An hour of questions and answers with Auden (November 15, 1971)

Part six: detective fiction, movies, manuscripts, Freud, drugs

Who are your favorite detective writers?

A number of people. Michael Innes. Freeman Wills Croft. I like very much Nicholas Blake. Oh, there are lots of people I like. I am enjoying - I can't remember his name - instead of having a Father Brown you have a rabbi...Friday the Rabbi Slept Late!

Why do you think so many people of literary bent read detective stories?

It is a kind of escape reading which they can take where they couldn't take romances out of The Saturday Evening Post. I have written an essay about it called "The Guilty Vicarage."

What about movies?

Yes, I hate the movies. I think the two most wicked inventions are the internal combustion engine and the camera. I've got a poem in my new book called "I Am Not a Camera."

Why do you think the camera is an evil?

It turns all fact into fiction to begin with. People see movies of people being burned up in Vietnam. It is just like a movie. They don't react anymore. The camera is all right with comic subjects, but sorrow and suffering and grief it must degrade. In ordinary life, suppose you see someone suffering or grieving. Either you try to help, if you can do something, or you look the other way. Automatically with a photograph you can't do anything because you are not there and it just becomes an object of voyeurism. TV is good for games because you probably can see a tennis match better than if you are there, but for reality I think it is awful and I think it corrupts you.

Have you ever liked sports?

No, I am no good at them.

Not even as a spectator?

No.

Do you have any poems which you at one time started and got half way through and decided they wouldn't work out and just left them?

I can't remember any actually.

There is something in the Auden collection in the library...

Oh, yes, there was something I did start, one long thing which I did scrap.

Actually, I can't read your writing.

I am delighted. I object very much to manuscript books because what you want people to read are the final results and when they see all those mistakes you made, they think, "Oh, I could have done that as well." For example, they had to do it but I am sorry they had to bring out that thing on The Wasteland because there isn't one line in what was cut that you could have said, "I wish Eliot had kept it." Not one.

It is a credit to Pound though.

It wasn't Pound's doing entirely. I am sure there are a lot of things Eliot would have cut anyway, quite apart from Pound. But why people should have to see all of this - it is a terribly expensive book anyway. The one thing I do want to see are his improper limericks, of which there are quite a number, I gather.

In writing your poetry, do you consider that it could be read aloud?

Yes, because it is essentially spoken. Even when you are reading poetry to yourself out of a book, you should always hear the thing. It is essentially a spoken language.

Do you still think Freud was right?

About what? He wrote an awful lot of nonsense, but then there are some extraordinary things there. And he could make such nice remarks, like when somebody consulted him about whether he should be psychoanalyzed or not. "Well, I don't suppose we can do much for you, but perhaps we can turn your hysterical misery into ordinary human unhappiness." Very, very wise remark. And then I think it was also nice, when you think his psychology is a little male-oriented, that he once said to Marie Bonaparte, "The great question which after thirty years of research into feminine psyche I find myself completely unable to answer is 'what does a woman want?'" And then he could be dotty. He was absolutely sold on the Earl of Oxford's theory for writing Shakespeare. You couldn't shake him.

The essential thing that he did from a medical point of view was to see, which was entirely contrary to the way he had been brought up, that the life of the mind is an historical life. Therefore, causation means something different. In physics, if A is the cause of B, if A, then B must occur. Which in history A provides B with a motive for occurring, which is a different thing.

Has anyone superseded that?

There are people who have gone on from that, of course. A contemporary mind, marvelous on psychosomatic things, is George Groddeck and his book, Exploring the Unconscious.

How do you feel about wide experimentation with drugs?

I a little disapprove of it, though I personally think they should legalize pot because as long as it isn't, people have to move in illegal circles and people are on harder things and want to push them. The objection I have seen is the great inflation of the ego that takes place with pot. Pot smokers think they are the cat's whiskers. I don't think it is very good for them. That is my own objection. Physically I don't think it does as much harm as what I am doing now [smoking a cigarette]. It is very strange how this has turned up because when I was a student it didn't exist at all. The fact that it has spread to middle-class families - obviously you can see why people in the ghettoes take this just to forget what is around, and this is very understandable. I think Huxley without meaning to did an awful lot of harm. Because here was Huxley at sixty, absolutely sure of who he was; well, then, maybe taking trips was an interesting thing for him. The whole problem for the young is finding out who they are and this is what I think drugs prevent.

My own experience with pot I didn't like was I found the distortion of time was the exact opposite of alcohol. If you are drunk, you think you have been there for ten minutes and you have been there two hours. With pot I would start a sentence and I couldn't remember how I began it.

LSD was a complete frost. I would only take it under medical supervision. All right, the doctor came at 7:30 in the morning and gave me a dose. I sat there and I sat there and I sat there, waiting for something to happen. Nothing would happen. A slight sort of schizoid association in one's body. At 10:30 when the effect was supposed to be maximum, we went around the corner to Second Avenue to have some ham and eggs. I was staring out of the window and I thought, "Ah, now something has begun to happen." I thought I saw my mailman making signals. I came back. The bell rang and my mailman said, "I waved to you but you didn't see me." What it does seem to destroy is the power of communication. I have listened to tapes done by highly articulate people under LSD, for example, and they talk absolute drivel. They may have seen something interesting, but they certainly lose either the power or the wish to communicate.

Could you say that that was transmuted into a nonverbal kind of communication?

It is not transmutable from one person to another. It doesn't make them do good paintings or good music.

What about the effect after the influence of the drugs wears off? I have known musicians who have listened to a piece of music under drugs and who claim that as a result they understood that piece of music much better.

I am suspicious, because apparently what happens is that you hear individual sounds very vividly but the logic goes. This is from talking to people and asking them about their experiences. Certain things are very vivid but the real structure you lose sense of.

Would you say it has nothing to contribute to poetry?

Nothing, as far as I know. The only exception I can think of is that Cocteau may have got something out of opium.

Or Coleridge?

Of course, they were all doped to the gills then. But I doubt if he got much out of the drugs themselves as far as his work is concerned. I was amused when I had to review the Browning correspondence to discover what it was that Elizabeth Browning took, which is a mixture of morphine and ether, which cost her more than her clothes. And when Wilkie Collins died, by his bedside was a sort of daily dose of laudanum. His valet took it and dropped dead.


Q & A with Brendan Kennelly's class < Q & A, part six > Auden in the library

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