February 21, 2007 marked the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden, one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Most widely known perhaps as the author of “September 1st, 1939″ and “Funeral Blues,” Auden remains unmatched as a formal virtuoso and as what might best be called a poet of civilization. Though many have tried, no one else has spoken in his distinctive double voice, endued at once with the full cultural authority of the English lyric tradition and with the highest erotic irony. To commemorate this occasion, we offer you Auden’s poem “Pleasure Island,” which first appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY in May 1949, and the Australian critic Clive James’s penetrating essay “Auden’s Achievement.” Enjoy.
As the Washington Post announced today, veteran COMMENTARY contributor Eliot A. Cohen has been hired by Condoleezza Rice as counselor at the State Department, a position previously occupied by figures like George F. Kennan and Helmut Sonnenfeldt. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of his articles, all available free of charge.
The stem-cell debate raging in the U.S. these last six years has hinged on a question of life and death—that is, whether destroying a human embryo should be permissible. But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethical quandaries in the age of biotechnology. The kind of debates waiting for us just past the next turn will be far more subtle and complex, and directed to questions of human dignity as much as human life.
To get a hint of the mind-boggling issues to come, consider the debate over human-animal hybrids in Britain. Scientists in the UK have asked for government permission to use cloning techniques to produce a new entity that is almost entirely human, but not quite. In human cloning, a human egg is emptied of its nucleus, and in its place scientists insert the nucleus of another human adult cell (like a skin cell, for instance). The result is a developing embryo—a clone—with the genetic identity of the skin-cell donor, along with small amounts of DNA remaining from the egg donor.
The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).
Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).