Louis Esterhuizen. Die skaam woede van ‘n vroeëre maaksel

Bykans alle digters ken daardie gevoel: die louwarm gloed van verleentheid wanneer jy na jou vroegste skryfsels kyk en besef hoe lomp jy met jou skryfwerk omgegaan het; die drif was dalk daar, saam met die ‘fantastiese’ idee, maar helaas, die tegniek om gestalte te gee aan dié idee het toentertyd nog ontbreek …

Presies hieroor het The Atlantic onlangs ‘n ellelange analise gepubliseer, met WH Auden en sy jarelange (en vergeefse) pogings om een van sy mees beroemdste gedigte te misken: “September 1, 1939” is one of W. H. Auden’s most famous and oft-quoted poems. Its images of futility and despair in the face of violence, of the inevitable destruction and sacrifice of yet another war have such a universal immediacy that they’ve been revived time and time again, whenever sudden bloodshed rears its head. Perhaps the most quoted line of all is the one that closes the poem’s penultimate stanza: ‘We must love one another or die’.”

Afgesien daarvan dat Auden in sy leeftyd dié gedig herhaaldelik verwerk het, het hy hom uiteindelik daarvan gedistansieer en geweier om verdere toestemming te gee dat dit in antologieë opgeneem word. In die voorwoord tot sy versamelde gedigte (wat in 1965 verskyn het), het hy dit soos volg gestel: “”Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.” Volgens Auden is ‘n oneerlike gedig die volgende: “A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained. Youth may be forgiven when it is brash and noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtues.”

En daardie reeds genoemde reël het hy herhaaldelik probeer verbeter; uiteindelik die “or” vervang na “We must love one another and die” en toe die hele gedoente uit moedeloosheid laat vaar gedig inkluis.

WH Auden

WH Auden

Die vraag wat egter volgens The Atlantic na vore dring, is die volgende: “But are we bound by Auden’s own evaluation of his work, and are we somehow wrong if we seek out-and even dare to enjoy-words that he doesn’t believe in any longer? If he didn’t want to see the poem, should we turn from it as well? The question is an old one, long predating Auden’s famous revisions and recastings: The decision to unwrite, in a manner of speaking, certain moments of past work-and the subsequent split of popular opinion on the justifiability of that choice. When it comes to such arguments, who is right? Who is justified? Why does it matter-and what does it even matter, in the modern age where it’s no longer an easy thing for the past to simply disappear?”

Inderdaad. Hierna volg ‘n heel omvattende uiteensetting van soortgelyke insidente in die geskiedenis van die letterkunde; van Homerus na James Joyce en Hemingway, van Chaucer tot Gerald Manley Hopkins. En nog vele ander; die meeste waarvan die vroeëre tekste nie net misken is nie, maar vernietig is weens verskillende redes.

En volgens The Atlantic se essayis is dít die belangrike verskil tussen Auden se optrede en soveel ander voorbeelde: “For, here is the crucial difference. Auden didn’t pull a Nabokov or a Kafka, requesting that his originals be burned (of course, this isn’t a perfect comparison. Nabokov and Kafka’s works remained unfinished, while Auden’s was done-and yet, Auden argued that one never actually finishes a poem; one only ever puts it aside). We should remember that Auden’s instructions to Edward Mendelson had an important caveat. ‘I once asked him what he wanted done with the poem, what I should do as his literary executor,’ Mendelson recalled on the occasion of what would have been Auden’s 100th birthday. ‘And he thought for a moment and said, ‘I don’t want it reprinted during my lifetime.’ That ‘during my lifetime’ is key. Auden didn’t want anything destroyed. He just didn’t want to see it, to have it haunt him, taunt him, even, in his advancing age.”

Mmm … maar die vraag bly hom na vore dring: Moet die digter se skroomvalligheid of skaamte deel word van die leser se plesier aan die teks? Ten sterkste het Joseph Brodsky byvoorbeeld gevoel dat “September 1, 1939” hoegenaamd nie verdien om geïgnoreer te word nie; trouens vir hom was dit so ‘n belangrike gedig dat hy ‘n hele lesing, wat later in sy essay-bundel Less Than One opgeneem is, afgestaan het: “Brodsky considered (this poem) a masterpiece, and urging his listeners on with the hope that they would develop the same sentiment toward this poem as the one that prompted it into existence-one of love. And this, despite agreeing with Auden that that damned line was quite problematic. “

WH AudenMiskien sou Auden in later jare self meer toegeeflik gewees het teenoor hierdie vroeëre maaksel van hom; dalk selfs gehoor gegee het aan die woorde wat hy in nog ‘n beroemde vers van hom, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” geuiter het: “The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living.”

Graag wil ek egter vanoggend se betoog sluit met ‘n langerige aanhaling oor die onderwerp; gevolg deur die gedig waaroor dit hier handel. Oordeel dus maar self of Auden se skaam woede jeens dié maaksel van hom geregverdig is, al dan nie.

“A work need not be the same for author and reader alike, especially the longer the time that passes between them. If a work doesn’t feel true, it will lose its steam-and perhaps the best proof of the universality of something like “September 1, 1939” is how often it has been called upon during its lifetime, to help us understand violence and humanity, war and responsibility, love and guilt.

“At the end, we can embrace and love whatever we want of an author’s work. But we also can’t ignore a writer’s express wish just because we don’t happen to agree with it. Instead, we can use that wish to enrich our understanding of the disinherited words, by doing our best to understand their history and the reason why their author chose to cast them aside as unworthy. We can, in other words, give authors the same consideration we’d want if we ourselves come to decide that something in our past no longer suits our present selves: the freedom to rethink and reconsider, to take back and reframe as we mature and as our understanding of the world changes. And we don’t even have to unwrite history to do that.”

***

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
 
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
 
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
 
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.
 
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
 
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
 
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
 
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
 
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
 
© W.H. Auden
 
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