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Auden’ s Moral Comedy: A Late-Winter Reading

by William F. French

William C. French taught ethics at Loyola University in Chicago and was a member of the Chicago Center for Peace Studies at the time this article was written. This article appeared in the Christian Century February 24, 1982, p. 205. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The trouble with W. H. Auden’s poem For the Time Being is that in subtitling it “A Christmas Oratorio,” Auden condemned it to being treated primarily as an inspirational holiday ritual -- akin to watching “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” on television with the kids or spiking the eggnog. A hurried Christmas reading tends to misconstrue Auden’s message as just another cheerful reflection on the meaning of the Nativity. Likewise that type of reading tends to trivialize Auden’s humor as an attempt to get laughs, to add to the merriment of the holiday season.

Late winter, however, when the chilling winds and numbing routine have taken their toll, is actually the best time to read Auden’s Christmas poem. For Auden, our ordinary existence is lived out in a post-Christmas world where “The Christmas Feast is already becoming a memory. . . . And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.” His concern in the poem is not simply to speak of the Nativity events but rather to draw out their incarnational impact upon the mundane world of the everyday. And what could be more boring, more deadeningly mundane, than the cabin-fever periods of February? Only a late-winter reading allows access to the deeper layers of meaning in the poem, because for Auden Christmas is more than simply a discrete peak event -- a holiday -- distinct from the rest of the year; it is an annual reminder that God has acted and is acting “to redeem from insignificance” the monotonous sludge of our everyday routines. Auden’s point is that Christmas has more to do with the serious confrontation with emptiness in late winter than with holiday good cheer in December.

A post-Christmas reading discloses the depth of Auden’s incarnational vision and by so doing helps illuminate how Auden uses comedy and humor -- not merely for laughs, but to promote and sustain honest moral reflection. While most moralists and literary critics of this century have viewed comedy as frivolous, a hindrance to serious thinking, Auden used it in the service of morality. In “The Christmas Oratorio” his comic witnesses of the Nativity train attention on our common human foibles and show that the general drudgery and pettiness of our lives may contain an underlying dimension of significance and worth.

Auden wrote For the Time Being in the years 1941-42, during a pivotal period in world history and in his own career. He had angered many of his English compatriots by emigrating to America, an act some considered disloyal and cowardly in the face of the imminent war. Auden changed not only his residence but his views on religion and politics in this era. Even his poetic style had been gradually shifting for some time. Not all of his early admirers appreciated these changes.

Auden had achieved recognition in the late ‘20s and the ‘30s for his haunting images of the anxiety and tension in Europe between the wars. As his friend and critic Stephen Spender has observed, Auden’s stance in his early poetry is that of a diagnostician: he describes the symptoms of the social and spiritual problems of the age and prescribes love as the proper cure. Throughout his life, love was always Auden’s remedy, but in these early years he described it sometimes in Freudian terms as a release from repression, sometimes in Marxist terms as authentic existence through social action.

In his early secular period Auden sought to attain a detached tone in his poetry, in order to emphasize the accuracy of his diagnoses. He sought an elevated perspective; as he put it, he wished to see “as a hawk sees it or a helmeted airman.” And from this height, Auden emphasized the large-scale, the political dramas of a collapsing world, the tragic epic of the West, even as he used the images of the tortured dreams, fears sand drives of the psyche to describe them.

But by the late ‘30s Auden began to experience a general loss of trust in his secular prophets, and he slowly came to retrieve and to deepen his childhood appreciation for Anglican Christianity. In “A Thanksgiving,” written near the end of his life, he describes his slow conversion to religion:

Finally, hair-raising things
That Hitler and Stalin were doing
Forced me to think about God.
Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
Guided me back to belief.

 

Along with this slow conversion came a shift in Auden’s choice of scale, from the epic and tragic to the intimate, the domestic, the familiar. The tense elliptical voice he made famous fell silent, and he began to pick up a relaxed, friendly, often humorous tone. The note of strident propheticism and political critique gave way to quieter, more patient harmonies. To many he seemed to have turned his back on politics. He wrote of nature in “In Praise of Limestone” (1948). He seemed far from public problems when he trained his attention on the significance of the different rooms of his house in “Thanksgiving for a Habitat” (1962-63).

Left-wing critics who had adopted Auden as their poet laureate now deplored his return to the church. They saw it as an act of intellectual cowardice, and disowned him. Liberal intellectuals who had once applauded Auden’s passionate dissection of the social traumas of the ‘30s now snorted that his new humorous, relaxed style was frivolous and irrelevant -- hopelessly bourgeois. One mockingly asked in the title of a review, “What’s Become of Wystan?” Another joked of Auden’s “inverted development.”

In recent years essayists and biographers have been more sympathetic to Auden’s journeys and much more positive in their assessment of his intellectual career. Indeed, something of an Auden renaissance seems to be stirring. Nathan Scott, in The Poetry of Civic Virtue (Fortress, 1976), outlines the coherence of the mature Auden’s poetic program. Likewise three excellent biographies of Auden have recently been published, each capturing his warmth: Charles Osborne’s W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979); Edward Mendelson’s fine Early Auden (Viking, 1981); and Humphrey Carpenter’s acclaimed W. H. Auden: A Biography (Houghton Muffin, 1981).

No doubt Auden’s return to the Anglican Church won him new Christian admirers; converts flatter us by imitation. But while Christians have appreciated Auden’s message, they have often remained deeply ambivalent toward his comic imagery. Neither Marxists nor moralists are known for their funny bones. In the view of Marxists, humor distracts us from participating in the vital movements of history: it is bourgeois and decadent. Moralists see humor as shallow and silly. Humor subverts the seriousness and gravity which mark moral reflection and decision-making.

For the Time Being was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion. It offers not only Auden’s most explicit and lengthy statement of his Christian vision but also an insight into why he chose to articulate it through comic imagery. Auden believes that far from hindering Christian moral reflection, comedy illuminates the human penchant for self-righteousness and self-deception, and thus actually promotes such reflection.

Auden’s central point is that the Christ Child addresses us not so much in the holiday times of warm companionship and celebration as in the flat stretches of our lives. Thus the title For the Time Being operates on many levels. First, it refers to the period in which we all live. Our time. Home. The world which never quite measures up to Christian ideals or Hollywood portrayals. It is the post-Christmas period “between the times.” As Auden describes the movement from the religious fervor and sense of renewal of the holidays to the post-Christmas depression:

The streets are much narrower than we remembered;
     we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who
     have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time
     of all.

 

Second, the title refers to the significance of historical existence, which is becoming infused with the power and possibility of the incarnation. The day-today is being redeemed, and the task of Christians is to participate in this slow work. In Auden’s words:

In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance.

 

Third, there is an implication that the “Time Being” also refers to the Logos-Child, the Divine Word made flesh in history. Thus Christian moral action is always an act of gratitude for this sacred gift.

Auden locates the events of the Nativity within the vast sweep of history made sacred through the incarnation. In disarming fashion he describes the events from the often bewildered perspective of the wise men, the shepherds, Joseph and Herod. He emphasizes their humanity -- their dignity, strengths and gifts and all of their foibles and quirks. He shows Joseph worrying that gossips will say Mary was sleeping around. Auden gently mocks Joseph and our own desire for conformity and propriety in his prayer, “O pray for us, the bourgeoisie.”

The wise men become scholars and scientists, rather befuddled and reluctant in their strange adventure.

At least we know for certain that we are three old
     sinners.
That this journey is much too long, that we want our
     dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we
     are.

 

Herod, in one of Auden’s funniest passages, appears as a well-intentioned bureaucrat proud of his accomplishments.

Barges are unloading soil fertilizer at the river wharves. Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices. Allotment gardening has become popular. The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans.

Herod fears that this infant the wise men are calling God will replace objective reason and order with subjective visions and social chaos.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. 0 dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.

Before ordering the massacre of the innocents, Herod gets an attack of the “why me’s”: “I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everybody to be happy. I wish I had never been born.”

Auden’s genius is shown not just in his obvious gift for comedy but also in his insight that serious Christian moral reflection may be promoted through comedy. The mistake many of his critics and most moralists -- Christian, liberal or Marxist -- make is that they have a one-sided understanding of what morality is all about. They think that morality is concerned primarily with decisions, deeds, policy options and remedies for problems. The individual stands at a fork in the road and chooses one path. It is the stuff grand epics are made of, and comedy and humor are seen as utterly inappropriate responses to a tense situation requiring a serious moral decision. From this perspective, Auden’s comic voice sounds frivolous and chatty, like a favorite uncle who talks too much. So the left-wing critics labeled Auden bourgeois, and Christian moralists dismissed him as a bit silly. Both groups believed that his moral vision and his comic expression were mutually incompatible.

In recent years, however, many have challenged the decision-point model of morality. “Character ethics” emphasizes that the foundation of our decisions lies in the peculiar virtues and habits that each of us brings to a moral problem. Character ethicists think the decision-point model of morality is reductionist, because it ignores how difficult it is to discern the nature of relevant facts in the first place.

Prior to making a decision based on facts, one must see them accurately. The proponents of the standard decisional model of morality often don’t recognize the difficulties involved in simply “seeing.” Facts are thought of as solid blocks which all rational agents will perceive in the same way.

Against this view, Iris Murdoch and others have used the insights of psychology and literature to focus on the common experience in which two people looking at an event see totally different things going on. Murdoch stresses that perception is not simply a passive process whereby the objective world of facts makes itself perfectly known to us. The relevant facts of most moral problems are far more slippery.

Perception is an active process in which a person trains attention on part of the world and struggles to filter out irrelevant detail so as to discern the important features of the “facts” and to locate them in their context of meaning. Seeing thus involves constantly evaluating and relating facts to each other, to disclose significant patterns of meaning. The picture thus derived is often colored by life history, prejudices, insecurities and defenses.

For those who speak of an ethics of vision or character, the main problem of the moral life is not so much the rational calculation of the rightness or wrongness of actions as it is the self-deception and egocentrism that can arise from insecurity to block honest self-awareness and to distort our vision of others and the world about us. This concern leads character ethicists to emphasize a set of problems which the decisional account of ethics tends to ignore. This group of thinkers tries to inculcate respect for certain attitudes and virtues. They are not really concerned about prescribing norms for action; the terrain they are concerned about lies in the realm of life-stance, truthfulness and responsibility.

Murdoch, an Oxford philosopher and a fine novelist, calls our attention to a virtue which modern moral philosophy has almost completely ignored: humility. Because the standard model of morality focuses on the moment of decision, it sometimes makes the moral dimension of our lives sound far more exciting and dramatic than it really is. It paints a picture of tragic vigils, of Byronic heroes overcoming moral ambiguity. Somewhere along the way the simple things like humility get dropped out of this moral philosophy. In The Sovereignty of Good Murdoch argues that genuine realism is a “moral achievement” and that right conduct flows from true vision. Moral progress requires an end to self-deception. It requires humility to silence narcissism, to relinquish egoism. As Murdoch puts it, only “the humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are.”

Character ethics helps us understand how Auden can insist on articulating his Christian moral vision comically. His incarnational theology emphasizes the divine redemption of the mundane. As many a TV situation comedy has demonstrated, human finitude can be very funny, and Auden heightens the humor by suggesting that the humdrum is caught up in salvation history.

No longer does Auden want to see from a detached vantage point -- as the helmeted airman -- for that stance implies a superiority, a self-righteousness which denigrates the worth of the mundane realm. Humor from this detached perspective can only become a weapon. It becomes cynical, malicious. It kills. But in For the Time Being we see Auden come down from the heights and embrace the world in all its brokenness and finitude. For Auden the doctrine of the incarnation means that when the Word became a “Time Being” and was made flesh, the foibles and limits of the world became strangely graced. At heart, Christianity is a robustly materialist religion, for it affirms that the sacred has entered the mundane. Christians are justified in taking up a comic perspective as a means of respecting the cosmic joke of the incarnation. For if Zen Buddhists have their notorious “laugh,” Christians too deserve a good chuckle at our collective historical surprise that the Divine Word would sneak into history as a babe at Bethlehem. Humor reminds us that since the incarnation, even the tedium of our daily chores is blessed. While the human realm, “the moderate Aristotelian city/ Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen” still remains filled with the same old drudgery, and we still remain weak, ignorant and often silly, our attitude toward the world and ourselves must remain open to wonder and possibility.

Auden’s comedy then is not simply for laughs. Rather it is an instrument whereby he punctures our pretension and self-deception, as in his poem “Grub First, Then Ethics.” We are neither pure nor perfect, and we can wreak havoc when we attempt to soar too far above ourselves. When he jokes about the bumbling wise men or the bourgeois Joseph, Auden laughs at those traits in himself and teaches us that it is necessary to laugh at ourselves, too.

Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that sin arises more from common insecurity than from any primal human maliciousness. Similarly, the self-deception of narcissism and egoism is often a defensive response to anxiety and self-doubt. As therapists have argued, these sorts of problems can’t be resolved by direct challenge. It doesn’t help to tell someone not to be so insecure.

Because of this peculiar intransigence in the plumbing of the psyche, Auden’s comic expression of his moral vision is important. It does not confront us directly, as normal moral statements do; rather, its humor relaxes our guard. Comedy subverts our defensive posture, and heals by offering the fundamental affirmation that human finitude is good. Perhaps through laughter we can, for the very first time, come to see- ourselves as we are. The central irony of the moral life is that by simply not taking ourselves so seriously, we may become more serious moral agents and more serious Christians.

Comedy challenges those foolish gnostic escape artists of every era who wish to flee conditioned existence for some pure realm of light and truth. Gnosticism has a long heritage of nasty judgments about the corruption of our bodies, our eating habits, our daily chores, our normal lives. Typically, gnostics hold that the sacred realm, the realm of perfection, is utterly estranged from the mundane, everyday world. Hence our world is worthless.

While few fully subscribe to this vision today, many embrace a gnostic view of morality: they are so accustomed to thinking of the moral life in the flash-and-bang terms of dramatic decisions and heroic choices that our daily routines and quiet virtues are regarded as morally insignificant.

But Auden is no fool. His humor is designed to remind us that our attitude to our own limitations may govern how we respond to the harsh times of tragic choices. Auden’s comic voice reminds us that patience may well be a quiet form of courage, and self-awareness and humility contain a silent power all their own. In redeeming the everyday, he reminds us that moral heroism need not always be dramatically displayed.


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