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W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”

W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

Long before there was the Internet, there was the commonplace book — a creative and intellectual ledger of fragmentary inspirations, which a writer would collect from other books and copy into a notebook, often alongside his or her reflections and riffs. These borrowed ideas are in dialogue with the writer’s own imagination and foment it into original thinking. Over long enough a period of time — years, decades, often a lifetime — the commonplace book, while composed primarily of copied passages, comes to radiate the singular sensibility of its keeper: beliefs are refined, ideas incubated, intellectual fixations fleshed out, and the outlines of a personhood revealed. (Brain Pickings is, in an unshakable sense, a commonplace book.)

Partway between medieval florilegium and modern-day Tumblr, the commonplace book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary. Among the most devoted and masterful practitioners of the art of the commonplace book was the poet W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973), who published his in 1970 as A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (public library) — a collection of quotations and reflections, arranged alphabetically by subject, beginning with Accedie and ending with Writing.


Although the bulk of the book consists of borrowings — most heavily from a handful of Auden’s favorite authors, including Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, and Paul Valéry — he also records a number of his own reflections on the subjects that most vividly animate his mind. Among them is the constellation of belief, doubt, certainty, enchantment, and truth.

In the entry for Belief — which includes an aphorism by Stanislaus Lec: “Some like to understand what they believe in. Others like to believe in what they understand.” — Auden writes:

To all human experience, with the possible exception of physical pain, the maxim Credo ut intelligam [“I believe so that I may understand”] applies. It is impossible for a man to separate a fact of experience from his interpretation of it, an interpretation which, except in the case of the insane, is not peculiar to himself but has been learned from others.

It is true, as Pascal says, that “to believe, to doubt, and to deny well are to the man what the race is to the horse,” but only in that order. We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny. And … we all do begin by believing what we are told.

He returns to the subject from a different angle in the entry for Enchantment, which opens with a quote by Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment that you have experienced.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful assertion that “faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world ,” Auden writes:

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.

All folk tales recognize that there are false enchantments as well as true ones. When we are truly enchanted we desire nothing for ourselves, only that the enchanting object or person shall continue to exist. When we are falsely enchanted, we desire either to possess the enchanting being or be possessed by it.

We are not free to choose by what we shall be enchanted, truly or falsely. In the case of a false enchantment, all we can do is take immediate flight before the spell really takes hold.

Recognizing idols for what they are does not break their enchantment.

All true enchantments fade in time. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. When this happens, we are tempted, either to deny our vision, to say that it must have been an illusion and, in consequence, grow hardhearted and cynical, or to make futile attempts to recover our vision by force, i.e., by alcohol or drugs.

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

In the very last entry, titled Writing, Auden shines one final sidewise gleam on this question of belief, doubt, and enchantment as it applies to the artist’s task. He recounts how he discovered the most important principle of making art long before he became a writer:

Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry — lead mining.

It is no doubt psychologically significant that my sacred world was autistic, that is to say, I had no wish to share it with others nor could I have done so. However, though constructed for and inhabited by myself alone, I needed the help of others, my parents in particular, in collecting its materials; others had to procure for me the necessary textbooks on geology, machinery, maps, catalogues, guidebooks, and photographs, and, when occasion offered, to take me down real mines, tasks which they performed with unfailing patience and generosity.

From this activity, I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied to all artistic fabrication. Firstly, whatever other elements it may include, the initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by encounters, in the primary world, with sacred beings or events. Though every work of art is a secondary world, such a world cannot be constructed ex nihilo, but is a selection and recombination of encounters of the primary world…

Secondly, in constructing my private world, I discovered that, though this was a game, that is to say, something I was free to do or not as I chose, not a necessity like eating or sleeping, no game can be played without rules. A secondary world must be as much a world of law as the primary. One may be free to decide what these laws shall be, but laws there must be.

Of course, the notion that constraints expand creativity rather than limiting it is nothing new, nor is the fact that every creative act is a function of selection — the French polymath Henri Poincaré put it best: “To invent … is to choose. But this pleasurable paradox applies perfectly to the commonplace book itself. Of the enormous volume of literature a reader this voracious devours in a lifetime, only a fraction — a deliberate, meticulously selected fraction — ends up in this sacred notebook, constructing a special kind of secondary world. Auden speaks to this in reflecting on his childhood obsession:

I instinctively felt that I must impose two restrictions upon my freedom of fantasy. In choosing what objects were to be included, I was free to select this and reject that, on condition that both were real objects in the primary world… In deciding how my world was to function, I could choose between two practical possibilities — a mine can be drained either by an adit or a pump — but physical impossibilities and magic means were forbidden. When I say forbidden, I mean that I felt, in some obscure way, that they were morally forbidden. Then there came a day when the moral issue became quite conscious. As I was planning my Platonic Idea of a concentrating mill, I ran into difficulties. I had to choose between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes, called a buddle. One type I found more sacred or “beautiful,” but the other type was, as I knew from my reading, the more efficient. At this point I realized that it was my moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

Later, when he became a poet, Auden found that “the same obligation was binding,” which meant that “self-expression” and “suspension of belief” are never legitimate excuses for sacrificing truth — a tenet that applies not only to poetry but to all art. Its violation is, it seems to me, responsible for the vast majority of bad art — that is to say, art which is self-certain but vacant of truth. Auden writes:

A poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true. This does not mean, of course, that one can only appreciate a poet whose beliefs happen to coincide with one’s own. It does mean, whoever, that one must be convinced that the poet really believes what he says, however odd the belief may seem to oneself.

What the poet has to convey is not “self-expression,” but a view of a reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective, which it is his duty as well as his pleasure to share with others. To small truths as well as great, St. Augustine’s words apply.

“The truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s but belongs to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it, warning us terribly, not to account in private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it.”

A Certain World is a creatively and intellectually invigorating read in its totality, and what a shame that the forces of commerce have prevailed over the forces of culture and let this treasure rust out of print.

Complement this particular portion with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Aldous Huxley on the two types of truth artists must reconcile.

Published May 10, 2016




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