Several years ago, on a train that took me through a bleak late-autumn landscape, I read Czeslaw Milosz's Visions From San Francisco Bay. I already knew Milosz's trenchant poetry but this was my first encounter with the steady and somber voice of his lucid prose. Visions was written in the late 1960s, when the works of Herbert Marcuse were popular on university campuses across North America. Milosz had been a diplomat for the communist Polish government before he defected to the West and in Visions he patiently (patience is one of Milosz's key virtues as a writer) and convincingly exposes the limitations of Marcuse's Marxist-utopian views. The book deeply affected me and when my train arrived at its destination, I was in some sense a different person.
Milosz is now ninety and it is our good fortune that he continues to write into old age. (Nearly a third of the New and Collected Poems were composed after 1991 when Milosz, astonishingly, was already in his eighties.) He has long served as a crucial guide, lighting our way through the darkest events of our time
Treasure your legacy of skills, child of Europe,
Inheritor of Gothic cathedrals, of baroque churches,
Of synagogues filled with the wailing of a wronged
(from "Child of Europe" 1946)
as well as providing us with a full-faced accounting of his personal transformations
You would like to hear how it is in old age?
Certainly not much is known about that country
Till we land there ourselves with no right to return Ó
(from "A New Province" 1991)
Born in Szetejnie, Lithuania to Polish parents, Milosz has always considered himself as a stranger in the Western societies where he has resided. He attended universities in Vilnius and Paris and during the Second World War, worked as a writer and editor for underground resistance publications in Warsaw. Starting in 1946, he served as a diplomat, first in Washington, then in Paris where he moved in literary circles that included Albert Camus and Pablo Neruda. In 1951, in a decision that caused him a good deal of turmoil, he broke with his government. That anguish resulted in his writing The Captive Mind, a book that won him international recognition. It is an elegant essay whose subject, according to its author, is "the intellectual's readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future."
Since his appointment, in 1960, to a professorship at the University of California's Berkeley campus, Milosz has lived in the United States, and while he has flourished there, his view of North American society is often unflattering, sobering, and curative. In the voice of a reluctant prophet, Milosz has exposed the naivety and general amnesia that characterize Western societies. Boris Pasternak believed that in literature, tone is everything. Milosz succeeds through a voice that is persistently personal and questioning, a voice notable for its understatement and humility. In "My Intention", the essay the editors have intelligently chosen to begin their selection, his tone is immediately recognizable
I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said ÓI was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.
Milosz's thought stems from the Catholic existential tradition. In the preceding passage, one hears an echo of Pascal, who in his PensTes, experiences vertigo of the spirit and exclaims, "I am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then."
Where Plato and Aristotle asked the question, "What is man?" Milosz, following the example of Saint Augustine in his Confessions, asks, "Who am I?"
If I am not wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? Ó I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experienceÓ And so I must offer resistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experienced on my own, what I myself have touched.
Milosz's style displays a commitment to reality that can make other writing seem trivial, off the mark, overloaded or fancy. His unblinking gaze no doubt accounts for his refreshing, anti-Romantic conception of the poet. In an essay discussing the ironic distancing, the cool detachment necessary to a writer (he refers to such detachment as "a moral monstrosity") Milosz states:
I believed in health, strength, and sometimes even imagined a model poet as a happy giant. Later on, I learned that the presumed health of happy giants was just an appearance masking demonic possession, and I myself stopped pretending to be a strong man. I experienced how painful it is to realize that it is not the most noble, most human impulses which are allies of the poet but rather his cool and fastidious attitude.
A mistrust of literature often signals a moralistic temperament¨St. Augustine lamenting over the time he wasted reading Virgil's Aeneid. But St. Augustine was a religious writer whose subject was God, while Milosz, a poet, must divide his allegiance between God and the Muse. To put it another way, as a poet, Milosz embodies a host of vital contradictions, a clash between the profane and the sacred. His objective has always been to bear the tensions of our contradictory existence and he has held tenaciously to Simone Weil's belief that "Contradiction is a lever of transcendence."
In "Against Incomprehensible Poetry", a proposed introduction to an anthology of poems, Milosz states: "Óour fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and GodÓ In the poetry I select I am not seeking an escape from dread but rather proof that dread and reverence can exist within us simultaneously."
Indeed, our fascination with Milosz is based largely on his willingness to accommodate contradictions: He was a leftist before and after the Second World War and yet the conservatism of his Catholic education is noticeable in everything he writes. He is a Thomist rationalist who abhors "anti-intellectual poetry of sensory perception," which, he claims, "cheats thought," yet he believes that rationalism devours the roots of faith and impairs the poetic imagination. He believes poetry is "a passionate pursuit of the Real," that should not avoid confrontation with historical events. Yet in his poem "A Lecture", he presents himself, in the third person, as a student from Eastern Europe, "from countries called Nowhere" (nowhere, it must be pointed out, in the minds of the sophisticated and snobbish intellectuals). Attending a lecture in Paris by the French poet Paul ValTry, the student hears simultaneously "the screams of a hunt Ó/Where behind rimed barbed wire/The miserable souls of his friends/And enemies would remain." This is clearly a reference to the East he has left behind. The poem poses a duality of Art and historical experience, and builds to an awareness that "Debasement and terror" ultimately vanish: "The earth took in the screams,/No one anymore remembers/How and when it occurred." Thinking half a century later of ValTry's poetry Milosz writes,
And only the sumptuous, golden
Lasts and will last for its own
But Milosz cannot allow Art (represented by a reference to ValTry's masterpiece, "Le CimetiFre marin") to have the final, victorious word. True to his promise that he will bear the tensions of our contradictory existence, he concludes:
And I, late, am returning
With a shred of bitterness
To his cemetery by the seaÓ
With bitterness, because Milosz expects more of poetry. Structured, perfected, frozen in time, poetry contains an element of the inhuman. And so he goads poetry, expecting it to confront the "Debasement and terror," and to preserve the memory of those who screamed. That is why the concluding emotion of his poems is often disappointment and regret.
For Milosz, "literature can fulfill its obligation only insofar as it goes beyond literature." In an interview, dated 1986, he states: "I have always looked for a more spacious form to express myself. Poetry seems to me a little narrow today, in the sense that many techniques have been banned from it under the impact of looking for purity of lyricism." When asked about novels, he replies: "Novels are an anathema to me." He has long been an opponent of overly stylized writing: "Óamong all the figures of the twentieth century, my writers were Lev Shestov and Simone Weil Ó their language is clear, severe, spare, superbly balanced Ó" The result has been a terse, anti-lyrical, self-inquiring, and at times self-chastising, poetry:
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman's body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress's neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness, wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I know what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
Although the essays in To Begin Where I Am have been well chosen to show Milosz's range as a prose writer, they are not the best place for a first-time reader to start. The essays display their full effectiveness within the books where they originally appeared, and I would suggest that a reader unacquainted with Milosz's prose first take up Visions From San Francisco Bay, or Native Realm. The selection is significant, however, because it contains essays translated into English for the first time that reveal how deeply Milosz is rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition. They provide us with a clearer sense of the link between his ethics and his aesthetics.
In his fascinating "Letter to Jerzy Andrzejewski"¨one of a series written in 1942-43 while the Germans were destroying Warsaw¨Milosz condemns the Nazis' soul-withering dehumanization and draws inferences:
In so-called normal times death is surrounded by a ritual of magic gestures, incantations, and rites. The smell of death makes the hair of animals stand on-end, but humankind drowns out the terror with the beating of tom-toms, the sound of organs, and the singing of mournful songsÓ These events gave death the character of a singular event Ó I suspect we are beginning to look at man partly as a living piece of meat with tufts of hair on his head and his sexual organs, partly as an amusing toy that speaks, moves¨but all one has to do is raise one's hand and squeeze the trigger and an ordinary object is lying in the same place, as inert as wood and stone. Who knows, perhaps this is the path to absolute indifference, including indifference to one's own death.
The letter is in fact an argument against liberalism and humanism. For Milosz, man's nature displays a frightening degree of "elasticity" and "plasticity". He sides with the Vatican's "lack of confidence in man's possession of common sense." Fifteen years later, in his essay "Speaking of a Mammal", he continues the argument: "Óit must be conceded that the position of humanitarianism is very weak. If the Vatican refers to the dignity of man Ó it backs it with metaphysical essence." And in one of his more recent essays, "If Only This Could Be Said (1991)", Milosz states unequivocally: "If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts."
Milosz's adherence to Christian values has kept him from relishing an alienated stance or brandishing the inflated egoism so typical of the artistic personality. The beginning of the last century witnessed the dethronement of God, the discarding of religion and simultaneously, the elevation of Art. The artistic creator was granted a dignity and importance equal to that of a priest. This attitude led to that movement we refer to as ŠArt for Art's Sake', a movement that, according to Milosz, renders poetry effete and impoverished because the overly proud poet cuts himself off "from the family of man." Isolated, he attempts "all sorts of experiments with form Ó with incomprehensible poetryÓ the less comprehensible the better, because it shuts the poet off from the wrong people." By "wrong people", Milosz means ordinary humanity whom the poet "gave the not very flattering name of bourgeoisie, philistinesÓ" Milosz opposes those writers who "worshipped before the altar of Art." His concern is with those authors who, as Walter Benjamin said, "give evidence of the profound perplexity of living," those committed to help heal our moral wounds.
While he is political and polemical in his prose, often arguing from a philosophical or religious standpoint, Milosz, in the final analysis, sides with the powers of the poetic imagination. In the introduction to a recently edited anthology of poetry, he concludes, "Theology, science, philosophyÓare not very effective" in dealing with the "basic deprivation" afflicting our civilization. Good poetry, on the other hand, since it "deals with the singular, not the general," cannot "look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, exciting and soÓcannot reduce lifeÓ to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint."
Ultimately, we can say of Milosz what the Greek poet Cavafy said of the Jew Ianthis, painter and poet: Ianthis's most fervent wish was "to remain forever" a son of his people and "holyÓBut he didn't remain anything of the kind./The Hedonism and Art of Alexandria/ kept him as their dedicated son." ˛
Kenneth Sherman's most recent books are The Well: New and Selected Poems and Void and Voice (essays).