The young W.H. Auden with Christopher Isherwood on the eve of their departure for China
I described him [Auden] seeing his friends one by one in his rooms at hours he had fixed and interviewing, cross-examining them, laying down the law about the poets of whom he approved, the way poetry should be written, the personality of the poet, being very dogmatic about everything. I did insist that he was not a 'leader' or authoritarian and that he brought a touch of absurdity to his pronouncements which made them seem jokes. He did not wish to be taken altogether seriously. But this would mean nothing to a member of the audience without a sense of humor. In fact to the American who thinks that when one is serious one should be serious, and when funny, un-serious, this would make Auden seem even more unsympathetic. (Spender, Journals 335)
W.H. Auden is many things—political poet, aesthete, Christian, Stakhanovite manufacturer of critical prose, English pariah, New York literary lion—but at the very core, his sensibility is always camp. Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of playful and aestheticizing attitude. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening:
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. (110)
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on ‘Camp’” where she writes:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.
2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. (277)
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’…
56. Camp taste is a kind of love… Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. (287, 291-292)
Camp is a quality that informs the work of W.H. Auden throughout his career, most powerfully in his early poetry, and in a complex, fraught way in his more overtly political poetry of the middle and later 1930s (as one might expect, given the depoliticizing tendency of camp). It remains a vital force in Auden’s American period, too: in 1948, for example, he writes “what makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.” The poet need not believe in the idea, but “it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than as a mere poetic convenience” (Dyer’s Hand 19). Here Auden expresses both the distance and the affection that the camp sensibility has toward its material. Auden’s camp, it is important to add, is particularly intellectual: it is ideas that he camps. Indeed, for reasons that his youthful experiences make clear, Auden comes early on to love systems of thought—be they scientific, psychological, political, or even religious—from a camp perspective.
When Stephen Spender described Auden holding forth at Oxford in a slightly absurd, mock-authoritarian manner, he got at exactly the kind of camp exhibition of systems and dogmas that informs much of Auden's writing. Spender also touches on the possibility of the campiness being missed, and of Auden being taken as simply serious about what he says, rather than as embodying a much subtler and more complex attitude along the lines of what we read about in Isherwood's The World in the Evening. This was, quite often, exactly what happened, not only to the undergraduate opining extravagantly in his rooms, but to the poet whose works appeared, and were discussed, in slim volumes and little journals throughout the 1930s. Indeed, it was the nature of many of those publications that contributed to the diminished understanding of Auden's camp. The political and economic crisis of the decade led not only to intense pressure on writers of all kinds to take ideological positions, but to the creation of a politicized, left-wing alternative to more mainstream publications, a kind of radical counter-public-sphere. The pressure of this context of publication upon Auden’s writings frequently led to an earnestness in reception, a truncation of the playful and the aesthetic, and to a specifically political hermeneutics. That a poem like Auden’s “A Communist to Others,” say, could be something quite different than an earnest address by a communist poet, and that the views expressed in the poem were not only those of a character, but in fact quite different from those of Karl Marx, were things too easily missed when the poem appeared in the Left Book Club anthology Poems of Freedom.
In this context, a climate of expectation grew for an Auden rather different from the Auden Spender knew: a significant audience craved an oracular Auden without camp, bearing the answers to the troubles of the time, and committed primarily to political solutions, not to the play of ideas. There were moments, indeed, when Auden could write as if he were this figure. Blessedly, though, The Orators does not represent such a moment. Were it not for the camp element, the book would sidle up a bit too closely to Fascism for the reader’s comfort.
* * *
Auden was a child of the Edwardian bourgeoisie, and inherited the values of his class, including a strong bond to the Anglican communion (to which he would return later in life) and an instinctive political liberalism. But English Liberalism—liberalism, that is, in its old sense of support for parliamentary democracy, for pragmatism rather than dogmatism, for individualism over collectivism, and for a generally laissez faire approach to economics— underwent its deepest and most extreme crisis just as Auden was coming of age as a poet in the 1930s. The war had shaken its values, shown the power of central planning, and led to taxes that threatened many in the moneyed classes. Economic collapse after 1929, unemployment, and political paralysis seemed to render the liberal capitalist bankrupt, both literally and morally. The crisis was acute not just for the working class, but for the middle class as well: in the spring of 1934 as many as 400,000 out of some two million professional and clerical workers were unemployed, and many had been for some time. The young, disproportionately affected, were concerned to the point of fear, and worries over unemployment filled the pages of periodicals like the Student Vanguard. In response, many middle class intellectuals became either nihilistically despairing or radicalized: it was from the professional and clerical classes that the British Union of Fascists drew its ablest recruits, and it was among the middle class that the World Congress of the Comintern resolved to increase its membership (Wood 38-39).
We get a sense of the times from a scene, one among many of its kind, in a London flat in 1930. Conversation revolves around the financial collapse and the impotent response of the Labor government under Ramsay MacDonald. An assembled group of intellectuals discusses what appears to be the terminal crisis of both capitalism and parliamentary democracy, and on the equally apparent national need for new, strong, radical leadership. As Matthew Worley describes the conversation, “terms such as ‘totalitarian,’ ‘corporatism,’ and planning come to the fore” along with references to such seemingly successful European leaders as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. There is no consensus except that a new order must emerge from the wreck of the old (141). Worley continues:
One of those present, Wyndham Lewis, makes the case for Fascism, praising Mussolini and predicting a prosperous future for Germany’s emerging National Socialist movement. Peter Eckersley… speaks enthusiastically about the proposals put forward by Sir Oswald Mosley on his resignation from the Labor government. Aldous Huxley, meanwhile, suggests that the Soviet Union provides a more suitable model for Britain to follow. To his side the Labor MP and socialist cartoonist Frank Horrabin nods sagely as Dorothy Clark busily tends to her guests’ drinks and deliberates on the relative merits of Fascism and communism as necessary alternatives to a parliament entrapped by its outmoded customs and traditions. (141)
Here we see the radical left and radical right in Britain not so much opposed to one another, but seen as possible alternatives to what appeared to be a failed system. Both the Fascist and the communist systems appeared to be delivering results on the continent, and public intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw could tip their hats to both Fascism and communism. Auden’s The Orators, too, mingled Fascism with talk of the Marxian talk of the proletariat and the decadent ruling class. A general sense of the failure of liberalism provoked, among intellectuals, an examination of all alternatives. The Orators was in some sense an exploration of these alternatives—but an exploration conducted at a playful distance, under the auspices of camp.
* * *
The Orators, which Auden completed in late Autumn of 1931, has been called a satire, but one that fails because of the book’s ambiguity. If we read Auden’s commentators, we’re told, again and again, that Auden somehow fails to handle satire correctly. In an early, generally sympathetic review, Stephen Spender finds what he called the satire of The Orators curious and entirely original, because it “does not seem to be derived from any feelings of spite, or even of very strong moral resentment,” like traditional satire. Instead of a moralistic edge, says Spender, The Orators comes “from a most tremendous sense of fun” (review of The Orators 104). A later critic tells us that “The Airman’s Journal” section of The Orators makes “a palpable hit,” but are then told that it is difficult to say just what has been hit, except “some imperfectly defined social target” (Buell 20). Or we read that “Auden set out to write a satiric attack, but The Orators chose to be written differently” and ended up with “a bafflingly elusive tone” (Mendelson 94). Some critics come at The Orators from a different angle, hoping that it is meant as satire but not quite sure they can make that claim: the Auden of The Orators, says one concerned critic, “is not far removed from the Nazi” view of things “unless I have missed the irony” (Scarfe 15). A more sympathetic reader admits the obscurity of the book, but gives Auden credit as a craftsman, saying “if Auden's ‘idea’ is hidden behind a verbal smokescreen, it is because Auden wanted it to be” (Firchow 258).
It is important, though, in understanding The Orators, to see it neither as flawed satire nor as oddly presented Fascist propaganda, but as camp. Both satire and propaganda have, at their core, a clear moral compass, and a specific plan of improving society, either by shaming those with vices into moral improvement or by rhetorical persuasion. In camp, though, the moral is subordinate to the aesthetic, and—to come back to Isherwood—we are not in the business of persuasion or of making fun of things. We are in the business of making fun out of things, especially those things we take seriously. The Auden of The Orators most certainly took both Fascism and the political crisis from which it came quite seriously, but that only made it more important for him to find in them the possibility of play.
The Orators gestures at Fascism in all three of its main parts, and gestures, too, at a kind of Lawrentian cult of the strong leader. In the opening section, for example, the “Address for a Prize-Day” shows us an appeal to youth, yearning to take part in heroic action, by a kind of outsider leader, someone formed in the current power system but now set against it, and urging radical actions while the establishment sits in complacency. In 1931, this would echo continental Fascism: Mussolini was in power, and Hitler had led his party to enormous gains and come close to winning the German elections, using unorthodox strong-arm tactics including organized gangs of street-fighting youth. It would echo, too, something much closer to home: the dawn of Oswald Mosley as a force in radicalized English politics. In February of 1931 Mosley left the Labor Party, frustrated with the paralysis of the Labor government under Ramsay MacDonald, and thwarted in the party’s rejections of his schemes for reform. Along with several other radicalized members of parliament from a variety of political backgrounds, Mosley formed the New Party. Later that year, around the time Auden was composing The Orators, the party launched its weekly periodical, Action, and began its quest to form a movement outside of the established political system. On the first page of the first issue Mosley proclaimed:
We must create a movement which aims not merely at the capture of political power; a movement which grips and transforms every phase and aspect of national life to post-war purposes; a movement of order, of discipline, of loyalty, but also of dynamic progress, a movement of iron decisions, resolution and reality; a movement which cuts like a sword through the knot of the past to the meaning of the modern State. If you would serve such a movement, do it now. (Mosley 1)
Heroism and a dynamic renewal outside of the apparently complaisant system—it was an appeal much like that of Auden’s prize-day speaker, and like that speaker’s words, it appealed particularly strongly to youth. “Many young people,” wrote Julian Symons, who experienced the Oswald phenomenon first hand, “thought that if society was to be changed… it must be through some such force as the New Party” and were prepared to both learn “from the Nazi movement in Germany” and “from the admirable planning of the Soviets” (6-7). In less than a year Mosley would merge the New Party into the British Union of Fascists.
It is not just the appeal to youth to take heroic actions against a sclerotic system at the behest of a radicalized apostate member of the establishment that links The Orators with Fascism: it is the cult of the man who takes action for his own sake. The main figure of the second section of The Orators, “Journal of an Airman,” clearly adheres to such a cult. Indeed, it begins with a condemnation of inaction, to be cured by violence: “The effect of the enemy is to introduce inert velocities into the system (called by him laws or habits) interfering with organization. These can only be removed by friction (war)” (English Auden 73). A few pages later virility itself is linked to the cult of action: “A man doing nothing,” we read, “is not a man” (78). Along with the injunction to act we find the distinctly illiberal condemnation of measured, even-keeled, non-radicalized speech. We find that the “three terms of enemy speech” are “I mean—quite frankly—speaking as a scientist, etc.” (81) and the “three enemy catchwords” are “insure now—keep smiling—safety first” (82).
The third section of The Orators, that of the odes, continues in a Fascist vein. In the fourth ode, for example, the prophesied march on London by a new leader, replete with “shock troops,” “propaganda,” and plans for the re-assignment of resisting intellectuals to menial tasks, parallels in many respects Mussolini’s seizure of power with the 1922 march on Rome. The ode also, after its survey of socio-economic crisis, tells us that “Mussolini, [militaristic Polish leader] Pilsudski, and Hitler have charm,” and celebrates a cult of organized youth (“Youth’s on the march,” “Youth’s the solution of every good scout”) after the model of the then-burgeoning Hitler Youth (over the course of the year of The Orators’ composition, that organization roughly quadrupled in size) (English Auden 104, 102-3).
While The Orators found a generally-appreciative audience, as the thirties wore on and events in Europe made apparent the darker implications of Fascism, a number of commentators expressed their reservations with the book by pointing out that it could, at times, express “the essence of Nazi demagogy” (Rickword 21) or that it read “more like the plans for a Fascist coup than a Communist revolution” (Henderson 205). Understandable as this may be, at a time when Fascism was a clear threat to European civilization, the assessments are nevertheless unfair. There are, after all, many signals that the Fascist elements are not to be taken at face value. The “Address for a Prize-Day” uses a distancing technique familiar from Paid on Both Sides—the treatment of political violence in terms of schoolboy life. Moreover, the hyperbole of the address is not to be missed:
You’ve got some pretty stiff changes to make. We simply can’t afford any passengers or skrimshankers. I should like to see you make a beginning before I go, now, here. Draw up a list of rotters and slackers, of proscribed persons under headings like this. Committees municipal or racial improvement—the headmaster. Disbelievers in the occult—the school chaplain. The bogusly cheerful—the games master. The really disgusted—the teacher of modern languages. All these have got to die without issue. Unless my memory fails me there’s a stoke hole under the floor of this hall, the Black Hole we called it in my day. New boys were always put in it. Ah, I see I am right. Well look to it. Quick, guard that door. Stop that man. Good. Now boys hustle them, ready, steady—go. (English Auden 64)
The capturing and consignment to a black hole of undesirable parties may well be a feature of Fascism, but here it is hard not to see it as absurd and over-the-top. The most valiant attempt to construct a New Critical close reading of The Orators is befuddled by the sudden swerve, after the preceding, and apparently “real sermon” on the meaning of love, and can only account for it by labeling some parts of the address as satiric, and others sincere (Spears 48). But hyperbole, the treatment of grand politics in terms of schoolboy settings, and the radical shifts of tone are not incidental: indeed, they are the most notable feature of the work. In camp, as Alfred Chester said, “the true depth of the work [is] on the surface” (Field 164), and these unsettling stylistic effects ought not to be explained away in favor of an explication of content. That the odes are written in the elaborate meters and variable line-lengths conventionally assigned to light verse, for example, matters. Auden himself makes the point when, in his foreword to the 1966 third edition of The Orators, he says that by using a “schoolboy atmosphere and diction,” and “by making [the ideas] juvenile” he wished to make it difficult “to take them seriously.” As an example, he tells us, “in one of the Odes [the fourth] I express all the sentiments with which his followers hailed the advent of Hitler, but these are rendered, I hope, innocuous by the fact that the Führer so hailed is a new-born baby and the son of a friend” (8).
The intended effect was neither the advocacy of Fascism, nor exactly that of traditional satire. It was to distance us from the subject at hand. The Orators is a testament to Auden’s sensitivity to the political events and stresses of his time. But much more than that, it is a testament to his commitment to playfulness, to the aesthetic impulse, and above all else, to camp. We may sum up the situation in terms derived from another poet, one Auden famously elegized, and say that in times of crisis like the thirties, when only the worst are full of passionate intensity, camp may be numbered among the more appealing ways in which the best lack political conviction.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU’s books include the studies The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry, the poetry collections Home and Variations and Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis, and the edited collections Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (with Davis Schneiderman and Steve Tomasula), and Letters of Blood and Other Works in English by Göran Printz-Påhlson. In 2015 his translation of the Belgian Surrealists Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Beyond Gestures, will be published. He teaches at Lake Forest College and blogs at Samizdat Blog.