The Distance of Love: On Auden’s "Are You There?"

Originially published 2006-06-07.

Are You There?
W.H. Auden

Each lover has some theory of his own
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone:

Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.

Narcissus disbelieves in the unknown;
He cannot join his image in the lake
So long as he assumes he is alone.

The child, the waterfall, the fire, the stone,
Are always up to mischief, though, and take
The universe for granted as their own.

The elderly, like Proust, are always prone
To think of love as a subjective fake;
The more they love, the more they feel alone.

Whatever view we hold, it must be shown
Why every lover has a wish to make
Some kind of otherness his own:
Perhaps, in fact, we never are alone.

Commentary:

Imagination, born from pain, gives us true love in our dreams. “Dear flesh and bone” is there; the price is two different aches, though – one pain from the absence of the lovers’ body, the other from the absence of his soul. Those pains correspond to “the ache of being with his love, and being alone.”

The literal reason why they correspond is that we are not given an instance in the poem of anyone actually having a lover. The only thing that comes close is the dream of the second stanza. The three stanzas before the last give us the pain of youth, childhood, and the aged, in that order. Narcissus, a youth, can be said to be self-absorbed because he believes love is real: the problem of youth is the arrogance which stems from actually having something to believe in, one’s dreams. The child’s “pain” comes from a different problem: it is unclear the child has pains. The list of water, fire and stone implies a fourth element: wind. A child is mischievous like the wind, taking everything for granted. Can taking everything for granted be said to be a hallmark of love? Of course not – if the child has a “pain” as regards love, it is the lack of love coming from the child’s inability to conceive an Other. Finally, Proust very much thinks love a “subjective fake:” “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, was very good btw, and all you really need to read of Proust’s in order to see this. In that work, Proust turns to nature over and over again to search for meaning in life, and when we realize that, we realize that jumping into a lake or acting like the wind are also manifestations of humanity mimicking nature.

The distance which creates love is written into the world. The lack of a lover’s body is nowhere more apparent than in loving your own reflection; the lack of a lover’s mind is nowhere more apparent than in jumping from tree to tree in joyful, thoughtless bliss. Yet the lack of body, for Narcisssus, comes about because he thinks he understands that which he sees: the reflection and him share the same mind, he hopes. Similarly, the child, in not thinking, is the sensuality of the world: being young, he does not just recall the newness that creation speaks, he also demonstrates, in his activity, the truest love of body in play. Who cares how nature thinks? What matters is that it is there, and wonderful.

Now that we have exhausted this poem quite a bit, the cryptic final stanza should make more sense. The want for otherness is less a “want” but more a realization of self. If you look at what you want, you see who you are. And so it cannot be said that we are alone, inasmuch we are creatures of desire.

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