Friday, June 21, 2013

A Wedding Cake in the Rain: Notes on Auden's Face

"If that's his face, what must his scrotum look like?" asked the painter David Hockney after first meeting W.H. Auden.  For my money, it's the best, and cruelest, comment made about Auden's face in the last two decades of his life.  Other contenders include Auden's own remark "My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain" and Hannah Arendt's rather grandiose claim that "life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape" on Auden "to make manifest the heart's invisible furies." James Merrill's description of the face as "runneled and seamed" and Christopher Isherwood's claim that such a face "really belonged in the British Museum" are weak entries in the field, especially coming from such talented writers.  Perhaps their admiration for the poet held their tongues in check.

I'd long wondered just what had happened to Auden's face, which was pale and smooth in his youth.  Indeed, I'd developed a number of theories over my many years of reading Auden.

1.  Cigarettes and Benzedrine

Auden was, by any standard, an epic smoker.  Indeed, I've often suspected that a play he co-wrote with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6, names its fictional mountain after a German cigarette brand.  And for many years he took a daily dose of amphetamines (it may well have been the secret behind his Stakhanovite literary productivity, as it was for Sartre and Ayn Rand).  Could these have been the culprits behind Auden's sad decline into scrotum-facedness?

An English physician, Douglas Model, shown a photo of Auden, offered a diagnosis of "smoker's face."  It is certainly true that smoking can have deleterious effects on one's skin, but Auden's seems to be a special case.  No similar condition afflicted his many smoking friends.

2.  Pale Skin in Ischia

In his later years, Auden took to spending a good portion of every year on the Italian island of Ischia, where the sun beats mercilessly down on the near-white sand of the beaches.  Auden, who took pride in his Scandinavian heritage, was not equipped for such a climate, and his friends reported with alarm his bleached hair and perpetually peeling skin.  Could this lie behind the wedding cake face?  It seemed plausible to me for some time, although the lack of a similar effect on Chester Kallman, Auden's unswarthy companion of many years, raises questions.

3. Squalor

No friend of Auden could go without noting the filth and squalor in which he lived.  Edmund Wilson devotes paragraphs to it in his journals; Stephen Spender (perhaps wishing to score points off the man in whose shadow he lived and wrote) composes prose arias to the abject state of Auden's surroundings, and Igor Stravinsky's housekeeper was appalled at Auden's refusal to bathe or shower when he visited the composer while working on the libretto to The Rake's Progress. I'm no dermatologist, but I have found myself speculating about Auden hosting a vast population of mites or other parasites of the sort that thrive (one imagines) on the unbathed skin of the more bohemian literati.

4. The Truth

As it turns out, none of my theories was correct.  Indeed, inasmuch as they all blame Auden for his condition, they turn out to be not only incorrect, but vaguely puritanical.  It is to Richard Davenport-Hines that the world owes a true explanation of Auden's imposing—nay, geological facial folds and fissures.  He writes, in his biography of the poet

Auden had apparently been suffering since early manhood from Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed and peripheral periostitis in the bones reduces the patient's capacity for activity.  There was no therapy for the syndrome, which does not affect either life expectancy or mental status, but which accounted for Auden's striking appearance of grave, lined melancholy.

The condition is inherited rather than contagious, and quite rare.  So it seems most of us, regardless of any smoking, ill-advised beach exposure, or squalor, will be saved from inciting such questions as that asked by Mr. Hockney.


Marcel Inhoff, head fact-checker at Samizdat Blog's German Research Bureau, has just sent in, by urgent telex, fax, and pneumatic tube message canister, the following important observation: "As a former citizen of the GDR I can confirm that F6 is actually a post-1950s brand of shitty socialist cigarette.  The name itself stands for 'filter cigarettes of the 1960s.'"  Thus dies all speculation about the tobacco-oriented subtext of The Ascent of F6.


  1. Too, there's William Matthews's attempt to insert himself into a lineage with "In Memory of W. H. Auden"--and its joke about Auden's face. Here's the whole thing:

    His heart made a last fist.
    The language has used him
    well and passed him through.
    We get what he collected.
    The magpie shines, burns
    in the face of the polished stone.

    His was a mind alive by a pure greed
    for reading, for the book
    which "is a mirror,"
    as Lichtenberg said: "if an ass
    peers into it, you can't expect
    an apostle to look out."

    It was a mediating mind.
    There were the crowds like fields of waving wheat
    and there was the Rilkean fire
    he didn't like
    at the bottom of the night.
    He loomed back and forth.
    The space shrank.
    The dogs of Europe wolved
    about the house,
    darks defining a campfire.

    My friend said Auden died
    because his face
    invaded his body.
    Under the joke is a myth--
    we invent our faces:
    the best suffer most and it shows.
    But what about the face
    crumpled by a drunk's Buick?
    Or Auden's
    face in its fugue of photographs
    so suddenly resolved?
    It isn't suffering that eats us.

    They were not painting about suffering,
    the Old Masters. Not the human heart but
    Brueghel turns the plowman away
    for compositional reasons
    and smooths the waters for a ship he made
    expensive and delicate.
    The sun is implied by how
    the sure hand makes the light fall
    as long as we watch the painting.
    The sure hand is cruel.

    1. Oh, that's very good. But I think Hockney wins the laurels.

  2. still blogging with the best of them. a book awaits.

    1. Ah, go on...

      Anyway: Tthe last book already has a big chunk of the blog in it -- so now I'm hoping for a major motion picture!

  3. A face for a writer.