Saturday, June 3, 2017

Good and evil, a world embraced and denied: Milosz's life


"Wherever I am, at whatever place on earth, I hide from people the conviction that I am not from here. It's as if I'd been sent, to extract as many colours, tastes, smells, to experience everything that is a man's share, to transpose what is felt into a magical register and carry it there, from whence I came"! 

A task achieved in ripe abundance!

I remember reading the Polish Nobel Laureate, poet, essayist, philosopher, Czeslaw Milosz, first at university. I was introduced to him, as was so often the case, through reading the review, 'Temenos'. It was, I think, my parallel and also primary education to that offered by my apparent university course. Fittingly I encountered him through the lens of his own introduction to the man he considered his master, his distant cousin, the visionary poet (and successful diplomat), Oskar Milosz.

To Czeslaw Milosz, I owe too, amongst other things, my introduction to Simone Weil through an essay of his in 'Emperor of Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision' that was the first book of his I read.

Like Weil there was a Manichaean element to Milosz as the above quotation implies. This world is not our home and whatever our necessary purpose here, we belong elsewhere, to another perception. This tension between love of the world that, even when created good, has gone astray, disfigured by evil is a notable tension in the poet's work.

This is unsurprising if you consider his biography and I have been reading Andrzej Franazek's masterly account, recently translated from the Polish. As a child, he was sufficiently old to register on his childhood sensibility the throes of the Russian Revolution, civil war and wars of national liberation in the febrile borderlands between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. He entered a pause - and idyllic mid-childhood so hauntingly described in his novel, 'The Issa Valley' before growing up into a world slowly unravelling out into the apocalyptic conflict, most especially for Poland, of the Second World War and the subsuming aftermath of Stalinist totalitarianism. This tortuously, because his sympathies had always been leftist though never Communist, led him finally into a literal exile in the United States until with a final twist Communism collapsed and as a man in his eighties returning to live and finally die in his adopted city of Krakow.

It was often a life of both socially/politically imposed and personal suffering - both his wives predeceased him even when the second, Carol, was thirty years his junior, and one of his two sons suffered from bipolar disorder but he was triumphantly resilient and consistently curious, questioning, learning and transforming what he found into poems of great beauty, intelligence and, for want of a better word, toughness. 

His journey too was one from the lofty peaks of an intellectual superiority, a swiftness to criticise, even condemn, towards a gathering compassion. It was a journey too from scepticism to faith - though a Catholic faith that never lost a necessary quality of doubt. A doubt both about the reality of the sacred as such as well as a doubt as to the 'orthodoxy' of his Christianity. A doubt too of his significance as a person (though never as a poet) for who would be interested in his sins, told with self-deprecatorily irony in the poem, 'At a Certain Age':

"We wanted to confess our sins but there we no takers
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess their what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: "That's me."

For me, however, Milosz greatest achievement - both as poet and essayist - was a spirited incorporation and defence of the metaphysical of the world that was enchanted and though scarred with suffering was both worthy of celebration and of recognition that the suffering breaks us open to deepening questions of meaning - most especially for Milosz of good and evil - rather than huddling us out into passing pleasure surrounded by grey seas of indifference and a stuttering end. 

For me his greatest book, much as I love the poems, is 'The Land of Ulro' his sustained defence of such a sacred world where he jousts with 'Ulro' - William Blake's guiding, enchaining spirit of a levelling, self-contained reason. For Milosz poetry is ultimately essential because it brings into focus a sensual, celebrated world saturated with meanings to which there is never a complete closure, transcendence always beckons, where the invitation is always to remain vulnerable to new revelations, gifts of grace.

In passing, he also gave one of the best pieces of writing advice, I have read. You cannot write if you doubt. As the word hits the page, no doubt can be permitted. Five minutes afterwards yes but not before!


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