W. H. Auden

Culture and Leisure




From a lecture delivered at the Catholic University of America, 26 February 1966



For most of us, I imagine, the essential prerequisites for happiness appear to be two.

1. Freedom. That I shall not be prevented by others or by fate from doing what  I enjoy doing or believe I ought to do.
2. Importance. What I do shall seem of value both to myself and to others.

Human activities can only be understood in their context of human relations. I can distinguish three kinds of relation I have to other human beings.

1. The involuntary, impersonal he-to-him relation I have to hundreds of individuals, farmers, mailmen, bus-drivers, garbage collectors, etc., whom I do not know personally and most of whom I shall never see, although my life depends upon them. Since there is no contact, we cannot like, dislike, or judge each other.

2. A professional, asymmetric, I-to-him relation I have to doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests, etc., which I voluntarily enter into at certain times for specific reasons. It is a personal relation to a degree that it involves personal confrontation and, on my side, a trust in their skill and wisdom, but impersonal to the degree that it is their skill and wisdom, not themselves as persons, which cause me to enter into the relation. Once I have got the prescription or the legal or spiritual advice I require, the relation is broken off. It is possible, of course, that we shall become friends, but we don't have to.

3. The personal I-thou relation between friends, husbands and wives, parents and children. This is voluntary, symmetric, involving mutual responsibility and, in intention at least, permanent. In addition there is a special kind of personal relation one can have to a work of art. Here the relation is not between me and the artist - the chances are he is already dead - but between me and a personal object.

In the following classification of human activities, I shall take my terms from Hannah Arendt's remarkable book, The Human Condition. I can distinguish three kinds: labour, work (and under the head of work I include, as Miss Arendt does not, deeds as well as fabrication), and play.

Labour is an activity imposed by necessity and lacking any element of free choice. While I am labouring, I have no sovereignty whatever  over my time. In our society, I am a labourer if what I do to support myself and my family has no personal significance or interest to me, and, which, therefore, if I did not have to earn my living, I would not do. As a labourer I am a slave of society; I am aware, however, that my labour is important to others because, if it were not, I should not get paid for it.

At the opposite extreme is play. Play is a completely gratuitous activity in which I enjoy absolute sovereignty over time. I am free to play or not as I choose, and my only reason for playing is that I enjoy it for its own sake. But this absolute sovereignty necessarily implies that my play is of no concern to others and has no consequences beyond itself. Professional sportsmen who earn their living by playing a game, and compulsive gamblers who play for stakes which may ruin them or make their fortune, are not playing. Time spent in play is, as we say, time out, without relation to past or future.

Among our games must be counted the 'play' of thought. As Rosenstock-Huessy has written: 'We play gladly and think gladly because in these activities we feel ourselves masters of the situation; the space of play and the space of thought are the two theatres of freedom.' However, ‘Games give pleasure but bear no fruit, and only that which bears fruit is real. All games and all thoughts seek to exclude the necessity of death, suffering, injustice, downfall. The thinker turns the pangs of birth into causes, death into evolution.'

Between these two extremes comes the activity. I have the extraordinary good fortune, granted to - what shall I say? - not more than 16 per cent of the population, to be a worker. I am a worker if what I do is, like play, something I enjoy doing for its own sake because it is in accord with my interests and talents, but, like labour, is of importance to others, so that I can earn my living by doing what I enjoy doing.

In the special case of the artist (Cézanne, for example) who is not recognized during his lifetime, what makes him a worker and not, like a Sunday painter, a player, is his conviction that sooner or later his art will be recognized for what it is, work of public importance.

Among the many blessings enjoyed by a worker, not the least is the knowledge that for him leisure can never become a problem. He does not want and does not allow himself more leisure than he can cope with. Indeed the danger for a worker is that he will not allow himself sufficient leisure to rest his mind and body and to cultivate satisfactory personal relations. Workers are apt to die of coronaries and to forget their wives' birthdays.

Up till now, the machine, by reducing the need for manual skill and by rationalizing the process of fabrication, breaking it down into a series of sub-operations which have no meaning in themselves, has had the effect of degrading many who formerly were workers into labourers. It is possible, I dare say, that further technological developments will make such forms of senseless labour as an assembly-belt unnecessary; it is certain, however, that technological progress must continue to render our bodies more and more irrelevant to social needs. For those of us who derive our greatest satisfaction from using our minds, a technological society offers few obstacles and may even increase our opportunities, but the outlook is gloomy for those, and they are many, whose satisfaction requires the exercise of their muscles.

From my own observation, I would say that the majority of juvenile delinquents are second-class mesomorphs, that is to say, their strength and muscular coordination is not of the exceptional quality which enables a man to become a professional athlete, or an aeroplane pilot, or a ballet-dancer, which today are the only occupations left in which the human body has an economic value. It is all very fine for well-meaning social workers and clergymen to provide the young with gymnasia and playing fields, but the young are not deceived. They know that their athletic activities are on a par with being a Sunday painter, a hobby of no concern to anyone but themselves, and this is not enough. What they need is a job which calls for he use of their muscles, and all society has to offer them are white collar jobs. The Biblical curse on labour - 'In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat thy bread' - is not removed by substituting - ' In boredom of spirit thou shalt eat thy bread '.

A labourer must find his happiness outside the activity by which he earns his living, and the most obvious place to look for it is in the field of personal relationships, particularly sexual relationships. In the past the personal lives of the poor have been made difficult and often brutalized by exhausting toil, physical want, squalor, and overcrowding. These evils are still with us, but in an affluent society it is possible that we shall be able to eradicate them. Mere eradication, however, will merely substitute one difficulty for another. We seem to be so made that our personal relations work out most satisfactorily when both parties have impersonal interests of their own, in addition to their mutual interest in each other. When such interests are absent, so that men and women are wholly dependent upon personal relations for a meaningful life, there is apt to be trouble, and their relations tend to become either hysterically intense or promiscuous and trivial.

If the future confronting us is what the technicians prophesy, then the majority of the population are going to have to cope with the problem which has hitherto been confined to aristocracies, namely, excess of free time; time in which no demands are made upon them and they are free to do exactly as they please and, when one considers the behaviour of aristocracies throughout history, such a future gives cause for disquiet. All aristocracies have attempted, and with some degree of success, to deal with the problem of excessive freedom by ritualizing their behaviour and their time; by submitting themselves, as in playing a game, to arbitrary rules about dress, forms of speech and the right season at which to do things - when to be in town, when in the country, when to shoot grouse, etc. I very much doubt if such ritualization is possible except in a small non-industrialized society. In a mass, democratic, commercially minded society, I suspect that the substitute for a conventional, unchanging ritual will be blind obedience to the latest fashion, which it will be to the profit of certain powerful sectors of the economy to change as often as possible. Once he had been taught the ritual, the aristocrat enjoyed the security for the rest of his life of knowing exactly what is and what is not done.

The rituals of the aristocracy were the most satisfactory and charming side of their behaviour. There were others which were not so pleasant. To escape boredom - to have kicks - they made war, they slaughtered animals for fun, they risked their fortunes at the gaming table and their lives in duels. Why should we expect a mass society with the same excess of leisure to behave any better? As Logan Pearsall-Smith said: 'To suppose, and we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and stay sober.' Of course, some of the amusements of an aristocracy are denied us. We cannot go in for private wars, like feudal knights; we cannot hunt, like the landowners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because there are so many of us that, in a very short time, there would be no animal alive to hunt. But who can doubt that we shall find substitutes? Who does not expect the increase, already marked, in acts of criminal and gratuitous violence, slaughter by automobile, drug-addiction, sado-masochistic pornography, etc., to get worse?

One of the most obvious results of technological advance is its multiplication of choice both in material and spiritual goods. This means that the importance of choosing rightly (rightly, that is, for the person who makes the choice) is greater than it has ever been. Choice necessarily implies rejection of what is not chosen, so that the importance of being able to say 'No' is greater than it has ever been. '

'To be cultured,', said Hoffmansthal, 'is to know what concerns one and to know what it concerns one to know,' and in a society of multiple choices, this knowledge is much more difficult to acquire than when choices were more restricted. If, in order to hear a piece of music, a man has to wait six months and then walk twenty miles, he knows that his desire to hear the music is real. If all he has to do is put a record on his phonograph, then it is much harder for him to know whether he really wants to hear the music or merely wishes to forget himself for a short while.

Where gratuitous or spiritual goods are concerned, I must know not only my personal taste, but also the limits of my mental capacity for full response. Technology, by creating the paperback, the colour reproduction, the stereo phonograph record, has made the enjoyment of works of art, hitherto confined to the rich, possible for all but the very poor. This case of access is in itself a blessing, but its misuse can make it a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more poetry and fiction, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly respond to properly, and the consequence of such overindulgence is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind than yesterday's newspaper.

The first prerequisite for leading any satisfactory kind of personal life in a technological society is the ability to resist distraction. Human beings are not born with this ability but, from about the age of seven onwards, we are all capable of learning to direct our attention on this rather than that, down this path not down that. This concentration of attention is to the inner life what deliberate action is to the outer.

A man is as responsible for what he attends to as for what he does, and, as in the case of his actions, the consequences of attending are never foreseeable. The proper name for such direction of attention is, I believe, prayer. Whenever a person so concentrates his attention on a subject - be it a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the Living God - that he completely forgets himself and everything else, he is praying. The primary task of the schoolteacher - more difficult and more important than ever before - is to teach the young, in a secular context, the techniques of prayer.

In giving our complete attention to anything, the greatest aid - only the most highly trained and practised minds can do without it - is enchantment. To quote Hoffmansthal again: 'Where is yourself to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment you have experienced.'
To that which enchants us, whether truly or falsely, we find it easy to attend. Indeed, in the case of an enchantment which we know to be false, we can only stop attending by taking immediate flight before the spell has taken full hold. Enchantment cannot be taught because it works at a subconscious level, but it can be aroused by social contagion. The primary requirement in a teacher (an interest in his pupils and a knowledge of educational techniques are secondary) is that he should be enchanted by the subject he teaches. He may not succeed directly in infecting his pupils with the same enchantment, but as an example of what it means to be enchanted, he may help them to discover their own. An enthusiastic Latin teacher may be the means by which one of his pupils becomes enchanted with physics. For learning a foreign language a teaching machine may possibly be a more efficient instructor than the average human teacher, but only on condition that the pupil is already eager to learn. No machine can impart eagerness.


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