The Necessary Murder: Part III

The eyes of the crow and the eye of the camera open

On to Homer’s world, not ours.

I began with Auden and his “Spain” in Part I because he, like his fellow writers in the Thirties, advocated violence against the middle class. In the end, after numerous political experiments, Auden and his peers had become horrified by Nazi genocide, Stalinist purges, and later, the American Red Scare hysteria. They retracted their position, softened the aesthetic; they moved from Eliot’s stylistic density to Williams’s simplicity, created Art with the broadest appeal for the largest audience. The problem, however, is that the ideology machine was in overdrive in post-War America and Europe.

The carnage of World War Two may have ended in May of 1945, but, for many, the Second World War did not end until the tearing down of the Berlin War on November 9, 1989, its complete destruction in June of 1990. Not long after May 1945 the Allied powers formed a containment policy to stem the spread of Communism, from the formation of NATO to the installing embedded stay-behind groups throughout Europe to the far reaches of the Middle East to curb the Russian presence in Afghanistan. Cold War ideology motivated every major conflict and debacle: the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and numerous South American coups.

The figure of Auden (although he died not long after the other 9-11, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973) is worth revisitng because his later poetry offers an assessment of literary modernism, postmodernism, and their consequences. In 1939 Auden would memorialize Yeats and pen the incipit to World War Two, “September 1, 1939,” which would reappear in our public conscience in the wake of 9-11, the War on Terrorism. As Auden had renounced “Spain” for his own political naïveté, he would also disown “September” because he had said that the poem was “infected with an incurable dishonesty.” The ‘dishonesty’ to which Auden referred to in “September” is this line: “We must love one another or die.” I do not believe that Auden thought we were capable of it. The evidence is in another poem and among later statements.

Where Eliot wandered like Dante through Europe’s sickly forest and peeked inside history’s “cunning passages, contrived corridors” and arrived at a point of utter resignation, unable to write poetry anymore, Auden would venture forward in his “Memorial for the City” (started in 1949, published 1955) and examine literary texts and historical incidents. Auden pronounces the harshest conclusion: Love triumphs only within books, in the minds of philosophers and fools. The Artist is Don Quixote. We, the consumer, are Evil. The twentieth-century, Auden concluded, was Evil; its symbols, which he says in the poem, are the camera, the crow on the crematorium chimney, and barbed wire. The twentieth-century ideology machine is the Apollonian drive unchecked. The rationalizing structure behind ideology justifies “the necessary murder.”

Auden returns to the charnel fields in the above-mentioned “Memorial for the City,” a poem in his National Book Award collection of poems, The Shield of Achilles (1955). The text is hermetic, as intertextual and as dense as Eliot’s “Wasteland.” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” though written in 1923, would become the model for post-War poetry, with its deceptive simplicity and accessibility. Auden rejects the new model. Auden’s “Memorial” poem is accessible for its idiom yet remains as distant and obscure as Eliot’s “Wasteland.”

One answer might be that Auden saw no public good coming from political poetry. He had been deceived in the Thirties, which he referred to as that “low dishonest decade.” Another possibility is Auden was ambivalent about mass culture, or saw the inherent evil in cultural amnesia. He said of consumerism:

We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb, and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to is immediately forgotten…

It is also no small coincidence that Auden and Eliot had turned to Christianity for answers to the century’s nihilism. Eliot would convert. Auden, just as with his penchant for collecting hats, would try out different viewpoints for size. He remained the skeptic. The only thing that he would change is his citizenship, British to American in 1946.

“Memorial for the City” starts with the image of two nonhuman witnesses to the inhuman. Recall Heidegger’s definition of the inhuman as the rise of rationalism and technology. The two witnesses, a crow and a camera, are outside a crematorium. We do not need to know what happened. The smoke from the chimney speaks for itself. “Memorial” will proceed as an itinerary through numerous imagined cities: the “Post-Virgilian City,” the “New City,” “the Sane City,” “the Sinful City,” and so on until there is, finally, the “Abolished City.” At each stop of this Dantesque journey, there is Auden’s assessment and the ever-present background image of barbed wire. As with any fence or wall, a boundary protects and excludes, except we know as witnesses of history that what it protects within is the barbaric and excludes any hope for rescue.

Auden found no refuge in religion. The poem’s epigram is not from the Sibyl, but from Julian of Norwich, a female medieval mystic. Auden does not complete the quote, though; in this fragment Julian speaks of the Augustinian City of God within man. St. Augustine, still caught up in the destructive light of Christ’s Apollonian gaze, had seen two tensions: Cupiditas, or excess of any particular appetite, and Caritas, love of God. Julian of Norwich, through the culturally prevalent image of Christ available to her centuries later, interprets Christ as the Man of Sorrows. She speaks of a theology in which violence is not with God, but within humanity; suffering is the path to beatitude, because God is Love, God is Good. With Norwich’s quote as a preface to the poem’s narrative descent through the various hells through the centuries, Auden’s tone is flippant and wry about the City of God within. In the first line of the last section of the poem, Auden puts the red line through several key literary texts. First on his list is Norwich’s idea of violence and original sin from St. Augustine’s O felix culpa!

While Auden may have agreed with Norwich’s distaste for dogma, he takes exception to her position (and Augustine’s and Ambrose’s) that God could not allow Evil to exist without Good: “Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere.” For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.

Auden, from the outset of the poem, acknowledges the pagan world. The violence of the Homeric world still exists. We are not redeemed either in historical time, through Christ, or through magical thinking, whether it is Art or some aesthetic theory, including modernism and postmodernism. In each and every instance of his imagined cities, Auden sees violence. He accepts it as part of human nature. He reads the idealized worlds of theologians as fictional, apocalyptic, and destructive.

In “Memorial,” Auden tells us, the camera provides photographs wherever the barbed wire is to be found; the bird blinks, whether it is near the death camps of the Holocaust, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the killing fields of Southeast Asia, or other districts of death. In 1955, Auden had realized the full extent of his culpability, which is why he disallowed publication of any of his poems from the Thirties; but think back to his comment on mass consumerism, to “gluttony” and forgetfulness and you’ll see our complicity. Auden, who did know the controversial Hannah Arendt, would reverse her famous phrase from the Eichmann trial, “the banality of evil” and say instead, “the evil of banality.”

I had mentioned in Part II that the Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist’s creation, the dwarf Piccoline, is the literal instrument of the modern political state. He is the necessary evil for the necessary murder. The Twentieth Century offers a veritable footrace for the claim of most murderous tyrant. Mao’s initiative to restructure Chinese society, The Great Leap Forward, starved thirty million people to death. Mao is credited with forty million deaths. In terms of pure homicidal rampage, Hitler and Stalin share fifty million dead between them. The century would wind down with a rogue’s gallery of despots: Idi Amin of Uganda, Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria, Radovan Karadžić of Serbian Bosnia, Mussolini of Italy, Ante Pavelić of Croatia, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Antonio de Salazar of Portugal, and numerous other examples. None of them could have succeeded without a Piccoline near them.

Literary modernism before the Second World War identified the middle class as the hopeless problem because it was sentimental and without any redeemable qualities. They valued kitsch art. The upper class, however, had refinement and taste. The lower class had potential. The post-modernists after the War targeted the middle class as their audience. In Part II of this essay, I take the position that a change in aesthetics championed evil as exotic and erotic, entertaining. In an earlier time, a Bram Stoker or a Sheridan La Fanu may have written about vampires, but they saw them as creatures to fear because they were beyond the pale. Glamorizing vampires, werewolves, and zombies would seem to anyone of Auden’s or Eliot’s generation as a perversion of aesthetics; and more so, as a frightening decline in ‘sensibility’ if market forces told artists that this is the Art that sells. Samuel Johnson may have said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but he did not condone the notion that death was beautiful.

The idea that a citizen of a society, a culture and, ideally, a civilization, is reduced to nothing more than an omnivorous creature of rampant desires is what Auden saw as the danger of mass consumerism. There is nothing wrong with movies, television, or radio but if they offer nothing more than empty calories or become the venue for ideological manipulation, whether it is to buy something or hate someone, then it becomes evil, for precious mortal time is wasted, social injustice perpetuated, and trust betrayed. In The Dyer’s Hand, Auden wrote: “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Note that Auden is not distinguishing high art from popular art or denigrating entertainment; it is the reduction of the human to the bestial and the inhuman that he is indicting.

Auden’s “Memorial for the City,” especially its final section, is an academic version of “Sympathy for the Devil.” In an interview, Mick Jagger stated that the inspiration for the song came from reading Baudelaire and from a gift from Marianne Faithfull, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s novel The Master and Margarita. The song came out in 1968; the book, in its first translation into English, had been published the previous year. It was you and me, as the song tells us, who committed the long litany of atrocities because we believed in what we were fed for ideas and images, without question, and in strict obedience. In the song, Mick Jagger’s Satan desires elements of individual culture and refinement: “courtesy,” “sympathy,” and “taste.”

Auden seems to understand that we are what we eat. We allow “necessary murder” when we do not think, when we do not question the images, ideas, and words before us, whether it is from the artist, the statesman, or the latter’s henchman.


I am grateful to my journalist friend in Milan, Claudio Ferrara, for his comments and guidance in matters of classical studies, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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