Sunday, August 23, 2015

Recitative By Death

The following poem is the second of Auden's "Two Don Quixote Lyrics". The first, entitled "The Golden Age", is a little piece of doggerel that describes the Golden Age and its subsequent decline. In 1963, Auden and Chester Kallman had been asked to write lyrics for the musical, The Man of La Mancha (imagining how it would have turned out, if he actually did write the lyrics, is not a little amusing). But, their version was not actually used in the musical. 

Auden and Kallman
Kallman and Auden met in 1939 and began what Auden called his marriage, even though after a few years, their sexual relationship ended, when Kallman no longer wished to practice monogamy. Nevertheless, they remained partners till Auden's death, maintaining various households together and collaborating upon various works. 

In 1951, the widow, Thekla Clark, and her young daughter became a part of their entourage on Ischia. In her memoirs, Mrs. Clark reports how Auden had a great fondness for her daughter, and at one point, 

He and his small friend once had "a dreadful row" over who was going to play Mrs. Tiggywinkle in one of their elaborate games, a dispute finally settled by Kallman, who "declared that Wystan, with his feet, could only be Jemima Puddleduck." (
Such anecdotes, I think, help us to appreciate the man who, though he claimed never to have finished Don Quixote, nevertheless deeply loved the character and gave many lectures on the book throughout his life. As with a child's imaginative play or Don Quixote's madness, there is a kind of playful seriousness to Auden's work. He may write a "Recitative by Death", but it is free of gloom and heavy handedness (contrast this with Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal). Auden's death is a liberal, a progressive and a charmer who, while maintaining his own euphemistic polish, slices through the lies and circumlocution of modernity. He is contradictory and terribly funny.

Recitative by Death

Ladies and gentlemen, you have made most remarkable
  Progress, and progress, I agree is a boon;
You have built more automobiles than are parkable,
  Crashed the sound-barrier, and may very soon
  Be setting up juke-boxes on the Moon:
But I beg to remind you that, despite all that, 
I, Death, still am and will always be Cosmocrat. 

Still I sport with the young and daring; at my whim,
  The climber steps upon the rotten boulder,
The undertow catches boys as they swim,
  The speeder steers onto the slippery shoulder:
  With others I wait until they are older
Before assigning, according to my humor
To one a coronary, to one a tumor.

Liberal my views upon religion and race;
  Tax-posture, credit-rating, social ambition
Cut no ice with me. We shall meet face to face,
  Despite the drugs and lies of your physician,
  The costly euphemisms of the mortician:
Westchester matron and Bowery bum,
Both shall dance with me when I rattle my drum.

December 1963 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dr. Johnson's Cat

I remember reading Dr. Johnson's novella, Rasselas, in high school and not being much taken with it. And so, I'd rather forgotten about Samuel Johnson until a dear friend of mine gave me a curious book entitled, Horace Walpole's Cat. The book is a delightful literary labyrinth of unexpected connections, sparked initially by the author's dissertation on Rousseau's novel. And in this curious maze, we meet some of the creatures that kept the authors company in their vale of tears.   

Watercolor Cat by Endre Penovic
Having shared (perhaps foolishly) Horace Walpole's estimation of Johnson (that he was a "saucy Caliban" and a "tasteless pedant"), I was charmed to discover his affection and gentility towards his lowest leonine, Hodge: 

On one occasion, Boswell, on seeing Hodge scrambling his way up the north face of Johnson's belly in a very affectionate manner, while the Doctor 'smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail', remarked on how fine the cat seemed to be. Johnson replied, 'why, yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this.' Then, as if perceiving that Hodge was a little 'out of countenance', he immediately added for the cat's benefit, 'but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.' 
Hodge, before the Johnson home, seated on a dictionary
On another occasion, Johnson tells Boswell about some feckless young gentleman of good family who has been reduced to such depths of depravity that he was last seen 'running about town, shooting cats.' At which point Johnson picks up Hodge and strokes him reassuringly: 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.' 
(Frayling 9-10)

Reading through these anecdotes, I was delighted by the character of Johnson, by his deference for his pet. There is something curiously universal about how humans, smiling and half-whistling, relate to pets. And yet, anyone who has owned multiple pets knows that each animal has a distinct personality and that one's relationship with that animal differs from one's relationship with any other pet. They are as much individuals as you and I. 

It occurred to me, while reading about Johnson, that anyone who showed such gentility to a humbler creature of the Lord doubtlessly must show deference to all creation. And, in spite of any sardonic filter, he must ardently love the world and see it with the clarity only love produces (the kind of clarity that allows one to perceive defects vividly while recognizing that the defects are not what defines). I must give Johnson a second chance. 

Perhaps you disagree? Benevolence towards animals, you say, is nothing more than foolish sentimentality. I answer that, although Boethius says authority is not the strongest argument, David Bentley Hart has already written a nice piece about why you're wrong, and I would rather include a poem by Auden than answer myself. 

Auden and puss
From "Ten Songs" 


DOG     The single creature leads a partial life,
        Man by his mind, and by his nose the hound;
        He needs the deep emotions I can give,
        I scent in him a vaster hunting ground.

CATS    Like calls to like, to share is to relieve
        And sympathy the root bears love the flower;
        He feels in us, and we in him perceive
        A common passion for the lonely hour.

CATS    We move in our apartness and our pride
        About the decent dwellings he has made:
DOG     In all his walks I follow at his side,
        His faithful servant and his loving shade. 

(I can't help but point out that while DOG critiques "apartness", he speaks as an "I" and CATS, while valuing it, speak as a chorus...)