Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Law Like Love"--The Timid Analogy

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Here, finally, is Auden's tentative and timid conclusion. Law is like love.

In understanding Auden’s likening of the Law with Love, one must understand what Auden means by love. Love in this context is neither a particularized eros or philia, but a universal agape that manifests itself in a particular love of neighbor.[i] The love is what Auden (quoting Simone Weil) defined as “belief in the existence of other human beings as such.”[ii] Indeed, it is more; it is, as Kirsch put it, the recognition of other men’s “existence as themselves to be of infinite value.”[iii] And yet, this is not some generalized, universal love of mankind, but a close, intimate, and personal love of a neighbor. This is the absolute radical notion of Auden, and perhaps the most beautiful message of his poem: that Law, like love, must be personal, and that it stems from the depths of man’s heart. Like the universal injunction to love one neighbor as one’s self, the Law applies to our neighbor however it be that we find him, whether “dumpy” or “tall.” That is, Law like love reaches to each man in his personal uniqueness.
[T]he law, like love, is concerned (so Auden believed) with personal uniqueness, not with political generalization. Unique persons fulfill the law by loving—which can be done by unique person only—and they fail to understand the law when they fail to love.[iv]
The love Auden tenuously ties with Law and which is mentioned by Kirsch is that same Agape which Auden experienced in a mystical vision, an epiphany, which occurred to the twenty-six-year-old atheist Auden in the Summer of 1933, and whose imprint remained with Auden the remainder of his life. As Auden himself described it in prose:
One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. . . . We were talking casually about every day matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thank to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. . . . I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.
* * * *
I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds ands self-regard would return. . . . . The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do.[v]
Auden described this experience, this encounter with Agape, in his earlier poem, A Summer Night:

Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.[vi]

Auden appears to invoke the Kantian categorical imperative that we must treat each man as an end in himself, and never as a means. It is the recognition of the other as our brother, and, as such, our equal and one worthy of our love, that overcomes convention and mere legal positivism as the supreme basis of Law.

Only because of that can we say
All men are our brothers,
Superior, because of that,
To the social exoskeletons.

So wrote Auden in the poem “Sext,” part of his “Horae Canonicae,” and the “social exoskeletons” he wrote about include the notion of “Leviathan, the Social Beast,” composed of variously of the tyrant, the ideologue, the masses, or the mob.[vii] The potentially oppressive majority, the sometime tyranny of Democracy, had been rejected by Auden as a source of Law in “Law, Like Love.”

Auden’s final peroration, which will be the subject of our last blog entry on this poem, addresses the lack of integrity or union between the ideal and the actual in both Law and love, a division caused by the wound of selfishness, of sin, man suffers since the Fall. For man who is "faulted," failure to abide by the Law, like our failure to abide by Love, does not disprove either the existence of Law or the reality of Love. Indeed, our breach proves their reality, and our need of both Law and Love.

[i] But see Jeffrie G. Murphy, Law Like Love, 55 Syracuse L. Rev. 15, 18 (2004) (suggesting that by love Auden had philia or eros in mind and not agape).
[ii] Kirsch, 4 (quoting Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (New York: Viking, 1970), 283). By this time, Auden appears to have rejected a materialistic understanding of love. The love in this poem is substantially different from that described in his poem “September 1. 1939” as a “lie.” (“Hunger allows no choice / . . . We must love one another or die.”) Mendelson, Later Auden, 75. “Auden later recoiled from this view of love as involuntary mutual need rather than as voluntary mutual forgiveness.” Id.
[iii] Kirsch, 13 (quoting Auden in Edward Mendelson, ed. Forewords and Afterwords (New York: Random House, 1973), 69-70). Mendelson observes: “In Auden’s vocabulary, history and love were words with double senses. There was love and Love, the first a voluntary relations between individuals, the second the involuntary evolutionary Eros that rules all of nature but in mankind has abdicated to the personal will.” Mendelson, Early Auden, 304. However, by the time Auden wrote this poem, he had advanced from his early Marxist and Freudian notions to a more traditionally Christian notion of Love.
[iv] Mendelson, Later Auden, 79.
[v] Mendelson, 160-61, quoting Forwards and Afterwords, 69. Auden continued: “And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I though I had done with Christianity for good.” Id. at 161.
[vi] “A Summer Night,” in Collected Poems, 117; Mendelson, Early Auden, 159-61.
[vii] Kirsch, 126-27.

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