Thursday, January 01, 2015

`A Presumptive Joy'

“O how the devil who controls
The moral asymmetric souls,
The either-ors, the mongrel halves
Who find truth in a mirror, laughs.” 

A reader’s life, or at least this reader’s life, is a sequence of alternating rituals and discoveries, the familiar and the novel. Without Chekhov, the new book floats in a consumer’s aether; without the new book – and I mean previously unread -- the masters collect dust in a museum. Certain works beg regularity. Each December I read A Christmas Carol, though I seldom read Dickens anymore. Is it a “good” book? No, not even by Dickens’ standards, but it’s a comfort, a sort of prayer, a means of honoring the season, the writer, the power of story. 

Seventy-five years ago, Auden gave us “New Year Letter,” subtitled “January 1, 1940.” Hitler and Stalin were carving up Europe and murdering its citizens. Among those who fled to the United States was Elizabeth Mayer (1884-1970), the German-born friend to whom Auden dedicated the poem and the book in which it was published, The Double Man (1941). Mayer went on to collaborate on translations from the German with Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan and Auden. With the lines quoted above, from the end of the poem’s second section, Auden describes the “Prince of Lies,” the “Spirit-that-denies,” less an external demonic figure like Hitler or Stalin than an internal latency. Auden is turning from a smorgasbord of Marx and Freud to a mature Christianity, while leaving England and settling in the U.S. In the subsequent lines, Auden writes: 

“Yet time and memory are still
Limiting factors on his will;
He cannot always fool us thrice,
For he may never tell us lies,
Just half-truths we can synthesize.
So, hidden in his hocus-pocus,
There lies the gift of double focus,
That magic lamp which looks so dull
And utterly impractical
Yet, if Aladdin use it right,
Can be a sesame to light.” 

Thirty years later, Auden published “Old People’s Home,” a poem we know from his biographers was written for his old friend Elizabeth Mayer, in the year of her death. Knowing this and knowing Auden’s devotion, add plangency to an already sad poem: 

“As I ride the subway
        to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her hey-day,
        when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
        painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?”

Auden couldn’t have known he was three years away from his own death.

No comments: