A whole body of literature has developed around the question of the German people’s relationship to their genocide in their midst. While historians debate the question of culpability for the atrocities of the Holocaust, it is equally, if not more important to look to the literature of the time, and see what contemporary culture has to say about the world historic moment that was the state fascism and European genocide of the mid-20th century. Two authors who can help inform our understandings of this period are Eliot and Auden, poets whose work gives us insight into the basis for fascist tendencies in high intellectual circles, and a moral framework through which to view the failure of the German people to contest the crimes being carried out in their midst. Eliot’s Wasteland, with its highly controlled form and famous three tiered invective, datta, dayadhvam, damyata- give, control, and sympathize- provides a kind of logic for the nationalist collectivism of National Socialism. Eliot employs the mythic method to make a case for the necessity of modern art to connect to a common cultural, literary and historic tradition, and in the process, influences the modern cultural elite with a belief that modernism is not incompatible with fascism, and may even need it. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, by contrast, delivers a stunning (if ambiguous) critique of that same elite, exposing the tendency in people to turn away from tragedy when forced to negotiate between moral action in the face of injustice and the complacency stemming for their perceived worldly interests.
For most literary critics, Eliot’s Wasteland is considered the definitive poem of high modernism: an epic work of art modeled after the quest narratives of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, unique in its content, fragmentary and highly controlled style, difficulty, and most significantly, its use of the mythic method to draw parallels between the great foundational tales of Western civilization and our present, modern condition. Let us examine two interplaying aspects of this mammoth text: collectivism, and the mythic method.
Throughout the poem, images of a desolated, unconnected world form the background for all the characters and their actions. Their existence within The Wasteland is so tragic because they cannot connect to one another and form a genuine collective, and this ability is lost because they have lost their primary connection to a shared literary, cultural and historic tradition. At the end of the first section, The Burial of the Dead, the reader finds first mention of the “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn” (59-60). This same term is repeated in The Fire Sermon (Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter noon (207-208)), and is alluded to a third time in What the Thunder Said (Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal (374-377)). Eliot repeats this image of an alien world to emphasize a modern commonality: as these cities all contain citizens who cannot connect to the European heritage that unites them, they are in a paradoxical way all the same city.
Consider the lines immediately following the first mention of “Unreal city” in The Burial of the Dead. We are presented with the first collective of the poem, “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many./ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes upon his feet” (62-65). With the use of the word “flowed,” the crowd is metaphorically compared to a stream of water, united as one force. Yet despite their close proximity to one another, they are completely unconnected, each with his eyes “fixed” before his feet as they head to the cities financial center in order to do their work. This is a quintessentially modern moment, a phenomenon Marx noted in his description of alienated labor in the new industrial world, and one reinforced here by Eliot, whose allusions to Dante’s Inferno in lines 63 and 64 imply that these people are living in a kind of purgatory.
The final eight lines of this stanza illustrate the greatest way for modern masses to break out of this eremitic existence: to find knowledge and connection through a shared tradition. In line 69, the speaker breaks away from his description of the crowd, stating “There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!/ “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!/ “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/ “Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?” (69-73). In this verbal exchange, the speaker is able to connect with another person because they share something in common; both were together “in the ships at Mylae,” (70) a reference to the Sicilian seaport at which the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic war. The character of their connection is critically important to understanding what Eliot values in this disconnected modernity. It is a militaristic, nationalist citizenship that binds them, devotion to a Roman sense of national mission and an almost romanticized notion of empire. The corpse he refers to could be interpreted as the corpus of Western literature: the high cultural artifacts that, according to Eliot, allow us to define ourselves against a definition of our own culture and history. In a similar vein, his cryptic question- whether the corpse has sprouted or not- is understood as a critique of the modern estrangement from the tradition the corpse represents. The corpus has died in the modern world, but it has a chance of being revived if individuals are willing to submit themselves to the collective experience of the western canon. What is unfortunate about this argument is that its logic can easily follow to National Socialism, with the Fuhrer and the State acting as the collectivizing agent that judges what is and is not in the canon, and who is and is not admitted as a citizen within the society that deems it such. In the case of Nazi Germany, it was Aryans in, Jews (and Poles and Slavs and gypsies and communists and homosexuals) out.
A second key feature of The Wasteland is the repeated use of the mythic method, a literary device Eliot describes in a review of Joyce’s Ulysess as a process of using myths to manipulate “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity . . . simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Perfect examples of this method in practice abound within The Wasteland, where Eliot draws explicit connections between contemporary characters and figures within Greco-Roman mythology. One intriguing example of the mythic method at work in The Wasteland is the parallel Philomel/Lil narratives, which occur in the second section of the poem, A Game of Chess. A brief analysis of these two narratives will allow us to develop a useful strategy for reading The Wasteland as well as Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts.
The first narrative, spanning lines 77-138, describes a rich woman in her extravagant home, surrounded by luxurious aesthetics, priceless works of art, “and other withered stumps of time” (104). Particular attention is paid to a painting sitting “above the antique mantel” (emphasis added), which “displayed/As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene/ The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale/ Filled all the desert with inviolable voice/ And still she cried, and still the world pursues/ “Jug Jug” to dirty ears” (97-103). This painting depicts a famous scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In its notes on this “sylvan scene,” the Norton Anthology explains that “Tereus raped his sister-in-law, Philomela, and cut out her tongue. To avenge her, his wife, Procne, murdered her son and fed him to Tereus. All three were changed into birds: the sisters into the nightingale and the swallow, Tereus in the hoopoe pursuing them.” The painting literally shows Philomel being raped by Tereus and having her tongue cut out, with a nightingale close by to symbolize the eventual “change” to come. Once that is established, the terrible euphemism of this language is obvious, as the violence committed against Philomel is called only a “change,” and the act of rape referred to with the words “so rudely forced.” The action of the painting is made coexistent to the present condition of the rich woman, which is why the rape of Philomel can be seen “as though a window gave upon the sylvan scene.”
The reasons for the euphemistic language and window metaphor are twofold; by using uncertain language, Eliot intentionally obfuscates the act, so that the reader is denied easy access to its meaning; next, we realize that the woman who owns the painting herself does not understand her connection to the art object and the cultural tradition it represents, because as the following interactions with her lover suggest, she too is a woman denied agency and made to suffer existential despair. Philomel’s rape re-enacts itself through this woman, which is why the paintings actions are as present as the world outside her window. Because she is alienated from this mythic past, she cannot realize that even as a seemingly powerless woman, surrounded by finery but unable to make it for herself without the support of the man bringing it home to her, she, like Procne, can claim her agency. Instead, she resorts to asking “What shall I do now? What shall I do?” (131). Ideally, upon seeing a nightingale, she can make the connection to Philomel’s story, hear the voices of her cultural past and find hope and strength. Instead, all that is heard is “Jug Jug to dirty ears.” Disconnected from her culture’s mythic past even as it begs for admittance in her own home, she is helpless and hopeless, and this is the root of her tragedy.
In the second half of A Game of Chess, a second character, Lil, is engaged in a dialogue with an unnamed confidant in an English pub as it is closing for the night. The reader learns that Lil’s husband has been recently demobilized following WWI, and will soon return home to find that Lil has not used the money he gave her to fix her teeth as he instructed. Lil’s acquaintance chastises her for refusing to get the requested dental work, and warns that “If Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling. You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique” (155-156). The use of the word antique, employed earlier to describe the mantel upon which the painting of Philomel sat, immediately signals to the reader that these two narratives are connected, in addition to the name Lil, a low class version of the high sounding “Philomel” to which the rich woman is compared. The reader soon learns the reason Lil has refused the dental work. We discover that she was impregnated by her husband for the sixth time and decided to buy pills in order to abort the child. Her choice is a rational one; after all, she “nearly died of young George” (160). Yet because her society dictates that a husband should have unlimited access to his wife’s body, her role is institutionalized to the point where she relives Philomel’s fate on the level of realism. In this case, mythological violence becomes the normal routine violence of modern life. Lil is imprisoned by her circumstances, in fear of losing her husband and only base of support for her five children, and like the woman in the first half of A Game of Chess, denied agency. Again, Eliot’s point is clear: should these women listen to the voices of their mythic past, they could unite across class lines and have a collective experience which would empower them. But they don’t, so they can’t.
Having established these two themes within the Wasteland---the importance of collective experience in lieu of a connection to our mythic past---let us now turn to Auden’s Musee des Beau Arts, and observe how these same themes are challenged and reworked by his experience with artifacts of our mythic past. At the very start, the poem posits its thesis: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (1-4). The organizing principle of the poem, in which he employs descriptions of several paintings within the French Museum of Fine Arts to explicate his point, is that suffering is awful in itself, but when it occurs without any response from humans occupying its same space in the natural world, it is heightened to the level of tragedy.
The two main figures in Auden’s poem are both major icons of classical Western mythology: Jesus Christ, depicted dying on the cross as “the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree;” (12-13) and Icarus, drowning in the sea after a failed escape from the labyrinth of Minos, king of Crete. His improvised wings of wax, employed to fly from the prison, melted as he came too close to the sun, and in this painting he has already plunged to his death, the only sign of him “the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water” (18-19). Like Christ, Icarus’ death is relegated to “a corner, some untidy spot:” (11) quite literally, the bottom right corner of Brueghel’s painting of the scene, which focuses the majority of the space on the canvas on a ploughman plowing his fields high above the harbor in which Icarus drowns, and an “expensive delicate ship” (19) sailing before a magnificent horizon. Like Eliot, Auden is employing the mythic tradition to draw a parallel between these two figures. His most basic point is that the indifference of the society surrounding these dead men intensifies the tragedy of their deaths.
On another level, we can learn much by contrasting the Eliot’s use of the mythic method in the Philomel/Lil narratives and Auden’s employment of it here between Icarus and Christ. In Eliot’s poem, it is the inability of these women to connect to their mythic forerunner Philomel which denies them access to authentic agency. The implication is that were they to have a collective experience of this myth, they could transcend their station in life and escape the complications of modernity. Auden’s poem draws a quite different conclusion from the suffering of its figures. Unlike Eliot’s poem, which positions contemporary people in literary parallel to their mythic counterparts, Auden only includes the mythic figures themselves. Instead of extolling their tragedies as examples centralizing moments in the Western experience we can all access in order to gain a better understanding of our present, he focuses on the almost pathetic circumstances of their deaths; how in Icarus’ case, “everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster;” (14-15) that alienation from world historic moments of tragedy is not a particularly modern, but rather fundamentally human characteristic, which stems from the very same indifference to suffering displayed by Nature.
Musee des Beaux Arts is even more remarkable because of its sophisticated commentary on the role of class and social status on our moral culpability for tragic suffering. This critique is tied closely to Auden’s claim that humans have a natural tendency to allow their own concerns and pleasures get in the way of moral action. This is hinted at in the first stanza, when we are presented with the “aged” who “are reverently, passionately waiting/ For the miraculous birth,” (5) contrasted with the “Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood:” (7-8). The reader is reminded of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which present man before the Fall in his innocent state, untainted by ideologies and domination. While the old men essentially waste away their last moments on earth praying for the redemption Christ will bring, Auden reminds us that life goes on; what is left more or less ambiguous is whether or not this is a good or bad thing.
In the second stanza, we find a much more explicit condemnation of the social forces that work to obscure suffering (and thus mitigate response to it) from the public realm. Two figures are in the scene, a ploughman representing the laboring, lower class, and the trading ship, a symbol of the upper class (and ally of Eliot’s high cultural elite). Both figures ignore Icarus’ death; however, it is the upper-class ship that is held more responsible for that ignorance. For the ploughman, whose principle task is to provide food for his family so that they will not starve to death, his work is imminently tied to his survival. Concerned mainly with performing his role in the production of capital, he “may/ Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/ But for him it was not an important failure” (15-17). Auden uses the word “may” to introduce uncertainty into the scene. There is even a possibility that he didn’t hear it, and even if he did, he was so concerned with providing himself with the basic necessities to live, and so far removed from the position in which to affect change (being high above and far removed from the site of Icarus’ drowning), that he almost can’t be blamed for not responding. Almost.
Greater moral culpability lies with the “expensive delicate ship,” which Auden points out “must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” yet despite incontrovertible evidence that something extraordinarily awful was happening right before their eyes, within the realm of possibilities for them to take action and stop it, the ship “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (21). The ship, a symbol of the rich and powerful, who is the closest to the action of suffering and most able to stop it, fails to take moral action. Like the ploughman, it too is more concerned with the production of capital than the saving of lives; for those shipmates, like some citizens in Mussolini’s fascist state, it is more important that the trains run on time than progress be held up for the saving of one innocent life.
Progress at the expense of human suffering; collectivism for the sake of national unity; purpose as defined by the interests of the group in power of the means of production; all these things can describe the state of the masses wandering over London Bridge in The Wasteland, the figures ignoring tragedy in Musee des Beaux Arts, and finally, the inhabitants of almost every state which has engineered a genocide in the 20th century. What these poems provide us is a framework through which to understand the mentality of the high cultural elite of the time, and a critique of that mindset for the ills that it produces. In Eliot’s case, his 1922 publication of The Wasteland came as a response to the devastation and suffering of WWI. When his poem ends with datta, give, daydhvam, sympathize, and damyata, control, he is urging his contemporaries to give the knowledge of their mythic past to the masses, to sympathize with the condition of humanity in the modern area which causes alienation, fragmentation and nihilism, and then control the ill effects of this sickness by collectivizing. While this is only one interpretation of this highly complex ending to an immensely complicated poem, it is not implausible; Eliot’s own prose attests to his fascist tendencies and anti-Semitic sympathies, especially as Europe approaches the threshold of WWII. What is perhaps most disturbing about Eliot’s work is its snobbish attitude about the primacy of the Greco-Roman condition, which alienates and even dehumanizes the Others who do not fit into his cultural paradigm.
Auden’s poem takes a jab at this elitism from the onset. Its title, Musee des Beaux Arts, implies the special knowledge of a certain cultural elite, who could recognize the French and provide a mental image of the art being described. It is not the lower class working man who is seeing these paintings and reading his poem, but rather the upper class, highly cultured elites; it is those same people whose appeasement and inaction in the face of human suffering has allowed for the dangerous historical precipice upon which the poem is situated. Published in 1938 at the very edge of the Holocaust, Auden’s poem confirms one of the darkest, saddest truths about humanity: that tragedy, even genocide, occurs when the majority of the common people are occupied with assuring their survival, while those in positions of power convince themselves that they “had somewhere to go and sailed calmly on.” German native and Holocaust survivor Fritz Ottenheimer describes it well. Throughout his memoir, he grapples with the question of the German populace’s failure to take a stand against the “Final Solution.” What Ottenheimer realizes is that
The professionals, the educated people, were the ones that the ordinary people might have looked to for guidance. But they were busy trying to get into positions from which their Jewish colleagues had been fired. Many others found it advantageous to do Hitler’s work. . . I am afraid that what I noticed was not a weakness of the German people but a weakness of human nature. We tend to ask ourselves, how does this affect me [or] how does this affect my family? And that if it’s someone else’s family [affected], we tend not to get as excited as we should.
What Ottenheimer and Auden both understood is that same notion first posited by John Locke; namely, that all human action is motivated by a desire to alleviate present uneasiness; and if collaborating with murderers or even simply turning away while the “dreadful martyrdom runs it course” is more convenient and less troublesome than taking a moral stand against evil, humans will often sadly choose the former response to tragedy over the latter.
With this is mind we return to Dachau, and though no poem or essay can ever truly explain for the moral failure that was the Holocaust, together these two modernist works help us understand the cultural conditions that lead to fascism and the human failings that helped lead it to genocide. When people live in a controlled system, damyata, where their real daily concern is survival through work, alienation is inevitable and moral failures routine. For one final example of this thesis in practice today, we need not look further than the contemporary genocide occurring now in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered and starved to death and thousands more continue to die as the United Nations watch from a distance with their hands tied. Meanwhile, the majority of the American public doesn’t even know genocide is taking place. The website beawitness.org, dedicated to raising awareness about this crisis, notes that “during June 2005, CNN, FOXNews, NBC/MSNBC, ABC, and CBS ran 50 times as many stories about Michael Jackson and 12 times as many stories about Tom Cruise as they did about the genocide in Darfur.” What is obvious is that, like the “expensive delicate ship” sailing calmly along as Icarus’ body dropped into the sea, the news networks theoretically dedicated to providing our nation with the most important information necessary to making informed moral choices are in truth more concerned with turning a profit- and the fact of the matter is, sensational entertainment and celebrity sells more ads than genocide. In both Icarus’ and the people of Darfur’s cases, the market dictates where people place their attention and determines what is and is not “an important failure.” The true test for our democracy is to demand that moral principle trump material gain. Until that day arrives, the tragedies will continue, and the lessons of modernism will remain unlearned.