Eros and Violence: On Auden’s "Jumbled in the common box…"

“Jumbled in the common box…”
W.H. Auden

Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

Comment:

The end of all things has come up many times before in this blog, but with Yeats’ “The Second Coming” as the impetus. Here we examine another source. We wonder about the erotic not merely as degenerative, but as leading to violence.

If we put aside the notion that eros is part of the Fallen world, the link between eros and violence is hard to conceive. It would be thumos – spiritedness, eros alienated from itself, not cognizant of its own incompleteness – which drives towards empire and incites violence. That certainly seems to be the Platonic teaching, as Socrates’ eroticism is a softening of education. The Hesidoic myth of gods eating each other, of being trying to annihilate becoming, finds itself put in the background by the Odyssean wiles of the philosophic. Lovers who get angry and hateful and kill each other fall away from the truly erotic in many cases (not in all: I commend you to Nietzsche’s “Why must we destroy that which we truly love?” – a paraphrase). “Anger” must be the sign of spiritedness.

Here, Auden gives us a “box of… dark stupidity.” Desiring is not knowing, certainly not self-knowledge. The nutritive, animal, and rational souls are all represented by erotic beings, “Orchid, swan, and Caesar.” The last element might be considered out of place. Shakespeare’s/Plutarch’s Caesar is very much thumotic, knowing no bounds militarily. Perhaps the want to rule all, to be wed to Gaia, implies a thumotic/erotic conflation. If we proceed with this, then Auden, despite his eloquence, is working in a prephilosophic mode.

I tend to think something else is going on. If everything is eros truly, then eros is not just characteristic of beings but also what drives change. Maybe Time, which makes the Truth manifest at its own leisure, gives us another way of conceiving the problem. Auden’s lines, though, are none too hopeful. We are talking about the end of all things, after all:

Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

Auden must elaborate on Time’s destructiveness, its effect on beings, in order to talk about something. His image of Time disposing of all of us has two faces. On the one hand, the locks are corroded. Maybe we are free in the face of Time’s whims. Then again, the key is absent, and we could be trapped.

This image, while powerful, will not alone suffice. How does Time in this situation affect those who purport to have a keen awareness of it? Say, prophets whose trade is prediction, or poets who attempt to craft immortality?

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Out of the current’s division, out of the current’s power, comes mockery of prophets. What “profit” they made, we can conjecture, is the few hearts they changed. Changing hearts and minds at this point is the same as making money. Similarly, poets are reduced only to punning, because the language itself has turned on them. Time unleashes Chaos that swallows up the sacred and the refined. That Chaos is the totality of ourselves. We end all things.

More interesting is Time’s cannibalization of itself: “Silence settles on the clocks.” The light of day giving into a blood red sky indicates there is no future for the future (“Nursing mothers point a sly / Index finger at a sky, / Crimson with the setting sun”). The hunter is the hunted and human contrivance, which has meant no escape for so many other creatures, offers us no escape (“In the valley of the fox / Gleams the barrel of a gun”).

Time’s cannibalizing itself intimately ties to the world we have created. We end all things, but this is a very specific “we.” It is our purporting to be the whole of humanity, our ways the constitution of the human species. There are other ways to use “we,” however.

So what does Time finally teach about eros? What it does is force us to separate our personal lives from history. That is the heart of the final stanza, the quiet, personal, truly beloved contrasting with desire of the world / for the world:

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

Time splits as prophet, poet, mother, and hunter split: our roles are the indication that the end of all things is the end of each individual’s world. The separation between our role in the world and our true desires can never be perfect, of course. If our couple makes the docks, they are still upon the Chaos, still subject in some way to the torrent’s cleft. Our individual mistakes mirror the larger tragedy, where humanity collapses into a primal state. But our feeling that we’re separate somehow is not useless. Despite the rejection of the Platonic teaching, despite the use of eros here as solely tragic, our spirit still exists somehow, aware we also have something to say about love.

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