This is my one hundredth post for Good Letters. What a privilege it has been to write for these readers (you readers) all this time. I treasure the stimulating conversations we’ve had through the comments, and the cyber-friendships I’ve made among Good Letters writers and readers.
To mark my one hundredth anniversary, I looked back at what I’d written for my very first post in 2008. (Of course I had no idea until I opened the document; I can’t remember what I’ve written—or read—a month ago, let alone five years ago.) Ah, it was on W.H. Auden.
I was curious: what about Auden had interested me then?
In The New York Review of Books, I’d read a review-essay, “Auden and God,” by Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson. The book under review was Arthur Kirsch’s Auden and Christianity.
Mendelson praised Kirsch’s book but (as often in NYRB essays) scarcely referred to it in his own informative overview of Auden’s religious life. Though I’d long known about Auden’s Christianity, something about Mendelson’s presentation of it so stimulated me that I was zinging as if I’d slogged down four cups of coffee (though I’d had none: doctor’s orders).
Mendelson’s thesis was that the core of Auden’s Christianity was “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” So, for instance, on prayer Auden said:
To pray is to pay attention or, shall we say, “to listen” to someone or something other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention — be it on a landscape, or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God — that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is praying.
Forgetting one’s own ego, truly attending to someone or something other than oneself: this was Auden’s sense of loving one’s neighbor.
One manifestation, writes Mendelson, was that:
Auden’s passion for proper names in his poetry had a moral and theological point: like prayer, it was a form of attention. A proper name was a sign of personal uniqueness, and Auden used the word “miracle” to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of their own unpredictable individuality. “To give someone or something a Proper Name,” he wrote, “is to acknowledge it as having a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.”
When human beings imagine a beholder who finds such value everywhere, they think in terms of God, or as Auden wrote in another late poem [the 1965 “Epithalamium”], “the One… / Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name” — a deity who knows the personal name of every electron in the universe, rather than thinking about them in statistical terms.
To give someone or something a proper name: to my mind, this is what great art does. Art removes us from our petty selves and opens us to the unique reality of the other. In this sense, a religious impulse is at the core of all great art. Like the God “Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name,” art attends to the miracle of the particular.
This is the impulse of art that Czeslaw Milosz honors in his poem “With Trumpets and Zithers”:
I wanted to describe this, not that, basket of vegetables with a redheaded doll of a leek laid across it.
And a stocking on the arm of a chair, a dress crumpled as it was, this way, not other.
I wanted to describe her, no one else, asleep on her belly, made secure by the warmth of his leg.
Auden was acutely aware that he rarely lived the commandment to love one’s neighbor. But holding the commandment front and center kept him honest about his moral lapses into ego-driven self-regard.
The commandment was also, Mendelson adds, behind Auden’s statement that the purpose of art, to the extent that it has one, is to make self-deception more difficult, and “by telling the truth, to disenchant and dis-intoxicate.”
I ended that post with the rhetorical question: “With such a bracing sense of art’s mission, who needs coffee?”
But now I want to add a postscript.
I value, as much as I did five years ago, Auden’s sense that art pulls us out of our self-absorption into appreciation of the other—of all the others in God’s created world.
I’ve experienced this blessed pull often.
When I feel trapped in my ego, I open a volume of Richard Wilbur’s poetry, or gaze at a Rouault painting, or listen to a Bach CD while I knit.
Suddenly last week, when my husband was feeling low because his recovery from open heart surgery seemed interminable, and I was feeling low because—well, I don’t remember any particular “because,” so I guess it was just the usual ego-entrapment—I said to him: “I need to watch The Marriage of Figaro.”
Talk about love of neighbor! Our former neighbor Richard Pearlman directed operas at the Eastman School of Music. Figaro was one of his favorites. “It’s about forgiveness,” he’d say over the back fence. His partner David taped all the performances (this was the 1990s, VHS days) and had given us copies.
So last week, George and I spent four cozy afternoons—one for each act—watching the Figaro tapes. Our moods were totally transformed: we practically bounced around the house, humming the recitatives.
But more than mood, something deeper happened. Mozart’s way of absorbing dissonance within harmony—as when six characters are singing different, conflicting words but to the same music—gave me a vision of all humankind under God’s eyes.
All of us are singing our hearts and lives out with words and convictions that we’re sure are true, but which conflict with many other people’s words and convictions. Yet God hears a harmony that we’re usually unaware of.
God sees us as each the same, yet each with our own proper name.
Peggy Rosenthal is currently teaching an online course, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice, through Image’s Glen Online program. Learn more here.