...On Auden, and about that "Ars Poetica"

Fyodor Paramonov as Caliban (Maly Theatre, Moscow, 1905). Wikimedia Commons. Click through for Auden's diagram of Paradise.

Fyodor Paramonov as Caliban (Maly Theatre, Moscow, 1905). Wikimedia Commons. Click through for Auden's diagram of Paradise.

I'm mostly through Carl Zimmer's "Science Ink: The Tattoos of the Science Obsessed", my new cannot-put-down-or-finish-too-soon read, and it got me thinking about the type of tattoo I would get to show my similar obsession with classical literature. If my skin could stand it (yes, I am adverse to pain), it would be Auden's "chart of antithesis" that he used for a seminar at Swarthmore (click above to see it). The chart is a work of analytical art in-and-of itself, outlining every aspect of symbolism, placing them under the columns of the "Hell of the Pure Deed", the "Hell of the Pure Word", and "This World, the Dualism of Experience". For Auden, the "Hell of the Pure Deed" contains symbols of everything from the Sea, Blood and Dragons to Tyranny and Dada Art, while the "Hell of the Pure Word" is portrayed through the Desert, Abstract shapes, The Magician's Castle, Anarchy and State Art. For any fans of Hegel out there you can see where Auden is going with this: "This World" contains in it the seeds of reconciliation, exemplified through classic symbols of The Hero, The Ring, Marriage, Agape, and Domestic Pets.  

I've been rather obsessed with Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror" while working on my own writing, and with good reason: what Auden was attempting to reach in his "Ars Poetica" was a transcendence of the duality he outlined through a "Christian conception of art". In the work, as in Shakespeare's "The Tempest", Caliban is the personification of the Sea, and Ariel the Mirror. As weighty as this seems (Sylvia Plath once waxed poetic on Auden, exclaiming, "God, god, the stature of the man"), Auden himself said of the poem, "I am attempting something which in a way is absurd, to show in a work of art, the limitations of art." As much as he can claim that in one breath (praising Shakespeare for never taking himself too seriously), there is a part of The Sea and the Mirror that reflects Auden's own struggles as a gay man searching for a union of spirit and flesh in an intimate relationship with his much younger lover, Chester Kallman. Kallman did not have the sexual fidelity to Auden that the older man wanted, and this, too, is a part of this work. In writing to Christopher Isherwood, Auden said, "It's OK to say that Ariel is Chester, but Chester is also Caliban, 'das lebendigste', ie Ariel is Caliban seen in the mirror."

What is important to keep in mind is that the Caliban of The Tempest is a slave, portrayed as overly sexual and debase, devoid even of speech until Prospero arrives on the island and teaches him language, ultimately enslaving him. Ariel is also a slave to Prospero, but the nature of the relationship is written as one of intellectual peers, indeed, there is even a fondness between Prospero and Ariel, whereas the relationship between Prospero and Caliban is one of complete antipathy. I think what is compelling about this is that it reflects our own discomfort with ourselves in our own skin, embracing all aspects of our sexuality, of all of the things we feel we cannot state with complete acceptance. I believe Auden felt this as well, telling Elizabeth Mayer while working on the manuscript, "Being 'anders wie die Andern' [different from others] has its troubles. There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear..."

The Ars Poetica here, I believe, is a dream, a dream of the acceptance, and transcendence, of duality, the dream of the unity of the thesis of flesh and the antithesis of spirit into a synthesis of messy perfection, containing elements of each, embraced and held whole, inside the Paradise of Essential Being and Forgiveness, being at both times Eden and the City of God. Written decades before the Civil Rights movement, this desire nonetheless reflects the aspirations of King so eloquently stated in the "I Have a Dream" speech, and in subsequent works when he refers to the Beloved Community. It is a simple, common desire for love and acceptance, timelessly human, eloquently stated, beyond pure lust and logic, revisited on each reading, always insightful, touching the soul.