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The Age of Anxiety

After the mechanized cruelty and destruction of World War II, two important works of literature tried to capture the feeling of despair.  Along with well known 1984 (1948) by George Orwell, there is the lesser known Age of Anxiety (1947) by W H Auden.  Both of these cast a shadow we still live under, twisting our language to defy and define a mechanical world not entirely fit for humans.  Auden’s more romantic treatment is worth the read if for no reason other than its resonance today.

The Age of Anxiety was written as an epic poem, subtitled “A Baroque Eclogue”.  It is a kind of hero’s quest, but in this case the heroes are looking for little more than a good time that they never quite find in a dank bar filled with chatty strangers.  The characters are also horribly under-developed, probably deliberately, as they are melded into one purpose.  For the “Seven Stages” of life, likely a riff off of Nietzsche, the old drunk Quant describes a stolen moment of mis-spent youth this way:

Secret meetings at the slaughterhouse
With nickels and knives, initiations
Behind the billboards.  Then the hammperpond looked
So green and grim, yet graciously its dank
Water made us welcome – once in, we
Swam without swearing. The smelting mill
We broke into had a big chimney
And huge engines; holding our breath, we
Lighted matches and looked at the gears,
The cruel cogwheels, the crank’s absolute
Veto on pleasure.  In a vacant lot
We built a bonfire and burned alive
Some stolen tires.  How strong and good one
Felt at first, how fagged coming through
The urban evening.  Heavy like us
Sank the gas-tanks – it was supper time.
Telephones gabbled untidy cries,
And on embankments black with burnt grass
Shambling freight-trains were shunted away
Past crimson clouds.

The language is dense and jumbled by the energy of the moment and the exhilaration of a bunch of kids capturing their discovered lands.  It’s just a passing scene to Auden, a man who could romanticize nearly anything.  In the hands of Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange (1962) the same theme resonated into a whole stolen day:

The next morning I woke up at oh eight oh oh hours, my brothers, andas I still felt shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed and my glazzies were stuck together real horrowshow with sleepglue, I thought I would not go to school.  I thought how I would have had a malenky bit longer in the bed, an hour or two say, and then get dressed nice and easy, perhaps having a splosh about in the bath, make toast for myself and slooshy on the radio or read the gazetta, and on my oddy knocky.  And then in the afternoon I might perhaps, if I still felt like it, itty off to the old stolliwoll and see what was vareeting in that great seat of gloopy useless learning.  O my brothers.  I heard my papapa grumbling and trampling and then ittying off to the dyeworks where he rabbited.

The language needed to describe these scenes is off and odd because the aimlessness requires it.  Neither one has the politics of Howl by Allen Ginsburg, (1956) but they share the twist of language. The stolen moments define the characters outside of the world they are rejecting, today’s Tom Sawyer.  Through A Clockwork Orange, the movie (1970), the images form the backbone of dystopian cinema that would become its own genre.  Blade Runner and Mad Max begat Terminator and eventually Fight Club or anything by Tarrantino as the same feeling preened its way to the Mall to scene and be seen.  Characters, to the extent they are defined at all, are molded by how they steal their own moments outside of their world.

What Auden was describing in the Age of Anxiety was a desperate need to find a human feeling, a moment of joy, among people that were pressed into something far beyond their own flesh and comprehension.  This view came to dominate literature in the late 20th Century even when the great luxury of ennui was the main emotion that bubbled up.  But anxiety, a flash of fear that often andrenalizes into anger, remains the force of our lives to this day.

It’s worth revisiting the roots of this theme in literature and movies for many reasons. The most compelling is to find the antidote for what Auden’s language dances around, the strong half-step apart and yet within the world.  It also gives real meaning and heft to Rap as well as Punk/Hardcore as legitimate children of an art, a heritage both deserve when they are done well.

If nothing else, the enduring elaboration of the Age of Anxiety continues.  As much as I enjoy Auden, it is a terrible shame that the hot blood that drives our supposed politics and ramblings on the web is made of a busted quest that we have been on for over 60 years.  Isn’t it time to either sit down and accept this or retrace our steps to find out where the quest went wrong?

30 thoughts on “The Age of Anxiety

  1. I had such a hard time with Auden at school – probably because the teacher wasn’t very good at explaining it. Thanks for bringing this one back out into the daylight for me. Hope you have a great weekend

  2. This reminds me of a lot of books I have read, as well as a lot of dialogue in movies that went by too quick to get at first. I see now what they were getting at.

    Glad you included rap as part of this because its so often overlooked. There is an art to some rap and it needs to be recognized to encourage it.

  3. Gwei: At least it was taught in school in the UK! We don’t have such good fortune here in the USofA – Auden has to be a personal conspiracy of some kind. But it is very hard on people who haven’t been around a bit. I remember first encountering his work in my early 20s, but not “getting it” until I was a bit older.

    Annalise: There are many different ways to twist language and use it to define a person or a moment. At its worst, it’s all about the Scene and how someone belongs to it. At its best, it sheds new light on where people are in just a few words, a kind of poetry. I think the Age of Anxiety is defined by this use of language more than anything else, both the good and the bad.

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  5. Auden is fun to discover at any age. In my case, it was while my brain was chemically augmented in my college years. I came across “At the Grave of Henry James” and marveled at the concatenation of syllables, the sounds that resonated lightly at each moment.

    This comes tord the end:

    All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
    Pray for me and all writers, living or dead:
    Because there are many whose works
    Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
    To the vanity of our calling …

    A discussion is at

  6. I have never heard of Auden before, but this is some amazing poetry. Thanks Erik and Hal, I appreciate learning about someone new to me.

  7. I happen to think that anxiety is behind the relentless ADD of our bizzy li’l world. It’s a strange dichotomy – fear of the future and a headlong rush into it before we have a chance to think. But it seems to be quite real – at least the not thinking part.

    That’s why the stolen moments are so useful for defining characters in this Age of Anxiety (formerly known as the Modern Age).

    I still want to get on to the Fractal Era (formerly known as the Post-Modern Age). In fact, I don’t want to be post-anything, but it would be nice to put the Age of Anxiety behind us.

    That is, if we’re going to buzz our way into the future without a lot of thinking we might as well get somewhere interesting with it, IMHO.

  8. “fear of the future and a headlong rush into it before we have a chance to think” is also th eoverriding theme of Walter Benjamin’s work.

    This is from

    The following is Benjamin’s ninth thesis from the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

    A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

  9. Thank you, Hal. This is very good stuff.

    The shape and nature of that pile may seem irrelevant, and perhaps I’m just kidding myself in my fascination with history. But this, to me, is the nature of a connections-based analysis. The pile of debris somehow reaches through us, through today, and into the future.

    Don’t know how much of my three years worth of ramblings you’ve read, but your comments on this one have been very interesting (if a bit cynical). I like it when I’m given something to think about. Let me do you the honor of thinking it over a bit before I give you a full response, please. 🙂

  10. No problem.

    I am actually new to your blog, and have not perused the archives.

    But “how we got here” is what intrigues me.

    I just finished Mary Doria Russell’s “Dreamers of the Day,” a novel about the 1921 conference among the imperial post-WWI powers that divided up the Middle East.

    As Russell adroitly points out, all the problems that currently inflict the region can be traced back to the borders arbitrarily set up for imperial convenience.

    And guess what? Access to oil was a prime driver of the outcome.

    Some things never change.

  11. Hal you are absolutely right – history does move in strange helical patterns that seem to close back on themselves even as they move forward just that tiny bit.

    I should have a category just for this way of looking at things. Not sure what I call it, tho.

  12. This is good stuff.

    I won’t recapitulate too many comments, but I’ve always thought the term “Post-Modern” was a copout. The term often just meant “current.”

    It did occur to me that we might be in the Möbius Strip Era

  13. As for helical history, science fiction writer Sheri Tepper, in “The Family Tree” and other novels, has postulated a sort of helical history, enmbodied in a visible climbing vine that allows for time travel.

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  15. Erik, you never did come back to this point! I want to know more about what you have to say on this topic. I agree that the “Age of Anxiety” is an excellent name for the last 60 to 70 years, but I’m not sure that age has ended!

    I’d much rather live in the Fractal Era, but I don’t think we’re ready for it yet.

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  20. and what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? -yeats

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