The Conjuror’s Profession

12 Mar

Thanks to Marianne Tham for this phenomenal piece – Auden on writing. What a way to start a Monday!
“So, strange young man, – it is at his command, remember, that I say this to you: whether I agree with it or not is neither here nor there – you have decided on the conjurer’s profession. Somewhere, in the middle of a saltmarsh or at the bottom of a kitchen garden or on top of a bus, you heard imprisoned Ariel call for help, and it is now a liberator’s face that congratulates you from your shaving mirror every morning. As you walk the cold streets hatless, or sit over coffee and doughnuts in the corner of a cheap restaurant, your secret has already set you apart from the howling merchant and transacting multitudes to watch with fascinated distaste the bellowing barging banging passage of the awkward profit-seeking elbow, the dazed eye of the gregarious acquisitive condition. Lying awake at night in your single bed you are conscious of a power by which you will survive the wallpaper of your boardinghouse or the expense bourgeois horrors of your home. Yes, Ariel, is grateful; He does come when you call, He does tell you all the gossip He overhears on the stairs, all the goings-on He observes through the keyhole, He really is willing to arrange anything you are to ask for, and you are rapidly finding out the right orders to give – who should be killed in the hunting accident, which couple to send into the cast-iron shelter, what scent will arouse a Norwegian engineer, how to get the young hero from the country lawyer’s office to the Princess’ reception, when to mislay the letter, where the cabinet minister should be reminded of his mother, why the dishonest valet must be a martyr to indigestion but immune from the common cold.
As the gay productive months slip by, in spite of fretful discouraged days, of awkward moments of misunderstanding or rather, seen retrospectively as happily cleared up and got over, verily because of them, you are definitely getting the hang of this, at first so novel and bewildering, relationship between magician and familiar, whose deity it is to sustain your infinite conceptual appetite with vivid concrete experiences. And, as the months turn into years, your wonder-working romance into an economic habit, the encountered case of good or evil in our wide world of property and boredom which leaves you confessedly and unsympathetically at a loss, the aberrant phrase in the whole human cycle of ecstasy and exhaustion with which you are imperfectly familiar, become increasingly rare.
No perception however petite, no notion however subtle, escapes your attention or baffles your understanding; on entering any room you immediately distinguish the wasters who throw away their fruit half-eaten from the preservers who bottle all summer; as the passengers file down the ship’s gangway you unerringly guess which suitcase contains indecent novels; a five-minute chat about the weather or the coming elections is all you require to diagnose any distemper, however self-assured, for by then your eye has already spotted the tremor of the lips in that infinitesimal moment while the lie was getting its balance, your ear already picked up the heart’s low whimper which the capering legs were determined to stifle, your nose detected on love’s breath the trace of ennui which foretells his early death, or the despair just starting to smoulder at the base of the scholar’s brain which years hence will suddenly blow it up with one appalling laugh: in every case you can prescribe the saving treatment called for, knowing at once when it may be gentle and remedial, when all that is needed is soft music and a pretty girl, and when it must be drastic and surgical, when nothing will do any good but political disgrace or financial and erotic failure.”

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