Life in the modern world; or, The End is already here


I’ll give you one of Adorno’s major arguments as straight as I know how: to be an individual in the modern world – that is, to be a free, autonomous being, a full-realization of yourself in some idealist sense – is simply impossible. One of the central concerns of Adorno’s project is that people are stuck in the trap of modernity. The rise of industrialization and the unrelenting propensity of capitalism have created a culture that thrusts each of its subjects towards conformity, as if every film, song, and even person had been produced on an assembly line on placed on the shelf of a department store. The monopoly of capitalism has made any piece of culture indistinguishable from any other; the coercion of capitalism upon mass culture places the same authoritarian stamp on everything it touches. Even the houses in which people are thought to maintain their private lives are virtually identical, each urban apartment merely a cubic holding cell like any other. That which we consider private property is replicated in such abundance that it actually belongs to no-one.

Again, Adorno tells us: to be a free individual in the modern world is simply impossible. For the individual, it seems, has already died. As Adorno states in his “Refuge for the Homeless,” the bombs that fell on European cities, the labour camps and gas chambers – these were mere executors of what the modern world had already deemed humanity’s fate. There is no escape for Adorno, no means of reconciliation. After all, the possessions we must necessarily acquire, despite giving the impression of signaling individuation, only fall into the trappings of mass production despite giving the impression of signaling individuation; the dining set purchased from a home decorating catalog only provides the illusion of individuality. Such attempts at individuation, to Adorno, are futile; for they only seem constitute one’s further implication in the culture industry by one’s unconscious submission to its coercive authority. “It is a part of morality,” Adorno writes, “not to be at home in one’s home.” There is, in the end, no way to live a good life in the modern world, as to attempt to be an individual is then to be amoral; as Adorno states, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

This may, I admit, be a backhanded attempt to translate a sociological argument into a moral philosophy. I submit, however, that Adorno’s argument is concerned with the central questions of existence – specifically, how an individual to live a good, meaningful life. After all, the occasion for Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which “Refuge for the Homeless” appears, was the utter destruction of World War II – the mass extermination of Jews and the bombings of major European cities; the volume is subtitled “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Adorno’s thesis is that a good life is incompatible with an inhuman society.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this claim, both from a political perspective – that is, what policies we might devise to effectively end global conflict and poverty and starvation and genocide – but also from a cultural one. I’ve been thinking, specifically, about what this claim means for art in modern society. It has been frequently, thought, after all, that art was the ultimate form of individual expression – that music and painting and poetry were an outpouring of individual emotions. And I think poetry might be the most obvious contender for this claim, as poetry – lyric poetry, specifically – has always been concerned with the “I.” Look at any lyric poem by Wordsworth or Sidney or Byron and you will see that the poems speak from the perspective of the individual. There’s a Heidegerrian appeal to such a claim, for it would seem that poetry becomes that which can bring the individual to the fore; Wordsworth’s most famous poem, for example, dramatically announces “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” putting the emphasis immediately on the speaker. But then this puts Adorno in a curious position, for Adorno’s individual is always a social being – and in the modern world, individuality is in a state of crisis.

Our question, then, is clear: what can lyric poetry since the death of the individual – as Adorno saw it, with the Second World War – do to salvage the individual from the wreckage? If Adorno is right, then we’d still have to say that this is, in some paradoxical way, revealing about the state of the individual in modern society. And I think I’ve found just the right poem to consider: Philip Larkin’s 1977 “Aubade.”

Philip Larkin occupies a curious position in the history of poetry. He is, we’d have to say, the post-World-War-Two poet that stayed true to the lyric. Whereas other modern poets began pushing the boundaries of the form – the avant-garde works of the Dada and Surrealist movements, for example, or the distinctive modernism of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas – Larkin belonged to “the Movement,” a group of poets which continued the tradition of the English verse. A quasi-manifesto for the movement can be found in the introduction to Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, a collection of the poetry of The Movement, in which he writes that modern poets “were encouraged to produce diffuse and sentimental verbiage, or hollow technical pirouettes;” in contrast, he describes The Movement’s poets’ “refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous or emotional intent.” Larkin, it seems, fully ascribes to the doctrines of The Movement, calling those experimental poets “an irresponsible exploitation of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.” He aligned himself, rather, with the orthodox belief that poetry was a individual statement, insisting that it was a “personal, almost physical release.”

But then Larkin isn’t quite like the older lyrical poets – there’s a conspicuous nihilism in his “Aubade,” one of his last masterpieces. If lyric poetry is traditionally seen as a celebration of the individual, this poem might seem to be its anthesis. It’s a poem, after all, about death – or rather, about life as one approaches death. The poem opens bluntly:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four in the morning to soundless dark, I stare.

Right away we have to notice that this poem is in stark contrast to the traditional aubade. The aubade is, after all, a tried and true literary form – it’s a poem about the sunrise, with all the typical pleasantries – beautiful imagery of the dawn, often metaphorically paired with the presence of the narrator’s lover. Perhaps the most famous point of comparison, as Richard Osborne notes, is the opening of Act III, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Larkin already stands in contrast to this traditional aubade; for in Larkin’s poem, the speaker is completely isolated. There is no lover in this poem, only the “soundless dark.” Indeed, this must be an unusual aubade as it is placed before the sunrise; whereas the traditional aubade might conjure images of the awakening of nature, this poem opens with the narrator staring into the darkness. The individual is alienated against the darkness of the inescapable void.

The poem then goes on to say that until the “curtain-edges grow light,” the speaker can only see “what’s really always there: unresting death.” The speaker is forced to confront the imminence of their ultimate end, thinking only of “how and where and when I shall myself die.” But then the poem specifies that the dread this causes is not any sort of regret – “not in remorse – the good not done, the love to given, time / Torn off unused” nor is it the result of a desire to fashion a good life in the time one has to live – “nor wretchedly because / An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and it may never;” rather, this anxiety is about the prospect of “the total emptiness for ever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.” This is important, as the poem, then, fashions death as the losing of ourselves, the end of being – in this poem, the individual is doomed “not to be here, not to be anywhere.” The poem conceptualizes death – rather than passage into another form of existence, an afterlife – as the simple annihilation of the individual.

Indeed, the inescapability of this annihilation is the poem’s next target; it proceeds to systematically swat away the myths that people have historically used to try to rationalize their way out of the trap of impending death:

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear

This makes religion seem to be not just futile, but an outright lie: it was “created to pretend we never die. It should be noted that this makes the poem distinct from other lyric poems,  even the modern ones, as most of the others – Eliot and Auden, for example – tend to fall back onto pre-Nietzschean conceptions of religion. Larkin, meanwhile, has no faith in such ideas.

Larkin then goes on to target other modes of existentialist thought. Osborne is helpful here as well, pointing out that the poem attacks Epicureanism, which sought to avoid the anxiety of death through rational argument; “Death is nothing to us,” Epicurus claimed, “for so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” But Larkin insists that the fear or death cannot be escaped by logic, for the prospect of losing the ability to feel is exactly what we fear – “no sight, no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with.” Death, to Larkin, is the negation of the senses, the end of thought, and the inability to connect with others – it is “the anesthetic from which none come round” – and there’s a certain anti-philosophical cynicism in his thinking that says that no logic can convincingly avoid the fear of this prospect.

The poem insists that non-existence must be that end to which we are all headed; it sees death as simply inescapable. To the poem, this constitutes the constant shadow of death in our lives. Death “stays just on the edge of vision, / A small unfocused blur, a standing chill,” assuring us that though “most things will never happen: this one will.” But then the thrust here is going to be that typical human activities are merely a distraction from this ultimate end; indeed, the poem makes them out to be meaningless. Larkin writes that the realization of impending death “rages out / In furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.” The poem is cynical in this regard: human interaction, let alone intoxication, are mere distractions from the inevitability of death. This calls to mind the poem’s opening line – how is one, after all, to hide from death but to work all day and get half-drunk at night? The speaker’s four o’clock awakening that forces him to stare into “unresting death” stands in stark contrast with this habitual routine.

Slowly, the poem puts the world back into view. But even as the world emerges from the darkness, death maintains its overshadowing presence:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

The poem emphasizes its final realization: that even in our ordinary lives, death sits always just at the edge of our existence – “plain as a wardrode,” that which we “know we can’t escape, yet can’t accept.” But it is from this perspective that the poem takes its final turn, pressing the utter meaninglessness of the modern world:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The adjectives jump out as us immediately: the world is “uncaring,” “intricate,” “rented.” It is ambivalent to our existence, too complicated to figure out, and always separated from us; we merely inhabit its space. But then we have to note that this isn’t about the natural world, as many lyric poems are – this is about the modern world, that of locked-up offices and crouching telephones, that in which “work has to be done.” In this way, the poem conveys a real sensitivity to the realities of capitalism and industry. But it’s argument is that it this world from which we are always 1) always inevitably alienated, and 2) merely mindlessly distracting ourselves from the inevitability of death. In a word, the modern world renders all life meaningless. The activities we habitually perform offer us only a distraction from the inevitability of our annihilation. When Larkin writes that “postmen like doctors go from house to house,” the postmen – the facilitators of intra-human correspondence – play the role of doctors, those who help people avoid death for as long as possible.

There are, by my count, three overarching points to take away:

  1. The poem has established itself as an anti-lyric lyric poem. There’s a certain irony in Larkin’s use of the lyric form, as it seems that Larkin has taken up the tradition all the better to annihilate it from within. Part of the work of figuring this out has already been done – we’ve already seen that this aubade actually more like the antithesis of an aubade, a poem about darkness, and that its breaks with the religious tradition of faith and the afterlife that lyric poetry had so often followed. But the more important point is to say that the poem focuses not on the flourishing of the individual but its demise. The “I” in this poem, in contrast to Wordsworth’s wanderings in nature, realizes not how to live a meaningful life – which in the lyric tradition often involves either taking in the wonders of nature or experiencing the ecstasy of romance – but rather that life is meaningless.  And then it’s worse than that: the poem gives death an unrelenting presence, casting itself over that which constantly presides over our meaningless lives, asking us what exactly we are living for if everything we do is merely a distraction from our eventual demise. In this poem, it seems, the person who lives a meaningless life may as well already be dead.
  2. The poem is anti-modernity. This applies, it’s fair to say, both to its sociological view as well as its literary theory. Indeed, we might say that the poem’s own theory of poetry is, in some indirect way, aligned with the manifesto in New Lines; the meaninglessness of the modern world that Larkin describes is not unlike the “hollow pirouettes” that Conquest accuses modern poetry of exercising. But then here is a good place to point out that even though the poem was talking about modern society and Conquest about modern poetry, taking “modern” to mean that-of-the-present, or simply “contemporary,” they are not talking about modernism, but rather postmodernism, which means, in some general sense, the era of fully-developed capitalism, the all-consuming, unrelenting kind. This seems to be a fairly good estimation of the world Larkin describes – the “intricate, rented world” of constant work and crouching telephones, and a world in which only the all-encompassing processes of industry, work, consumption, and capitalism – those which Larkin claims have alienated us from the world – are said to give our lives meaning. The label “postmodern” would, after all, most certainly apply to the year 1977 – when the poem was published – for by that time it could be fairly said that the last remnants of pre-capitalism in the West had mostly collapsed. At the same time, it is really postmodern poetry – generally speaking, the experimental poetry of the post-war era – that Conquest and Larkin criticized. So if Larkin’s poem is anti-modern, that really must mean it’s anti-postmodernism. When Larkin writes that “one side will have to go,” he means two things: first, of course, that we will, of course, die, no matter how we try to distract ourselves; but it’s also worth mentioning that he thinks that the meaninglessness of postmodern poetry, like the meaninglessness of the postmodern world, is guilty of perpetuating this distraction.
  3. But then here’s the main point, and I think it may be better off posed as a question: is it possible to have a lyric poem about postmodernity? And I think with Larkin the answer would have to be no. Because we’ve already seen that even if Larkin was trying to write a lyric poem, he actually wrote a sort of anti-lyric, a poem in the form of the lyric that is actually about the death, rather than the triumph, of the individual. But then we have to layer in what we just figured out – that the world of the poem is that of postmodernity – and that the poem conceives of the postmodern world as that which has robbed life of its meaning. It is postmodernity which kills the individual, that which renders us our lives already meaningless. You can’t have a lyric poem about postmodernity because the individual is already dead.

It is Adorno’s argument that lyric poetry was really never about the individual, but rather the individual in crisis. Indeed, he states in his “Notes to Literature” that:

You experience lyric poetry as something opposed to society, something wholly individual. Your feelings insist that it remain so, that lyric expression, having escaped from the weight of material existence, evoke the image of a life free from the coercion of reigning practices… This demand, however, the demand that the lyric word be virginal, is itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social situation that every individual experiences as hostile, alien, cold, oppressive.

It’s a brilliant argument: lyric poetry has always been interested in the dream of free self-expression, but it always end up registering some sort of social antagonism; it’s “I” is always pitted against some form of oppression. To spell this out, all we need to do is return to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and see that by the end of the poem the speaker is no longer running freely with the daffodils but lying on their couch—

For oft, on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

—at which point we can see that the inward eye has replaced the “I” itself, that which had been running with the daffodils. This inward eye, we can say, is the poem’s version of a free individual; but meanwhile the actual “I” is contained by the monotony of domestic life. It can escape this monotony only by imagining the freedom the poem portrays.

This, then, is the paradox: lyric poetry likes to think that it has imagined a free individual – as Adorno, puts it, a “realized humanity” – while it has actually registered just what it is that the individual wishes to be freed from. The history of lyric poetry then becomes the history of the oppression of the individual. I think it’s fair to say, then, that Larkin’s poem confirms Adorno’s earlier argument that a realized individualism is impossible in the modern world. We’ve already figured out, after all, that Larkin’s “I” is posited against death, but it really turns out to be set against modern society – and in Larkin’s poem, this society has already forced the individual into annihilation.

But then the real trouble with Larkin is that he, like Adorno, offers no way out. Unlike traditional lyric poems, Larkin’s poem offers no vision of a liberated humanity, no portrayal of a free individual. It simply submits to a meaningless life in the modern world, unable to imagine any alternative. But then how could it? The world of the poem is merely one one of alienation and annihilation – of hollow office buildings, busy telephones, mindless work – to the extent that it renders the life of the individual meaningless. These are the same types of qualities that have been ascribed to postmodern hyper-capitalism – and it was that world, to Adorno, that has made true individuality impossible.

Perhaps this is what Adorno meant when he said that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz. It would seem, after all, that in this world – the uncaring world described by Larkin, the inhuman world described by Adorno – there is simply no individual to extract.; the individual cannot be realized in art because the individual has ceased to exist. All we can say, it seems, is that human liberation is incompatible with the structures of the modern world, that no individual can resist their grasp, that their all-consuming strength makes a good life impossible. Adorno’s trap remains: Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.