Tuesday, September 12, 2017

`The Furies Hidden in Themselves'

We inhabit an age of ambitious virtue. We are no longer content merely to live decently, leave other people alone and observe the Golden Rule (too anonymous, too dull, too bourgeois). Goodness means good press. We announce our good intentions, miss no opportunity to repeat them, and scrupulously police the failure of others to live up to them. It can be exhausting. Our exemplar is Mrs. Jellyby, ever mindful of the natives of the Left-Bank-of-the-Borrioboola-Gha (while her children live in Rousseau-esque squalor). There’s no glory in holding the door for the old lady.

Edward Mendelson has published in one volume his two-volume biography now retitled as Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography (Princeton University Press, 2017). Included are a new preface and postscript, “His Secret Life” (published in The New York Review of Books in 2014 as “The Secret Auden”). The latter promises scandal but delivers an account of quiet, unambitious virtue. Mendelson reports that most of the poet’s friends were unaware of his frequent, unpublicized acts of kindness and charity. Here is his first example:

“Once at a party I met a woman who attended St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery with him in the 1950s. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallways outside her apartment until she felt safe again.”

Mendelson learned that a friend of Auden required surgery but couldn’t afford it. The poet gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The friend sold it to the University of Texas and with the money paid for the surgery. The money he was paid by NBC Television for translating the libretto of The Magic Flute Auden gave to Dorothy Day so she could make repairs to a Catholic Worker homeless shelter threatened with closing by the New York City Fire Department. Earlier, Auden had given her money to pay the fine.

Mendelson gives more examples and broadens his examination of Auden’s modesty and distaste for moral grandstanding and self-congratulation. When he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue,” Mendelson writes, “he did so without calling attention to himself, and was impatient with writers like Robert Lowell whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective.” I confess that there’s a moral arbiter in me who scratches the name from the virtue role of anyone who announces his own virtue. I include myself among the glory-seeking ranks. Years ago, a friend, a sort of down-to-earth moral instructor, gave me a job: “Do a good turn every day and don’t get found out.” There’s a part of me that wants you to know what a good fellow I am. Mendelson places Auden in the context of “an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it”:

“On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, `I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

That’s as good a description as I know of our self-righteous world in 2017. Solzhenitsyn makes the same point in Part I, Chap. 4, “The Bluecaps,” in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

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