Thursday, January 10, 2019

'Our Chief Means of Breaking Bread with the Dead'

I happened on an attractive thought attributed to W.H. Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Because I found it online and no source was cited, I was skeptical. Fake, distorted and misattributed quotations blow across the internet like so many snowflakes. A brief search disclosed what seems to be the source, a 1971 story about Auden in the New York Times. Here, quoting Auden, is the fuller context:

“Nothing I wrote saved a single Jew from being gassed . . . it’s perfectly all right to be an engagé writer as long as you don’t think you’re changing things. Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead . . . but the social and political history of Europe would be exactly the same if Dante and Shakespeare and Mozart had never lived.”

Auden is almost restating his commonsensical and much-debated line from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Colloquially, “breaking bread” means sharing a meal but with Auden as speaker it might also suggest fractio panis and the Eucharist. Either way, the phrase implies an intimate, friendly occasion, a dinner party for two. It also implies an ease of conversation, just you and one of your deceased forebears – say, Montaigne -- in a cozy little nook. That’s a fine metaphor for serious reading. It also reminds me of something written by another of those forebears, Charles Lamb. He writes in a letter to Coleridge, his childhood friend, on Dec. 10, 1796: “I can only converse with you by letter, and with the dead in their books.” A month later he writes again to Coleridge: “Books are to me instead of friends.”

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