W. H.

AUDEN: FROM MYTH TO PARABLE Edward Mendelson Auden could not think about myth without also thinking about questions of justice. When he started writing in the late 1920’s, he was an heir to the great first generation of modernists -- Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Yeats -- all of whom were interested in myth, the primitive, that which is essential and hidden inside human beings. Auden thought of these issues differently from the preceding generation. From the start, he was interested in the idea of myth as a way of identifying that which was universal among human beings for the purpose of escaping the injustice of divisions -- ethnic, sexual, racial, national. He thought that by finding the myth, by identifying that original element in human beings, it would be possible to find the kind of justice which seemed to have evaded the societies around him. The kinds of mythical and deep qualities of human beings that interested him at the time were the Freudian unconscious and the Marxist idea of history as a force superior to human beings, a flood carrying human beings with it toward a single goal. But as he worked in this way, Auden, whose mind was always dialectical, could not help noticing that to the degree that onethought mythically, or that those around him thought mythically, there were two temptations: one, to forget the reality of individual human beings who suffered and were the victims of injustice; and the other, that the sophisticated believer in these primal forces also tended, in too many cases not to notice, to believe in the embodiment of knowledge -- the strong man, the seer, the master, the leader or the party able to embody these future forces. He was aware of the idea that the avant garde, as Baudelaire pointed out, was a military metaphor of those who carried the fight forward against others. Auden began to suspect this. In 1936 when he went to Iceland, he found himself writing a poem in which he began to worry about the loss of the sense of the unique persons he was photographing, this man and that woman lost in history hostile as a flood everywhere overriding our will. He thought of truth as something not available to any of us, but which, by definition, someone must have, some strong person we waste our foolish lives in looking for. At this same time, he felt that this sense of focus on the unique individual human being might be a moral luxury -- this was the time of the Spanish Civil War -- and he found himself writing poems in which, on the one hand, he emphasizes a mythical belief in an inevitable historical movement, some primal myth that will ultimately unite everyone, and yet he sensed that real justice and injustice involves unique persons. It was really with this in mind that he came to the United States, partially to clear himself of his public status as a poet with a particular political message, a kind of heroic figure whose travel to Spain in 1937 got him on the front page of a newspaper. Around the time the Second World War broke out, Auden began to embrace more actively what had interested him somewhat before, Jungian archetypes. He

a figure who has always just disappeared. and around 1939 began using it wholeheartedly. always just gone away.) But it was in that earlier mood. that he returned to the Anglican communion in 1940. . "BOSH -. the deep qualities of human beings. and Auden wrote later on in the margin. The Jewish woman looks at the sleeping non-boyfriend and thinks of her relation to her father and to her past. When he wrote we must love one another or die. . where Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth paraphrased Jung’s book on psychology and religion. In The Age of Anxiety (1944-46) almost the whole poem is an exploration of archetypes with an archetypal journey into the primal self. For the next six or seven years. and the poems became full of Tillich’s idea of the intersection of fate and time.which Auden had read with the help of Joseph Campbell and Henry Robinson’s commentary. In the background of this is Finnegan’s Wake.1939. For a while. four characters sing a lament for a figure who is not quite Joseph Campbell’s hero. some figure who harrowed hell and stormed the stupids and went through all these mythical events. as he was exploring the circular. . September 1st. but it lies flat on the page until the last ten pages when the archetypes disappear.whose name has echoes of the Rosetta Stone and going to the past -. the mythical.STRAIGHT FROM JUNG!" but at this point that was his commitment.started using Jungian vocabulary in his early twenties. he was thinking of love as an instinctive primal force that cannot be refused. Moses will scold if We’re not all there for the next meeting At some brackish well or broken arch. In the middle. .suddenly take personal responsibility for their faiths and for their lives. she talks about the moment when she is going to face a real historical suffering.is no longer interested in the myth she makes up of a magical place. "I can’t suppose I could wish he could write the King’s English). . having come to believe that love is a matter of conscious intention and covenant. I should say. Two of the four characters -. but very close. Tired as we are. Auden’s poems were filled with the Jungian vocabulary. a doctor -.) There is an extraordinary moment in which Rosetta -. (He later said that this was the worst line he ever wrote. because the archaic language represents the archaic truth. very uninteresting speeches.one a Jewish woman and one clearly a believing Christian. as in The Christmas Oratorio. chosen by Halverson for his book on religious drama. he was fascinated by Tillich (although Auden said. (The poem is written in a variety of Old English meter. as in the poem. We must try to get on Though mobs run amok and markets fall. . The Age of Anxiety is an interesting poem. . partially through reading Paul Tillich. There the four Jungian faculties have long speeches. and she says she must wait for the coming of God.

. as he starts writing about the human body. suddenly drops away from all thought of myth and talks about how difficult it is to climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die-For the new locus is never Hidden inside the old one Where Reason could rout it out. . (The Jewish Creed) Then Malin. not with any mythical quality. as that which is universal to human beings. What happens in the first person is what matters to him in religious thought. Nor guarded by dragons in distant Mountains where Imagination Could explore it. This idea of the personal commitment to one’s belief is what suddenly affects Auden’s thinking for the next fifteen years of his life. Though passports expire and ports are watched. the body escapes. seizing its chance. the Christian character. He is not interested in myths. He says Now. The body speaks in one of his poems: I rode with Galahad on his Quest for the San Graal. except as a kind of joking reference. . Auden immediately abandons the idea of the archetype. ‘adonai ‘echad. ‘Adonai ‘elohenu. The body couldn’t possibly imagine why anyone would want to be chaste. Must their blue glare Outlast the lions? Who’ll be left to see it Disconcerted? I’ll be dumb before The barracks burn and boisterous Pharoah Grows ashamed and shy. not what happens in some universal sense that takes away the sense of personal responsibility. the ordinary human body. but was the one that had to keep that vow. Some dull dogpatch a stone’s throw Outside the walls. Sh’ma’ Yisra’el. As. Though thousands tumble. Section by section. without understanding I kept his vow. to join Plants in their chaster peace which is more To its real taste.Though lights burn late at police stations. as desire and the things desired Cease to require attention. reserved For the eyes of faith to find. the place of birth Is too obvious and near to notice.

Both of these are present in every work of art. Auden developed an aesthetic which contrasted the myth and the parable. Auden started out. Both are there in all our imaginations of the world. inevitable. and the degree to which the great myths of the 20th century. injustice and suffering are endured. There is no way of dividing or separating the two.but the parable is something that each person must historically decide on. The id and the superego are explanations of the human mind as the myth of Athena or the war god is an explanation of what happens. but not among human masters -. They are explanations of what happens. He thought of myth as an explanatory story. but he is constantly reminding the poet about the real historical event.in tall tales. You don’t fight racism by studying anthropology. What does it mean to me? How will I take responsibility for it? For Auden. but by unique individuals. not chosen. Suffering is experienced by historical persons. It corresponds to the sonnet form. the fall is very much a historical event: That Pliocene Friday when. not by archetypes and universals. you right racism by inspiring in others a passion to love their neighbors as themselves. Men have always lounged in myths. as I said. he said. cyclical. were colluded in the injustice that caused that suffering. therefore I am’--: And well by now might the lion . by denying the reality of those unique individuals. he starts to focus on the way in which. which is natural.it may be so in the case of a religious master.the poet and the historian -oppose each other in Auden’s work.At the same time. It is not a mystery held by the master for the disciples to work their way through -. because he is not very interested in human beings. Would our death also have come?) One bubble-brained creature said:-‘I am loved. how to decide what to do in the first person. the historian is not very interested in aesthetics. From here on. who is always thinking about verse forms and heroic figures and myths. The parable is the story which is told to you. and it is up to you what you are going to make of it. At His Holy insufflation (Had He picked a teleost Or an arthropod to inspire. It is always present. explicitly (it was implicit in his work before). and he starts making a distinction between the the myth that the poet likes and the history that the historian likes: the pure poet. These two figures -. is not a very appealing figure. a tall tale. he looks toward that quality in the poem and in all human stories which is the parable. thinking about the search for the universal as a way of achieving justice. But the explanation is not in any way a help when you have to decide how to act. but. The myth is that quality of the work of art or the way of thinking which is always the case. He said to a class around 1946 that he had studied anthropology as a way of working himself out of the prejudices of his culture. For that.

which sees through all the illusions of the unique personality or the cohesive self or all those things that the 20th Century thinks it so successfully demolished. Auden was delighted to read Campbell on the hero in 1946. "HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT. anthropocentric. I believe this because I’m an Englishman. but a history that the creed talks about: Jesus being born and living in the reign of Caesar. Whereas Auden says. What Auden is saying is not. that is a question. And later on. I cannot impose it on you. I find myself asking why I should believe in a theory if the speaker seems uninterested in living by it. it is telling] that Jesus and the Buddha were the same in effect: they were both attacked by spears. “This is always true. eternally there in the psyche. "ON GOOD FRIDAY THE SPEARS WERE REAL. Christianity is not a myth. I have no status as a master -. the sophisticated intelligence believes this always ends up prostrating itself before large historical forces and deep movements in the psyche that take away the responsibility for one’s individual actions. He associated the myth with the kind of weakness that allows yourself to be battered around by those who believe very strongly what they believe and who may not believe something that is to your benefit or anyone else’s but theirs. Campbell and Auden started to intersect. because I write poems. In 1953 Campbell lectured at Smith and said [though this may be a parody. but myths are the same everywhere. “Could you please lead us as you did in the 1930’s?” and Auden.Be lying down with the kid. but in the Buddha’s case. Had he stuck to that logic.) They become attached to different historical circumstances in different places but they remain myths.” Gradually and inevitably.. There is a telling discussion reported in ARC Directions back in the sixties on the topic. There is no apology going on here.Auden refuses to yield to the collective authority.sorry to say you’re a fool. JOE?" Now that is the right question. The historicity is not the main point. say. Because there is no personal commitment in what Campbell is saying. And that’s different from asking whether it is modern. I notice in reading. sophisticated. So much for any discussion of what the millennium might mean. The parable cannot do anything of the sort. That is what is meant by an archetype. (I love that wonderful kind of self confidence -. the spears turned into flowers. Myth claims to be always true. of that initial assertion of self-love to the exclusion of mutuality and responsibility--the lounging in myth.") Now Campbell says here of the mythological form.” but "This is what I take responsibility for. you decide what you are going to do with it. “Literary Myths as Bearers of Meaning. Campbell continues. It simply says here is a story. because he knew perfectly well that the myth of the leader was always a falsehood. When a mythology disintegrates. believing. What I should believe when I am 52 years old. (They had intersected earlier. And Auden shouted from the back of the room. right out of man. . Out of the audience comes Auden’s question. Thomas Hardy or George Eliot that the sophisticated intelligence. a new one comes. I am sorry to say. What I should think in 1967 is not a question. deeply embarrassed. Now when I hear in a talk a theory of life or of myth. because I am 60 years old -. It is true. But where does it come from? Right out of the psyche.Someone in an audience asked Auden. radical etc. turned red. a specific historical moment. That was his description of that event.

like a carpenter. or a bunch of fishermen. not impressive. Edward Mendelson is an ARC Fellow and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. up to date in preference to the parable. intellectually weak. In 1972 Auden appointed him Literary Executor of his estate. which asks what you are going to do with what you have on your plate. 1999).Now. including evaluations of word processing programs. when I think about the 20th century’s ideas about myth. for example. and since Auden’s death. . something that almost anybody could believe. radical. He is also a Contributing Editor to PC Magazine and writes on the literary aspects of computing. it is obvious to me that it is a great intellectual triumph in many ways that has seen through errors and prejudices. It is sophisticated. fonts and typography. but I have no doubt at all about which one is worth living by. that clearly is naive. it is intellectually probing. His most recent book isLater Auden (Farrar. It is pretty clear which one is more sophisticated. Straus and Giroux. it is modern. Mendelson has been responsible for all editions of Auden’s works.

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