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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

January 16, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE PROLIFIC AND THE DEVOURER by W.H. Auden. (Ecco: $18; 101 pp.) Auden began this book of reflections on art and politics and religion in the spring of 1939 and abandoned it in September of that year, a month in which it must have been somewhat difficult to expound on art and politics and religion. He was, at the time, thinking through his rejection of Marxism, his acceptance of Christianity and his rejection of the idea that artists ought to have anything whatsoever to do with politics. In other words, as Edward Mendelson writes in the preface, a turn from optimism to pessimism. "My political eduction," Auden writes, "began at the age of 7 when I was sent to boardingschool. Every English boy of the middle class spends five years as a member of a primitive tribe ruled by benevolent or malignant demons, and then another five years as a citizen of a totalitarian state." In Auden's September, 1939, schema there are, in good totalitarian tradition, two human types, labeled from Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell": the prolific: artists, farmers, skilled workers, scientists, cooks, innkeepers doctors teachers and athletes; and then there are devourers (parasites): judges, policemen, critics and politicos. Now look, this is Auden and it's the autumn of 1939, when good and evil were rising so rapidly to the surface of life that thinking in this A-B-C way over a glass of absinthe or something probably made sense. "The dilemma," he writes, "that to fight Fascism you have to become Fascist yourself is now pretty generally realized." The prolific and the devourer. Readers, choose your weapons.

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