Monday, October 13, 2014

W.H. Auden Camps Up Fascism: Notes on "The Orators"

"Springtime for Hitler," from The Producers

Hooray!  After much delay, it looks like the new issue of The Battersea Review will soon be unleashed upon the world, to stalk and hoot among the waiting literati (i.e., you).  As a preview of things to come, they've posted an essay of mine called "Camping the Fascists: W.H. Auden's The Orators," in which I describe Auden's camp sensibility, and how it infuses his early poetry.  Camp's a tricky thing to define, but essential to grasping what Auden's doing in much of his work.

Here's how the essay begins:

I described him [Auden] seeing his friends one by one in his rooms at hours he had fixed and interviewing, cross-examining them, laying down the law about the poets of whom he approved, the way poetry should be written, the personality of the poet, being very dogmatic about everything. I did insist that he was not a 'leader' or authoritarian and that he brought a touch of absurdity to his pronouncements which made them seem jokes. He did not wish to be taken altogether seriously. But this would mean nothing to a member of the audience without a sense of humor. In fact to the American who thinks that when one is serious one should be serious, and when funny, un-serious, this would make Auden seem even more unsympathetic. (Spender, Journals 335)
W.H. Auden is many things—political poet, aesthete, Christian, Stakhanovite manufacturer of critical prose, English pariah, New York literary lion—but at the very core, his sensibility is always camp. Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of playful and aestheticizing attitude. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening:
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. (110)
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. (277)
And later:
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’…

56. Camp taste is a kind of love… Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. (287, 291-292).
tbr4-archambeau-cover-of-the-orators-first-editionCamp is a quality that informs the work of W.H. Auden throughout his career, most powerfully in his early poetry, and in a complex, fraught way in his more overtly political poetry of the middle and later 1930s (as one might expect, given the depoliticizing tendency of camp). It remains a vital force in Auden’s American period, too: in 1948, for example, he writes “what makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities” the poet need not believe in the idea, but “it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than as a mere poetic convenience” (Dyer’s Hand 19). Here Auden expresses both the distance and the affection that the camp sensibility has toward its material. Auden’s camp, it is important to add, is particularly intellectual: it is ideas that he camps. Indeed, for reasons that his youthful experiences make clear, Auden comes early on to love systems of thought—be they scientific, psychological, political, or even religious—from a camp perspective.
When Stephen Spender described Auden holding forth at Oxford in a slightly absurd, mock-authoritarian manner, he got at exactly the kind of camp exhibition of systems and dogmas that informs much of Auden's writing. Spender also touches on the possibility of the campiness being missed, and of Auden being taken as simply serious about what he says, rather than as embodying a much subtler and more complex attitude along the lines of what we read about in Isherwood's The World in the Evening. This was, quite often, exactly what happened, not only to the undergraduate opining extravagantly in his rooms, but to the poet whose works appeared, and were discussed, in slim volumes and little journals throughout the thirties. Indeed, it was the nature of many of those publications that contributed to the diminished understanding of Auden's camp. The political and economic crisis of the decade led not only to intense pressure on writers of all kinds to take ideological positions, but to the creation of a politicized, left-wing alternative to more mainstream publications, a kind of radical counter-public-sphere. The pressure of this context of publication upon Auden’s writings frequently led to an earnestness in reception, a truncation of the playful and the aesthetic, and to a specifically political hermeneutics. That a poem like Auden’s “A Communist to Others,” say, could be something quite different than an earnest address by a communist poet, and that the views expressed in the poem were not only those of a character, but in fact quite different from those of Karl Marx, were things too easily missed when the poem appeared in the Left Book Club anthology Poems of Freedom.
The whole essay is available here.

1 comment:

  1. Like most poets, Auden is trickier than he at first appears. Thanks for the illumination.