W.H. Auden’s cure for the post-Christmas blues
In 1941 W. H. Auden began writing the text for what would eventually become For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. He intended that his friend Benjamin Britten would set it to music. Britten, however, eventually lost interest in the project. Auden’s poem had expanded beyond the bounds of a performable work. The length was ungainly for an oratorio, and it included large chunks of virtually unsingable prose. Indeed, For the Time Being is now counted among Auden’s long poems, and it was not included in his collected works among his libretti and dramatic writings.
Far from a historical retelling of the events of the Christmas story, Auden’s poem features a kaleidoscope of blatant anachronisms, both slight and outrageous. Herod is a Stoic; Simeon, an existentialist; Caesar, a deflating bureaucrat. Even the Four Faculties of Thought, Intuition, Sensation, and Feeling shamble onto the stage to say their parts. Nevertheless, Auden does not completely pull up the historical anchor. The setting is still the first-century Judea of the Roman Empire. Mary and Joseph are still Mary and Joseph. The Wise Men are still on their journey from the East. The star is still a star—albeit a talking, or rather singing, star. The celebrated penultimate section of For the Time Being begins as follows:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
Up to this point, the poem has been tracing a long arc from transcendent to immanent, and here skids back into the mundane with a resigned thump. The narrative structure of the poem comprises a constellation of biblical characters orbiting around the silent centre of the poem—the infant Christ. Each of them is confronted with the question: What to do with this singular event?
The shepherds, who represent “the humble and poor of this world,” find themselves pulled out of their anonymity and given purpose, individuality, and significance as they are oriented toward the Christ child. The learned Wise Men, by contrast, are called to purge themselves of worldly knowledge in their journey toward the manger. Joseph, in turn, is exhorted to accept the stigma that will attach to him as a result of apparently being cuckolded. As the narrator says, “To choose what is difficult all one’s days / As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.”
Simeon’s oration, in prose, sounds like that of an existentialist theologian. If a critical wag could say of Dante’s Beatrice that she was Aquinas in drag, then Simeon the first-century Jew looks suspiciously like Paul Tillich. Simeon utters sentence after sentence like this one: “Before the Unconditional could manifest Itself under the conditions of existence, it was necessary that man should first have reached the ultimate frontier of consciousness, the secular limit of memory beyond which there remained but one thing for him to know, his Original Sin, but of this it is impossible for him to become conscious because it is itself what conditions his will to knowledge.” Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel, and finds it in the Christ child, affirming—or seeking to affirm—his own idiosyncratically modern Nunc dimittis: “Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender…. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.”
Herod acts as a foil to Simeon, delivering a monologue directly reminiscent not of the historical power-besotted Jewish ruler, but of—Marcus Aurelius. Herod in the hands of Auden is nothing if not rational, a well-groomed and self-aware intellectual. He is shrewd, pragmatic, world-weary, and very funny. Herod is the most solidly approachable and likeable character in the poem. In contrast, Simeon with his clotted abstractions looks a bit out of touch. Nevertheless, it is significant that Herod thinks his way straight to violence and damnation. As he ruminates on the failure of the masses to act “in conformity with Nature and Necessity,” he sees the birth of Christ not as a threat to his kingship or as the irruption of the divine into the immanent world, but as another troublesome and politically unstable superstition among the plebs. “Why can’t they see,” he asks, “that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary, it would make it far, far worse.” And so he concludes, “I refuse to be taken in”—and orders the massacre of the innocents.
Auden’s Herod belongs in the company of two other great literary creations: Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov and Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit. All three characters understand all too well the consequences of the Incarnation, but reject its terms. Herod’s refusal to be taken in mirrors Ivan’s return of his ticket. Redemption and forgiveness, for Ivan, are too high a price to pay for the suffering of the innocent. Ivan returns his ticket because of innocent suffering, but Herod’s refusal results in it. Likewise, the Misfit despairs for lack of firsthand knowledge of Jesus’s mighty deeds, but he knows that rejection of Christ resolves not into freedom but into violence. He, therefore, says of Christ, “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” Herod’s refusal splits the difference between the Misfit and Ivan. In the name of humanistic compassion, Ivan rejects redemptive suffering enabled and ennobled by the Christ event; the Misfit rejects Christ but understands that the only other option is nihilism. Herod rejects the terms altogether.
In short, every character in this long and complex poem senses that the birth of the child demands a response; senses that, again in the words of the Misfit, Christ has “thrown everything off balance.” They are all caught up in the aspect of time that Tillich, developing a biblical contrast, calls kairos as opposed to kronos, categories with which Auden was consciously working. In other words, their confrontation with the Christ child is not part of the flow of ordinary chronological time, but by appointment; it is a summons, a moment of decision. In order to bring the reader to the Nativity, to gather us, too, around the child and summon us to respond, to affirm, and to submit, Auden scrambles the historical signals. Writing to his father, Auden explained that he was not trying to give “a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo,” but was rather “trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted.”
Nevertheless, Auden was eager not to fall into the liberal Protestant error of discarding the historical husk in order to get at the kernel of meaning. Pure history, he said, results in “an archaeological curiosity,” but leaving history behind for the sake of contemporaneity results in “an entertaining myth.” Art that depicts biblical events, he says, must “do justice both to the historicity of the event and to its contemporary relevance.”
Auden’s dependence on Tillich notwithstanding, Charles Taylor’s treatment of time in A Secular Age might be more helpful than Tillich for drawing out what Auden is doing at the end of the For the Time Being. Taylor was no doubt developing Tillich’s categories to some degree; he doesn’t cite him, but he does use kairos-kronos terminology. Taylor contrasts chronological time not with kairotic time but with what he calls gathered time. In the premodern understanding of gathered time the liturgical recurrence of sacred events is consummated in their eternal simultaneity. Time in this sense is measured in its proximity to the eternal rather than to the historical event. “Good Friday 1998,” Taylor writes in A Secular Age, “is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than midsummer’s day 1997.” It is in this sense that the liturgical celebration of the Nativity draws us into gathered time. Auden’s For the Time Being, while not liturgy per se, nevertheless participates in it through the linguistic act of poetic recreation, seeking to draw the reader into the reality through the summons implied by the text.
Auden will not, however, let us remain at the Nativity. Having “seen the actual Vision,” we have to readjust our gaze to the ordinary world. The passage with which I began narrates a classic case of post-Christmas blues, a world exhausted of feasting, sated and spent. It is here in these moments that the human condition most savagely reasserts itself. What Auden means by the phrase “the Time Being”—it appears three times in this section, a mere page and a half of poetry—is the sense of appointment, summons, significance in the moments, days, weeks following those summonses. That significance is easy to identify when we are gathered around the Christ child at Christmas. But what about what comes after? “Dissolved,” as Augustine puts it, “into the variety and vicissitude of times,” we cannot remain gathered in the eternal for long. We find that soon enough we are again caught up in the swift current of chronological time. And the dishes need to be done.
Taylor identifies our “present condition” as one in which “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” Just so, Auden says that after Christmas we revert, almost automatically, to “the moderate Aristotelian city,” where “Euclid’s geometry / And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience.” For us the shift back to the immanent from the transcendent is inevitable. After the summonses have arrived and the appointment has been fulfilled—and even when we have responded in the affirmative—what next? What do we do for the time being? Here’s how Auden puts it:
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering.
The novelist Walker Percy, who was nine years younger than Auden, returned to this theme again and again in his writing. In his essay “The Delta Factor,” he asks, “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” In The Moviegoer Binx Bolling observes, “What people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” Why is it, in essence, that suffering seems to give us a sense of purpose? Part of his explanation for this dislocated habit of thought is that, though humans are embodied souls simultaneously transcendent and immanent, both inside and outside of time, the modern world has a much more polarised anthropology. We moderns must, in Percy’s words, be either “pure organisms” or “pure spirit,” thrashing back and forth from one to the other: immanent to transcendent and back again. As Tom More, the protagonist of Percy’s Love in the Ruins, puts it, “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” In the modern world we never quite feel like ourselves.
The sense of malaise that Percy and Auden describe, quintessentially modern as it is, is explicable in terms of a much older vice: the classic affliction of acedia. First named as such by the Desert Fathers, particularly Evagrius of Pontus, acedia is a spiritual lassitude that cuts at the heart of Christian devotion. Desire for prayer grows weak, and one shows “a lack of concern for one’s salvation.” It is a subtle, “complex thought,” according to Evagrius, because it strikes at the juncture between the transcendent and immanent in us and in our reckoning of the world. So while acedia may seem at first glance to be a recondite affliction suffered by monastics, nothing less than the economy of salvation is at stake. Writers as diverse as Percy, Josef Pieper, Kathleen Norris, Gabriel Bunge, and R. J. Snell have all identified acedia as the definitive vice of the modern self. Without using the word acedia, here is how Auden describes the experience of it:
The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith.
Indeed, when we survey For the Time Being from the vantage point of its end, with its feet firmly planted in mundane, immanent, modern soil, the characters, who are all both ancient and modern, become more intelligible. The Chorus at the end of “The Temptation of St. Joseph,” which occurs about midway through the poem, exhorts Mary and Joseph to find redemption in the sacramental wedding of the transcendent and the quotidian:
Redeem for the dull the
That common ungifted
Believe that their normal
Walk to perfection.
And of course, they did redeem the Average Way: in their rearing of the Christ child—the living sacrament, who joined within himself flesh and divinity, transcendent and immanent.
Simeon and Herod, too, become test cases for belief under modern conditions. If acedia is, in a sense, a failure to attend to the transcendent within the immanent—to rise to “the Vision,” in Auden’s language, when given the summons—then the two characters represent the two poles of modern response to the divine appointment.
Simeon, for his part, makes every affirmation necessary to qualify as theologically orthodox. But his final affirmation is still rather muted, as if despite all that has gone before, his response is still coated in malaise. We must pray, he says, “at every moment” that “we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.” Simeon’s resolution to the struggle of modern anxiety has not yet come to pass. We must resolve it continually in an act of surrender, which is made possible only because of “His visitation.”
But it is an affirmation, nevertheless. And the fact that he is able to throw off the pressing weight of immanence is significant. It points forward to Auden’s own understanding of fidelity to Christ. Simeon in his prayer for deliverance from anxiety has overcome acedia—has through grace become lighter than the gravitational pull of immanence. Contemplation, says Evagrius, is the state of joyful prayer that follows victory over acedia.
Simeon’s victory also contrasts with Herod’s response, which, as we’ve seen, is the knowing rejection of the transcendent, and is thus the failure to overcome acedia, which results in despair. Following his refusal to be taken in, Herod sheds his Stoic cloak of disinterestedness and asks abruptly, “Why should He dislike me so?” He then becomes sullen and defensive, listing all the ways he has behaved dutifully, even taking offence at Christ’s summons: “I’ve worked like a slave…. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? 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.” One can almost see these objections falling flat in Herod’s own mind. He knows his confrontation with Christ has forced a decision that violates his habit of well-heeled indifference, which is precisely why he finds it so distasteful. What looked like Stoic apatheia turns out to have been a barrier against the demands that revelation makes of us. The summons to the transcendent—to conversion, in fact—rejected, he slides in the last line from acedia to despair.
The cures for acedia that the Desert Fathers recommend are maddeningly unspectacular: steadfastness, stability, joy, patience. For instance, the sayings of the Desert Fathers tell us that Abba Anthony, “beset by accidie,” asked God, “How can I be saved?” Shortly thereafter, “Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray.” An angel then tells Anthony, “Do this and you will be saved.” The sayings tell us in their typically laconic way, “He did this, and he was saved.” Auden’s resolution to modern acedia follows suit:
In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
We must account for ourselves as we are, and where we are. Though he confronts us with the (silent) infant Christ in this poem, Auden will not have us look back in longing to the transcendent joy of Christmas. The “unpleasant whiff” of Lent and Good Friday signals our unwillingness to look forward and confront the world given to us. We must accept the diminished existence of winter after Christmas.
Auden knew that his own particular temptation was the Arcadian posture: the turning of one’s back on the present in yearning for an idealised past. In the final, short section of the poem, however, discourse on the present gives way to the future, as the Chorus instructs those of us who share Auden’s disposition with three imperative verbs—follow, seek, love. It is in carrying out these actions under the corresponding conditions of Unlikeness, Anxiety, and Flesh that we will gain fruitful re-entry into the world for the time being—not the world as it was or as we would like it to be, but as it is. This is the world God is redeeming. Auden closes his poem with these words:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
In these three short stanzas, particularly the middle lines of each, the three worlds through which Auden has been filtering the Nativity story—late antique, modern, and biblical—suddenly become unblurred and resolve into one focused image. The Land of Unlikeness is a phrase from Plato famously used by Augustine in Book Seven of the Confessions as he recognises the distance between the minute finitude of his own soul and the unconditioned Being of God. “The World of the Flesh” refers not simply to our “physical nature,” but—as Auden writes in an essay titled “Balaam and His Ass”—to “the whole physical-historical nature of fallen man” as described in the Gospels and Paul. This is where we find ourselves, sandwiched between the Land of Unlikeness and the World of Flesh, fuddling our way through the modern Kingdom of Anxiety. And this, Auden tells us, is where we ought to seek Christ.
In For the Time Being Auden has presented a highly saturated, multi-perspectival image of Christmas and then set us down just beyond its edge. He urges us neither to abandon the image, which would be to despair, nor to seek to re-enter it, which would be a denial of our contingency and a kind of escapism. Rather, we are to allow the image to address us, to let the past spill into the present, and to abide in that tensile space “for the time being.” “There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation,” Walker Percy said. “In the re-presenting of alienation the category is reversed.” Through the alchemy of poetry, W. H. Auden has created, out of the moment of alienation, the redemption of the time being, and made of it again a summons.
Jeff Reimer is a writer from Newton, Kansas, and an associate editor at Comment magazine.
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Jeff Reimer, where this article originally appeared.