W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” pertains to Auden’s middle period of creation. It was the time of authoritarianism in Europe, and amid dictatorship in the various countries in Europe, Man as a rational individual was losing his stance, distinctiveness and identity. The definition of the average citizen was confined to how well he conformed, how far he was predictable and how smoothly he rendered himself a cog in the wheel of society.
. The beginning of the poem in the passive voice is indicative of the citizen’s lack of initiative. The individual is paid a tribute by constructing a marble monument for him Just as, the Taj Mahal, ‘the poetry in marble’ was gifted by Shahjahan to his better-half Mumtaz Mahal. However, Mumtaz Mahal’s life was filled with blissful love. Here, the unknown citizen’s life is constrained by the dictums and doctrines of the state. The state is said to ‘construct’ him, as he is described, at the outset, in terms of statistics. Furthermore, he is acknowledged as ‘unknown’. Only his presence is acknowledged, not his individuality.
Subsequently he is attributed with certificates of conduct. ‘Saint’ is categorized as an old fashioned word that has lost the connotations that olden times gifted it with, in the modern day context. In the earlier times a person who submitted to God was a saint, now the one who conforms to society is. The modern-day-definition of the saint therefore suits the citizen aptly. He is said to have served the Greater Community that comes across as the Bureaucracy. The capitalization exemplifies the authority of the same. The only exceptions are the war, and day he retired. Does this imply that he did not deserve even retirement?
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
He is said to have satisfied his Boss and the evaluation of his performance depended primarily on his employer’s judgment. His employer is named as Fudge Motors Inc.’ parodying the name of the automobile giant Ford Motors Inc.. It reaffirms that modern day Gods are replaced by business firms that at once rule the roost. .Besides, he is shown to be politically correct, conforming to the viewpoint of society. Else, he is dubbed as being ‘odd’. He was not a ‘scab’ that backed off from any unioun strike. The social psychology workers acknowledged that he was popular with friends and enjoyed drinks with them. His being sociable is the evidence for his sound Social Psychology. Again, note that his individual psychology is relegated to the background. In the attempt to please the state, man is essentially dehumanized and demarginalized.
He bought the newspaper and was updated about the current affairs. His reaction to the advertisements was typical, his responses to the questionares were as anticipated. Insurance Policies are an inherent part of Modern day life,and the speaker had his share of those. He was in a hospital once ,and left it cured as per his health card. His statement of health is assessed by the hospital records. The Producers Research and High-Grade Living record figures on the standard of amenities utilized by the people, and grade their living standards from them. There is a predetermined formula for his living based on these. Therefore, the identity of man in the modern context is grounded on his materialistic march:
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
His intelligence is appraised based on his capacity to adapt to installment schemes. He gave ‘politically correct’ and diplomatic responses to those who conducted Gallup polls. When the country was for peace, he assumed the garb of a pacifist; when the nation was at war, he put forward the fighting spirit. The Eugenist determined that his number of children was just right for him; what he and his wife thought about it was immaterial. He never interfered with the education of his children by the teachers, their stand was never questioned. He poses two rhetorical questions at the end: “Was he free? Was he happy?” “Happiness’ and ‘Freedom’ are two very individual and extremely personal choices. Nevertheless, the state chooses to answer these significant questions too.
What one finally arrives at is this: The customs of society are made for Man, Man is not made for the customs of society. The State is formed for Man, Man is not formed for the State.
© Rukhaya MK 2012
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