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

Part five: Goethe, the '30s generation, art and anarchy

When did you first get interested in Goethe?

I have been interested in Goethe for a long time but it is fairly late that I felt I could get something from him. His poetry is extremely difficult to translate; Hölderlin is much easier, partly because Hölderlin was half crazy. It is always easier to translate a poet who is a little crazy because half of the effect depends not on the language but on the curious association of ideas, and this, of course, can come across in another language. I think you would have great fun translating Christopher Smart, James Joyce, and Lamb into German.

What has happened to the generation of the thirties?

All this business of talking about writers of the thirties, the forties, or fifties, is a journalistic lie. First of all, it suggests that people conveniently stop writing at the end of a decade. All right, it is quite obvious that a group of people of about the same age, exposed to the same experiences, are going to have certain things in common, but that is the least interesting thing about them. What is interesting is the way they differ. But to lump the writers of the thirties together as if we all wrote in the same way is nonsense.

But it seems to me that the political consciousness among those people - there was a feeling at that time that something could really be done for the better.

No. There were two things one was bound to be concerned with: Hitler and the depression. Obviously, one could not help but notice these things. We may have hoped for political change of various kinds but I don't think we thought we could do them ourselves.

You don't think there was some great disappointment with World War II, some breakdown of some kind of feeling toward the world?

No. What I would say is, for example, in the thirties we didn't know exactly how awful things were in Russia, but we knew they were not very nice. What we said to ourselves was, "Oh, the poorer Russians; they are barbarians. They never had a Renaissance, or they never had a Reformation. You can't expect much of them, but communism will be different elsewhere." We now know that not to be true. Depressing as our own parties are, anything is better than the one-party system whether right or left. The only place where it works is in Yugoslavia because although officially there is only one party, in fact, there are four: Slovenes, Croatians, Serbians, and Macedonians, all completely different with different interests. As a result the country is free.

James Agee said that all artists are, politically, anarchists.

Basically I think this is true. It depends on what you mean by anarchism. Obviously, as a political doctrine anarchism won't work because you are always going to have some kind of regime. The idea you can have a state with no regime at all is obviously nonsense. I think we are all anarchists to some extent. We know some regime is going to be and none of them is going to be very nice and at any given point you feel one is the lesser of two evils. The other meaning is embodied in a certain technique which I learned at school which was how to do what you wanted without getting into trouble with the authorities.

Do you remember the piece you wrote here that was published in the Phoenix called "Student Government or Bombs"?

I believe so.

Which made the same kind of suggestion that students should not have anything to do with student government but should go underground?

I am very puzzled when they ask for student participation because later in life when one sins one has to sit on committees. If they knew what it is like to sit on committees, how very boring it is...Thank God when I was a student nobody ever asked me to be on a committee! The other difficulty about committees is, unfortunately, there is usually one person on the committee who likes being on it and that means that business that should take a half hour takes one hour. What you want are people who hate it but are conscientious and want to do the job but want to get away from it as soon as they possibly can.

I want to go back to the political thing for just a moment. Does this feeling about there are always going to be regimes and one has to try to take the lesser of two evils, does this grow out of a disappointment?

I have never believed Marx's anarchist idea that the state would whither away.

You never at any time believed that?

No, because it is clearly nonsense. Particularly in a technological society you have got to have some organization. One can have syndicalism, workers' councils. This you can do. But to imagine you can have no regime at all, no. I am a little inclined to think, although I know it won't happen, that we wouldn't do worse and we might do better if all members of Congress and all members of Parliament were elected like jurors by lot. It would smash the party machines. People could vote according to their consciences because there would be no question of reelection. Computers could work out proper representation of minorities. I think we might do better.

Do you still see a lot of your colleagues of the thirties?

Oh, yes. We are still friends. I have just been staying with Stephen Spender in London, and I have seen C. Day Lewis several times.

Do you know Robert Graves?

I know him slightly. He is an incredibly conceited man. I question whether he or Vladimir Nabokov is the most conceited.

Have you ever translated Goethe?

I have translated the Italienische Reise with a German because translators must always work with somebody whose mother tongue it is because no matter how well you think you know the language, one can very easily make mistakes. When translating, I always like to work with somebody else. With the Icelandic things I was working with a scholar, and with Markings I worked with a Swede, and so on.