Friday, April 11, 2014

W.H. Auden and Campiness

If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp.  At least that's what I say at the start of a brief essay just out in the wonderful At Length magazine, which runs a feature unlike any I've ever seen called "Short Takes on Long Poems."  I've adapted some remarks from the Auden chapter of the book I've been working on, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself and turned them into an analysis of camp in Auden's early, hilarious, weird charade "Paid on Both Sides," where he camps Freudianism, in no small measure as a means of coming to terms with his own homosexuality (something about which Freud held views that, while not without their redeeming sides, are hardly those that enlightened people in our own time would endorse). Here's how the essay begins:
If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp, that hard-to-define quality that combines exaggeration, pastiche, transgression, and so many other things (the origins of the term probably lie in the French word camper, and refer to the exaggerated formalities and prescribed behaviors of a 19th century military camp, with all those big salutes, high stepping marches, and all of those epaulets, gold braid, and brass buttons). Camp is essential, for example, to Auden’s first large-scale achievement in verse, the play—or, more precisely, the charade—Paid on Both Sides. Completed in 1928, it appeared first in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion in January 1930, and later that same year became the longest piece in Auden’s Poems, a volume published by Faber under Eliot’s aegis. One can see much in Auden’s play that would recommend it to the author of The Waste Land: like that poem, it gives a clearly modern landscape, and it depicts a struggle between a faltering life-wish and the forces of sterility and death, and even includes a depiction of spring’s life-force faltering, in the manner of the famous opening of Eliot’s poem. One wonders whether Eliot was sensitive to the differences between the two poems, though. There are, after all, reasons to doubt how thoroughly Auden embraced the world-view that seems to pervade his poem. 
That world-view is distinctly Freudian. In 1920, at the age of 13, Auden had discovered Freud via his father’s library, and Auden consumed his works eagerly, along with those of others associated with psychology and psychoanalysis, in the years that followed. His attitude toward psychological theory tended toward the camp—taking the ideas seriously, but at the same time making fun out of them, an activity (as Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood liked to point out) quite distinct from making fun of them. Auden enjoyed the theories and made much art out of them but self-consciously presented himself as giving them greater credence than he truly did, striking the pose of the dogmatist.

The rest is available here. The issue also includes essays on Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Randall Jarrell, and others!