Pseudo-Questions (june 1969)

I must note that this poem is not so much on science, its title and content triggered me nonetheless to do a little more research on it.

Freely translated the term ‘pseudo’ from the title can mean something like unreal, or false. Fuller also gives the meaning ‘not corresponding to reality’, and he claims the pseudo-questions asked by Auden are ‘false because they attempt two compare two orders of reality’ (Fuller, 1998, p. 534). The two orders of reality Fuller talks about could, very roughly, be compared with the two ‘real’ worlds Auden mentions in The Virgin & the Dynamo. On the one hand there is the physical/natural world (that of the dynamo) in which the artist lives, on the other hand there is, what Auden calls, a historical world in which the art itself is situated. In this poem Auden makes clear that these two worlds are separated, and, as also mentioned by Fuller, that the artist should be separated from his context.

Auden thus claims that an artist’s work should be seen as ‘masterpieces’ by themselves, and not as a result of their context (as I read it from the case of Stifter), and just as little should the perception of these masterpieces be influenced by the person who ís the artist (as in the case of Wagner).

            To understand this a bit of background information is necessary on the people figuring in the poem. First there is Metternich who was for a long time the first minister of the Habsburg Empire. While my small research on Metternich has not shown any reference to the term Thought Police (which may have been borrowed from George Orwell’s 1984) I did find out that Metternich had a lot of spies working for him (Pelling, 1998). Stifter happened to live in the same time in the Habsburg Empire; via his friend David Luke Auden has got to know Stifter (Fuller, 1998). Stifter was an Austrian poet who also tutored Metternich’s son for a while (Fuller, 1998).

I am rather puzzled about Auden stand towards Stifter. On the one hand, and that also seems to be Fuller’s suggestion, it seems like Auden opposes him. This can also be found in Auden’s ‘Academic Graffiti’ and Fuller mentions Stifter’s connection to Metternich’s son which might have a negative influence on Auden’s view on Stifter. However as I read the second line of pseudo-questions I think Auden is trying to say that if Stifter had not been living in the hostile Habsburg Empire, but rather had been a totally free man, would he then have been able to write the same beautiful poems? (Auden’s answer to this question would be yes). For that I think Auden is not so much talking about the characteristics of the artist (as in the case of Wagner, see below) but about his environment. This might mean that Auden disapproves Metternich’s politics, but that he supports Stifter; after all, Stifter wanted change the social structure of Habsburg during his life[1] and it is known that, at least during the first years of his career, Auden was rather politically oriented and supported left-wing ideas (Lucas, 2004).

According to Fuller, Auden already shows his aversion for Wagner in ‘The Greatest of the Monsters’ (1969). Unfortunately that piece is not in my possession, but the following line found on wikipedia probably summarizes the message quite well:

‘I said earlier that I do not believe an artist’s life throws much light upon his works. I do believe, however, that, more often than most people realize, his works may throw light upon his life. An artist with certain imaginative ideas in his head may then involve himself in relationships which are congenial to them.’[2]

Saying that an artist does not get influenced by his environment. For Auden Art and Society are thus separated while the life of the author is more influenced by his autonomous ideas brought forward in his work, than his work is influenced by what happens around him.

But why actually did Auden choose these three people to figure as an example in his work? The answer to that is hard to provide, but what is remarkable is that he selects artists from central Europe. A reason for that might be that at the time of writing (summer 1969) Auden most likely stayed in his summerhouse in Austria; because of that he might have been inspired by these Austrian and German artists rather than by Anglo-Americans.

Auden’s claim in this poem is paradoxical to his practice though. After all the poem clearly is an answer to a debate about the interrelations between arts and society; an answer which says that the author does not want to get involved. While that is a valid statement, the author puts this answer in his own work of art, a poem, by which he shows that his very own poetry has been influenced by what happens in his life.

Fuller, J. (1998). W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lucas. J. (2004). Auden’s Politics: Power, Authority and the Individual. In S. Smith (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden (pp. 152-164). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pelling, N. (1998). Metternich: Success or Failure? Retrieved 8 February 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~semp/metternich.htm


[1] http://www.adalbertstifter.at/ (retrieved 10 February 2010)

[2] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/W._H._Auden (retrieved 8 February 2010)

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