Simeon’s oration, in prose, sounds like that of an existentialist theologian. If a critical wag could say of Dante’s Beatrice that she was Aquinas in drag, then Simeon the first-century Jew looks suspiciously like Paul Tillich. Simeon utters sentence after sentence like this one: “Before the Unconditional could manifest Itself under the conditions of existence, it was necessary that man should first have reached the ultimate frontier of consciousness, the secular limit of memory beyond which there remained but one thing for him to know, his Original Sin, but of this it is impossible for him to become conscious because it is itself what conditions his will to knowledge.” Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel, and finds it in the Christ child, affirming—or seeking to affirm—his own idiosyncratically modern Nunc dimittis: “Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender.... Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.”
Herod acts as a foil to Simeon, delivering a monologue directly reminiscent not of the historical power-besotted Jewish ruler, but of—Marcus Aurelius. Herod in the hands of Auden is nothing if not rational, a well-groomed and self-aware intellectual. He is shrewd, pragmatic, world-weary, and very funny. Herod is the most solidly approachable and likeable character in the poem. In contrast, Simeon with his clotted abstractions looks a bit out of touch. Nevertheless, it is significant that Herod thinks his way straight to violence and damnation. As he ruminates on the failure of the masses to act “in conformity with Nature and Necessity,” he sees the birth of Christ not as a threat to his kingship or as the irruption of the divine into the immanent world, but as another troublesome and politically unstable superstition among the plebs. “Why can’t they see,” he asks, “that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse.” And so he concludes, “I refuse to be taken in”—and orders the massacre of the innocents.
Auden’s Herod belongs in the company of two other great literary creations: Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov and Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit. All three characters understand all too well the consequences of the Incarnation, but reject its terms. Herod’s refusal to be taken in mirrors Ivan’s return of his ticket. Redemption and forgiveness, for Ivan, are too high a price to pay for the suffering of the innocent. Ivan returns his ticket because of innocent suffering, but Herod’s refusal results in it. Likewise, the Misfit despairs for lack of firsthand knowledge of Jesus’s mighty deeds, but he knows that rejection of Christ resolves not into freedom but into violence. He therefore says of Christ, “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” Herod’s refusal splits the difference between the Misfit and Ivan. In the name of humanistic compassion, Ivan rejects redemptive suffering enabled and ennobled by the Christ event; the Misfit rejects Christ but understands that the only other option is nihilism. Herod rejects the terms altogether.
In short, every character in this long and complex poem senses that the birth of the child demands a response; senses that, again in the words of the Misfit, Christ has “thrown everything off balance.” They are all caught up in the aspect of time that Tillich, developing a biblical contrast, calls kairos as opposed to kronos, categories with which Auden was consciously working. In other words, their confrontation with the Christ child is not part of the flow of ordinary chronological time, but by appointment; it is a summons, a moment of decision. In order to bring the reader to the Nativity, to gather us, too, around the child and summon us to respond, to affirm, and to submit, Auden scrambles the historical signals. Writing to his father, Auden explained that he was not trying to give “a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo,” but was rather “trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted.”
Nevertheless, Auden was eager not to fall into the liberal Protestant error of discarding the historical husk in order to get at the kernel of meaning. Pure history, he said, results in “an archaeological curiosity,” but leaving history behind for the sake of contemporaneity results in “an entertaining myth.” Art that depicts biblical events, he says, must “do justice both to the historicity of the event and to its contemporary relevance.”
Auden’s dependence on Tillich notwithstanding, Charles Taylor’s treatment of time in A Secular Age might be more helpful than Tillich for drawing out what Auden is doing at the end of the For the Time Being. Taylor was no doubt developing Tillich’s categories to some degree; he doesn’t cite him, but he does use kairos-kronos terminology. Taylor contrasts chronological time not with kairotic time but with what he calls gathered time. In the premodern understanding of gathered time the liturgical recurrence of sacred events is consummated in their eternal simultaneity. Time in this sense is measured in its proximity to the eternal rather than to the historical event. “Good Friday 1998,” Taylor writes in A Secular Age, “is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” It is in this sense that the liturgical celebration of the Nativity draws us into gathered time. Auden’s For the Time Being, while not liturgy per se, nevertheless participates in it through the linguistic act of poetic recreation, seeking to draw the reader into the reality through the summons implied by the text.
Auden will not, however, let us remain at the Nativity. Having “seen the actual Vision,” we have to readjust our gaze to the ordinary world. The passage with which I began narrates a classic case of post-Christmas blues, a world exhausted of feasting, sated and spent. It is here in these moments that the human condition most savagely reasserts itself. What Auden means by the phrase “the Time Being”—it appears three times in this section, a mere page and a half of poetry—is the sense of appointment, summons, significance in the moments, days, weeks following those summonses. That significance is easy to identify when we are gathered around the Christ child at Christmas. But what about what comes after? “Dissolved,” as Augustine puts it, “into the variety and vicissitude of times,” we cannot remain gathered in the eternal for long. We find that soon enough we are again caught up in the swift current of chronological time. And the dishes need to be done.
Taylor identifies our “present condition” as one in which “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” Just so, Auden says that after Christmas we revert, almost automatically, to “the moderate Aristotelian city,” where “Euclid’s geometry / And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience.” For us the shift back to the immanent from the transcendent is inevitable. After the summonses have arrived and the appointment has been fulfilled—and even when we have responded in the affirmative—what next? What do we do for the time being? Here’s how Auden puts it:
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering.
The novelist Walker Percy, who was nine years younger than Auden, returned to this theme again and again in his writing. In his essay “The Delta Factor,” he asks, “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” In The Moviegoer Binx Bolling observes, “What people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” Why is it, in essence, that suffering seems to give us a sense of purpose? Part of his explanation for this dislocated habit of thought is that, though humans are embodied souls simultaneously transcendent and immanent, both inside and outside of time, the modern world has a much more polarized anthropology. We moderns must, in Percy’s words, be either “pure organisms” or “pure spirit,” thrashing back and forth from one to the other: immanent to transcendent and back again. As Tom More, the protagonist of Percy’s Love in the Ruins, puts it, “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” In the modern world we never quite feel like ourselves.