Tuesday 23 February 2016

King Herod complains

In Britain we are now fast approaching the end of a period of welfare philanthropy and the decline (or privatisation) of the institutions charged with its delivery. All the pre-war challenges are facing us again, and have never really gone away - education, health, housing, nutrition, employment. Today's fresh, eager and telegenic politicians, faced with such long-established challenges, tend to describe the multiple crises in health and housing as 'unprecedented' (a favourite word), yet even a cursory consideration of the social issues addressed by 1930s documentary film makers will confirm that this is not the case. The challenges facing our nation and our leaders today are all entirely precedented - but while the old questions are once again looming what is no longer available is a public language capable of tackling the issues, and the knowledge and experience upon which such a public language draws for its meaning. We seem also today to lack the consensus for change, a consensus based around shared values, shared assumptions, shared constitutive stories. One recalls T. S. Eliot's dictum: 'of course we know more than the past did because they are what we know'. But it seems too me that 'they' are what our leaders don't know, or don't care to know. We are destined to make the same mistakes, adding some new ones for good measure.

W. H. Auden anticipated this malaise in a wildly eccentric stretch of prose towards the end of For the Time Being (1945) and I'd like to quote the passage at length to give a sense of its accumulative satirical power and particular strangeness

The speaker is King Herod, justifying his command to slaughter the firstborn of Judea and predicting the dire cultural consequences of any failure to carry out the order. Herod is (as John Fuller observed) 'rational, liberal and humane: he cannot bring himself to believe something without proof and so unhappily is forced to order the Massacre of the Innocents that his reasoning demands.' Herod, in other words, embodies precisely those liberal values - the values Auden shared - which are incapable of opposing a Hitlerian tyranny:

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 - feelings in the solar plexus induced by under-nourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drug, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. 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. Priapus will only have to move to  a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver teapots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, and malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: 'I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.' Every crook will argue: 'I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.' And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a deathbed repentance. 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 Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

What a marvellously unsettling piece of prose - wildly funny, deadly serious and weirdly prescient. The petulant, childlike Herod anticipates the comprehensive collapse of humane values that throws up in its wake 'a riot of subjective visions'. From Herod's perspective any rumour of an Incarnation is a threat to his secular, ordered, rational world, and his dilemma is one with which we can all identify. The monologue concludes in a desperate serio-comic flurry of regrets:

I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

In Britain today, liberal ideals - indeed any ideals - are unlikely to be promoted and circulated by appealing to a commonly-held set of assumptions based on such nation-defining historic episodes as Magna Carta, Balaclava, Waterloo, Peterloo, the Suffragette Movement, the Battle of the Somme, D-day and so on. In the past half-century the population of Britain, and more specifically the urban population, has become ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse, a transformation that has brought with it a multitude of self-evident benefits and not a few problems. Although a shared sense of national identity based on existing constitutive stories is still seen as a desirable and practical approach to achieving social cohesion, precisely what stories are appropriate for circulation is a subject for continuing debate, not least when it comes to the content of school history curricula and the kind of tests (if tests are really required) that should be set for migrants wishing to live and work in Britain. 

For the Time Being © The Estate of W. H. Auden

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