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W.H. Auden

“Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions… Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old… Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish… The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.”

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A highly prophetic section pulled from W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being”. You’ll find it in his Collected Poems.

If you’re reading this and not seeing some parallels to today — some Consumptive Whores and generous bandits elevated in our society; some daubs supplanting masterpieces and an ethos of pity and therapy thickening around us — I think you’re reading it wrong. It doesn’t matter that it’s actually King Herod who delivers this judgement in the poem.

“For The Time Being” is a poem about the incarnation (“A Christmas Oratorio”, as the subtitle says), but this bit concerns what happened after Jesus’s birth, when Herod massacred the Innocents. Herod’s fear, it turns out, is not just that a new king will replace him, but that this successor will bring on an age of unreason.

Herod is conflicted about the action he is taking, because he’s a liberal at heart. Yet he can justify the means with the ends, and can contemplate doing evil so long as the word “lesser” is in front of it.

I think this section of the poem is wonderful because it piles on details like the excesses of the described scenario. The excerpt’s diction is absolutely superb and its loose, run-on punctuation adds to its frantic energy. (I’m reminded of C.K. Williams, who passed away last week, and his ability to string together one-sentence poems that pulse with kinetic, frenetic force.)

Returning to the present, I’m also reminded of an apropos line. It comes from the film adaptation of Ethan Canin’s imperishable short story “The Palace Thief”. In it, the protagonist, a classics teacher at an elite New England prep school, lives to witness one of his star students grow into a hungry and corrupt politician. Towards the end of the story, he reflects on the student: “I was wrong about him. But as a student of history, I could be shocked neither by his audacity nor by his success.” Without growing complacent, I often think of this nowadays when I look out the window or into the TV at what seems like cultural or moral entropy.

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