“My deuce, my double, my dear image. . . does your self like mine/ Taste of untruth?” -Quant, The Age of Anxiety
Throughout his work, The Age of Anxiety, Auden explores the trials of modern life which are responsible for creating a sense of unease in his age. One of the major causes of anxiety presented in the work is the lack of self-identity which appears characteristic of the times. As the work progresses, the idea of false self-hood continues to resurface, culminating in Malin’s end observation that mankind prefers his illusions to change and truth. Man oftentimes would rather stare at an imperfect reflection than face honest reality.
Auden’s characters seems to view the corporate workplace as the main catalyst in mankind’s lack of identity. As children shift into adulthood in the modern age, the demands of a materialistic, quick-paced world thrust workers into repetitive lives characterized by “unmeaning.” Quant states that man is nothing more than a manufactured commodity, so entrenched in modernity’s incessant activity that the rare moments of quiet are uncomfortable and awkward. Rosetta argues that this industrial lifestyle is destructive. She laments the fact that “life after life lapses out/ of its essential self and sinks into/ one press-applauded untruth” (35).
The modern era, with its unending drive toward progress, removes all individuality. The expectations of society plunge individuals into a masquerade, where they must conform to the pattern that has been set before them. Each person becomes the same, anonymous and alone amid a crowd. In the flurry of technology and constant noise, no one ever slows down enough to realize they are living masks, unable to reveal the hollowness beneath.
The narrator seems to suggest that the insincerity of mankind is something common and unavoidable. He writes, “Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; they can be divided . . . into the sane who know that they are acting and the mad who do not” (87). The narrator here implies that putting on a mask allows man to truly step into a role and become whatever it is he is pretending to be; in this case, the characters of the story pretend to be joyful when they are in Rosetta’s home, and they become happier in the process.
Unfortunately, as soon as the characters step away from each other, and their connection is lost, the mask falls away as well. When Rosetta closes the door to her apartment, she enters a melancholy reflection that suggests the joy of the moment, which stemmed from her play acting, was not sustainable. While there is a point to which the acting of a role can make something real, that sense of reality is not as strong as what already exists. There are days where putting on a smile can genuinely make a person happier, but there are also times when what is manufactured by a false face cannot penetrate the surface. The false self, even when useful, is still false.
Malin at the end of the tale explains the grand obstacle in finding true self-hood: we simply don’t want to. He claims, “We would rather be ruined than changed,” and would rather die ourselves then be deprived of our illusions (105). We take solace in our mirrors, in the habits we grow accustomed to and the identities we act out for ourselves. These daily deceptions, though they are dissatisfying, are as comfortable as our own skin, and we refuse to be rid of them.
The first step in finding our self-hood is to stop taking comfort in our reflections, to let our illusions fall, and to take an honest look at our lives. We must accept that reality is not a construct of our imagination, nor is it at the mercy of the culture around us, but rather reality is beauty and life beyond ourselves. Reality is made by the Self-So, the Always-Opposite, who before time had already envisioned a role for mankind. We see that we can find our self-hood by accepting that we are not what we were willed to become before the start of the world (20). When we recognize that we aren’t what we were intended to be, we realize we are meant to be something. We are created for a purpose. The realization of God’s intentions for our lives gives us the solid foundation needed to find genuine identity in our present trek through time.
Auden, W.H. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue. Edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2011.