Epitaph on a tyrant - W.H. Auden
There is truth in Richard Hoggart’s words that Auden’s poetry “is a civilising force”. His poems make me believe that this is how the world should be. I wonder sometimes, how he saw so clearly, how the infinite irony of his gaze never faltered. Auden makes you question yourself, reassess your own self-righteousness and confront the truth of your hidden convictions.
One could write a book on the first line of this poem. I have often thought of what drives the conviction of those who inflict pain on others. Psychoanalysts have observed that the inability to experience empathy is a marked characteristics of tyrants and violent fundamentalists. I see it as a kind of distancing - a learned self-deception. At the core of this deception, however, lies the imagination of “perfection, of a kind”.
It makes me question myself, this belief, that even in the eyes of the oppressor is an ideal of a perfect world. But it strikes me, time and again, how fragile that world view is. It relies on half-knowledge and a laziness of thought. The fascist gaze begins to waver when you push it too far, when you force the subject to confront the solipsism of their own argument. Then it reveals itself for what it truly is - cold blooded, inhuman rage.
Wislawa Szymborska in her Nobel speech refers to the folly of certainty. Her belief that this kind of conviction will not sustain is what I hold on to, in these chaotic times. "All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.”