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  • What the War is Doing with Us:W. H. Auden, Total War, and War Literature
  • Christopher Patrick Miller (bio)

We labor to make the War real, to make it really happen so that it will speak to us. As we labor to realize life. If we did not so labor we would not, I suppose, experience fear or wrath, our reactions as its reality grows. And I have—more than "hope"—the faith but it is also the artist's sense of his work (that he is making sense) that your fear "of the end of all things" or my outrage at "the lie" will lead on towards what they strive to be in us.

—Robert Duncan to Denise Levertov, July 19661

Though the epistolary dialogue between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov mostly concerns the roles of poetry and the poet during the Vietnam War, their letters open out to a broader problem about how art and literature can or should respond to the experience of a war unfixed in time, place, and character. In the face of such amorphous, ongoing violence, Duncan makes the perverse suggestion that the task of the artist is not only to express fear or indignation at what they witness, but to realize what the war strives "to be in us." Aesthetic agency is inverted, from an active or direct shaping of one's world to a passive or indirect channeling of a phenomenon. The formulation seems perverse not just because it may naturalize a specific history, but also because it conflates "life" with "war," as if laboring for one's biological and aesthetic subsistence were indistinguishable from making the war happen "in us" and through our interactions with each other. By way of his slippage into a collective pronoun—"We labor to make the War real . . . so that it will speak to us"—Duncan [End Page 309] pictures in syntax a problem I argue is common to a certain trajectory of literature "about" war, one that traverses various modernisms both present and past. In this vein, "the War" is not simply objectified as an experience, be it present or retrospective, but composed as a pervasive, ongoing, uneven reality that shapes our speech and social lives as they are acted out.

The question of what the war is doing with us, as if it were already a language we were speaking, is one that also obsessed the early interwar writings of W. H. Auden. When Auden published one of his most confounding books, The Orators: An English Study, in 1932, the world was not quite at war.2 As a text, The Orators confounds not only for the cryptic, elliptical character of its language, but for how it lives up to its own billing as a book-length "study" of "English" rhetoric, culture, and education. Its "plot," if it can be said to have one, is uneven, winding through schoolyard rituals, a convalescent's letter, a journal of a pilot, and a series of retrospective odes. The project of individual and national formation is repeatedly linked to an intelligence of one's enemies. This seemingly developmental narrative, often framed in terms of masculine figures, is complicated by the strange temporality and spatiality of the text, which seems caught between the political afterlives of World War I and the foreshadows of World War II in both England and across the continent. Without a stable heroic figure or historical ground, Auden sends us reading across forms, as C. D. Blanton has recently argued, for a politics none of the "orators" can name.3

Aside from Auden's obvious lack of firsthand experience of battle, what separates The Orators from a prior generation of British lyric poetry and memoirs is that it shows how war has entered into the various ways we apprehend, express, or practice a shared culture. He focuses in particular on the institutions—homes, schools, romantic conventions—we use to articulate forms of intimacy and self-knowledge. One finds attention to similar moments in his pamphlet poem from the Spanish Civil War, Spain (1937), as well as his verse/prose hybrid travelogue composed with Christopher Isherwood, Journey to War (1939), though both texts were...


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pp. 309-327
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