Archive for December 7th, 2018

Hannah Arendt remembers W.H. Auden: “an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love”

Friday, December 7th, 2018
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The one thing he knew well…

I was unaware the philosopher Hannah Arendt knew the poet W.H. Auden, and I certainly didn’t know that she had left a memoir of the poet. She did, and The New Yorker, which first published the piece in 1975, has republished it here. It’s a gem. A must-read. 

A few excerpts:

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable.

***

If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when, to all appearances, he could not cope anymore, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes, so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.

***

The sad wisdom of remembrance…

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

***

It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in his beautiful joke beyond the grave—that for more than one reason, as Spender said, “his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying.” The wisdom to know “when to live and when to die” is not given to mortals, but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.

Read the whole thing here.