W.H. Auden is probably the poet I quote most often here. The story of his life and his beautiful poetry has been a great inspiration because it encourages us to look beneath the surface of things and find that the effort is worth the pain of the process. The first step in this process is to recognize there is a “surface of things,” an insight which in itself is challenging; for any culture imprints into the depths of our being that the “surface of things” is something to take as a given and not to be questioned. To ask one to question the existence of this “surface” is like asking a fish to see water.
In the following excerpt of Auden’s, “New Years Letter,” the reader is encouraged to peek beneath this surface of life though with a warning that only, “despair can shape the hero who will dare the desperate catabasis,” and face the “snarling abyss” which always lies beneath the surface of life’s contrivances. However, it must be noted that despair is not necessary for all who travel Auden’s road to redemption. “Despair” is for the “heroes” such as poets, artists, religious and even political visionaries. Most of us mercifully face only a watered-down version of despair and encounter a mid-life crisis, or some persistent duress which cues us to also look beneath the surface in our non-heroic manner and do battle with our relatively tame horde of demons. Auden and his sort were faced with, “slaying the demons” and most of us merely have to step into the ring for a moment with our “benign” demons, and gain the wisdom from the encounter that is there to be had, and then return to our very routine life. But the wisdom gained from the encounter can empower us to lead a more productive and meaningful life.
Auden described the superficies of life, those amusements which distract us from the gut-level issues of being a sentient human being as a, “jolly picnic, on the heath of the agreeable, where we bask, agreed on what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the accepted lie.” Here Auden brings to our attention the façade of normal, everyday, routine life which is too subtle to actually notice. This “jolly picnic” is delightful for some…let’s say, for example, “the haves,” though the “have nots” are not so fortunate and look sullenly, angrily, and despairingly at the picnic, wishing they could have been invited also. Auden also notes that those who have been invited to this picnic always, “bask” in comfort, “agreed on what we will not ask,” tanned and relaxed in the comfort of the, “accepted lie.”
This “accepted lie” is essential for group coherence, providing the biases and premises which allow the group to exist in the first place. For example, one basic premise of a group is exclusion; and Auden notes elsewhere there is no, “us” without a, “them.” But these “lies” are necessary for the group to cohere, the problem lying only in circumstances in which the “lie” is so sacrosanct that it cannot be relaxed a mite to allow more access to those who are excluded. But usually a siege mentality evolves in a social “lie” and letting down its guard and allowing any of the excluded to have some degree of access will be perceived as an existential threat. Then will the cry go out far and wide, “Build that wall!”
Here is the relevant excerpt from Auden’s, “New Years Letter”:
Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?
(Excerpted from “New Year Letter” – 1/1/1940)
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