Auden, Anxiety, and the Music on the Way by Laura Ortberg Turner

W.H. Auden wrote a long poem—book-length, really—called The Age of Anxiety about a man’s search for meaning in an increasingly disconnected world. The poem itself is “frightfully long,” as Auden himself admitted in a letter to his friend Alan Ansen. But there are some brilliant, burning passages that match both the content of the modern epidemic of anxiety and the internal dialogue of anxiety sufferers:

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

More than the poem, though, I am interested in a piece of music the poem inspired. It is a symphony by Leonard Bernstein, also called “My Age of Anxiety,” and it follows the poem’s structure: two Parts, each divided into three sections, adding up to the six sections of Auden’s poem. There are four lonely people in a bar, each aware of each other but most alive to their own minds, are represented by a pair of clarinets ascending and descending scales, plaintive and melancholy. A piano replaces the clarinets, and its slow movements give way to Hitchcockian drives of screeching violins and low octaves, heightening this sense of imminent danger that dances its way throughout the composition. The end of the first half is frenetic, odd, an atonal clash of percussion, horn, and xylophone, meant to represent the total confusion and lack of hope that comes from being at the end of one’s wits. The striving ends in abrupt silence.

I am not typically interested in the orchestra. I have sat through two symphony performances, and although I love music, I came as close to falling asleep in public as I ever have in a performance of Mozart in Venice. I am a person of words, so in a world that made sense, I would be exploring Auden’s poem with Bernstein in the background, a secondary player to the primary task of the written word. And it is not even that Bernstein’s musical adaptation particularly moves me—I have never cried while listening to it and cannot, in fact, imagine anyone doing so. It is a strange piece of music; at times like walking in a carnival, at times like hearing children banging pots and pans, at times eerie, at times stunningly beautiful. But what I most love about it, I suppose, is that it reminds me of home.

The first time I heard the song, I had been doing some research about anxiety on our basement computer. It was not long after my first meeting a therapist, and although there was no Wikipedia or WebMD, I managed to find a few websites that talked about the condition of anxiety—a different thing than the normal emotion of anxiety, which is a response to an actual threat or difficult circumstances. Anxiety was fear in the face of no discernible threat, or fear disproportionate to that threat. That made sense to me, and it gave a name to something woven throughout my whole life and my whole body.

Somehow, in that researching, I found Bernstein’s symphony. As this was before the days of widespread iTunes use, I had to download it illegally, one movement at a time, on a program called Kazaa. I turned the knob on the speakers on either side of the computer monitor, and the basement smelled slightly of mildew like it always did in the summer, and I sat in my chair and knew that the world was about to change. There were no basements in California, for instance. There were no people who knew how my anxiety was undoing me, threatening to make me a prisoner of my own mind, living in deep fear about every possible change. I listened to the clanging drums and angry piano and quiet clarinets and thought, finally. Someone else knows what it’s like to be locked in this mind. It was my sending-away song, my launch song, my leaving-the-dock song. Not pretty or sweet, but it was true. The angry piano was sometimes quiet, the dulcet tones of the clarinet sometimes lively and sharp—the rhythm, such as it could appear to someone so unmusical, was unpredictable. Just like anxiety.

In his elegy for Henry James, Auden wrote this:

That catastrophic situation which neither

Victory nor defeat can annul; to be

Deaf yet determined to sing,

To be lame and blind yet burning for the Great Good Place,

To be radically corrupt yet mournfully attracted

By the Real Distinguished Thing.

I will always be burning for the Great Good Place, wherever and whenever that is. I know my mind will be addled as I get there, but there are some good companions for the journey that make it the joy that it is. For that, I am eternally grateful.