Typescript W. H. Auden "Freedom and Necessity in the Arts" 1970-05-21--1995-12-31

0001 Sunday June 14t.

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0006 English original of Auden's
0007 Speech delivered in German at Neulengbach , 2? of May 1970

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0009 date of
0010 Speech

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0019                  Sehr veehrter Herr Landeshauptmann,meine Damen und Herren:
0020           I hope you will pardon me if I speak somewhat personally. I do so,
0021 not out of vanity,but because  I do not wish to give the impression that I
0022 am attempting to lay down absolute laws which are valid for all. I give you my
0023 experiences as a poet,in the hope that you will be able to compare them with
0024 yours,and form your own judgment about them.
0025    Most of what I know about the writing of poetry,or at least about the kind I
0026 am interested in writing,I discovered long before I took any interest in poetry
0027 itself.
0028   Between the ages of six and twelve,I spent a great many of my waking hours in
0029 the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world,the basic elements of which
0030 were a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the
0031 North of England and b) an industry - lead-mining.
0032    It is no doubt psychologically significant that my sacred world was autistic -
0033 that is to say,I had no wish to share it with others nor could I have done so.
0034 However,though constructed for and inhabited by myself alone,I needed the help of
0035 others,my parents in particular,in collecting its basic materials; others had to
0036 procure for me the necessary text-books on geology and machinery,maps,catalogues,
0037 guide-books and photographs,and,when occasion offered take me down real mines,
0038 tasks which they performed with unfailing patience and generosity.
0039     From this activity,I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied
0040 to all artistic fabrication. First,whatever other elements it may include,the
0041 initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by
0042 encounters,in the Primary World,with sacred beings or events.  This feeling of awe
0043 is an imperative,that is to´ say,one is not free to choose the object or the event
0044 that arouses it. Though every work of art is a secondary world,it cannot be
0045 constructed ex nihilo,but is a selection from and a recombination of the contents of
0046 the Primary World. Even the 'purest' poem,in the French Symboliste sense,is
0047 made of words which are not the poet's private property,but the communal creation
0048 of the linguistic group to whom he belongs,so that their meaning can be looked up
0049 in a dictionary.
0050      Secondly,in constructing my private world,I discovered that,though this was
0051 a game,or rather precisely because it was a game - that is to say,not a necessity
0052 like eating or sleeping,but something I was free to do or not as I chose - it
0053 could not be played without rules. Absolute freedom is meaningless: freedom can
0054 only be realised in a choice between alternatives. A secondary world,be it a poem,
0055 or a game of football or bridge,must be as much a world of law as the Primary,the
0056 only difference being that in the world of games one is free to decide what its
0057 laws shall be. But to all games as to real life,Goethe's lines apply.

(vl) 0001              In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
(vl) 0002              Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

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0063    As regards my particular lead-mining world,I decided,or rather,without conscious
0064 decision I instinctively felt,that I must impose two restrictions upon my freedom
0065 of fantasy. In choosing what objects were to be included,I was free to select this
0066 and reject that,on condition that both were real objects in the Primary World,to
0067 choose,for example,between two kinds of water-turbine,which could be found in a
0068 text-book  on mining machinery or a manufacturer's catalogue: but I was not free
0069 to invent one.  In deciding how my world was to function,I could choose between
0070  two practical possibilities  - a mine can be drained either by an adit or a pump -
0071  but physical impossibilities and magic means were forbidden. When I say forbidden,
0072  I mean that I felt,in some obscure way,that they were morally forbidden. Then there
0073  came a day when the moral issue became quite conscious. As I was planning my
0074  Platonic Idea of a concentrating-mill,I ran into difficulties. I had to choose
0075  between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes,called a buddle.
0076  One type I found more sacred or ' beautiful',but the other type was,I
0077  knew from my reading,the more efficient. At this point I realised that it was my
0078  moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

0079 (2

0080     When,later,I began to write poetry’I found that,for me,at least,the same
0081 obligation was binding. That is to say,I cannot accept the doctrine that,in
0082 poetry,there is a 'suspension of belief'. A poet must never make a statement
0083 simply because it sounds poetically exciting: he must also believe it to be
0084 true. This does not mean,of course,that one can only appreciate a poet whose
0085 beliefs happen to co-incide with one's own. It does mean,however,that one must
0086 be convinced that the poet really believes what he says,however odd the
0087 belief may seem to oneself.

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0090        Between constructing a private yfantasy world for oneself alone
0091 and writing poetry,there is,of course,a profound difference. A
0092 fantasy world exists only in the head of its creator: a poem is a public
0093 verbal object intended to be read and enjoyed by others. To become conscious
0094 of others is to become conscious of historical time in various ways. The
0095 contents of a poem are necessarily past experiences,and the goal of
0096 a poem is necessarily in the future,since it cannot be read until
0097 it has been written. Again,to write a poem is to engage in an activity which
0098 human beings have practised for centuries. If one asks why human beings
0099 make poems or paint pictures or compose music,I can see two possible answers.
0100 Firstly all the artistic media are forms of an activity peculiar to human
0101 beings,namely,Personal Speech. Many animals have impersonal codes of
0102 communications,visual,olfactory,auditory signals,by which they convey to
0103 other members of their species vital information about food,territory,sex,
0104 the presence of enemies,etc,and in social animals like the bee,such
0105 a code may be exceedingly complex. We,too,of course,often use words in the same
0106 way,as when I ask a stranger the way to the railroad station. But when we
0107 truly speak,we do something quite different. We speak as person to person
0108 in order to disclose ourselves to others and share our experiences with
0109 them,not because we must,but becuase we enjoy doing so. This activity is
0110 sometimes quite erroneously called 'self-expression'. If I write a poem
0111 about experiences I have had,I do so because I think it
0112 should be of interest and value to others: the fact that it has till now
0113 only been my experience is accidental. What the poet or any artist has to convey
0114 is a perception of a reality common to all,but seen from a unique perpsective,
0115 which it is his duty as well as his pleasure to share with others. To small
0116 truths as well as great,St Augustine's words apply.

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0123             The truth is neither mine nor his nor another's;but belongs
0124             to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it: warning us
0125             terribly,not to account it private to ourselves,lest we be
0126             deprived of it.

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0131 Why is this passage
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0133   Then the second impulse to artistic fabrication is the desire to transcend
0134 our mortality,by making objects which,unlike ourselves,are not subject to
0135 natural death,but can remain permanently 'on hand' in the world,
0136 long after we and our society have perished.
0137    Every genuine work of art,I believe,exhibits two qualities,Nowness and
0138 Permanence. By Nowness I mean the quality which enables an art-historian
0139 to date a work,at least,approximately. If,for example,one listens to
0140 a composition by Palestrina and one by Mozart,one knows immediately that,
0141 quite aside from their artistic merits,Palestrina must have lived earlier
0142 than Mozart: he could not possibly have written as he did after Mozart.
0143 By Permanence,I mean  that the work continues to have relevance and
0144 importance lomg after its creator is dead. In the history of Art,unlike
0145 the history of Science,no genuine work of art is made obsolete by a
0146 later work. Past science is of interest only to the historian of science,not
0147 to what scientists are doing at this moment. Past works of art,on the
0148 other hand,are of the utmost importance to the contemporary
0149 practictneroner. Every artist tries to produce something new,but in the hope
0150 that,in time,it will take its proper place in the tradition of his art.
0151 And he cannot produce anything significantly original unless he knows
0152 well what has already been done;w,that is to say , he cannot
0153 'rebel' against the past without having a profound reverence for it.

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0155 (3

0156       There are periods in history when the arts develop uninterruptedly,
0157   each generation building on the achievements of the previous generation.
0158 There are other periods when radical breaks seem to be necessary. However,
0159 when they are,one will generally find that the 'radical' artist does not
0160 disown the past,but finds in works of a much earlier period or in
0161 those of culture than his own,the clue as to what he should do now.
0162 In my own case,for example,I know how much I owe to Anglo-Saxon and
0163 Medieval Poetry.

0165 ? another

0166     When I review the contemporary artistic scene,it strikes me how
0167 extraordinarily fortunate men like Stravinsky,Picasso,Eliot,
0168 etc,that is,those persons we think of as the founders of 'modern' art,
0169 were in being born when they were,so that they came to manhood before
0170 I9I4. Until the First World War,western society was still pretty much
0171 what it had been in the nineteenth century. This meant that for these artists,
0172 the felt need to create something new arose from an artistic imperative,
0173 not a historic imperative. No one asked himself:'What is the proper
0174 kind of music to compose or picture to paint or poem to write in the year
0175 I9I2.?'  Secondly,their contemporary audiences  were mostly
0176 conservative,but honestly so.  Those,for instance,who were scandalised by
0177 Le Sacre du Printemps,may seem to us now to have been old fogies,but
0178 their reaction was genuine. They did not say to themselves:'Times have
0179 changed and we must change with them in order not to
0180 be left behind.'
0181      Here are a few statements by Stravinsky to which the young,whether
0182 artists or critics,would do well to listen and ponder over.

0183            In my youth the new music grew out of,and in reaction to,traditions,
0184            whereas it appears to be evolving to-day as much from social needs
0185            as interior artistic ones...The status of new music as a
0186            category is another incomparable. It had none at all in my early
0187             years,being in fact categorically opposed,and often with real
0188           hostility. But the unsuccess of composers of my generation at
0189           least kept them from trading on success,and our unsuccess may have
0190            been less insidious than the automatic superlatives which nowadays
0191           kill the new by absorbing it to death.
0192                                  ***

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0200           The use of the new hardware naturally appears to the new musician
0201           as 'historically imperative'; but music is made out of musical
0202           imperatives,and the awareness of historical processes is probably
0203           best left to future and different kinds of wage-earners.
0204                                   ***

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0208  In times,like our own,of rapid social change and political crisis,there is
0209 always a danger of confusing the principles governing political action and
0210 those governing artistic fabrication.  The most important of such confusions
0211 are three.
0212   Firstly,one may come to think of artistic fabrication as a form of political
0213 action. Every citizen,poets included,has a duty to be politically engagé,
0214 that is,to play a responsible part in seeing that the society of which
0215 he is a member shall function properly and improve. But the poet,qua poet,
0216 has only one political function. Since language is his medium,it is his duty,
0217 by his own example,to defend his mothermother-tongue against corruption by demagogues,
0218 journalists,the mass-media,etc. As Karl Kraus said:'Die Sprache ist die
0219  Mutter,nicht das Magd,des Gedankens',and when language loses its meaning,
0220 its place is taken by violence. Of course,the poet may use political and
0221 social events as subject-matter for poems - they are as much a part of human
0222 experience as love or nature - but he must never imagine that his poems have
0223 the power to affect the course of history. The political and social history
0224 of Europe would be what it has been if Dante,Shakepeare,Goethe,Michael
0225 Angelo,Titian,Mozart,Beethoven,etc, had never existed.

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0230    Where political and social evils are concerned,only
0231 two things are effective: political action and straightforward,truthful,
0232 detailed journalistic rapportage of the facts. The Arts are powerless.
0233   The second confusion,of which Plato is the most famous example,is to take
0234 artistic fabrication as the model for a good society.
0235 Such a model,if put into practice,is bound to produce a tyranny The aim of
0236 the artist is to produce an object which is complete and will endure without
0237 change. In the 'city' of a poem,there are always the same inhabitants doing
0238 exactly the same jobs for ever. A society which was really like a good poem,
0239 embodying the aesthetic virtues of order,economy,and subordination of the detail
0240 to the whole,would be a nightmare of horror for,given the historical reality of
0241 actual men,such a society could only come into being through selective breeding,
0242 extermination  of the physically and mentally unfit,absolute obedience to
0243 its director,a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars,and the
0244 strictest censureship of the Arts,forbidding anything to be said which is
0245 out of keeping with the official 'line'.
0246    The third confusion,typical of our western 'free'
0247 societies at this time,is the opposite of Plato's,namely to take political
0248 action as the model for artistic fabrication. Political action is a necessity,
0249 that is to say,at every moment something has to be done,and it
0250 is momentary - action at this moment is immediately followed by another action
0251 at the next.  Artistic fabrication,on the other hand,is voluntary-
0252 the alternative to one work of art can be no work of art - and the artistic
0253 object is permanent,that is to say,immune to historical change. The attempt
0254 to model artistic fabrication on political action can therefore,only
0255 reduce it to momentary and arbitrary 'happenings',a conformism with
0256 the tyrrany of the immediate moment which is far more enslaving and
0257 destructive of integrity than any conformism with past tradition.

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0260    What then,can the Arts do for us? In my opinion,they can do two things.
0261 They can,as Dr Johnson said,'enable us a little better to enjoy life or a
0262 little better to endure it'. And, because they are objects
0263 permanently on hand in the world,they are the chief means by which the
0264 living are able to break bread with the dead,and,without a communication
0265 with the dead,I do not believe that a fully human civilised life is possible.
0266   Perhaps,too,in our age,the mere making of a work of art is itself a
0267 political act. So long as artists exist,making what they please or think
0268 they ought to make,even if their works are not terribly good,they
0269 remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of,namely,
0270 that the managed are people with faces,not anonymous numbers,that Homo
0271 Laborans is also Homo Ludens.

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0273          And now,I hope those of you who know no English will forgive me if
0274 I conclude these remarks with a light poem of my own,entitled
0275 Doggerel by a Senior Citizen (see CP 638-9).

0276 I have added commas in lists after final item and before etc
0277 since they are already there in most of the lists -
0278 I have also added a few other comma[] (usually to complete a set of parenthetical commas)
0279 I have no[] changed colons though I would like to : Are these A's ?

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0282        At this point,a little digression on the subject of 'free' verse,which
0283   seems now to be almost universal among young poets. Though excellent
0284  examples,the poems of D.H.Lawrence,for example,exist,ithey are,in my opinion
0285 the exception,not the rule. The great virtue of formal metrical rules is
0286 that they forbid automatic responses and,by forcing the poet
0287 to have second thoughts,free him from the fetters of self. All too often,the
0288 result of not having a fixed form to be true to,is a self-indulgence which in
0289 the detached reader can only cause boredom. Further,in my experience ,contrary
0290 to what one might expect,the free-verse poets sound much more
0291 like each other than those who write in fixed forms. Whatever freedom may do,
0292 it does not,it would seem,make for originality.

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