Posts Tagged ‘Howard Griffin’

Auden on Hitler and Napoleon: “Their fatality is being what they are.”

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

"a hunger to be needed"

Some time ago I wrote about Howard Griffin‘s Conversations with Auden.  I’m not sure I ever had read the front matter before tonight.  Had I done so, I would have learned that the young poet Griffin took these notes using a kind of shorthand (W.H. Auden would never have allowed a tape recorder) in 1946 and 1947, then transcribed them painstakingly with Peter Eckermann‘s Conversations with Goethe in mind as a model. They were highly regarded by literary circles in the 1950s.  Another poet, Marianne Moore, said “these discussions … profitable to me if no one else…”

The volume begins with this question:

Howard Griffin: Would you rather have lived at an earlier time when men knew less, when there was no police force, no plumbing?

W.H. Auden: I would not. If one thinks in terms of happiness or love, human behavior certainly has not improved through the ages, but if one thinks in terms of knowledge, power and potential for good, one must say: there has been an advance.

This was in 1946-47, remember. World War II was still a living wound; the avalanche of facts and photos and eyewitness accounts about it had yet to be published.  Auden had this take on Adolf Hitler:

“Although he seemed to be always telling other people what to do, Hitler’s acts were determined by compulsion and desire for prestige. Men like Hitler, Napoleon and Richard III contrive to make their surroundings sufficiently exciting so that they are sustained in a state of passion, which dictates what they will do. People like Hitler have a hunger for complete mastery and when things begin to go wrong, then there is nothing for them to do but wish their death.  The Hitler type is able to choose for others, but incapable of self-choice and he must go on arousing enemies because their fact proves that he exists. When we read of the night of the long knives, the SS slogan ‘Heads must roll,’ the Rohm purge, etc., we see that the Nazi leaders contrived to do evil consciously for its own sake in order to demonstrate their objective reality … Once they get started, they cannot stop. Their fatality is being what they are; they are their own disease …. For the dictator, war is a good thing; then he feels wanted. He has a hunger to be needed. A war provides people with a negative sense of self – enough self to destroy. What Hitler, Napoleon and Alexander lacked was a consciousness of their finiteness, a lack that can be disastrous …”

These conversations were published in literary journals, but never found a publisher – at least not in Auden’s lifetime. Nor in Griffin’s. He died in 1975, two years after Auden’s death, also in Austria.



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

Friday, June 8th, 2012

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.