As war loomed in Europe, the poet W.H. Auden left Britain for the United States. One of the poems he wrote just before leaving is about the nature of human suffering—or as Auden puts it, the “human position” of suffering: for the most part, it happens invisibly, and the procession of ordinary life leaves it unacknowledged. Yet, the representation and transcendence of suffering are tasks important both to religion and the arts. Is suffering’s “human position” something that can be redeemed? Wes and Erin analyze Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts.
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Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Erin: I think probably the greatest lyric poet of the 20th century. Do you agree with that, Wes, or do you have a different view?
Wes: He’s often in the running, right, with Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Is that right?
Erin: Yeah, but both of those two guys are just total garbage. So it’s…[laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Just not much competition.
Erin: Just really not much there, there, you know. Whereas Auden…
Wes: Well, I would have trouble ranking them, but I could say I love all of them, so if someone wants to call him the greatest, I’m ready to go along with them.
Erin: I’m kind of an Auden super fan. I have grad school, I studied with Angie Milenko, who’s a poet and critic who’s also an Auden super fan and got the chance, actually, to take a, like, one-on-one tutorial with Angie on all of Auden’s collected poetry and his essays. And, cause you’re such a big fan of The Tempest, have you read The Sea and the Mirror, his long poem about The Tempest?
Wes: Yeah, I mean, I’ve read parts of it in preparation for this, and I want to read more. I have a book of collected poems that includes The Sea and the Mirror, and actually I have a copy of The Sea and the Mirror that you gave me…
Erin: Oh, that’s right. Yeah.
Wes: …that I’ve read.
Erin: I tend to give out Auden as [laughter] presents for people.
Wes: Yes, it’s a good one. You know my fondness for The Tempest. So, Yeah, I’ve only looked a little bit at it, you know, I’m looking forward to reading it, and I think we’re gonna be doing this poem which I’m not going to try and pronounce again for the rest of the podcast. [laughter] Then we’ll be doing the September 1st, 1939 for our next episode. So we’ll be doing these two Auden episodes in a row. And I have been looking at this collection of poems and getting through as many as possible. And I hope in the next two weeks I can read many more and some biographical material and critical commentaries as well.
Erin: The difficult thing for me when I opened up my Auden books is that some of them are so heavily annotated that it’s difficult to actually read the text at this point. [Wes Laughs] The same thing is true for this poem today, but yeah, so it’s kind of… I’m wondering how this is going to go because I feel like it’s gonna be difficult for me to kind of weed through my Auden admiration in order to get to, like, “Alright, what was he actually saying in these poems?” [laughter] instead of just, you know, the point that I’ve gotten to, which is, like, you know, kind of out there with Auden.
Wes: Well, I have 2000 plus words of notes… [laughter]
Erin: Oh, my!
Wes: …which, you know, for a poem that’s… how many words? I don’t know, but not that many. I didn’t have time to really retrace those notes and try and organize them. So I have a lot of random thoughts, and I’m you know, I’m kind of anxious today about [laughter] trying to put them together in a coherent way because I think they’re things I’m confused about different ways of interpreting this.
Erin: Hm. This is, you know, a much anthologized poem of Auden’s. Obviously not quite as anthologized as September 1st, but it is one of my kind of surprising favorites of his that I do teach a lot to my students, and I kind of see it as something we could talk about. But it’s interesting in your introduction that you talked about World War II, because I think of this as being, maybe, the quintessential World War II poem so we should, maybe talk a little bit about that. So Auden had been in England and he was traveling through the continent. He was in Brussels for a little while and went to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, which was the inspiration for this poem. But then, on the eve of World War II he left England and settled in America and that transition had a really big effect on his work, on his sort of self conception. As a poet, he was known for being kind of a wunderkind in England and also for having this persona as this sort of public poet. He was known for being very liberal, and he was interested and very involved in politics on the continent and in England and then sort of shifted gears when he came to America.
Wes: So he shifts gears in terms of poetic style. Right? At some point, he has a religious conversion of sorts…
Erin: …or re-version. He was a very devout teenager, actually, which he later attributed to just puberty. But… [laughter]
Wes: It’s a reversion to Anglicanism, right?
Erin: Yeah, his family were… they were very high-church Anglicans, almost Catholic, and he was very interested in that ritual, that sort of high-church sensibility. You know, as a public poet in England, he was really engaged in liberal politics in his work, and later he really had a change of heart and seemed to think that artists had no special insight into politics or world affairs, necessarily, that, you know, art gets nothing done, that poetry is, in a sense, essentially frivolous.
Wes: Yeah, poetry makes nothing happen, right? That’s from his In Memory of W. B. Yates, which is an amazing poem, one of the ones I did get a chance to read before this recording. And yeah, so poetry makes nothing happen. So he’s… the poem we’re discussing might in some ways be expressing a similar sort of sentiment. But he seems to be despairing of the possibility of using poetry or using the arts to influence people or politics in a positive way.
Wes: The impression I got just from the little secondary literature I read is that perhaps there is some connection between his departure for the United States and his… I was going to say disenchantment, maybe disenchantment with the political possibilities of poetry?
Erin: Sure, Yeah, you know, he was also, I think, really interested in the sort of American vernacular. And he really liked Americanisms, which is something that we could talk a lot about in our episode on September 1. But let’s… should we dive into the paintings a little bit and then use that as a jumping off point?
Erin: So the poem is an ekphrastic poem. It’s describing really three paintings by Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and then makes reference to two other Bruegel paintings, The Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. Should we, maybe, just describe Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?
Wes: So maybe let’s start with the myth on which that landscape is based. I think most listeners are familiar with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, maybe not in great detail, but Daedalus actually turns out to be the one who designed the maze in which King Minos kept the Minotaur, so King Minos of Crete. And basically that maze was designed as part of his plan to take tribute from the Athenians, basically sacrifices that would be made to the Minotaur, young women and young men, and that the fairest and brightest had to be sent on every seven years, I think, to be sacrificed. So Minos imprisoned Daedalus, too, because he didn’t want anyone to know about the maze. He wanted to keep it secret. And Dedalus comes up with this plan to escape the tower in which he is being kept with his son Icarus, by making wings. So Dedalus is an artisan, and he’s going to put this to use and Ovid’s retelling of the myth you get quite a bit of detail about the way the wings are made, and the use of wax, the way the feathers are aligned. And then, at a certain point, right, Daedalus tells Icarus, “Don’t fly too close to the sun”. He teaches him how to fly first, makes him wings, teaches him how to fly and says, “Don’t fly too close to the sun or the sun will melt the wings and you’ll fall into the ocean. Don’t fly too low or the moisture will interfere with the wings and you’ll fall. You’ve got to take the middle way.” There’s a lot in Ovid’s retelling, which is really interesting. So he’s very playful and nonchalant, as his father is making the wings so he kind of, like, as the down of the feathers is blowing past him in the breeze, he’s kind of, like, catching at it, like a child trying to play with bubbles, and he sort of gets in the way of his father [laughter]actually making these things. So obviously Icarus goes too high because he is… I think the way Ovid puts it is he’s drawn by desire for the heavens. And then Ovid tells us that there’s an angler catching fish and a shepherd and a plowman and they all look up amazed, believing Daedalus and Icarus to be Gods traveling in the sky and then see him fall. The reason why I go into so much detail there is that Bruegel’s painting is full of so much irony, right?
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So the painting is really kind of a collapsing of the hierarchy of painting commonly accepted at the time. So you have your history poem at the top, which that would encompass mythological events as well. And below that you have, you know, genre painting, like people performing everyday activities, you know, working the fields, whatever the case may be. And so in this painting you have a sort of like a history painting inlaid, inset, into a genre painting. So the focus of the painting is this plowman, the horse pulling the plow. He’s plowing a field that’s taking up the sort of bottom-left of the painting.
Wes: It’s either an extremely tiny field or we’re only seeing part of it. [laughter]
Erin: Well, it’s very mannerist. [laughter] It’s like very, very compressed and strange looking. And then below him, on a sort of promontory, is a shepherd with some sheep, and the shepherd is kind of looking up. He’s in the very center, pretty much, of the painting. He’s sort of looking up like he’s seeing something, but it’s passed overhead and has landed behind him, so he’s kind of looking in the wrong direction for where it ultimately lands. And there’s a big sea behind him and some ships on the ocean and a beautiful little landscape in the background. And what has landed in the water behind him is presumably Icarus, whose feet are sort of flailing a little bit in the water. But it’s very hard to even tell if you’re looking at this painting for the first time that anybody is even in the water. And then there’s…
Wes: You gotta play the game of “Find Icarus.” [laughter]
Erin: Right. Right. Yeah. This is one of the first “I spy” books.
Wes: Yeah, and then you only know it’s him because you also see the feathers around him.
Erin: Yeah, and the title. That’s helpful. [laughter] But yeah, otherwise I wouldn’t have known. And then there’s this sort of little figure that’s kind of fishing or something down near him, and then this big ship, which again, like, the scale is really off. So Icarus is kind of big compared to this ship, it’s a little strange. The…
Wes: Yeah, the perspective is quite skewed in many ways.
Wes: One of the things about the painting is that it’s a Bruegel painting so it’s anachronistic, right? So he’s translated this myth. It seems like he’s translated it into the contemporary world. That’s one thing. And the other here is that it’s full of irony. I think the main irony is that Ovid has described the plowman, the shepherd and the angler, they’re sort of there as the audience, right. They’re sort of there to be astonished by Daedalus and Icarus and by the Great Fall. And of course they’re not. They’re ignoring it. The plowman is obviously doing his thing, and the angler, even though Ickarus is flailing about in the water in front of them, is ignoring that, he’s doing something with his fishing. As you pointed out, the shepherd is looking away and upwards. I don’t I don’t know if that means he’s just seen something or he could be birdwatching for all we know, [laughter] but which would be tremendously ironic? And then the sun is setting, right. So the sun, which was supposed to have been high in the sky and to have caused the wax to melt, is actually setting. Auden interprets the ship as sort of, you know, a ship that could have come to Icarus’s rescue, but it’s kind of sailing on and ignoring him. So that’s the wonderful… wonderful irony in this painting. And then the question is how one goes about understanding that, and that’s what Auden’s poem does so beautifully.
Erin: So shall we get into the poem or or do you think we should bother with the other two?
Wes: They’re both paintings, right? Instead of a mythological scene, it’s a… they’re biblical scenes, but again, translated into contemporary world of Bruegel.
Erin: Though that wouldn’t have been uncommon at this… in this time period for that anachronism. You know, most painters at this time, were just translating it into the modern world.
Wes: So I think the other one, it’s supposed to be relatively central to this. These are speculations because he doesn’t mention these paintings directly in the poem…
Wes: …the way he mentions the Icarus painting. But it’s pretty obvious he’s referring to The Census at Bethlehem. The biblical story is that everyone’s being registered, right?
Wes: …that Caesar Augustus has said that everyone is to be registered and [laughter] I guess for tracking purposes. I didn’t know he had such a nastasi thing going on.
Erin: It was either that or you went to a dentist and got an implant. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Right, right. You know, I don’t think I think listeners should look at the painting, we don’t need to describe it in detail except to say that Mary and Joseph are kind of being ignored by everyone, and the ordinary tasks of daily life go on around her.
Erin: And significantly, there are some children on a little pond skating. That’s the only thing you need to… [laughter]
Wes: Yes. So this is the thing that Auden will make reference to. There’s lots going on in the painting that is sort of not paying attention to which you think would be the central subject of the painting. And again, you know, the parallel to Icarus here is that three figures and Icarus should be astonished and staring and pointing at Daedalus and Icarus but they’re not. And in this case, of course, it’s similarly, Mary is being ignored.
Erin: Yeah. And then the same thing in the… just in the other painting that he references the Massacre of the Innocents. That has a lot of chaos and terrible things happening. But then there’s just a horse that sort of… it’s not scratching it’s behind against a tree, but it’s just sort of like near a tree, sort of leaning on it. It’s unclear which horse he was actually referring to because none of them are actually scratching their behinds on a tree.
Wes: Yeah. This is a very speculative attribution but…
Wes: Yeah, the Massacre of Innocents is also translated into contemporary times. And it’s, you know, Herod’s decree to kill all… what is it? All the babies under two years old?
Erin: Yeah. Boys, I think.
Wes: …trying to get the boys to get Jesus. So there’s actually a version which all the children are painted over because the king (I forget which king it was) didn’t… thought it was too graphic. We can see other… there are other versions of this available, which show all the violence and brutality.
Erin: Oh, wow!
Wes: Yeah, so it is truly “a massacre of innocents”, the painting, originally. But it’s very confusing if you look at the original, because the original’s painted over and the children have become bundles, for instance, or animals.
Wes: So yeah. So Auden writes a poem about all this. [laughter] Maybe it’s time for you to recite it. Yeah.
Erin: Okay. Here we go.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Wes: I love the reference to the human position of suffering. I just… I love that phrasing, and that’s the first thing where I’m sort of smitten with the poem immediately.
Erin: For me, it’s just that odd phrasing of the very first line [laughter] running into the second. “About suffering, they were never wrong, / the Old Masters”. There’s something..
Erin: …like, so unexpected and conversational about that. And this whole poem is just so extremely understated and interesting and seems to be talking just to you or whoever is reading it at the time.
Wes: What I love about the phrase “human position” is just the… it’s the use of a spatial word like “position”, which implies some amount of precision in reference to something that’s more general and more abstract. So we’re speaking of suffering in general, and we’re speaking of the human… And then the word “position” locates that. I think that’s really interesting, because some of what the poem is about is the invisibility of suffering and the way life goes on without acknowledging it. But this use of the word “position” suggests it’s somehow precisely located and concrete. And so perhaps it raises the question of whether that’s true, whether it could be, whether it is there to be looked at or if it’s by nature, mostly invisible to us, which I think we would probably lean in that direction, right? Most suffering that goes on is just not visible. I love the irony of that and the way, you know, that it poses a question up front.
Erin: Yeah, and the lack of specificity in “the Old Masters”. Something kind of interesting too. He’s really talking in particular about Bruegel here and in particular about this certain type of, you know, Flemish, Netherlandish painting where you get these scenes of great multiplicity, of tons of things happening and these Flemish landscape paintings that he’s drawing from. They sort of come out of their own interesting historical moment. I mean, one of the reasons why these painters went to genre scenes and these large landscapes populated with lots of little people is because of the iconoclasm of Protestantism at the time. So they were not really depicting these sort of grand biblical scenes the way that, you know, the Italians or the French or the Spaniards were at this time.
Erin: The way in which the Flemish painters sort of opened up this landscape and put all these little people all doing different things. It’s sort of, like, representative to me of the burgeoning democratization of the world, you know, where they just are showing instead of like a central figure like Mary with the baby Jesus on her lap and then flanked by a couple of important saints or, you know, the people who paid for the painting or whatever. It’s just this multiplicity of figures. There’s just tons of activity and things that are happening.
Wes: And ordinary people.
Erin: Exactly. Yeah, rather than, you know, like Bosch. I think of this as being, you know, Bruegel’s predecessor in a lot of ways. And he has these demonic carnivals that go on with lots of, you know, sick things happening and lots of intrigue going on. But in Bruegel, it’s more just like a bunch of random farmers, a bunch of hunters, you know, lots of little animals, lots of little scenes happening. So democratization, to me, is kind of interesting. It’s sort of reflective. I think of… I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but I think that this is something that Auden’s maybe getting at here, that it’s almost representative of a society that’s no longer homogeneous, right, and directed all toward the same thing. It’s more of a heterogeneous society, not bound by any common faith. Everybody’s doing their own thing. Everyone’s sort of self interested and not particularly interested in what’s going on with the other people around them. And I think that is a… you know, a theme that Auden is going to get out in this poem.
Wes: But I think one of the interesting things about that is that you can see Bruegel meta-commentary in all of this, which is to say that the artist’s usual focus is on the saints or the important people of the big events, of the events of sacrifice and great suffering or disaster. And instead his focus is on everyday people doing ordinary things and then he inserts these big, [laughter] supposedly big events in there. And no one is paying attention to them, in the same way that artists typically, one might argue that artists hadn’t paid enough attention to ordinary people. So if the Icaruses and Daedaluses of the world are representative of the artist, in some sense, it’s as if the subject of his art is ignoring the artist instead of being ignored by it.
Erin: That’s interesting. To me, it’s almost like an aristocracy, which I suppose the artist is asserting himself is a member of creating the painting, But yeah, it’s like an.. you know, an overthrow of the important people. So you no longer put the… you know, the top dog in the central position of the painting, you just sort of hide it in there and everybody else is equally as important for the purposes of the composition of the painting. Or even more important. In the case of the Plowman, you know, he is like the biggest part of it. He and the horse’s ass are [laughter] the two biggest parts of that picture.
Erin: It’s kind of funny. You get this big horse’s rear end staring at you, just kind of a joke.
Erin: But.. so just to, like, quickly talk a little bit about the form. Maybe the curious thing about this poem is that you think it’s going to be sort of normal. I mean, you get this sort of strange rhythm in the first few lines, and a sort of… lopsided way, or rather an unexpected structure to the sentence. The first three lines are 10 syllables each. So you think, okay, it’s going to settle into pentameter, maybe eventually, But then in the fourth line, it’s 17 syllables long. It’s just so long and then from there, it goes all over the place. The second stanza is a little bit more regular. It’s also a little bit more regular in its rhyme. So there is a rhyme scheme here, but the rhymes and the first stanza especially, are kind of far apart. Sometimes they’re a little bit closer together, but some rhymes, like the E rhymes, I think, are eight lines apart. So there’s something there, too. Maybe this reflective kind of a… alienation happening even in the form of the poem, perhaps. And so this fourth line that kind of explodes this expectation of pentameter is he describes what people might be doing while other people are suffering in this list of three things. And he says, while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along, I just love that. It’s such a strange list of three things, especially opening a window.
Wes: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of ambiguity in what all of this means, right? So in the beginning it seems as if the argument is that other people’s suffering is generally invisible to us, our lives go on. We ignore it often, we don’t even know about it. We might not know about it because it occurs, you know, somewhere else. It’s not visible to us. We might not know about it because other people often just suffer silently, we’re never told about. And we often don’t tell each other about our suffering. We might not know about the suffering of others because of failures of empathy. And such failures are often caused by our focus on our own suffering. And that, strangely enough, seems to be the human position of suffering. The position seems to be that it’s situated in a place of limited comprehension. It’s not something that is generally comprehensible to others, and even in our moments of empathy, right, there’s only so much that we can get about another person’s suffering. We can’t relive it. We can’t take their experiences directly into us. So we’re cut off from each other in a way,
Erin: and this seems to be maybe even what the oddity of this particular list is getting at, right, like it could be… we could be eating or opening a window or walking along or doing any number of things. He sort of suggests an infinite number of possibilities, of activities, by only suggesting these three, kind of in the same way that the painting just, you know, it could’ve had anyone in it doing anything or just the scale of Bruegel’s paintings, like there’s this sense that he’s just clipped off the edges of the world in this particular painting and that it just goes on, and on, and on, and on. But he’s chosen this particular little circumference to focus on and that I wanted to relate that back to what you were saying about the nature of suffering.
Wes: So my experience of losing someone that I was really close to, a person who died, is that in the aftermath of that, I was very focused on the fact that no one knew about it, right. So I’d be walking down the street and I’d be thinking, “No one else here knows about the death of this person. They’re entirely indifferent to it, you know. My suffering isn’t relevant to them.” This person wasn’t relevant to them, and my focus was also (this is part of why this poem speaks to me) but my focus was also on the fact that they could be doing such ordinary things in the face of that, right? Everything should stop. You know when something of such significance happens, and that’s the way it is to lose someone that you love when it’s more important to you than to anything else in the world. In a way, it feels like the world should stop and acknowledge what’s happened. And yet it doesn’t. It’s just people go on eating and opening windows and walking along and know nothing of it. Is that something you’ve experienced?
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. What I said in the beginning, when I sort of set this up as being like a poem about World War II, and, you know, I kind of regret that because I don’t I don’t mean that’s quite so literally, of course, when it was written in December of 1938. But I suppose I wasn’t really thinking about this on a personal level, oddly enough, though that would be what the poem would want me to think. I was thinking about it in terms of the historical moment, which is about to happen, which would have people giving up Jews in their own towns or people living in towns that are right next to concentration camps and not particularly caring what was going on there, though it was obvious. And the story told for a long time about people who lived in those nearby towns was that they had no idea what was going on. And, of course, that was later exploded, that, of course, they knew what was going on. They could, at the very least, smell what was going on. And so that indifference, I suppose I placed in that historical moment, or maybe even in terms of the large scale alienation that has happened in modern life and that arguably happened, you know, in the Enlightenment, or even earlier with the Protestant Reformation, where we have people, or at least you know, people in the West, people in Europe split apart and made alien to each other, almost like this sort of new Babel, where you’re no longer united under this concept of, you know, the Holy Roman Empire. Now we have competing belief systems happening within the same continent, and that sort of, I think, from there spiraled a lot of other ways in which people became estranged from each other. So I suppose I was thinking of this on this, this really vast level, you know? Why are we unconcerned with other people suffering? Like, why are we so self centered? What about modern life makes us so desensitized to this? And partially it’s because, you know, we are just so desensitized to seeing other people suffering. If we stopped and cared about everybody who was suffering, we would never do anything. [laughter]
Wes: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm…
Erin: So they especially, you know, with mass media and having it constantly in our faces, you know, we wouldn’t be able to function. So part of that is a useful tool. But I guess, you know, I guess I was just thinking about this in terms of these sort of large scale thoughts about the 20th and 21st centuries and how we got here. I wasn’t at all thinking of it in terms of the personal. But what you say is really true for me.
Wes: Yeah, well, I think this is one of the ambiguities of the poem. And that’s why I started out this way because I think it shifts in the poem. What are we talking about here? We’re talking about? I was saying that some of this is written into the human condition, right? Some of this is just about the fact that we’re subjects…
Wes: …and we don’t have direct access to other people’s subjectivity or that we live in different places. We each have our own position, right? Can’t see everything that’s going on around us. Or as you just mentioned, we don’t have the time or energy. If we were to try to fully comprehend all the suffering that was going on in the world, it’s not possible. If it were possible, I think it would kill us instantly, right? [laughter] At the very least, it would occupy all our time. And if it occupied all our time, in a sense, that would be the way of losing one’s life, right? It would leave us with nothing of our own, except for that continuing empathy and then living for the suffering of others. So Is that what we’re talking about? Or are we talking about the type of indifference to suffering that I think you’re rightly trying to highlight, which is not simply a product of the human condition, but it’s perhaps a product of cultural forces, it’s perhaps a negative product of what it means to be to be civilized even. But we lose some of our empathy, perhaps, or we are willing, for whatever reason, to repress or suppress our awareness, for instance, that there’s a concentration camp down the street. So I think you’re right, you know, to really be thinking about the upcoming war with this. And that was one of the ambiguities that really struck me about the poem. You know, cause why is he talking generically about suffering at the beginning, right? The painting involves the fall of Icarus. Isn’t the painting more about ordinary people doing their thing, not noticing something extraordinary, not noticing some extraordinary mythological event? Is it really about suffering per se? That’s a really, really interesting way to frame all of this. It’s a really original way to start thinking about that painting.
Erin: That’s true. And I guess it’s not even a mythological story that I would typically associate with suffering per se. You know, we all know that he flies too close to the sun and then crashes down into the ocean.
Wes: Oh, the old hubris story.
Erin: Right. But it’s a story of someone, the lesson of which is that they got what they deserved or whatever. You know, this isn’t necessarily the story of Philomela or one of these famous stories of extreme suffering, Niobe… (I don’t know why only women can suffer, to me, in Greek myth) but other people [laughter], or even to imagine necessarily a mythological figure as a figure of suffering, having them be first so far removed in second, not real. It doesn’t seem very immediate to me, which is maybe what Auden’s getting at, partially, right? Like, it’s not immediate to me and therefore [laughter] it doesn’t matter. Far be it from me to downgrade the suffering of people who didn’t exist. But anyway.
Wes: No no, no. I think that’s really important. I think, to get from Icarus, to suffering in general, to human suffering, we need Christianity as an intermediary, right? We need another story involving martyrdom. So I think that’s the connection. There’s a connection between the death of Icarus and the martyrdom of Christ, and that gets us to some of the connections between these different paintings. So the whole thing with the children being skating at the pond on the edge of wood and not… you know, “they never forgot / that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.” [laughter] How do we interpret that? I mean, it’s an amazing way to think about this to me. The first thing I think of, right, is trying to take a child to church. Not that I’ve done this, but I’ve been there when others have tried to take their children, young children, to church and children just being indifferent to it, right. Indifferent to the call, to worship, let’s say, or to the call to acknowledge sacrifice, which is a particularly extraordinary type of suffering and also, of course, like, annoyed and grumpy and not wanting to be there at all, actually, but… [laughter] So you get it… I think there’s a kind of hint of that, and the children just being at the pond and not taking any notice of Mary, for instance, and her arrival. So this is an entirely different aspect of the question of noticing or not noticing suffering, because now we’re talking about our… how tuned in we are to martyrdom, right? Am I reading this right?
Erin: Yeah. Yeah. You mean and not tuned into it in terms of… because it’s martyrdom it demands our attention, or we owe our attention to it?
Wes: Well, I think with the children… the children on the edge of the pond, right, are ignoring Mary and this phrase “they never forgot / that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course”, right? So he’s attributing to children a knowledge that we wouldn’t normally think of them as having there, which is that Jesus is about to arrive, but in the end he dies, and somehow they know this. So the advent is not such a huge deal, because at some level, they know how it all ends, and they would rather just play. Why make a big deal of it, of the arrival of this life when we know it’s going to end? And they could just “play on the pond at the edge of the wood.” But part of what’s interesting, right, is that they’re ignoring something that they’re around historically to see for most of us. You know, if we’re religious, none of that is visible to us, right? The birth of Christ, the death of Christ, These are things that are passed down; they are indirectly available to us. We’re cut off in a way that’s interestingly related to the way the children are cut off. Sorry, I went off on a tangent there. But what I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to get at these two different modes in the poem. One is sort of a general indifference to human suffering and the other is this indifference, either to an extraordinary event, right, with Icarus falling, or to… more specifically to an act of martyrdom in Christ.
Erin: Right. I take that the martyrdom is actually even a little bit more personal to the children than Christ martyrdom, because I think it’s also related to the Massacre of the Innocents. So who are..? I think that they’re often called, like, the “first martyrs” for Christ. And so that’s why they don’t want it to happen, too, because Christ has come into the world or is coming into the world, these martyrdoms have happened, so it demands a cost from people that these children don’t particularly want to make. But as you say, how would they even know about this or care [laughter] or under or understand this, like this baby is born and so now, you know, there’s a potentiality that I, as an under two year old, I’m going to be murdered. The knowledge that this ascribes to these children, like you say, is just… I guess I never thought about this so deeply, but who are these children standing in for? He’s describing these feelings to children who, as you say, lived at that time and were contemporaries of Christ and yet their indifference to what’s going on with him almost seems like children now or whenever in the hundreds of years afterwards who don’t want to pay homage to this martyrdom. So he’s kind of like collapsing all children on top of each other in a way, and saying like this is the condition of childhood to be indifferent to someone’s sufferings for you. So maybe this is more of just like a… I think of all children as being basically ungrateful people, you know, like they’re just either indifferent to the sacrifices that their parents make for them or anything that’s going on, and they are, you know, very self-directed, and they think of everything as being for them or about them. So what did the children know about how martyrdom ends that is either unique to childhood? Or what is it that he’s trying to say about this martyrdom ending? The idea that bad things happen and then you get over it and it’s okay and life goes on. Because I don’t think children particularly know that.
Wes: Right. They don’t. And that’s [laughter] one of the kind of nice ironies of the poem, “How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting / for the miraculous birth, (this is the birth of Christ) they’re always must be / children who did not specially when it to happen, skating / on a pond at the edge of the wood” These are the children in the Census of Bethlehem painting. Mary has arrived pregnant, and the elderly, or the aged, are the ones who are interested in the miraculous birth. But to the children, it’s not so relevant. So we know, you know, of course, older people do tend to be more interested [laughter] in religion for obvious reasons, and children are less interested in it, for obvious reasons. That’s why I brought up the whole church thing. But to explain that he attributes to children a knowledge that they obviously don’t have and or maybe they have it instinctively, right? Maybe they have it at some deeper level, and that’s this idea of “martyrdom running its course.” So why wait passionately for the miraculous birth if the foregone conclusion is death and if the martyred figure passes out of the world, right? Why pay attention to all of this now, when future generations will not have direct access to that experience, they can know it only through faith, basically? So I thought, when reading this, there might be something in here about the nature of faith and the way it’s cut off from the direct experience of martyrdom, even though it’s related to… importantly, to martyrdom.
Erin: Yeah, I suppose I’m just thinking about why are the aged reverently, passionately waiting? That’s because they understand what’s going to happen. They understand that even though the martyrdom is going to happen, they have a respect for the seasons of life, perhaps, and therefore may be more of a respect for the idea that the martyrdom runs its course and things come back around again, and then they have more of a sense of the transient quality of suffering, and that’s why they would be waiting for the miraculous birth, even though they know that that comes with a death inherent in it as well. So I guess… Yeah, you’re just highlighting something which is now, like has opened up a wormhole for me, [laughter] because I’m like… I just… I had always taken for granted that this made sense but what I’m realizing now is like when children are suffering, they’re completely consumed with their own suffering. They don’t have a sense that it’s going to end, you know, and then when it’s over they’re like “okay!” and then they move on, you know, they move on from it quickly…
Erin: …but they don’t have a sense of perspective that the aged would have, and an understanding that bad things do end and then come up again later, [laughter] you know. So you’ve blown my mind because of my shallow reading of this poem [laughter] up until this point.
Wes: I wouldn’t call it that. But the aged are actually the ones, right, who know that the martyrdom must run its course because that’s why they’re interested in the miraculous birth, right? They’re interested in the salvation implicit in it. And to be interested in that salvation, you have to imagine the whole course of birth to death and martyrdom and sacrifice. And so again, that’s another way in which the line is so ironic. What does it mean for the children to be not interested? Because they know that “the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.” It’s puzzling, I think. And the best I can do is to say it’s almost a more natural position, it’s almost more viscerally connected to the fact of martyrdom. They don’t need to be focused on it per se, or it can show up in daily living, right? So in the same way that the people who would just go along, walking along, doing the thing, the plowman, so on and so forth, those acts of seeming indifference (this is why I think there’s such a huge change in the poem) those acts of seeming indifference can be possibly read as an expression of a kind of faith. There’s something about just getting on with things. So this gets into, I think, a very complicated religious question of… that we don’t need to belabor, but what the proper relation to martyrdom and sacrifice is and how that manifests itself in one’s life? To what extent are you looking up in astonishment as Icarus falls from the sky? And to what extent are you just plowing your field and doing your thing? Which of those things is more manifestation of faith? Which of those things is more manifestation of worship? Those, I think, they’re the kind of interesting questions this raises.
Erin: Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts about that. The way that this dreadful martyrdom line is going to reconcile itself for me is to just say that this is children attending, you know, a mass, or the passion play, or something, like, going “Okay, when is this going to be over [Wes laughs] that I can have my candy or whatever, you know, whatever I’m going to be given for sitting through this like a quiet semblance of a person?” So I suppose that that would be an irreverent and an under vouched way of attending a mass or a religious service of some kind.
Wes: “Blessed are the suffering for they shall get candy.”
Erin: Right! There you go. [laughter]
Wes: Sorry. Go ahead. Sorry.
Erin: They’re too young to understand it and so therefore they’re not at fault here for that lack of interest. I suppose what we have to figure out, then, is between maybe the aged who are at the end of their lives. They’re not engaged in the activities of life anymore. And in an agricultural society, certainly they probably have outgrown their usefulness in a practical way and therefore can afford, perhaps to be attentive and to being concerned with the end of their lives, be a little bit more interested in the religious as he hinted at before. And you have children who are not at all attentive. Therefore they have no culpability for their lack of attention because they’re too young to truly understand. So that leaves us with what is then the responsibility of the plowman, the shepherd, the angler who are in… I guess, now that I think of it, very obviously in their adulthood, in their young adulthood, maybe they’re in the prime of their lives. What is their obligation? And it seems to me that in terms of a conception of prayer or even Auden’s own conception of prayer, which I remember reading about, he said something to the effect of, you know, to pray is to actively pay attention to something other than oneself. So the idea that to be… Something… I want to say something here about the act of paying attention, as an act of love, and that tension that you say is always going to pull on the people who are in the trenches of life, so to speak, the people who are called to the concerns of the world and have demands made upon their time constantly, as we do, and also the demand to pay attention, to give things their due. Because very often to be called to work and to perform the tasks of one’s daily life is also an active… like if we don’t pay attention to that, then maybe we can’t feed our families or we can’t, you know, take care of the people around us. So you know, the answer then, is not to like, necessarily drop the plow and start helping everyone around you to the extent that you then don’t get your work done and then your family doesn’t eat. So that… I guess that tension is a really interesting one because we want to be paying attention, we want to be good and active watchers of the religious service or of the Passion play. We don’t wanna be like children who are just waiting for it to be over. But we also, as, like active adults, can’t spend our whole life in church when we have to work or whatever. This is something I’m really interested in, like the active paying attention to people. And was it the Cavell, the King Lear thing? The idea of just attending the tra… Yeah, it was the tragedy thing, just attending the tragedy (I can’t think of a more elegant way of putting this) like gives you brownie points, like you’re, you know, you’re doing a good thing by paying attention and being present at someone else’s suffering, but truly present, like actually paying attention and being invested in it. But then there’s also that idea of the play has to end at some time, and you have to go home and feed the cat.
Wes: What interests me here also is the artist’s attention to suffering. If we are to draw some parallel to which… it seems pretty clear, he wants us to, you know, to the fall of Icarus and to Christ, then what in particular is Icarus’s sacrifice about? Or is that, you know, Is it a bridge too far? Am I reading too much into it? But I think the myth is really interesting in that Daedalus is an artist himself, right? He’s a really great artist. He made the maze, and he’s not just an artisan, but he’s an inventor. He’s an innovator. He can create these amazing wings, which you can imagine him doing this right for decorative purposes, which would be the ordinary way of being an artisan. But of course he’s doing it to magical effect. I think there’s something in here about the artist. I guess I’m not able to put it very well right now because I haven’t fully thought it through but I was trying to connect it to your idea about paying attention to suffering. I mean, part of what’s going on here… we we know, right, that Bruegel is poking fun at the typical artistic focus on something dramatic and grand and on that sort of suffering, and maybe by depicting ordinary lives, right, he’s saying “you should just ought to pay attention to more every day human suffering, that kind of suffering implied and someone doing their plowing” And then.. So what is the artist supposed to pay attention to, right? You know, when one could see it as a commentary to the effect that the artist should be turning their attention to more everyday things, not these grand subjects, not these great mythological topics. And then, um, I’m not sure how to relate that to sacrifice, exactly. But maybe there is some connection.
Erin: Hmm. So for me, the best part of the poem, the most charming part is the dogs going on with their doggy life. And this is related to, I think, another really, really intriguing line. “The sun… (or two lines.) The sun shone / as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green / water…” It seems to me that these two things are like… so animals in the poem are not… they’re not complicit in any kind of suffering, even the horse of the torturer. It’s not doing anything itself. He has an innocent behind that he’s scratching on the tree, and the dog is just doing its dog thing. And so it would seem that there’s this indifference of these animals, which is like, almost criminal in a way, even as it’s charming that, like, the torturer’s horse is just like… whatever. And then “…the sun shone / as it had to…”, so that now it seems to me…
Wes: Oh, I love that, by the way. But keep going.
Erin: Yeah, that’s great. Now it seems to me that this natural world’s indifference is actually an obligation. It’s obliged to be indifferent to us and to ignore us, almost because maybe if the natural world wasn’t indifferent to us, maybe if it stopped to attend us, then the universe would collapse or something. Or…
Wes: That’s really… That’s really interesting. Yeah.
Erin: So that this indifference is actually part of a… This is where I’m thinking that maybe this is a bridge too far. [laughter] But almost like the sacrifice of the natural world is to not care, when maybe it should.
Wes: Explain that because I was actually trying to make this connection between indifference and sacrifice and even faith. But what are you saying here with the natural world?
Erin: It’s as if the sun doesn’t want to just go on shining and not care about Icarus. Or even, perhaps, that it wanted to shield Icarus from the heat that it was giving off but it had to sacrifice Icarus to itself or to its own laws. Maybe this is really wild, I know, but I…
Wes: No, no. I think this is spot on.
Erin: And then, you know the sacrifice then would be allowing Icarus to die for the sake of maintaining the indifference of this natural world. Because one can’t bend laws or have the, you know, the world stop turning or something [laughter] because one felt a certain kind of pity, maybe. You know, I know this is getting like way into the pathetic fallacy, but with Bruegel, too, it’s almost as though the… because he shows all of these people and they’re also tiny, and there’s so many of them. It’s almost as though he’s showing the natural world, like that the people are part of that natural world, too, like their indifference is almost justified in that way, because the people are like bugs under a rock or something, or they’re like they’re just part of the ecosystem and that that is therefore extension of the natural world, these people, and that therefore their indifference is sort of like strangely justified…
Wes: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm…
Erin: …that it seems to me to be almost the virtue of indifference in their lack of care. Yeah.
Wes: Yes, yes. I think that’s excellent. The virtue of indifference. I think that’s a very good way of putting it. When I said, I love the line about the sun, “…the sun shone, / as it had to..” You’ve already put all this very well. But what I love about that is the idea that nature is among the things that’s indifferent to suffering, right? So you get a kind of a taxonomy in the poem and in the painting… well, really in the poem. You get… among the three different paintings you get a taxonomy. So there’s the indifference to suffering involved in adults just going about their everyday activities, there’s animals, there’s children, there’s Ovid’s three laborers and (or whatever you wanna call them) in particular, there’s artifice, right, there’s this ship itself, which “…the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen / something amazing”. So the ship in a way is personified, and it’s delicate. That’s something that emphasizes the fact that it’s a product of artistry…
Wes: …the sort of thing that Daedalus might make. And then finally you get the indifference of nature itself. “The sun shone on / as it had to”. The indifference of the sun, I think, is, as you pointed out, is about the fact that nature works according to set laws and that we can’t expect anything else out of it and that we are not to expect anything else out of God. So this is a big topic in early modern philosophy, and you’ll find lots of philosophers who are also religious, who want to argue against the existence of miracles, or at least most miracles. They want to say that God has set up the world to work according to these natural laws and doesn’t intervene in a way that… there’s a more subtle conception of intervention in which it kind of happens beforehand in a kind of predestination, but doesn’t intervene in the sense that he interferes with the laws of nature or makes exceptions for them. This is what for Leibniz is an important part of what makes our world the best of all possible worlds. They’re suffering in the world, including the Leibniz, but suffering is necessarily a part of the best possible world that God could make. And that has something to do with a world which is organized and orderly and functions according to laws of nature and is not simply complete chaos, right, to articulate a world, to create human beings and everything else necessitates the existence of these sorts of laws. And I bring that Leibniz because his… you know, he wrote a book called Théodicée in his attempt to justify the existence of suffering in the world, created by an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God is a problem for him and these laws of nature play an important role. Anyway, I’m riffing on your indifference of nature thing. I’m not sure how far I’m getting.
Erin: Yeah, no, that’s great. I love what you say about “the expensive delicate”, because I think we both looked at that at the same time and both thought like, “Oh, those were just like the wings. It’s just another mode of transportation”, right?
Wes: Yeah. Exactly.
Erin: Yeah. And so, then, one wonders, “Okay, well, Icarus was having an awfully good time flying up there.” That was part of the problem [laughter] was that he liked it so much that he was encouraged to go higher. So so were the situations reversed? Icarus wouldn’t stop flying to help the people on the ship. Right?
Wes: And in a way, he’s like the children playing in the pond, or the dogs and their doggy life doing their play.
Erin: Right. Yeah. And so the idea that this law of the natural world’s indifference kind of extends to people also, I mean, most importantly of all, you might say it extends to the… I’d call it “the moral imperative of indifference” that allows us to crucify Christ. So the point is that Christ has to be crucified. He has to be sacrificed. We know this. He knows this. That’s the point. So if someone were to save him, if Pontius Pilot chose not to be indifferent then people would never be saved, you know, according to the laws of Christianity. So it’s almost like it’s part of this natural order to be indifferent and and to murder him and that allows the necessary sacrifice to happen so that that’s part of this, I think, extension of what you’re saying of, like the orderliness of the world, necessitating the suffering. It’s almost as though the laws of religion are acting upon the laws inherent in even like the ugliest parts of human nature. It’s like the fact that we are bad is the only thing that’s going to allow us to become good.
Wes: Yeah, these are the sorts of arguments that someone like Leibniz and other philosophers will make.
Erin: Ah, interesting. Ok.
Wes: Yeah I think that’s great. You’re making me now think about relating… so natural indifference and whatever element of indifference is involved in maybe faith, I don’t know, I may be going too far, I haven’t thought that through. But to aesthetic disinterest, right, the sense in which we are… aesthetic experience is disinterested, it’s not focused on gratification in any typical sense, but it’s on… they focus more on form and representation, gratification by actual objects, I mean. And then the… you know, the role of politics for the artist. So what role ought the political to have in the work of an artist? And it seems to me like Auden was kind of wrestling with that, right? I’m thinking about that. I don’t have anything more articulate to say about that.
Erin: That’s really interesting. I’m really not an Auden expert, but as he got older, his charity to others was held very close to his vest. So he didn’t want to let anybody know that he was as nice a guy as he actually was. And he would almost kind of, like, play the part of this, like, mean, indifferent poet or something. It was very strange. He was a super interesting guy, [laughter] but he would, you know, perform these acts of service for people and then get really, really mad if they were publicized at all. He tried to do everything in secret. Yeah, it’s almost as though he sort of realized that this public role that he was playing was so dishonest that he sort of countered it by going covert, like everything with him was this some kind of, like, covert operation. But anyway, what you say about his giving up of this public life, I think, is really spot on in terms of the message of the poem, which is at least performing a kind of indifference.
Wes: Yeah, it’s a Bruegelian impulse. [laughter] Sorry about that, to use Bruegel as an adjective.
Wes: Maybe the act of empathy for the artist is to focus on ordinary living. Right, at the very least, is to focus on the concrete, is to focus on particular representations. If it’s a play or novel, to focus on particular characters, whereas the political pulls one towards a focus on groups and on abstractions and on theses about what is just or what is unjust, and one could be drawn towards that sort of suffering, right, the sort of suffering associated with political injustice at the expense of one’s capacity to empathize with actual real human individuals. That’s why, for instance, you could think that I’m starting a revolution because I love people who care about them, and I’m going to save the world, but I have to break a few eggs to get there.
Erin: Right, right.
Wes: And… yes. In the meantime, people are expendable. So the question is, how does our empathy manifest itself and how ought it to manifest itself in the arts? But sorry, go ahead.
Erin: No. Yeah, you’re just reminding me of something I read about Auden, too, that he said, you know, if the imperative is to love thy neighbor, then he moved away from communism because he said, well, it seems to me that what they’re saying is we’re going to get to a place where you we can love our neighbor. But for right now we have to kill our neighbor [laughter] in order to get to that place where we can love our neighbor. Anyway, that doesn’t have much to do with anything but…
Wes: War for the sake of peace.
Erin: Yeah, exactly.
Wes: Because as far as Orwell, war is peace.
Erin: Right. Right. Maybe just by way of wrapping up a little bit. Just the scope of this, I think, is something that Auden does better than anyone, except for, maybe, an artist like Bruegel, in the sense that we’re on the bayeux tapestry or something, and it just goes on and on and on, and it’s so large and vast as to be incomprehensible, but then we’re shown a portion of it small enough to get a sense of that grandeur without kind of losing our minds. He sort of is performing the work of Bruegel, maybe by highlighting this element of vastness and indifference in these little snippets from these paintings. In a really interesting way. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems of his, is The Fall of Rome in 1947. I think it was written before ‘48, the one that has the famous line about the clerk writing. “I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / on a pink official form.” The last stanza of that, for some reason, is engraved in my mind to talk about the decadence of Rome and everything and then the last stanza it goes. “Altogether elsewhere, vast / herds of reindeer move across / miles and miles of golden moss, / silently and very fast.” And it’s just like that kind of sudden shifting to somewhere else or that sudden inclusion of something else on the tap… or sense that the tapestry is… (I don’t know why I keep saying tapestry, should be saying painting) that’s a little bit more relevant. But anyway, a sense that…
Wes: You’re thinking about the bio tapestry, right?
Erin: Right. Yeah, just something that goes on and on forever, like the world. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, yeah.
Erin: Yeah, but the sense that even the fall of empires is really nothing. All sorts of things are still happening on the earth, and there could be any number of empires falling at any number of times.
Erin: That seems to me to be the kind of the message of Bruegel, maybe. And part of what Auden is getting at here, like, “Don’t worry about it. This dreadful martyrdom is going to run its course. It’s all l gonna be okay”
Wes: Yeah. So I think about life going on and life in particular being more important and maybe being even the substance, right? It’s the substance of a sacrifice myth, the glorification of it and artistic representation or do more justice to the substance of it in the depiction of the ordinary, right?
Erin: That´s good.
Wes: Because that’s what it’s for the sake of…[inaudible] Okay!
Wes: I like that. And thank you for introducing me to the phrase “the virtue of indifference”. I really like that.
Erin: Thank you. All this and more in my next book, [laughter] where I’ll probably, like, reinvent Christian philosophy and act like I came up with it. [laughter]
Wes: All right. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.