Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 5, 2007

Another Look at Auden

Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

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Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

Auden reached his artistic pinnacle at Europe’s darkest moment, a fact that might itself be described as Audenesque. The year 1939 yielded other burnished gems besides his “September 1, 1939″: the threnodies to Yeats and Freud, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Law Like Love.” Critics of Auden’s “Spain,” who see it solely as a testament to all that was sinister and myopic in an epicene Communist’s worldview, should take the poem’s full measure. For instance, the apostrophe to nations, which calls upon “the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror,” has that life replying: “O no, I am not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you I’m the / Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped . . . ” We know now from the publication of long-secret Soviet archives that the yes-man, the bar-companion, and the easily-duped comprise precisely the grim troika that enabled and excused Stalin’s reign of terror for so long. The poem is, thus, also a withering indictment of the Western intellectual class to which Auden belonged with such passion and brilliance. So his conscience managed to get it right, in the end—even if his short-lived political allegiances got it so remarkably wrong.

Though his abandonment of those allegiances is praiseworthy, it did nothing for him as an artist. Auden’s poetry steadily declined in quality as his commitment to religion broadened and his sense of purpose—both as a poet and as a “citizen”—grew humbler. He also traveled less, abandoning the exploratory wanderings of his earlier years, confining himself mainly to his adopted city of New York and his shire-girded summer home in Austria. As Philip Larkin observed in a withering 1960 essay, “What’s Become of Wystan?,” someone who had read nothing of Auden’s work after 1940 would have little to talk about with someone who had read nothing before 1940. A shame, too, in Larkin’s opinion: a born-again Yank might well have gone on to become a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony” instead of the book-obsessed purveyor of agape Auden became. So much, one supposes, for Pascal and the wisdom of sitting still.

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Believing Everything They Read

One of the discouraging things about the Arab world is the epistemological deficit.

I am visiting Saudi Arabia now, on a State Department speaker’s program, giving talks and interviews trying to explain neoconservatism and to demystify U.S. policy toward the Middle East, as well as interviewing Saudis and learning about their country.

Many of the Saudis whom I am meeting are sophisticated and friendly to America, albeit critical of current policies. But here, as elsewhere in the region, even smart people are capable of believing far-fetched things and often seem deficient in the skills of reality-testing.

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One of the discouraging things about the Arab world is the epistemological deficit.

I am visiting Saudi Arabia now, on a State Department speaker’s program, giving talks and interviews trying to explain neoconservatism and to demystify U.S. policy toward the Middle East, as well as interviewing Saudis and learning about their country.

Many of the Saudis whom I am meeting are sophisticated and friendly to America, albeit critical of current policies. But here, as elsewhere in the region, even smart people are capable of believing far-fetched things and often seem deficient in the skills of reality-testing.

On my first day, an accomplished editor, publisher, and newspaper columnist complained to me that the United States had just doubled aid to Israel. I had been without news sources for a couple of days in travel, but this seemed unlikely to me, as I tried to explain. My interlocutor insisted: he had followed the reports carefully. When I got access to the Internet, I found the story. The State Department had begun formal conversations with Israel about Israel’s request for an increase in military aid of 2 to 2.5 percent.

Next, I lunched with a warm, gracious graduate of UCLA, a highly successful businessman. When the subject of terrorism came up, he asked me about the Mossad plot to blow up the Mexican congress. I asked where he had heard of such a thing. He replied that it was all over the world press. Not the American press, I retorted. Exactly, he explained, the U.S. had suppressed the story, but everyone else in the world knew about it.

Once again I scurried to the Internet. And I found it. According to a story that ran in October 2001 in something called La Voz de Aztlan, two Israelis, presumed to be agents, snuck into the Mexican congress carrying “nine hand grenades, sticks of dynamite, detonators, wiring, and two 9mm ‘Glock’ automatics.” Although security was tight, the two managed to insinuate themselves into a delegation of sugar workers who had come to lobby. But the alert workers noticed something suspicious about the duo, namely “that they were carrying guns and what looked to them to be explosives.” So they grabbed them and turned them over to the police. To no avail: “the Israeli Embassy used heavy-handed measures to have the two Israelis released.”

And what was the purpose of the escapade? La Voz de Aztlan explained: “President Bush and the U.S. Zionists want Mexico fully involved in the [Afghan] war principally because if things get tough in the Middle East and the oil rich Arabs leave the coalition, the U.S. military machine is going to need alternative sources of oil, and PEMEX is just across the border. We believe that the two Zionists terrorist were going to blow up the Mexican congress. The second phase was to mobilize both the Mexican and U.S. press to blame Osama bin Laden. Most likely then Mexico would declare war on Afghanistan as well, commit troops and all the oil it could spare to combat Islamic terrorism.”

Why do so many people in the Arab world swallow such stuff?

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Bookshelf

• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

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• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

He tried to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter (he co-wrote Double Indemnity, the classic Billy Wilder film noir), but he was too idiosyncratic to fit within the studio system. He wanted to concentrate on his novels, but writing was such a tortuous process for him—he went through draft after draft before he was satisfied—that he finished only seven. He was left utterly bereft by his wife’s death in 1954, following a long illness, and was almost alone in the world (they had no children and he was too prickly to make many friends). He drank himself to death five years later. But his great creation—Philip Marlowe, private eye—lives forever.

• Caryl Phillips (ed.), The Right Set (1999): This is an anthology of writing about tennis spanning the period from the invention of “lawn tennis” in the late 19th century to the modern era of glitzy superstars. The most interesting material is the unfamiliar story of the early days of the game, such as the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877, just four years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had patented a “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Games of Tennis.” Only 22 “gentlemen” entered this first tournament, and the level of play was as low as the level of public interest. By the 1920’s, however, interest had soared.

It is fascinating to read about how much attention was given to an exhibition match played by Helen Wills of America and Suzanne Lenglen of France in 1926 on the French Riviera. Crowds overflowed the tiny grandstand, and reporters rushed off dispatches to vast readerships updating them on the score. Both competitors wore flowing white dresses.

That wasn’t the only anachronism. A couple of years later Helen Wills (she later became Helen Wills Moody), wrote a guide to tennis etiquette that included this concern: “If your opponent slips on his feet, are you to hit the ball easily, so that he will have a chance to return it? This is a difficult question to answer. . . . Of course, if the slips turns out to be a real accident, then the player would not care much what happened to his ball, because he would fear that his opponent was injured.” Of course.

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In Response to Dan Fleshler

I was happy to receive Dan Fleshler’s reply to my previous post about him and other “progressive” critics of Israel. Since the column he wrote for the Forward, which I criticized, definitely gave the impression that he was singling Israel out for condemnation, he indeed did, by his own admission, err in its phrasing.

Still, I would like to pursue the matter with him a bit further. In his answer to me, he makes three points: 1) that he has respect for Israeli soldiers serving in the occupied territories; 2) that he conveys this respect to enemies of Israel on the “far Left” when he debates with them; and 3) that he recognizes that, under the circumstances, these soldiers are doing a necessary job because they are protecting both Israelis living within the 1967 borders and Jewish settlers living outside of them—who, he obviously believes, deserve protection even if he thinks that some of them, located “in the midst of large Palestinian population centers,” have “contributed to the difficulty of solving the conflict.”

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I was happy to receive Dan Fleshler’s reply to my previous post about him and other “progressive” critics of Israel. Since the column he wrote for the Forward, which I criticized, definitely gave the impression that he was singling Israel out for condemnation, he indeed did, by his own admission, err in its phrasing.

Still, I would like to pursue the matter with him a bit further. In his answer to me, he makes three points: 1) that he has respect for Israeli soldiers serving in the occupied territories; 2) that he conveys this respect to enemies of Israel on the “far Left” when he debates with them; and 3) that he recognizes that, under the circumstances, these soldiers are doing a necessary job because they are protecting both Israelis living within the 1967 borders and Jewish settlers living outside of them—who, he obviously believes, deserve protection even if he thinks that some of them, located “in the midst of large Palestinian population centers,” have “contributed to the difficulty of solving the conflict.”

What I would ask Dan Fleshler is this: When he communicates with his friends or acquaintances on the far Left, does he just convey his respect for Israel’s soldiers? Or does he also insist, as he puts it in his reply to me, that these soldiers are serving in the territories because they have been forced to do so by Palestinian terror, that the settlers they are protecting are only part of the reason this terror exists, and that those settlers not living “in the midst of large Palestinian population centers” are not an obstacle to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

This is not nit-picking on my part. In arguing with anti-Israel extremists from a leftist but “pro-Israel” standpoint like Dan Fleshler’s, it is Jewishly imperative not to concede an inch to them in order to meet their standards of debate or to make them feel that one is, from their point of view, kosher. If, therefore, in calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories (as Dan Fleshler can, I believe, legitimately do while remaining “pro-Israel”), Fleshler also stands up for Israel by making the same points that he makes in his e-mail to me, I can only say to him: Way to go! If, on the other hand, he is speaking in two different languages—one to his friends on the Left and one to people like me—he is not doing Israel any favor.

It would be interesting to know which of the two it is.

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