Monday 27 April 2015

some holiday Auden

Browsing the bookshelves of our holiday cottage a couple of weeks ago I found a volume of book reviews written by the poet W.H. Auden. Called Forewords and Afterwords, it’s described by Clive James as “free of bluff, full of life” and full of “unintended hints at the vastness of his reading.” Some little gems:

Speaking of Augustine’s insight into human nature:
“Man, that is to say, always acts either self-lovingly, just for the hell of it, or God-loving, just for the heaven of it; his reasons, his appetites are secondary motivations. Man chooses either life or death, but he chooses; everything he does, from going to the toilet to mathematical speculation, is an act of religious worship, either of God or of himself.” 

On Jesus' death as something unexpected: “The idea of a sacrificial victim is not new; but that it should be the victim who chooses to be sacrificed and the sacrificers who deny that any sacrifice has been made, is very new.”

From the review of E.R. Dodds’ book Heresies:
“One may or may not hold the devil responsible, but, when one considers the behaviour of large organised social groups throughout human history, this much is certain: it has been characterised neither by love nor by logic.”

Discussing Dodds’ work Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Auden relates what Dodds considers a major cause of the church’s growth in the early centuries of its life:

“Epictetus has described for us the dreadful loneliness that can beset a man in the midst of his fellows…Such loneliness must have been felt by millions [in the centuries immediately following Jesus’ life]–the urbanised tribesman, the peasant come to town in search of work, the demobilised soldier, the rentier ruined by inflation, and the manumitted slave.  For people in that situation membership of a Christian community might be the only way of maintaining their self-respect and giving their life some semblance of meaning.  Within the community there was human warmth: someone was interested in them, both here and hereafter.” 

[Auden himself lived an unconventional life and had a curious relationship with Christianity, influenced first by Protestant Liberalism and then by Catholicism. A nice introduction can be found here:]