Auden’s later representative poetry,
In addition to this foundational diagnosis of the causes of the repeated horrors that Western culture has engendered, Auden pursues alternatives to the reparation of the sickly civilization and for a new history, and locates the source of the new history in the feminine principle, which has been ignored and misrepresented as a manageable docility, or reticence at best, and entire incapacity at worst. Paradoxically enough, Auden strains to uncover boundless possibilities within the circumscribed2 and forsaken passivity, as the “backward and dilapidated” limestone landscape connects to the big busy world by a tunnel in “In Praise of Limestone” (540). Thus, instead of calling other goddesses, now he summons such goddesses as Clio the Muse of history, who possesses more detached yet more contemplative and positive qualities, beyond her silence and inactivity, which echo Derrida’s notion of khora. Reappropriating Plato’s khora, which signals a formless container, Derrida ponders its amorphousness and underscores its negative or empty capability such as spacing and construction surpassing the concept of the passive receptacle, and its entire otherness as a potential for multiple meanings and things. In the same vein, Auden points out the admirable perseverance of the feminine, its capacity to delay every injudicious movement, its contemplative aspect—which can suggest the more profound source of historical activities—and its perplexing interposition into history, while advocating the new doctrine. In addition, Auden attempts to link the feminine principle to Christian existentialism or Christian mysticism—which postulates the communication between the vulnerable subject and its paradoxical counterpart, its mysterious and absolute otherness, God the omnipotent—reverse the existential situation from the bottom of passivity to the ceiling of vigor, and thus unseal Christian feminism.
1Edward Mendelson claims that the poem obliquely questions what later writers called the “Pax Americana” by commenting on the “failure of Virgil’s prophecy of the Roman future” (Later Auden 370). 2As Victoria Arana claims, for Auden, the “awareness of limit is crucial to emotional and intellectual growth.” Thus, in his later stage, he invokes the Roman god Terminus the god of all boundaries, rules and grammars, who is regarded as the “symbolic embodiment of reticence and modesty” (3–6).
Derrida extols and reappropriates Plato’s notion of “khora,” which appears in
In addition, khora surpasses the function of the passive receptacle by disassociating from the notion of an amenable reception, unearthing the interval between the imprinted receiving and the ejection of the inscription, and targeting an indefinite position, no location, or the very “singular impropriety” (Derrida “Khora” 97). Kristeva maintains that khora preceding “evidence,” specularization, “verisimilitude,” “spatiality,” and temporality can “never be definitely posited,” nor given “axiomatic form” (
However, beyond preserving its unaffectedness, this blank khora displays the paradoxical effects of passive activity, because the amorphous khora “must be determined” (Derrida “To Unsense 136). Paradoxically, indeterminacy necessitates determinacy due to its indefiniteness. In other words, the forces that are thus “inhibited” and “numbed” continue to maintain some “potential incoherence” (“Khora” 121). In a sense, Khora appears to be a “tabula rasa” on which the demiurge writes or in which “sensible things are inscribed” (Caputo 84), serving as a place of birthing, a womb, or an abode of universal incubation, in other words, the matrix, or the apparatus for any possible conception or production. That is to say, khora, even if it is not a normal origin, functions as a mother who “fathers its offspring” and further as a nurse who “nurtures sensible things into maturity” (Caputo 91). Similarly, Kristeva highlights khora’s creative operations particularly concerning pre-symbolic and symbolic mechanisms. She asserts that, though “deprived of unity, identity, or deity,” khora is nevertheless subject to a “regulating process,” by which it temporarily “articulates” discontinuities (
3In the words of Derrida, thanks to its indeterminacy and atemporality, khora is always “older” than everything that seems to affect it, and is always “younger,” infant even, “achronic,” and “anachronistic” (“Khora” 116).
The notion of khora, which is reappropriated in contemporary perspectives, signaling reception, spacing, and production, locates its abundant application in Auden’s poetry. As discussed earlier, Auden, who is dissatisfied with human civilization, its facile relapse into schematism, practicalism, totalitarianism, masculinity, and war, pays attention to the feminine principle, its passive activity, its new diverse potentials, while seeking new alternatives for the future. And Auden’s feminism recourses to concepts analogous to khora such as passive suffering, the detachment from a virile world, the emphasis of indifference or inaction, motion with reservation, silent interruption, and profusion in meditation, which Auden links to Christian mysticism.
At first, Auden points out that before the achievement of detachment from any categories, the feminine principle has sustained severe pain throughout human history for not being foregrounded. In the same vein with the receptive facet of the feminine having been emphasized, woman’s role has been, in general, restricted to passivity on the whole. Auden explores this infinitely suffering feminine image in the primordial Greek goddess Gaea personifying the earth, and mourns over her anguish and torture in “Ode to Gaea.” In this poem Auden portrays the deterioration and destruction of the earth, catalogues what occurrences contribute to the contamination of the earth throughout history, and feels apologetic toward Gaea, “our Mother,” who now yearns for the sea, declaring that “of pure things water is the best” (551–52). In general, Auden points to human culture aggravating the global environment. In the period when justice “slipped away” sighing from the hero’s pew, lame clergymen composed the “most venomous iambics,” and the tipsy poet “cursed a baby” (553–54). Totalitarian bureaucracy and police ruling politics marred the “holy laws of Speech” (553). Thus, it is inevitable that the accumulation of the defaulted historical incidents results in the deprivation of bucolics, which generally exemplify daily rhythm:
The destruction of “farms” and “harbor-works” and the perversion of the peasant’s only son’s dream signals the loss of a pastoral lifestyle, which offers us a life removed from day-to-day concerns. As a passive receptacle the earth has received and brooked all the brutality and violence from its earthly inhabitants, particularly a series of cases of maladministration symbolized by “the tormentor’s fondling finger,” hence humans feeling “neglected on mountain drives” (552), and the last genuine locales such as rural areas becoming deteriorated and warped. As Rainer Emig succinctly expresses, there is “no nature in nature” (217). Derrida implies that khora can be such a devastated place ruined, defiled, imploded, and perforated, such that as an instance of khora, the femininity of the mother or the nurse is “never attributed to it or her as a property, something of her own” (“Khora” 98). Khora as a “support” must “withstand passively under all the blows.” (“To Unsense” 122). Similarly, Auden notes that, passing through human history, Gaea, as the subjected container, has abided all kinds of suffering, organizing, poisoning, and humiliation, which the “vast and detestable empire,” a “positivist republic”—in contrast, “the older lives / have no wish to be stood in / rows or at right angles”—the “police,” and technology, has occasioned (552–53). Thus, Auden wonders whether Gaea, who has been betrayed so many times, trusts “good landscapes” that are attuned to humans (554). Compared with the “sheer presence of the earth,” “cultural constructs such as landscapes can only be lies” (Emig 219). In this regard, differentiating two different types of landscape—limestone landscape and stone landscape—Auden eulogizes the former in “In Praise of Limestone,” since the former “dissolves in water” and has a “secret system of caves and conduits,” while the latter leaves no room for a possibility of contacting infinite space through the “latticework of a nomad’s comb,”4 not allowing the “fungi and insects of the jungle” (538–39).
As if to extricate Gaea from the enmeshed situations of the earth or to reinforce her apathy, which she attained after long suffering, Auden recognizes the necessity of the spacing or detachment, in the words of Derrida, seeks distancing from all the incidents in the inside of the passivity of the feminine, and further explores the potential for contemplation—in which one can escape from the happenings and even penetrate them—in the spacing. In “The Shield of Achilles,” written in 1952, which is obviously both a response to and a revision of a scene or an
Here Thetis—the female subject, called “she”—displays her vision’s duplicity between her observing at the shield and her looking over Hephaestos, further, her future’s duplicity between what she really anticipates and what she will have to receive, the duplicity which, in fact, dichotomizes the scenes in the poem, and which demonstrates khora’s dualism, khora as a receptacle and khora as spacing. The scenes fraught with diverse facets of life and society in the poem generally epitomize two aspects of life: a peaceful one depicting pastoral scenery, a religious rite, dances, and games; a turbulent one with the immoral, combative, and ruthless scenes such as a theater of war, a line of battle, rape, and murder. The latter of these are assigned by Auden as portrayed on the shield of Achilles only, which especially attract Thetis’s attention, since the merciless sights embody the major factor of the degeneracy of human civilization, or the masculine principle. Notable is the fact that, although Thetis as khora as a receptacle suffers from the relentless images inscribed on the surface of the shield—“Thetis of the shining breasts / Cried out in dismay / At what the god had wrought / To please her son, the strong / Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / Who would not live long” (596)—she, as khora representing spacing, on the other hand, secures a certain distance from the diverse ruthless scenes of the shield, when she looks over Hephaestos, as if to verify her invulnerability. Under scrutiny, she seems to play the role of one gazing at the images of the shield, keeping some distance, as if to prove herself a critical appreciator. Undoubtedly, by using the pronoun, and a rather detached tone, permitting her to employ another vision, and allotting the bad incidents on the shield only, Auden attempts to institute her own space from all the sufferings and embroilments in human history to relieve the agonies and to not be entangled in the absurd conflicts and clashes. In the same way, that space is neither earth nor fire nor air nor water, as Plato’s khora also procures such a certain discontinuity from the sensible, though stamped by all kinds of images. Since khora does “not receive for her own sake” (Derrida “Khora” 98), the khora takes the forms that are determined upon itself and it takes them upon itself without assuming them. Furthermore, the khora must remain “heterogeneous to everything it receives,” absolutely exempt from all the figures that come to inscribe themselves in it (Derrida “To Unsense” 135). This very singular impropriety, which precisely is “nothing,” “deprived of a real referent,” is just what khora must keep (Derrida “Khora” 97). Although she has her share of being implicated in the distressing incidents exemplified on the shield, Thetis, on the other hand, maintains an observational or heterogeneous distance, shunning the incidents. In addition, beyond her distancing, as though to be apparently effaced by other people, she conveys the nuance of contemplating all the scenes, and of even rebuking the follies and brutalities of human beings and societies. Derrida asserts that Socrates in Greek society took the part of “effac[ing] himself,” “effac[ing] in himself all types, all the genera,” both those of the “men of image and simulacrum,” of situating himself in perhaps “place itself,” the “replaceable place,” and of affecting to “interrupt [the] mythopoetic string of events” (“Khora” 110–11, 117).
In addition, Auden strains to impose the most immense power upon the spacing itself or the silence itself and ennoble it as the prime mover of history. After passing through existential stages, and pondering almost all histories of the past and many alternatives for next generations, Auden eventually proposes the history presided over by the Greek goddess Clio, the muse of history, in “Homage to Clio.” And Auden, above all, marks Clio as the goddess of silence, even compared with other goddesses such as Artemis and Aphrodite as well as male gods, and beseeches her to “forgive [people’s] noises” and “teach [them] [their] recollections” (611):
For Auden, the summoning of Clio by employing the rhetorical apostrophe several times is the most apt deed of human beings in contemporary circumstances—“around me, / From morning to night, flowers duel incessantly, / Color against color, in combats” (608)—which yearn for no more apocalyptic incidents, because Clio, “Madonna of silences,” can quell the hyperkinetic syndrome that the contemporary world suffers. Noteworthy is the fact that the poem provides striking contrasts between “sharper enses” (608) unaware of silence and “silence” itself, which Clio defends, and between Aphrodite and Artemis, goddesses of provocation and intrusion, and Clio, a goddess of silence. “Provocative Aphrodite” and her twin “Virago Artemis” (609), who are “major powers,” are not adept in securing aloofness from their action, which largely amounts to mutual annihilation or futile banalities. In the same vein, Kristeva acutely points to the “resurgence of phallic presence”—which signals that the feminism, even if savoring jouissance (a transgressive and excessive pleasure), still does not pierce through the “paternal wall of the superego”— within feminism as the “feminine problematic” (
In the end, humans, who champion the masculine principle, can only be confronted with Clio or her silence, in quest of might and authority, an encounter that can initiate anxious or traumatic situations for them. So habituated to the established standard, it is strenuous for people to admit the stifling silence. Since Clio’s rarely detectable activities like khora’s operation tend to conceal themselves—for instance, Clio appreciates invisible or tacit life cycles or inconspicuous and unassuming, yet munificent ordinary life, which, Auden claims, is the true maker of history: “Clio loves those who bred them better horses, / Found answers to their questions, make their things, / Even those fulsome / Bards they boarded” (599)—the person’s bombast and pretentiousness cannot adapt to the unornamented mode of Clio. Thus, humans continue to dream as they wish for achieving a lofty or centering ambition figuratively portrayed as a “phallic pillar” or “navel-stone,” but the “pictures” are of no avail (609). Then, Clio’s silence as a decentering move already intervenes between humans and any “magical center” (609), rendering them apprehensive. Derrida argues that khora as “inaccessible,” “amorphous,” and still “virgin,” with a “virginity” that is radically “rebellious against anthropomorphism” does “not designate an essence, the stable being of an
4In the same context, Auden deems the minimization of uniformity, which tends to utilize the “censor’s pencil” and the “policemen’s truncheon,” and leads people to “masses” not “persons,” as one of the most significant task of “social reform” (Prose Ⅱ128). 5Kristeva maintains that Artaud’s portrayal of the feminine, particularly his description of the “mortal violence of the feminine,” is also problematic, because it is “in a vertigo of the phallic mother” due to its dedication to Hitler, though the feminine violence is exalted (Desire 164).
For Auden, the reticent contemplative image which he draws especially from Greek goddess Clio is linked to Christian figures such as Madonna and saints: “To ignore the appetitive goddesses, / to desert the formidable shrines / of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana, / to pray instead to St Phocas, / St Barbara, San Saturnino” (628). In fact, the poem, “Homage to Clio” was a “homage to the Virgin Mary” (Mendelson “The European Auden.” 62). Passing through a stage of existentialism—as depicted in the phrase in “Under Sirius,” “you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach, / Lying in bed till noon, / Your bills unpaid, your much advertised / Epic not yet begun / Are a sufferer too” (543)—Auden gradually leans toward the Kierkegaardian leap of faith especially after arriving in America, and finds himself having an affinity for Christian mysticism, though encompassing the “negotiation between, and choice among, the multiple alternative available truths” of his traveling and tormented existences (Wasley 7). The nothingness and otherness that existentialism6 endows him with are relocated in the negative capacity of negative theology or Christian mysticism. That is to say, the insecure vacuity and alterity are transposed into the reliable blankness and otherness in God, producing immense energy, though God maintaining its absolute difference, the “Wholly Other (Ganz Andere),” the notion that the Swiss theologian “Karl Barth acknowledged” (Jacobs 173) and that profoundly affected Auden. Thus, the otherness of the other is doubly functioning in Auden both as relieved and tempered under God’s shield of protection, and as demanding its maintenance which enables human creatures to recognize their own limitations before God. Auden eventually pursues the reduction of impulsive actions and immersion into emptiness or God’s immeasurable blankness, which can generate gargantuan energy. As Caputo maintains, this way to the “unknown God,” the “
While exploring the possibility of divine history or a theology of history, which “rejects the credo of human perfectibility” (Curtis 46), outpaces secular history, and provides room for redeeming the real history, Auden sometimes aspires to isolate himself from real histories and fixate at a location withdrawn from the realities, such as a church or a monastery.8 And the special place and its particular activities enable Auden to detach from overwrought real life, communicate the invisible power from the vacuity, emit the copious energy, and reconstruct the real history. These effects are, in fact, in line with his expectations of the similar impacts from his relying on Clio the goddess of silence. Thanks to its distancing, the religious place serves as khora as spacing and generating energy. In “Horae Canonicae” (the canonical hours), Auden, while contemplating crucifixion, strains to rearrange daily life from the angle of the divine office, and point to the moments of absence, withdrawal, or purely unconscious states, which reversely afford to reenter into the realities with renewed vivacity, corresponding to the position of khora characteristic of both exclusion and participation. The poem is especially indebted to Ursula Niebuhr, the renowned American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s wife particularly with respect to the Church offices (the Divine office, the official prayer of the Roman Church, the liturgy of the hours), which signify the divisions of the day in terms of periods of fixed prayer at regular intervals. Auden would ask her searching questions about the “historical origins” of the Divine office, the “development of worship,” and some detail of “ecclesiastical practice,” and they discussed the “motive for the Canonical Hours” (Niebuhr 116). Auden links the divine office to our daily and historical events, and transforms a “ritual pattern of worship” into “his own unique poetic structure” (Curtis 46). For Auden, the sequence’s passage from dawn to dusk of the Divine office “corresponds to passages from birth to death, from the rise and the fall of a city, and from the creation to the second coming” (Mendelson “Auden’s Revision” 116):
In the hour of prime, the second of the seven canonical hours of the divine office, originally fixed for the first hour of the day, at sunrise, the narrator, who wants to avoid an “historical mistake,” “[a]wake[s] between [his] body and the day” “without a name or history” (625) and experiences a respectable aloofness from society, uncovering a possibility of rearranging his social life. This disengagement develops into almost vacancy itself, as if to approximate a state of the complete unconsciousness such as that of a “sheet,” “wall,” or “stone,” the state which mirrors the notions of ineffability, unintelligibility, and the wholly other that negative theology or negative mysticism emphasizes. Gareth Reeves asserts that the poem creates a “simulacrum of time suspended,” a “timeless now,” “this holy moment,” this Edenic moment9 before the onset of history (195). From the perspective of postmodernism the imagination of the insentient materials reveals Auden’s radicalism in going backward or detaching from realities, a gesture that rather resonates with Derrida’s “preorigin” which traces back “behind and below the assured discourse of philosophy” (“Khora” 125–26). His passive “obedience” like traditional femininity accomplishes the profound insouciance to or entire detachment from realities, then matures into the genuine immaculateness, or “Adam sinless previous to any act” (625), and eventually generates great energy and reconstructs the secular reality and its mobility—as Derrida notes, khora receives everything in order to “relaunch it even more forcefully” (“Khora” 117)—eliciting such declaration that “I know that I am, here, not alone / But with a world and rejoice / Unvexed.” After all, the social and symbolic—the speaker acutely recognizes that his “name” stands for his “historical share of care” again (626)— dimension, which was negated, now reemerges as replete with “detached observation” the “world of beholding,” not of “numbers and algebraic signs,” in which “no distinction is made between animate and inanimate” (
In sext (sixth hour) Auden once again underscores the significance of amnesia, while lowering the atmosphere of Christian mysticism or the detached concentration to daily life. Notable is the fact that he uncovers this divorced absorption or “rapt expression” from the normal occupations of the nameless heroes including a cook’s “mixing a sauce,” a surgeon’s “making a primary incision,” and a clerk’s “completing a bill of lading” (627). He even asserts that there should be “monuments” to the “first flaker of flints” who forgot his dinner and the “first collector of sea-shells” to remain celibate (628). The category of such inactive activities leads Auden to provisionally differentiate between the “crowd” and “everyone” in society: the former neither perceives “[nor] is distracted” by the external sensations such as a “barking dog,” a “smell of fish,” and a “mosquito on a bald head” but accepts all men; the latter is “always distracted” and never does anything “properly” (630–31). As Richard M. Ohmann notes, in response to mass society, Auden offers, not a political ideology, but the “idea of the community, bound by love”; “not Utopia, but Eden” (175).
Auden eventually unearths the possibility of Christian feminism from the Christian existentialism or Christian mysticism. The superiority of emptiness or silence and the abundance that stemmed from the vacuum that Christian mysticism accentuates can indicate a route to what we might call Christian feminism, which contains the best qualities, such as profound reverence, refreshing tranquility, and energetic vibrancy in meditation, the qualities that can correspond to khora’s spacing, and its abundant mobility and configuration.
6According to Auden, a purely existentialist attitude, since it has “no conception of the universal or the eternal,” cannot be Christian, to whom the existential is only one, admittedly very important aspect of his situation (Prose Ⅲ173). 7Derrida also differentiates between negative theology and the postmodern khora, but he sometimes notes their communicativeness, while suggesting that the es gibt (there is)—giving without reason, without return—of khora remains “implicated in every negative theology” (“Khora” 96). 8In addition, Auden sometimes treasures some sequestered places like uninhabited islands, the inmost recess of mountains, and even a “graveyard with its umbrella pines” (548), since the places provide people with the opportunity to take time for composure and self-examination: “His continental damage done, / Laid on an island shelf, / Napoleon has five years more / To talk about himself. / How fascinating is that class / Whose only member is Me!” (562–63). The “ambient peace” of Ischia, a volcanic island at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples, is a cure for, “ceasing to think / of a way to get on,” we learn to simply wander about by “twisting paths” (542). 9Although, as discussed earlier, Auden’s detachment involves a profound level and sometimes implies the inclusion of a certain sullied area as seen in “The Praise of Limestone,” or of some isolated territories that display erratic and unpredictable traits as in “Bucolics”—“Soon / Tunnels begin, red farms disappear, / Hedges turn to walls, / Cows become sheep, you smell peat or pinewood” (559)—the dismissal of any proven authorities seldom reaches out towards the weirder domain—which Derrida labels as a realm of a “preorigin,” and which incorporates an “impure philosophical discourse” (“Khora” 126)— having a tendency of leaning toward transparency, which forms a slight difference from Derrida’s theory of reservation.
After the apocalyptic world wars Auden’s contemplation of history and diagnosis of human civilization leads him to recognize the entire disarray and interminable violence of human beings and society, and to desire for the most apt solution to the problems. As he seeks new alternative perspectives for the future, Auden keenly realizes the significance of the reexamination of the feminine principle and illuminates its new traits, because the substantial reason for the deterioration, anomaly, and anarchy of modern culture is the overemployment of masculine power, or no disengaged action, which is unaware of dissociation, immobility, and contemplation. For Auden, a remarkable defect of modern science, which is figuratively established in a “tower not circular but square” (607), and which has considerably contributed to the advancement of human culture by providing the basis of measurement and the applied source for technology, is the lack of the preservation of detachment, which could lead science not to ignore other methodologies and authorities: “Trusting some map in his own head, / So never reached the goal intended / (His map, of course, was out) but blundered / On a wonderful instead” (607). For instance, animal psychologists and behavioral scientists, from whom Auden detects a certain habit, which resonates with the ingrained masculine principle, subject animals to “abnormal conditions of their own contriving” (Auden
Of course, Auden does not ignore the passive, faded, and tormented history of the feminine, particularly lamenting over the deterioration of landscapes—which are labeled “Mrs. Nature” in “Bucolics” (566), and are often symbolized as the female body—or the absence of Arcadia especially due to the nineteenth-century industrial revolution including the rapid development of mining industries as portrayed in “Not in Baedecker”: “A small grove massacred to the last ashes” (558); “steam so straight ahead / That I cannot be led astray / By tempting scenes which occur / Along any permanent way” (583). Mountains turn out to be a “world with measurements of its own” and a “style of gossip” (559). In “Ode to Gaea,” he notes the sufferings of nature, especially the torture of the earth by virtue of imperialism, totalitarianism, and schematic cultivation throughout human history, suggesting the agonies of the feminine. But by unearthing the new traits of the feminine passivity, he strives to abate the misery and sublimate the passivity into new possibilities including diffidence, silence, contemplation, and unfamiliar intervention. With the discovery of the dimension, a layer of spacing between the receiving and the reflection of the reception or between the impression and the receiving matrix, the receiving agents can exhibit immune resistance or distanced indifference against the impressions including aggression and violence. In addition, the passivity secures more estrangement or distancing from the incidents and exerts more influential power as in the case of the goddess of history Clio in “Ode to Clio.” Also, the feminine principle demonstrates its optimal efficiency as the most significant drive in the future. Auden eventually links the paradoxical duality of the distanced productivity to Christian mysticism, which underlines the disconnection from secular life and reconstruction of it from the perspective which the disengagement provides. Thus, owing to its similarity to khora, Christian mysticism can locate Christian feminism, an instance of the inconsistent amalgamation of profound passivity and revitalizing activity.