Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

St. George and the Bulldozer

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On February 28, 1962, the poet W.H. Auden delivered a lecture at Mt. Holyoke College that has since been reprinted under the title “The Poet and the City.” Auden opens with the observation—which remains as true today as it was half a century ago—that a surprising number of people claim that they want to be writers. He continues with devastating precision:

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Auden’s explanation is that capitalism has reduced the worker to a mere laborer on behalf of impersonal forces, which leads the ordinary individual to be drawn to the dream of being in control of one’s life. He concludes: “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way—the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes—should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.”

Of course, writers operate under severe constrains and limitations of their own, and Auden goes on to list four reasons why the writing life is especially difficult in the modern era. One is the loss of the belief that the universe is eternal, which undermines the notion that art is meant to be enduring; another is our doubt in the existence of objective phenomena, which destroys the conception of art as an accurate representation of reality; and the third is our fear that our culture will fail to last long enough for our work to be appreciated or understood after we’re gone. (Auden speaks here with an echo of science fiction: “Technology, with its ever accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.”) But it’s his fourth reason that interests me the most. Auden calls it “the disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds,” which he characterizes as a reversal of the assumptions of the ancient world:

To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

And Auden adds darkly: “In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds.”

At first, this might seem like an overstatement, but Auden makes a convincing case. He begins by returning to the specter of technology, which looms menacingly over the entire lecture:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention—to slay it—is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that does the killing.

The same holds true of the public works and monuments of the past. If Pharaoh orders that the fens be drained, it’s a measure of his power over human beings that he can get ten thousand subjects to do his bidding. Today, the same project could be accomplished in six months by “a hundred men with bulldozers,” reducing it to nothing more than a feat of civil engineering, with most of the work performed by machines that aren’t motivated by loyalty or fear. (Auden notes with some alarm: “It is now possible to imagine a world in which the only human work on such projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate computers.”) And his next observation is the one that resonates the most: “It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal.”

Yet I don’t think this is entirely true, at least not right now, when character, intent, and the power of words seem more relevant than ever, even if they require some quantity of “impersonal force.” To illustrate his point, Auden observes that it would be difficult to write a good poem about Winston Churchill: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are now doomed to failure.” But this intimate relationship, or its emotional equivalent, is exactly what our national politics have achieved. As Yascha Mounk writes in a recent New Yorker review of the book The Increasingly United States by Daniel J. Hopkins, the Democratic and Republican parties have turned into “mega-identities,” embodied by “a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains.” The logical culmination is a head of state who assumes the role of a producer or television star. Even if he or she were an artist of impeccable taste, Auden points out that the results would be chilling:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

Total control is a writer’s dream, but a nightmare in reality. And we’d be better off if such impulses led to bad novels, rather than to what Auden calls the “romantic answer” to what we want to do with our lives: “I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.”

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2018 at 8:18 am

One Response

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  1. Well, that’s kind of depressing. What is the average person “without any marked talent” to do if he or she wants a meaningful life?

    Andrea Kenner

    July 5, 2018 at 7:14 pm

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