Cambridge School, Auden, Archambeau

by on Nov.14, 2010

Here’s an interview I conducted with Bob Archambeau about the Cambridge School.

JG: One way to go there would be to look at the Auden quote you use as the title of your paper: The Orators is a poem that very much problematizes notions of private/privacy and public sphere. If I remember correctly (it was many years since I read it), The “public” Orators in the first section are largely parodies of scholastic addresses coupled with testimonies of spying activity as a means of enforcing normalcy, conformity. These spies are public faces in private places (Auden certainly intended the sexual pun, something that seems strangely missing from this discussion). The narrator of the second secton, “The Journal of the Airman,” to my mind the most daring and kooky and spectacular piece of writing Auden ever did, is a gay character concerned mainly with the marginalization of gay people. But his cure for this is not some easy Public Talk about the Advancement of Gay Liberation, but rather a highly punny, profusively allusive (to Shamanistic practices etc, see Peter Firchow’s article in the PMLA from like 1985), utterly ridiculous text. When he decided to airbomb London with his pamphlets, I suspect many people would be confused by his genetic tracts and invocations of epileptic shamans. His text is one of obscurity (and full of sexual puns—cock pit etc). “The Journal of the Airman” is in other words a private face in a public space (pamphlet and all). But this does decidedly not mean the figure of authenticity etc. you mention. That would be a public face in a public place. No, the airman is a private face in a public space—an obscure face, a damaged, minor face, not a face that can speak in a unproblematic Public Voice. (This is of course also a transitional poem, and Auden went through many many changes and contradictions.) To understand “The Journal of the Airman”, I think we need a politics of obscurity, a queer politics that indeed resists falling back on that Public Voice of the Orators (poetry that is “public,” that supposedly makes things happen.). Of course there are many “Audens,” but I think the airman is the most interesting of them all.

RA: The Orators is my favorite of all Auden’s books, and it’s a shame that it is so little read. I think many people think of Auden only as the kind of Augustan poet he became in the American portion of his career. Of course it would be good to remember that the complex, ironic nature of the book made Auden himself wonder about its politics. “Which side am I on?” he asked, and at one point he said that he felt the man who wrote that book was, if not a fascist, on the verge of becoming one.

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