Sunday, June 26, 2011

Under the Axe of Apollo

Auden's distinction between a Hermetic and an Apollonian ethos is, of course, reminiscent of Nietzsche's distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. I just remembered two other important mentions of Apollo to a similar end. First, there is Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius":

Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue their
Martian generalities,
We have kept our erasers in order.
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations,
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?

Mars (Roman god of war) here lines up nicely with Auden's Ares (Greek god of war). And Auden's description of "Apollo's children", who "never shrink/From boring jobs but have to think/Their work important" resonates well with Pound's "out-weariers of Apollo". While Propertius has kept his erasers clean, Auden's Apollonians never run out of words and now

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

Pound's use of Apollo as a foil predates Audens. Beckett's, however, comes after Auden, and indicates, I think, something of a decline (from Pound to Auden to Beckett) and therefore a kind of victory for Apollo. I would correlate this with the rise of social science and the marginalization or margarinization of art. Here's what Beckett says in a 1956 interview with Israel Shenker:

The kind of work I do is one in which I'm not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working with impotence, ignorance. ... I think anyone nowadays who pays the slightest attention to his own experience finds it the experience of a non-knower, a non-can-er (somebody who cannot). The other type of artist — the Apollonian — is absolutely foreign to me.

This, not incidentally, is quoted by Norman Mailer in his "Public Notice on Waiting for Godot". Mailer did not see himself either as Auden's Hermetic artist or Beckett's impotent one. But he did acknowledge the importance of Beckett's artistic vision of impotence and hopelessnes. In the late 1950s, Mailer had more hope, but social science was also much weaker, though not nearly as weak as in 1926, when Wyndham Lewis confindently predicted that the "alternative" of (not to) fascism would rid Italy of "all the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy" (TAoBR, p. 322), which, again, Auden's Apollonian intellectuals would "commit" as well.

Perhaps today's Gaetano Salveminies will have to write books called Under the Axe of Apollo?

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