W. H. Auden, who thought himself a Christian, claims one warm June evening in 1933 to have been sitting with three colleagues--fellow teachers at boys' school, two women and a man--and for the first time in his life he "knew exactly--because thanks to the power, I was doing it--what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself." No alcohol was involved, and no sexual interest among any of the four people. Auden recounts at that moment he "realized with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being." The heightened feeling, he says, continued for roughly two hours, and lasted, in diminishing force, for two more days. "The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do."So Auden as channeled by Joseph Epstein in Snobbery. I can sign on to virtually every word of this, subject to two important contextual limitations. One is to realize there is really nothing here specially privileged to Christianity.You could easily imagine instances of the same in Sufism, say, or many forms of Buddhism (the most transporting religious music I ever heard came from old Chasidic Jews, while I was working as a shabbas goy). Or poetry--how many 14-year-olds' lives have been transformed by their first reading of Romeo and Juliet? Or their first hearing of the Goldberg Variations (okay, maybe a bit older than 14)? Or, I suppose, LSD or peyote (never tried either one). I don't mean to trivialize Christian agape here--only to suggest that it may not have a special purchase on the illusion of perfect love.
What Auden apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings, without invidious distinction of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one's fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself. Wholehearted love with the power of pure objectivity behind it, how glorious it must be to undergo--and, as Auden was to honest not to add, all but impossible to maintain.
And second, read the fine print. Auden's point is not merely that he felt the purity but that he knew/knows that it cannot last. Feeling the possibility of this kind of transcendence is a rare and priceless blessing. The mistake is to suppose it is, or can, continue. The real trick is not the agape, but learning how to get through the rest of the night.