Archive for June 8th, 2012

Auden’s prophetic voice: “All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.”

Friday, June 8th, 2012
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One of the problems of a large library is that it depends on a fallible sense of memory. I have a visual recollection of where a book might be, and that is my sole form of “organization.”  So naturally, I couldn’t find Alan Ansen‘s The Table Talk of W.H. Auden when I wanted it.  It wasn’t where I remembered seeing it, and therefore will remain in hibernation until it chooses to be found.

The immediate spur to my search was an article in last week’s The Scotsman, an interview with Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor:  “So impressed was Auden by Mendelson’s dedication – he told his long-term partner Chester Kallman ‘I’ve just met a young man who knows more about me than I do’ – that he asked him to become his literary executor. He died two years later, in 1973, aged 66.” Read the whole article here.

I found instead Conversations with Auden by Howard Griffin, another young man who attached himself to the ageing poet.

Now here’s what’s curious.  I was talking earlier today with a technologist about the double-edged sword of modern technology. It can lead to international sharing of medical research – or it can lead to porn addiction.  In that sense it’s like nuclear energy – it can power a nation, or bring us another Hiroshima.

So what did I find on the first page of Griffin’s book?  After discussing the advantages of the modern era, there’s this prophetic exchange:

Griffin: You mean at least we have technological advantages?

Auden:  Yes. The power instruments.  You cannot have advances in science without having the good and bad, without being given a choice. It is always up to men to decide how they are going to use what they have.  With each new invention, the question of free will is resurrected. The first invention of all was the apple – divine knowledge which caused the trouble. The story of Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is a myth to explain history. One must acknowledge its poetic truth, for human beings still seem much like Adam and Eve, blaming things on each other, and desiring to be gods.  Out of their monstrous vanity human creatures want to be their own cause. Adam succumbed to the temptation to eat the apple – but not out of appetite. … The story of the Fall has to be told in mythical terms because it is what conditions history.  In Genesis we do not have a race of people but the first man and woman, and the first thing they do is eat of the tree, an act that begins time and loses them this innocence.  Civilization itself remains neutral and ambiguous.  All forms of knowledge and power have two sides.  As temptations, they can make a man behave either much better or much worse.

Someday I’ll find The Table Talk of W.H. Auden again. Perhaps I’ll even find the syllabus Auden used for his University of Michigan classes, back when he was poet in residence in the 1940s.  I had retrieved this treasure from the university’s archives year’s ago.  Somewhere in the garage, I’m sure.