W. H. Auden: The Sea and the Mirror (1944 / 2003)
“Your irritation at the disunity is, justifiably or not, the effect I intend.”(Quoted in Mendelson, 2000, p. 230).
So W. H. Auden to one of the first critics of The Sea and the Mirror (1944), his wartime verse commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. More specifically, to criticism of the discordant moment in the poem when Caliban addresses the audience in the urbane, prosy accents of Henry James.
Despite the artifice of Caliban’s voice, he embodies everything that is not artifice. The id is one name for him; he identifies himself at one point as Eros, son of Venus; and Auden identified him … as the allegorical figure of ‘the Prick.’ (Mendelson, 2000, pp. 230-31).
So Edward Mendelson, the poet’s literary executor and most astute interpreter. Auden himself went on to explain: “Since Caliban is inarticulate, he has to borrow, from Ariel, the most artificial style possible.”
The most natural style for talking about the horrors of Nazi oppression during the Second World War has come to be the clipped, gnomic phrases of Paul Celan or Nellie Sachs – both camp survivors who managed thus to refute Adorno’s famous dictum that “writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Whatever the possibilities for Celan and Sachs, it seems (to say the least) rather presumptuous to attempt to walk in their footsteps so many decades later.
When I first went to Prague, at the end of 2004, I certainly had in mind the possibility of writing something about it. I didn’t feel exactly committed to the idea, as there’s a certain danger in visiting countries merely to write about them. I was, however, keen to remain open to the possibilities of the place.
My subject declared itself pretty early on in the inability of (at least some) of my hosts to understand my motives in wanting to visit Theresienstadt. This led me to question why it had become so important to me to go there, and (especially) what I hoped to find there to justify the effort. It was so difficult for me to find answers to their questions that I realised I had inadvertently struck a personal nerve.
What I had in mind, at that early stage, was an essay discussing that visit as well as my feelings about the “holocaust industry” (so-called). I’d been very impressed by the quality of the Montana Estate essay series edited by Lloyd Jones and published by Four Winds Press, and my intention was to discipline my observations into something which could be shrunk into that small compass.
The notes for the essay soon began to take the form of short verses, though – a process I found myself unable (or unwilling) to resist. The essay turned into of a commentary on these verses.
This raised its own problems of genre-labelling. Both of the poetry publishers I approached with the completed ms. complained that their readers would find it difficult to categorise. One, in fact, reproached me with a lack of boldness in insisting on justifying myself in prose rather than simply letting the poems speak for themselves.
She may well have been right. In any case, I’m left with my own version of Auden’s defence to justify the rather unusual and unclassifiable form of this book. Rightly or wrongly, it was my intention to emphasise the discontinuity between the two sections. What I want most to say is concealed in the gap between them.
Readers, so far, have tended to prefer the swift movement of the verses in Part One, and to feel a little bewildered by the rather Jamesian periphrases of the essay sections of Part Two. The fact that the poems do sound so “natural” should give you pause, though, especially when you consider their subject matter.
It’s fatally easy for writers to subdue recalcitrant material technically without ever engaging, or getting their readers to engage, with its more jagged and irreconcilable aspects.
My book, the only “Prague novel” (see below, p. 45) I’ll ever write, now finds its place in a series of monographs published by the School of Social and Cultural Studies where I work – a school which includes Anthropology, English, History, Linguistics, Māori, Media Studies, Politics, Sociology, Social Work and Social Policy among its areas of expertise. This seems to me a pleasing symmetry.
My problem was to write “naturally” and approachably about one of the most unnatural acts of modern times – without a distinct personal axe to grind and with full awareness of my temerity in doing so. If the result seems smooth, seamless and entirely self-justifying then I will have failed. My interest is more in the questions I raise than in the answers I’ve attempted to provide.
Mendelson, E. (2000). Later Auden. 1999. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
To Terezín. Travelogue by Jack Ross, with an Afterword by Martin Edmond. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132. ii + 90 pp (Auckland: Massey University, 2007): 5-6.
Jack Ross: To Terezín (2007)