The Appreciative Auden

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, January 2014 | Go to article overview

The Appreciative Auden


Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion


Alexander McCall Smith

What W. H. Auden Can Do for You.

Princeton University Press, 152 pages, $19.95

Every reader feels a sense of achievement on completing a book, which is why short books please. The pleasure of achievement comes without the pain of labor, and if we feel that we have cheated slightly by having chosen the easy path we can console ourselves that shortness is not necessarily shallowness. Descartes's Discourse on Method, for example, is a very short book.

Alexander McCall Smith's book on W. H. Auden is very short and pretends neither to the status of biographical guide to the poet's work, nor profound criticism of it. Rather it is the record of a personal response to it, made in the hope that this will encourage people either to go to the poet for the first time or return to him with renewed enthusiasm. McCall Smith is something of an evangelist on the poet's behalf.

Some of the author's reflections are indeed not very profound, indeed bland, and some of his digressions are not of the first or most obvious relevance, though a few of them are delightful. I particularly relished his account of the history of psychoanalysis in Morocco (where it never really caught on), so that the very few analysts are buried next to their equally scarce analysands. This is the kind of detail that sparks McCall Smith's imagination and has made him popular with millions of readers.

His approach to the poet--and by extension, to all literature--is that of the common man, not that of the literary academic, especially the literary academic of our times who views his own theorizing about literature as more significant than the literature he is theorizing about. McCall Smith restores the link between poetry and life, a link that encourages us to linger and reflect on every tine or couplet. He demonstrates that Auden was capable of compressing a great deal of thought allusively into a few words, and suggests a technique that we can then apply ourselves. Two lines from "Epitaph on a Tyrant" (a poem he does not quote) provoke reflections on our philosophy of life, whatever it might be: "Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after ... / He knew human folly like the back of his hand."

All sublunary perfections are necessarily perfections of a kind, of course; nothing and nobody is perfect in all possible respects or from every conceivable angle--moral, social, or even aesthetic. That is why My kingdom is not, and can never be, of this world (Auden, as is well known, made a conscious choice for Anglicanism), and why utopian schemes always end in disaster. The search for perfection distorts, and the search for absolute perfection distorts absolutely.

To know human folly like the back of your hand might sound like the beginning of wisdom, but in fact it is, or at any rate can be made to be, the root of all evil. The tyrant is manipulative; he uses his knowledge to shore himself up, to exploit weakness, to flatter, to deceive, and to disguise his real purposes. As the late Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko said (knowing human folly like the back of his hand), it takes two to be corrupt--and everyone has his price. Knowledge, then, is not an absolute good, its goodness or otherwise depending on the purposes to which it is to be put. And this means in turn that, for humans, the universe must be suffused with meaning, it cannot be regarded in its mere quiddity, in its brute factness. …

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