• W.H. Auden and "The Dyer's Hand"

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    I came to this marvelous gay curmudgeon throught the fanstasy novels of Tolkien and through the mystery novels of Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar). I'm one of those people who upon finding an author I enjoy reading becomes obessessed with them. I read not only everything they have writen, but often every major book written about them. In the case of W.H. Auden, I had just finished the LOTR for the second time and began looking for commentary about Tolkien and his work. I discovered that Auden was instrumental in getting the word out about how great Tolkien's work was. He wrote major reviews for each volume of the trilogy for the New York Times. He felt it was a masterpiece and explained why. I ate everyword up as if it were manna because even though I did not have an Oxford education, I felt the same way. I loved Tolkiens work as a young boy; Auden loved it as an educated man. He put me on the path to both loving and understanding Tolkien's work that has existed to the present day. I read the LOTR ever year starting in October. And I also frequently re-read Auden's essays on Tolkien as well.

    The Ross MacDonald connection is a little more direct; I discovered Auden after devouring all of Ross MacDonald's novels I could find and then finding Auden's essay on the mystery in an anthology. Intrigued, I followed the essay and discovered that Auden was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan where Kenneth Millar (R.M.'s real name) was a graduate student. They hit it off well and since Auden was a huge fan of mysteries, he got Kenneth interested in the form because Auden felt the mystery was worthy of serious artistic expression. Kenneth went on to publish mysteries that were so good they caused usually dismissive critics to take notice. His novel "The Underground Man" was the first mystery novel to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times by Eudora Welty. It was a great review, but I've always wished it could have been Auden who reviewed it there.

    W.H. Auden is an unusual passion of mine because he's never had that patina of "greatness" for me that other artists like Robert Lowell or Robert Graves have. I've always thought of him as my very, very smart "best friend" because, like Auden, I never really acknowledged a distinction between "high" and "low" art. Krazy Kat was as "artistic" to me as "Crime and Punishment"; I am equally fascinated with "Popeye" as I am with "Princess Mononoke". Auden was a great consumer of popular culture, much like that other wonderful queen, Walt Whitman.
    In Auden's brilliant collection of essays, "The Dyer's Hand" (1962) he makes the point that:

    "The critical judgment "This book is good or bad" implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to the readers future a book is good now if it's future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide therefore is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later"

    That quote was from his essay (included in "Dyer's Hand") "Making, Doing and Knowing". You can imagine how impressive this was to a 17 year old student with a love of classic literature and a secret love of heroic fantasy. In school, these subjects were never allowed to meet. With Auden, they were encouraged to meet, go out to dinner and then have wonderful sex.
    No wonder Auden has been a constant in my life for over three decades.

    Auden wrote in just about every field. He is probably equally regarded for his fine poetry (I love his poems about complex machines and wild woodland hills) and his criticism. If you haven't read Musee des Beaux Arts, stop reading this and go out and buy any collection of Auden's with this poem included (try the "Collected Poems"). He also wrote avant-garde plays, translations of opera, documentary film scripts and never found a crossword puzzle he didn't like. The definitive biography (for me) is the one written by Humphrey Carpenter titled "W.H. Auden: A Biography. While not a writer with high critical marks, I have admired every biography he has written (including his Tolkien biography which I've read at least 10 times). Humphrey set's Auiden's work and life in perfect contrast/unison. His homosexuality was always a part of his work, but never defined him in the way that writers like John Rechy or Jean Genet. He was gay and to hell with you if you didn't like it, he was too busy reading, smoking cigarettes, doing crosswords, drinking cheap wine, daydreaming, finding the third volume in the Maigret detective series and staring at young men. Hmnn...he does sound like John Rechy there. Perhaps I'd better re-consider my idea.

    Almost every year I come back to "The Dyer's Hand". And each time I find something new to admire and think about. Listen to this from his essay "Reading":

    "Good Taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure"

    and this, from "Writing":

    "Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. There is a certain kind of person who is so dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to test those around him with tiresome behavior; what he says and does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, but because it is his remark, his act. Does this not explain a good deal of avant-garde art?"

    Auden chooses, for the most part, to write in the epigrammatic style of short sentences or short paragraphs. This allows him free range to address a variety of topics within a single subject, unlike the traditional essay form with it's relentless forward motion. There are a few traditional essays in the book. "The Guilty Vicarage" is a wonderful explication and love poem for the mystery novel; "Genius & Apostle" introduced Ibsen to me as a vital and modern artist with much to say about life and happiness; "The I Without a Self" gave insight into the mind/world of Kafka that goes beyond simply reading Kafka. Listen to what he says about Kafka's readers:

    "Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful"

    What's fascinating about this quote is that initially one is inclined to disagree, but upon reflection (especially after reading works like "Penal Colony") one see's the real truth in Auden's words.

    There are other essays on the "Master-Servant" relationship in Literature (some consider this the showpiece of the book), Shakespeare, Byron's Don Juan, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost (a wonderful essay with a funny/serious ending), D.H. Lawrence. But what finally most interests me in the "Dyer's Hand" is Auden's fascination with religion and God. I am by no means a Christian, nor do I believe in God or some "supernatural" realm of existence beyond this one. But when I read Auden I become a believer for the time I am reading his essays on relegion. Somehow, the "best friend" relationship with him surfaces and I am caught up in his storytelling. I like this. It allows me to secretly "try out" spiritual thinking while I'm in his company, but then maintain my own beliefs when I'm myself again. I supose this is the storyteller's "spell" that the ancients say Homer had in spades. I guess this makes Auden my "Homer", something I have never considered until now. I like that thought.

    On Critics:

    "What is the function of the critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

    1) Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware
    2)Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
    3)Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
    4)Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
    5)Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making"
    6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, relegion, etc."
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