The Poet & The City – Auden’s view on moral values in post-modern society as influenced by arts & science (Aline)

I start this comment on The Poet & The City in reference to Rick’s comment on Auden’s paradoxical view on science as depicted in After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics. As such Rick said that science is defined by Auden both cynically and faithfully with an underlying fascination of what science has taught us. The resulting question is whether “(…) it is a wise thing to keep on producing knowledge about issues that are actually outside the scope of a normal human being’s perception”.

I think that Rick’s observation here is right; however, in this connection instead of talking about ‘wisdom’ we rather should address the term of ‘morality’.  Thus, is it morally justifiable to keep on producing knowledge if we do not know for what ends we wanted to use it? And also, is it morally justifiable to then use this knowledge in a politicizing way? And then, what responsibility does this knowledge bring about towards society in general?  I think in After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics these questions of the moral dimensions of science are a significant aspect of the poem as a whole. When reading The Poet and The City it emerged to me that Auden here seems to elaborate on this kind of discussion adding or making sense of it in the context of a post-modern society.

As Auden states, in our kind of society the process of fabrication has been rationalized so much in terms of speed and economy that the part of the individual factory employee has become too small to still call it work; instead it merely is labor (Auden, p. 73). The arts cannot be rationalized in this way, artists still are personally responsible for their work. As a result there is a general fascination for the way in which artists work in a society in which almost nobody is his own master anymore (p. 73). As Auden follows, this process had significant influence on the profession of the writer:  previously he was regarded as Gentleman of high social status but with the invention of printing the writer’s social status only decreased (p. 74).

In particular there are four aspects of the current world view which made the artist vocation even more problematic. First, (physical) science has replaced the belief in the eternity of the universe by a picture of nature as a process or as being in a flux (p. 78). Second, “Modern science has destroyed our faith in the naïve observation of our senses” and in this sense the traditional conception of art as mimesis is destroyed. Third, until the Industrial Revolution technology, as constantly accelerating our way of life, destroyed the belief in a norm of human nature (p. 79). And fourth, the significance of private and public has been reversed, meaning that only in private life one can be free to be his or her personal self . The result is that that literature lost its traditional principal human subject 8the does of public deeds) (p. 80).

In this sense Auden holds that modern technology, enabled by science, “(…) has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed” resulting in a loss of personal loyalty towards ones work (p. 80). In effect this means for a poet that he is no longer able to write about things to which does not have an intimate relation in a personal way (p. 81). Therefore, the ‘true men of action in our time’ can only be scientists who are concerned with things, speechless objects, in contrast to poets who are concerned with persons. In this connection one clearly can understand Auden as being convinced of the domination of modern science and technology over art resulting in a loss of morality because there is a shift of interest from persons to objects.  Similarly he understands politics as being “(…) not concerned with human beings as persons and citizens but with human bodies” treated as statistics (p. 87).

In this sense, Auden’s view on (modern) science as depicted in The Poet and The City is utterly negative in character, nearly dystopian in a creative sense. The process of rationalization is understood as a process of homogenization leading to the emergence of a world in which heterogeneity or personality and therefore morality is lost. In this kind of world there seemingly is no place for poets and genuine art in the sense of not being driven by economic or political interests; only ‘would-be’ poets or writers can survive in this world.

To conclude, I think Auden, in addressing this topic of morality in society as being influenced by the relation between science and art, raises an interesting discussion. It is relevant not only in the context of his time in the 1960s but especially in today’s knowledge society in which aspects of rationalization become ever more dominant. Therefore I want to try to locate other poems or essays written by him in which these aspects are further elaborated.


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