The Auden We Never Knew

Unless, that is, you happened to be one of the elderly church ladies he visited, orphans he put through college, or friends for whose medical care he paid. All of these anecdotes and more are uncovered in Edward Mendelson’s new essay on Auden’s “secret life” of generosity and charity, a life that he kept hidden from the world because “he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.” Here’s one telling story about the lengths to which the poet would go to cover the tracks of his kindness:

At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract.

He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.

Mendelson claims that Auden was “presenting himself as less than he was” because of how he had come to understand evil:

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

One of many forms this argument takes is a dispute over the meaning of the great totalitarian evils of the twentieth century: whether they reveal something about all of humanity or only about the uniquely evil leaders, cultures, and nations that committed them. For Auden, those evils made manifest the kinds of evil that were potential in everyone.

Dreher relates the essay to a conversation he recently had with a friend about a “grandfatherly gent who was kind to all” but who, as his friend later discovered, “had a terrible, villainous past of which he never, to her knowledge, repented”:

It seems to me that when you are face to face with the reality of human beings, it becomes hard to judge with icy clarity. The genial grandfather who was a terrorist in his youth: his character is both things. His gentleness and kindness in old age does not obviate his ferocious villainy in his youth, but nor does that villainy obviate the sweetness in his late character. One has to hold both things in one’s judgment simultaneously, and that is hard, and even painful. So we come down on one side or the other to dispel the anxiety. Doing so also relieves in ourselves the anxiety that comes from examining our own character, in humility. Sure, we think, we have our faults, but at least we’re not like Them.

Auden seems to have been afraid of this moral complacency and capacity for deception within himself. About ourselves, so should we be. What is so unnerving about the genial grandfather who was once a terrorist is his palpable humanity. If he can be both things, and be unaware of the contradiction, then what, absent humility, is to prevent us from the same fate?

David Zahl adds:

Lest these remarkable stories be dismissed as mere hagiography, Mendelson (author of the indispensable Later Auden) doesn’t lionize the great poet, instead tracing the ‘good works’ back to their root–which is not a sense of earning or credit (clearly) but of genuine humility brought on by piercing self-knowledge. That is to say, the further Auden plumbed his own fallibility and weakness (and few have plumbed more deeply), the more moved he appears to have been to acts of radical generosity and service.

(Video: Trailer for Wystan, a 2012 documentary about Auden)