Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

The expansion and connection characteristic of the poem’s images and its verse are central to the meaning of “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” The poem is in large part about modern alienation and fragmentation and how to overcome them. The isolation and disjunction of modern lives are highlighted by Freud’s having been a Jew in exile, the unconscious’ “delectable creatures” being “exiles,” freedom’s loneliness (stanza 23), and the description of “unequal moieties fractured” (stanzas 23 and following). These themes preoccupy many modernist writers, including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, whose works imitate their subjects through subjective, unconnected voices and disjointed syntax and structure. Auden resembles these and many other modernists in blaming rationality—and the elevation of reason—for these modern malaises. Auden, however, has chosen to imitate the connection he recommends instead of the fractured world around him.

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Alienation and fragmentation can be cured through recognizing repressed problems. This acknowledgment results in free choice, a virtue which threatens evil because it empowers the individual to determine his or her own fate. His contemporary world gave relevance, even urgency, to Auden’s message. Implicit in the capitalization of the “monolith[ic] State” (stanzas 13 and 20), for example, is a criticism of World War II’s autocratic, Fascist countries, such as Germany and Italy. The reminder in stanza 6 that Freud was Jewish and the comparison in stanza 7 of Hate’s repression of emotions to killing and burning call up the Nazis’ slaughter and burning of the Jews.

Generosity contrasts with evil’s tyranny and grounds the recognition that frees humankind. If one is generous to oneself by accepting one’s acts and stopping the “accusations,” one will be made whole: “long-forgotten” parts of oneself will be restored. If one is generous to others, then modern ills will be cured. One also needs to be open and generous to the surrounding world in order to have the sense of wonder acclaimed in stanza 25. Such unselfishness results in the love personified in Eros and recommended in stanza 26. By reaching out to others, we can rescue “the future that lies in our power”—in other words, save civilization.

Freud is an example of the magnanimity that Auden describes. He is one of those who “hoped to improve” and help humankind in spite of his own persecution. By underlining Freud’s persecution, Auden stresses modern humanity’s alienation and protects Freud against the charge that his methods were too authoritative. This also reminds the reader that it is often very difficult to be forgiving and altruistic, but that people must love and forgive one another even when fact and reason seem to justify hate and resentment. Auden’s praise of and appreciation for Freud is itself an example of the love and generosity he promotes.

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