Musee Des Beaux Arts

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About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster
; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Obla di, Obla da, life goes on…” sung the Beatles. Apathy, by its very nature is the least policed of our emotions. To be indifferent is to be domiciled in one’s own hut. Don’t expect social change, the stilling of guns or the prevention of wars. Apathy’s application is almost universal, from the unregarded mother in Darfur to the lonely cleaner making his own way back after the last show. They are but in Shakespeare’s words “as the cuckoo in June, heard but not regarded”.

Auden knew this persistence of apathy; hence his famous line “Poetry makes nothing happen”. There are no tidy solutions offered and certainly no relief of the outstretched hand in the poem…

But I keep guiltily silent at the conversational and toneless ease in which Auden brings this unalterable fact of suffering across in our daily lives (“While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”), suffering that is as unalterable as the fact of a doorframe.

I understand completely the chilling aphoristic quality of “how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster”, and the superior nescience of how people/things/organizations “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”. Isn’t this efficiency to a fault? And to correct our damning aloofness, perhaps we all need to start reading the Dalai Lama, whose teachings on compassion keep reminding us of our better selves…

Please start here 

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