What can art do for us? Does it influence culture or is it simply a product of culture? Does it help us see the world better, or is it an escape from the world?
Amongst the shouts of modern art, it seems almost silly to apply such grand questions to poetry, an art form that, in the twenty-first century, seems as quaint as ladies’ bonnets.
W H Auden is one of the best-known poets of the twentieth century (though recently because of his poem “Funeral Blues” featuring in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral as much as anything).
Readers of Alexander McCall Smith may recall how Isabel Dalhousie, the heroine of his Sunday Philosophy Club series of novels, quotes Auden as she attends to moral conundrums, and in his new, slim book on Auden, McCall Smith gives us a taste of the philosophy behind Auden’s work and rhapsodises over the poet’s influence on his own life.
Auden’s poetry deals with, among other things, moral decisions, from war right down to the complexities of one’s love life, and how art can enlighten these issues. Edward Mendelson, author of a fine two-volume study of Auden and his art, suggests that Auden’s poetry fires best when it broods over how art can respond to life.
Auden was particularly guarded about art’s potential to teach us about life, and constantly deferred to life over art. But it is McCall Smith’s contention that Auden’s art is particularly good at teaching us, partly because it affirms how difficult at times it is to (as did Auden) negotiate between honesty and the imagination, public and private, participation and observation, free will and destiny, ideals and practice, and so on.
Additionally, against the current of, arguably, most twentieth century art, Auden’s poetry, rather than valuing escapism, points us constantly to the beauty and importance of the everyday. The much-commented on references to geology are his poetry’s way of reconnecting us to grounded life. And he encourages us, in a parallel with the Christian tradition of saying grace, to say thanks for small, everyday blessings.
In later life, Auden re-embraced Christianity. McCall Smith agrees that we need help with our moral choices, and he is encouraging of religion’s role, even if he says cavalierly that we might like to discard the “mythical” bits. This typically Western attitude, much like genteel philosopher Alain de Botton’s, is unlikely to be something Auden would agree with. After all, Auden turned to a very traditional Eastern version of Christianity that emphasises the community over the individual’s whims.
Nevertheless McCall Smith does recognise that Auden’s faith was not a retreat into a dream world. Auden saw that the real fantasy (and one that had come crashing down with the calamitous World Wars) was to think rational humanism can change the world. Reason is too easily hoodwinked by our prejudices, and we need a framework larger than our own mind to bring us back to reality.
McCall Smith tells us that he is something of a determinist, thinking that with all the history and genetics running beneath the skin of us all we have few moments of genuinely free moral choice, and he finds a similar sentiment in Auden.
Now, it may seem that free will is essential for religion, but the traditional Christianity of Auden’s is realistic about our limited moral capacity, recognising the dark forces that operate subconsciously (and naming them “original sin”) and offering encouragement to be clear sighted about countering them. This is what religion can do for you.
Alexander McCall Smith, What W. H. Auden Can Do For You (Princeton University Press, 2013).