Epic Frivolity

W.H. Auden, The Shield of Perseus (Postscript: The Frivolous & The Earnest)

An aesthetic religion (polytheism) draws no distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious because, for it, all existence is, in the last analysis, meaningless. The whims of the gods and, behind them, the whim of the Fates, are the ultimate arbiters of all that happens. It is immediately frivolous because it is ultimately in despair.

A frivolity which is innocent, because unaware that anything serious exists, can be charming, and a frivolity which, precisely because it is aware of what is serious, refuses to take seriously that which is not serious, can be profound. What is so distasteful about the Homeric gods is that they are well aware of human suffering but refuse to take it seriously. They take the lives of men as frivolously as their own; they meddle with the former for fun, and then get bored.

When Zeus had brought the Trojans and Hector close to the ships, he left them beside the ships to bear the toil and woe unceasingly, and he himself turned his shining eyes away, gazing afar at the land of the horse-rearing Thracians and the Mysians, who fight in close array, and the noble Hippomolgoi who live on milk, and the Abioi, most righteous of men. [Iliad, Book XIII]

They kill us for their sport. If so, no human sportsman would receive one of the gods in his house: they shoot men sitting and out of season.

If Homer had tried reading the Iliad to the gods on Olympus, they would either have started to fidget and presently asked if he nadn’t got something a little lighter, or, taking it as a comic poem, would have roared with laughter or possibly, even, reacting like ourselves to a tear-jerking movie, have poured pleasing tears.

The songs of Apollo; the lucky improvisations of an amateur.

The only Greek god who does any work is Hephaestus, and he is a lame cuckold.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Christianity draws a distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious, hut allows the former its place. What it condemns is not frivolity but idolatry, that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously.

The past is not to be taken seriously (Let the dead bury their dead) nor the future (Take no thought for the morrow), only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for its historic decisiveness. (Now is the appointed time.)

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