In 1980 Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the time he had been living in Berkeley, California, for just over 20 years. But it is safe to say that until Milosz became a Nobel laureate,very few readers of serious literature were on even the most casual terms with his poetry, or with his less acclaimed, though no less erudite and subtle, prose. The reasons for this neglect are not difficult to fathom. Milosz, who is 73 years old, writes almost exclusively in his native Polish, and only in the last three or four years have translations of his work become readily available. Moreover, Milosz has absolutely no taste for the sort of shameless self-promotion that in this country has aided and abetted so many literary successes. He has not posed inawrestling costume for Vanity Fair. He has not appeared on The Tonight Show or in one of Warren Beatty’s movies. Indeed, shortly after he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize, Milosz bluntly told reporters: “I don’t want to be famous! … I prefer to continue my strange and private occupations.”
Still, Milosz has not been entirely invisible. He has written often of his passions and prejudices, and of the social and historical circumstances that shaped his artistic sensibility. In Native Realm: A Search for Self Definition (1968), Milosz traces his descent from a fairly distinguished Lithuanian family of minor property holding gentry; he describes how he spent his formative years quite contentedly in the lush, fertile, almost paradisaic region of Vilnius, at that time part of Poland. He notes that as a youth he was very much intrigued by the beauty and mystery of the natural world, and by extension in awide range of scientific and theological questions. Accordingly, while still in highschool, Milosz took it upon himself to study an assortment of apostasies and heresies that, in the Middle Ages at least, sparked considerable debate. Milosz’s writings prove that he still understands the subtle differences between, say, Albigensianism and Catharism. They also show that he is himself particularly attracted to the concept of a metaphysical and religious dualism–to the Manichean theory that a benevolent God has for some inscrutable reason leased the world of matter in its entirety to Satan, the cause of all Evil. In Native Realm Milosz concedes that his”propensity” to Manicheanism remains.
Milosz also admits that, as a student in Poland during the 1930’s, he came to regard Marxism as “vital and bracing” and so “turned into a Red.” During World War II Milosz fought the nazis as a member of the Polish resistance movement; after the war he assumed the position of cultural attache in Washington and Paris for the Soviet-controlled “People’s Republic of Poland.” As he explains at some length in the concluding chapters of Native Realm–as well as in the Preface to his 1953 “speculative essay,” The Captive Mind–Milosz quit his diplomatic post in 1951 and went into exile in Paris after deciding that he could no longer stomach the myriad tyrannies of Stalinism, or compromise his literary independence for the sake of “socialist realism.” For “socialist realism,”notes Milosz in The Captive Mind, is “not merely an aesthetic theory to which the writer, the musician, the painter or the theatrical producer is obliged to adhere.” It involves, by implication, “the whole Leninist-Stalinist doctrine.” It “forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task–to look at the world from an independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.”
In 1961 the multilingual Milosz assumed the position of Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. In Visions From San Francisco Bay (1969) he continues to frankly advertise his biases as he meditates on life on the West Coast during a decade of unprecedented social turbulence. Here he records his distaste for the “Worship of the Golden Calf, the rule of the dollar” that he finds pandemic in the United States. He condemns the American media for its employment of a language “which makes everything shallow and false”; for its putting a premium on “garishness, brutality, sex”; for its creation and celebration of a very vulgar “mass norm.” He complains too that America lacks, among other things, an “historical imagination” which he suggests “is perhaps why in American films both ancient Romans and astronauts from the year 3000 look and act like boys from Kentucky.”
But Milosz makes it clear in Visions From San Francisco Bay that he should not be counted among those many leftist artists and intellectuals who automatically equate America with all that is ugly and corrupt in the modern world. For example, he writes of his admiration for the discipline and the simple earnestness–the “virtue”–that he finds displayed at American county fairs, and he mocks the typical urban-bred “long-haired revolutionary” for obtusely assuming that farmers are invariably “yokels and provincial boors.” Later he asserts that he has “no desire to be one of the elect dragging the masses by force to Utopia”; and he suggests–quite daringly, given his residence in Berkeley and the temper of those times–that “youth brought up in affluence, masquerading in beggars’ clothing and revolutionary ideas, commands less of my respect than hardworking lumberjacks, miners, bus drivers, and bricklayers, whose mentality arouses scorn in the young.”
Indeed, at one point, Milosz skewers a student, a “young idiot” who once quite seriously asked him “how life in Sacramento differed from life in a concentration camp.” This dolt, observes Milosz,”had never faced starvation, he took a bath every day, drove a car, an old one but his own; he could take the works of Lenin and Mao Tse-tung from the library.” In short, he took his freedom and his cozy well-being for granted; and, like most suburban statists, was woefully ignorant of the way in which “planned” societies are really run. “Collective administration,” observes Milosz else where in Visions From San Francisco Bay, “only works in a few cases, because people have only enough energy and interest for a couple of weeks of revolutionary elation, after which the professionals, the bureaucrats, take over the onerous study of making decisions. And how to control them so that they defend the workers’ interests, and not those at the top of the governing-apparatus, remains a mystery.”
In Visions From San Francisco Bay Milosz restates his conviction that the world of matter is fundamentally a world of pain; that Nature is–as Tennyson put it in “Maud”–”one with rapine.” But he stresses that he is at the same time much too “immersed in humanity,” and too respectful of man and his often-transcendent aspirations to be easily impressed by the sort of absurdist “black gallows humor” which tends to trivialize the human condition. Not surprisingly then, Milosz pays tribute to Walt Whitman for emphasizing the pleasure of being “alive among the living,” for extolling and blessing “the human element and its irrepressible rush” even as “the poets of Europe were cursing the cité infernale, populated like Hades with restless spectres.” In fact, “even before I read Whitman,” writes Milosz, “his sense of things compelled me to search for words and was the source of all my curiosities and passions.”
More of those curiosities and passions are documented in The Land of Ulro, a book Milosz describes as “difficult” since it deals primarily with his “spiritual adventures.” In the book’s Preface, Milosz warns his British and American readers that they have just picked up his “one maverick work,” and are about to enter a “bizarre tangle” of digressive meditations on subjects that are sometimes quite abstruse–meditations that are replete with allusions to writers, some of them quite eccentric, who are virtually unknown outside Central Europe. The Land of Ulro, he adds, is “my rebellion against the reasonableness of my essaistic prose, in which I felt much more constrained than in my poetry.”
Milosz is not kidding. In the first half of The Land of Ulro he either focuses on or alludes to the works of, among others, Jerzy Wyszomirski, Witold Gombrowicz, Adam Mickiewicz, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and his own distant cousin, Oscar Venceslasde Lubicz Milosz. In the second half, he manages to analyze–or at least mention–Freudianism, Socinianism, Christian mysticism, scientific materialism, and secular humanism, which he describes as an “utter failure.” Along the way, Milosz outlines the history of “our modern ‘obscure’ poetry.” He discusses the accomplishments of Samuel Beckett (whom he rather admires) and Simone Weil (whom he admires considerably more). Weil–who died in 1943 at the age of 34–brooded intensely and in telligently on the nature of God and the purpose of man, laying “particular stress,” as Milosz notes, “on existence as pain.” Because of her “lucidityof thought and style,” Weil, Milosz suggests, “towers above those Christians acceding to the ‘demands of the age.'”
All the name-dropping, all the expository twisting and turning does not in the end ruin The Land of Ulro, because throughout this idiosyncratic work Miloez does address himself to the sort of questions that are not generally broached by writers who shoot for the sort of big sales and celebrity that Milosz shuns. Among them: What ought to be the aim of the Christian Church in these utterly secular times? What ought to be literature’s aim in a world that is in many ways as spiritually moribund and as cheerless as the Land of Ulro that William Blake depicts in Milton and The Four Zoas?
Milosz, a Roman Catholic, says he feels “a profound gratitude that there is Una Sancta Catholica Ecclesia.” But as he makes clear in The Land of Ulro, he is far less grateful for the process of liturgical reform and theological liberalization that have in the postwar years utterly transformed and perhaps in some ways trivialized the character of Catholicism–especially in America. He has little patience for those theologians who “gleefully” proclaim that Christianity, “hitherto in opposition to the world,” must now be “both with and in the world”; who have, in effect, “prostrated” themselves before “an anti-Christian mentality urged upon the masses by science”; who have then provided encouragement to “those hucksters in the temple, those purveyors of popular ideas, corruptors of young minds,” who “pack the church” by packing their sermons with “wooly” phrases. Of course the Church, Milosz implies, must be unfailingly compassionate, and it must maintain a sense of humor. But to maintain a viable role in the world, it certainly ought not downplay a concept as fundamental–though albeit as grim–as that of Original Sin. It ought not then shirk the fact that it has a crucial, unending obligation to “restrain man from extreme Evil.”
Milosz’s tastes are impressively eclectic, but in The Land of Ulro he states once again that he favors literature that is “engaged with ultimate things,” that “assents” to man’s existence on earth; that avoids the sort of “mockery” and “profanation” that seems “cheap” when compared “to the power of Evil that is with in every man’s experience.” And though he never comes out and says so, it seems clear that Milosz senses that the need for a more affirmative, a less nihilistic and trifling literature has never been greater. He is certainly keenly aware that we have entered an age of prurience and imbecility–an age dominated by producers and publishers who work assiduously to make life “hideous, and arid, and vile,” like those blustering “men of the crowd” that Arnold evokes in “Rugby Chapel.” Astutely, Milosz suggests that in the main television, films, and “illustrated magazines” are “media that are for the mind what too small slippers were for women’s feet in China.”
The complex and even contradictory Milosz cannot be easily labeled. He is no more a “romantic” or a “neoclassicist” than he is a “conservative.” But he does possess in ample measure what can only be described as conservative traits. He openly recognizes the existence of good and evil, and thus rejects the notion that all values are merely relative, that human behavior is solely the result of assorted biological and environmental determinants. Indeed he deplores the “tendency, stronger every day, to equate human beings with flies or cockroaches.” He admits also to a taste for order and measure–for standards–in art; he laments the fact that these days creativity has come to mean little more than “excretion for the sake of excretion.” He recognizes too that it is but a thin wall that separates civilization from absolute barbarism; he senses, rightly, that assorted barbarians are once more arrayed against that wall, and pressing hard.
Milosz is probably right when he observes in The Land of Ulro that relatively little of this century’s art and literature is “salvageable”; he is right on the mark when he describes as largely “puerile” the works of those of his literary colleagues who remain “sensitive to the latest avant-garde fashions.” Milosz’s own remarkably sane and mature writings will never be popular, but as the Nobel committee recognized, they are surely worth reading, and will certainly endure. cc
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