Notes on a Big Fan of Lord of the Rings

We are not so various or mean. We have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph. This is our consolation.

Virginia Woolf

I said I’d post about Auden and Byron today; I think this might have been misleading. You’d think I’d be going on about Letter to Lord Byron, Auden’s poem in Juan stanzas, but no – this is a blog, dammit, and since there’s no better place to be perverse, we’ll be taking a brief look at Auden’s essay on Don Juan.

As well as being more-or-less my favourite poet, he’s one of my favourite writers about poetry (multiple choice! Have I not yet bought either published volume of his Collected Prose because I am 1) Lazy 2) Cheap? You are allowed to tick both boxes.)

It’s the way he begins with what you have to treat as a parlour game: he slices the world or literature into two, and then puts things into these categories. Just from The Dyer’s Hand, you have Virgin/Dynamo, Democratic/Aristocratic, Alice/Mabel, and Eden/New Jerusalem (it’s little wonder he was so attracted to kierkegaard and the either/or). I like this dichotomous model: you play a game that starts off silly, an Edwardian entertainment, neither true nor false, but ends in a discovery, and is able to slide between talking about what we read and how we live. It’s the kind of thing blogs might (with a ‘perhaps’ on top, three ‘possiblies’, two ‘maybes’ and finish with a coat of ‘sometime’) help us get back to: it isn’t the academy’s language, and it isn’t Journalese – both of those are mostly frozen idiom. Finding a new and exciting way of talking about books – that’s the dream. Though I don’t see how the fuck the creator expects us to do it when we can’t all think, write and coin the throwaways like WHA.

(Excuse that last – I usually think talking about what blogs can do is a distraction when we could be getting on with it. Incidentally, another terrific bit of Auden is The Faber Book of Aphorisms which he edited with Louis Kronenberger; it’s an anthology with texture and personality. Which reminds me of A Certain World, his commonplace book. I don’t have a copy any more; I gave it to First Love for her birthday once. She thought I was implying she didn’t have a mind capable of sustained attention to real literature. In case you’re reading, J, notice that we’re in the middle of an aside to a digression breaking up divagation from a rambling post: now tell me who’s got the mind incapable of making it to the end of a )

The essay on Don Juan has a more complex game than usual: it’s got four terms. Time to quote extensively, I think:

I find helpful a distinction which, so far as I have been able to discover, can only be made in the English language, the distinction between saying “So-and-do or such-and-such is boring and saying “So-and-so or such-and-such is a bore.”

In English, I believe, the adjective expresses a subjective judgement; boring always means boring-to-me. For example, if I am in the company of golf enthusiasts, I find their conversation boring, but they find it fascinating. The noun, on the other hand, claims to be an objective, universally valid statement; X is a bore is either true or false.

Applied to works of art, the distinction makes four judgements possible.

1)Not (or seldom) boring but a bore. Examples: The last quartets of Beethoven, the Sistine frescoes of Michelangelo, the Novels of Dostoievski.

2)Sometimes boring but not a bore. Verdi, Degas, Shakespeare.

3)Not boring and not a bore. Rossini, the drawings of Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse.

4)Boring and a bore. Works to which one cannot attend. It would be rude to give names.

Perhaps the principle of the distinction can be made clearer by the following definitions:

A. The absolutely boring but absolutely not a bore: the time of day.

B. The absolutely not boring but absolute bore: God.

Don Juan is sometimes boring but pre-eminently an example of a long poem which is not a bore.

Honestly, I can spend an age turning that one over in my mind. I’ve worried, often, that I have an aesthetic based entirely on locating works along an interesting-boring axis (Joke a: You can call me shallow, but at least I’m pretty. Joke b: Something about Bush and the ‘Axis of Boring’.) I’ve wondered whether it’s a useful idea that can be developed, and digs somewhere into the age, or whether it’s tinfoil and simply the function of uncommitted mind. I’ve come back to that passage a lot while thinking about boring-interesting, and Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the aesthetic life-in-despair, especially ‘Crop Rotation’ from Either/Or:

The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse. To amuse themselves, they hit upon the notion of building a tower so high that it would reach the sky. This notion is just as boring as the tower was high and is a terrible demonstration of how boredom had gained the upper hand.

I’ve never reached any conclusions, though. I just get bored.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, that quote at the head of the post is used at the top of ‘The Virgin and The Dynamo’, another of the essays in The Dyer’s Hand. I like it. Apropos the title, Auden was a big LOTR fan: maybe I’ll get to the problems and virtues of his prep school sensibility in another post.