. .

I cannot understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? … He deserves death”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does…. [But] do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.” (I, 68-69)

Gollum picks up Frodo’s trail in the Mines of Moria and follows him. When Frodo manages to catch him, he remembers Gandalf’s words and spares his life. This turns out to his immediate advantage for, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have found their way through the Dead Marshes or to the pass of Cirith Ungol.

Gollum’s motives in guiding them are not wholly evil; one part of him, of course, is waiting for an opportunity to steal the Ring, but another part feels gratitude and genuine affection for Frodo.

Gandalf was right, however, in fearing that there was little hope of his being cured; in the end his evil side triumphs. He leads Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s lair and, after their escape, pursues them to Mount Doom and attacks them. Once again they spare his life. And then the unexpected happens:

There on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.

“Master!” cried Sam.

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, … it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.

“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight…. Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him….

Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe…. The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the Ring, a finger still thrust within its circle…

“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell…

“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away…

“Yes,” said Frodo. “… Do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.” (III, 223-25)

The Fruits Of Victory
“And so they lived happily ever after” is a conventional formula for concluding a fairy tale. Alas, it is false and we know it, for it suggests that, once Good has triumphed over Evil, man is translated out of his historical existence into eternity. Tolkien is much too honest to end with such a pious fiction. Good has triumphed over Evil so far as the Third Age of Middle-earth is concerned, but there is no certainty that this triumph is final. There was Morgoth before Sauron and, before the Fourth Age ends, who can be sure that no successor to Sauron will appear? Victory does not mean the restoration of the Earthly Paradise or the advent of the New Jerusalem. In our historical existence even the best solution involves loss as well as gain. With the destruction of the Ruling Ring, the three Elven Rings lose their power, as Galadriel foresaw:

“Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten.” (1,380)

Even Frodo, the Quest Hero, has to pay for his success:

“But,” said Sam, and tears started from his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire. . . for years and years, after all you have done.”

“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” (III, 309)

If there is any Quest Tale which, while primarily concerned with the subjective life of the individual person as all such stories must be, manages to do more justice to our experience of social-historical realities than The Lord of the Rings, I should be glad to hear of it.


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