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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sea and the Mirror by W.H. Auden

The Sea and the Mirror is in Google books [link]. You can scroll down to the Preface.

 

a note on difficulty

 

In admission, this post is a little dependent upon that you have (or have had) the same experience with the text that I had. If not, just play along anyway.

 

I want to take a look at a moment in W.H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror. The work, if you are unfamiliar with it, is, as the subtitle offers, "A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest." It's various parts are written mostly in the voices of the characters of the play, set as though the play has just concluded and the characters have something more to say, comments that extend the play beyond its final curtain, and, even, beyond the stage. Through this Auden gives a philosophical response to The Tempest as he reads it.[FN]

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[FN] The Sea and the Mirror is found in the Vintage Collected Works. It has also been published in an individual volume, edited by Arthur Kirsch (Princeton UP, 2003), which contains also a thirty page introduction that is worth looking up; not only for what it says about The Sea and the Mirror, but for how it puts much of Auden's work in a philosophical context.
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The reason I'm re-reading The Sea and the Mirror, the reason I'm presently reading Auden, is because I've gotten my hands on a little critical analysis of Auden's career: Gerald Nelson's Changes of Heart: A Study in the Poetry of W.H. Auden (U of Cal P, 1969). Outside of some small familiarity with a here and there verse ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is a favorite), Auden has been something of a gap in my knowledge of twentieth-century verse in English. Nelson's book is in effort to fill that gap, however lightly. To note, it is a book that attempts to defend Auden against the major criticisms that has been leveled against his work: that he failed to live up to the promise of his early work, that his return to Christianity had negative impact on his work; that Auden's career was "without development as a poet" and as such "the success of any individual poem [was] pure accident." (ix) As for my own response to Auden, I don't consider myself familiar enough with him to speak to that criticism; though, I will say that my own experience with his work, my various times browsing through his Collected, does permit it.

That criticism has little bearing on what I want to do here. I have a different question to ask. It is a question that is applicable to the whole of The Sea and the Mirror, though I will use only the one small part of the work – concentrating on a single stanza – as example to the whole.

 

The Sea and the Mirror opens with a Preface in the voice of the Stage Manager – the only voice in the work that is not a character in the play – speaking "to the Critics." I will focus on the first stanza; but let me give you the first two (out of four), so that first stanza is not completely isolated. Though this is but two stanzas, they represent sufficiently the whole of the Preface, and even can stand as representative of the whole of the work, if only for the question I wish to ask.

The aged catch their breath,
For the nonchalant couple go
Waltzing across the tightrope
As if there were no death
Or hope of falling down;
The wounded cry as the clown
Doubles his meaning, and O
How the dear little children laugh
When the drums roll and the lovely
Lady is sawn in half.

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?
Science is happy to answer
That the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire,
That song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think of a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

Where this small sample is representative of the whole is in the difficulty of the verse. As Nelson describes, The Sea and the Mirror is Auden's most difficult and most complex work. "Many critics maintain that it is Auden's masterpiece, while others find it even more irritating than Auden found The Tempest" (21). And, in honest, "irritating" is one of the emotions I had when reading The Sea and the Mirror. It is, as you might see in the above, a dense work; more accurately a very condensed work – which is not the same thing. When something is condensed it can become dense, yes; but it does so through part of it being removed. Condensation is not in itself a negative thing. Indeed, I argue that it is an essential skill to sophisticated writing. However, being too condensed will have its negative effects. What is difficult can become obtuse; and what is obtuse can become impenetrable. Thus the irritation. When I read The Sea and the Mirror I feel as though Auden is skipping across his argument like a stone across water, making it extremely difficult to enter into the depths of that argument.

Let's look at that first stanza. It is readily noticed that it is not describing a performance of The Tempest but a circus. When I would read it (before reading Nelson) I would attempt to connect the circus to the play. After all, these are the first words of the The Sea and the Mirror, a "commentary" on The Tempest, so it is not afield to think the text would begin by connecting the reader to the play. In that way, it is natural to see "the nonchalant couple" as Miranda and Ferdinand. And as Trinculo is Alonso's jester, there is also a clown. Though, where in The Tempest to find a lady being sawn in half? There is a problem with the association of characters.

As Nelson reveals, connecting the opening stanza to the play is a false reading. In fact, the argument of the stanza lies not in the play (the circus) but in the audience. Let me give you the core of Nelson's reading, though I will present it in reverse order. There are at the end the children laughing at a lady being sawn in half. It is children laughing at death; and, children are able to laugh at such things because, being children, they have as of yet no real understanding of death. In the middle are the middle-aged audience, the "wounded," people who have suffered the pains of life, and as such people who experience not only the humor of clowns but also the pain and violence that so often underlies that humor. Finally (firstly), there are the elderly, the people nearest to death, who thus have the greatest fear of death, and who "catch their breath" at the tightrope walkers perilously high above the ground.

On one hand, once you see the structure it is fairly easy to see the structure. I can't now not read it so. But on the other hand, in order to see that structure I had to recognize that the description of a performance in a verse about The Tempest had nothing directly to do with The Tempest, and then shift the focus in a verse about a performance of The Tempest (remember, this is the stage manager speaking to the critics about a play just concluded) away from the performance itself and to the audience. On top of that, I had to negotiate condensed language: e.g., the whole of the relationship of middle-aged people to death is condensed to nine words, and one had to find middle-aged people in "the wounded." The sum effect is that the idea of death is so removed from the passage that it took someone saying "it's about death" for me to go "Ohhh! It's about death." Not the most easily reached conclusion. Which brings me to my question:

When is a work too difficult?

Reading beyond the first stanza the texts asks,

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?

Even with Nelson's reading of the first stanza in hand, can you anchor that question within an argument? Can you make sufficient sense of that question? Does adding the rest of the stanza help to flush it out? To say, the third stanza offers no help to understanding the second; it moves on from the second stanza as quickly as the second stanza moved on from the first.

When is a work too difficult?

Now, I will say, Nelson's reading of the first stanza, of the Preface, and of The Sea and the Mirror as a whole did much to bring some life to the work as a whole. And I think that if a person can present a successful reading of a text, as Nelson did of that first stanza, it is sufficient argument against the accusation that a text is too difficult. Just because a text is difficult to me does not mean the text is universally difficult. Which is an important point. Difficulty, in itself, is not – is never – sufficient to the condemnation of a text. In fact, difficulty should be something expected in the realm of literature. Climbing the learning curve of literature is in part the effort of learning to master – and enjoy – the difficulties one encounters in texts. It is also true that learning to write literature is in part the effort of learning to master the difficult. Complex thought requires complex presentation. (Is it equally true that simple thoughts should be presented simply?)

Difficulty for the sake of difficulty – for example the use of obscure words solely for the sake of using obscure words – will fail a writer. The pay-off for the reader should exceed their effort. For example, there is a sense of play to be found in Wallace Stevens's use of rarified words. The added difficulty does not get in the way of the pleasure of his texts but contributes to it. This gets us to the other side of the coin: just as difficulty is not sufficient to the condemnation of a text, nor is it in itself the means to the redemption of a text. The text still has to work as a literary text, as a literary experience. Defending a text by saying "well, it's a difficult text" is meaningless. Difficulty is not justification for a text that does not work on its own.

The opening stanza of The Sea and the Mirror is difficult. In the four or five times I read it before looking into Nelson, I could not make sense of the whole of it. However, after Nelson's reading I can easily see the structure in the text.

But Nelson does not stop at that reading. Rather, he comes to the following conclusion as regards the first stanza.

This is the scene presented to the Critics by the Stage Manager; he is asking them to be aware of the audience as well as the show. What Auden is asking us to do is to be aware from the very beginning of The Sea and the Mirror of the possibilities inherent in the relationship between life and art, to be aware of the narrow boundary between illusion and reality. He asks us, in short, to try to place ourselves in the position of the Critics and to think about what we see. (26)

That is a lot gleaned from ten rather concise lines. Granted, it is a reading that is taking the whole of the work into consideration, but the reading must still be legitimated by the text itself. And, in working through the whole of Nelson's reading of The Sea and the Mirror, I was frequently questioning, however much Nelson's ideas may fit the text, whether those ideas could be said to have been generated by the text. A lot was often made of relatively few words. I cannot myself, even using Nelson's text, make the argument that above paragraph is to be found in that first stanza. And, as I said, The Sea and the Mirror is throughout a very condensed text. At every point Auden is continually asking the reader to make a lot out of very few words.

Which prompts my answer to my question. When is a text too difficult? When it is no longer difficult, but something else, be it poorly written or intricately inscrutible.

I myself in reading The Sea and the Mirror could not bring its various parts into a working whole. "What does this mean?", "What am I to do with this?" were frequent questions, that were rarely (if ever) answered by the text itself. It took an outside person to give me some sense of argument across the text. And I am not convinced that that argument can be found within the text. Nelson describes The Sea and the Mirror as "by far the most technically complicated of all of Auden's poetry, [. . .] also, perhaps because of its complexity, one of his most difficult works ideationally" (21-22). In contrast, those who were critical of Auden's work found his long poems "diffuse in thought and uncertain in technique" (ix). Which fits more with my experience of The Sea and the Mirror. The first stanza of the Preface is a difficult stanza, but one out of which a structure can be revealed. However, as Nelson's reading may show, bringing that stanza into the whole of the text seems to involve something beyond close reading, something other than explaining the difficult. Take a look at Nelson's reading of the second stanza. To save you having to scroll back, I'll will give you again that second stanza before Nelson's reading.

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?
Science is happy to answer
That the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire,
That song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think of a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

Now Nelson:

Once the Stage Manager has set the scene, he moves directly to the problem of man's existence. Since it is his job to eliminate real surprise [on stage] while maintaining the illusion of surprise [for the audience], it is only natural that he should begin his discussion of existence in theatrical terms. As a result, the scientist's nonaccidental, mechanical universe becomes one in which

. . . the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire.

This is a purely theatrical image of the universe and is applicable to what occurs backstage [. . .]. There is a solid natural order behind all things.

"But," inquires the Stage Manager, "how does one think up a habit?" How does rational order explain the completely irrational? The Stage Manager's notion of existence would seem to be this: the irrational, unconscious fears and needs of human beings, before which reason pales, permit only "our wonder, our terror" to remain.

So much for one answer to the problem of existence.

The connection between the reading and the stanza itself is not terribly concrete. (Is a habit "completely irrational"? What of the lines beginning "That song and sugar and fire"?) Nelson has a reading of the text, yes; but that reading does not come off as derived from the text in the manner that the base reading of the first stanza (that it is about death) can be shown within the text itself. Considering the nature of the reading, as you move through the second stanza and through the verse as a whole, Nelson's reading does not seem to be an explication of a difficult – or "technically complicated" – work. Rather, it seems to be someone drawing in the lines that connect the separate strikes of the stone upon the water, a layer of ideation set on top of the work. As such, given the apparently necessary nature of a reading of The Sea and the Mirror both in part and in whole, I am faced with the idea that The Sea and the Mirror cannot be called a "difficult" work. "Diffuse," or too condensed; but not "difficult."

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