The 1930s was a decade composed of the Great Depression, Fascism, civil war in Spain, Stalin’s consolidation of power and subsequent liquidation of millions of independent peasant farmers. Hitler sought to exterminate the Jewish people Mussolini brought modern warfare to Italy’s colonies1. This was the scene for Auden to present the need for a new breed of hero, a hero who could overcome the adversity of this age. Auden sets out to create a hero out of the ordinary man. A hero that flouts the popularly conceived notions of heroism.
Through employing the facets of the classical and Norse heroics as a metaphor for both the overwhealming corrupt power of imperialism and the unfeasible nature of suck a hero Auden lays philosophical theory for a psychological revolution that will create his workable hero flouting the conventions of the archetypal hero. Auden present mankind with the possibility of a hero that can be attained if he abides by Auden’s philosophy of unity of the body and mind and the overthrowing of fear and apathy.
The true heroes in Auden’s early poetry do not exist, they are blueprints presented to man by Auden through his acknowledgement of flaws in man, which failed to create a true hero. The archetypal hero of Greek and Norse myth is one of bravery and self sacrifice in war. The heroes in saga literature know the importance of their courage in overcoming the evils of society. They often battle to the death to maintain freedom; whether it is freedom from pains of the body, fear of death, and against fate itself. The narrator must present a person of considerable force, super-human will power and strength so that the heroic conduct is feasible.
This is the unity of body and mind, where the alleged heroes in Auden’s poetry are essentially failed. They do not have the understanding of their situation and in turn they do not understand their own mind. The consequence of this is that they do not fight for true cause; their cause is confusion and fear. Auden presents a his blueprint for a new hero who unites both mind and body and is not a literary abstract presented as a manifestation of military excellence. Auden appeals for action in the attaining of the unity of body and mind, a balance where all action is generated though the will that is not constrained by fear.
Fuller says, “The weak are again and again attracted to mere talk about love instead of to the real thing. They may feel that they have grasped what it is all about, but this is imaginary”2. For the supposed heroes in Auden’s poetry this is consistently the case. Man acts rashly and does not understand that his actions are founded by fear. In addition to this mankind’s fear leads to superfluous discourse as is referred to in ‘Get here if you can’ with the ‘Lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down’ (p. 49).
For Auden the experience is an imperative, discourse can never make any changes. He recognises that his own poetry can make nothing happen, alluding to this in the second part of ‘In Memory of W. B Yeats’, ‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper’ (p. 242). He also presents this idea in a witty aphorism in ‘The Prolific and the Devourer’, ‘If the criterion of art were its power to incite action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time’ (p. 406).
The serious point being made by Auden is that action is a necessity in order to make any social, political or psychological progression. What is needed for Auden is what Fuller refers to as a “various cycle of change, personal bodily, social and psychological”(Fuller, p. 41). Where Auden had the Artist and the Politician as his contraries in ‘The Prolific and the Devourer’, he also applies the mind and body to these categories, as they are inter-dependant. Auden says that “Body and mind are distinct but neither can exist alone, nor is there rightly a rivalry between them.
Attempts to turn body into mind (Manichaeism) or mind into body (Arianism) lead to disease, madness and death” (Fuller, p. 42). Auden wishes to utilise both mind and body in a society where Arianism has suppressed Manichaeism. It is the equilibrium of these two parts, the internal and the external, that will create the apparatus for a truly heroic character. The primary stage of this transformation from the ordinary man into the heroic is the psychological shift. ‘The Witness’ can be used as the blueprint of the stereotypes of the conventional hero.