Czeslaw Milosz: Despair and Grace.
It was precisely there that I had occasion to read Milosz's work for the first time. The book was Native Realm, which made its way into Vilnius in a most remarkable way. It was sent in page by page in letters from the West. The process of sending it lasted a year and a half. Nowadays books which are objectionable to the censor make their way into Lithuania in a simpler fashion; at any rate, I am now justified in exposing this "conspiratorial" secret. I do not know how to combine this fact with a notion that all letters sent to the Soviet Union are checked by the authorities; nevertheless it remains a fact. By the way, two pages were missing. I read the book in one sitting, for it was not only well written; it dealt with Lithuania and our epoch and said the most important things about both. Shielding the book from the glances of strangers, I read and reread the lines about the year 1940 when the Soviet troops entered Vilnius.
I went down to the river, sat on a bench, and watched the suntanned boys in their kayaks, the revolving rod of a tiny steamboat's engine, the colored boats which you rowed standing at the back, using one long oar. I was sorry for my city because I knew every stone of it; I knew the roads, forests, lakes, and villages of this country whose people and whose landscapes had been thrown like grist into a mill. . . . The sandbars in front of the electric-power station where children were standing with fishing poles, the river current, the sky, all spoke to me of an irrevocable sentence. (NR, 211-12)
I raised my eyes: in front of me was the same electric-power plant, the sandbar, other children with other fishing poles and other but similar boats. And although much has changed in the people and the languages, and although the standard Soviet Hall of Sports stood alongside the electric-power plant, a vague light of hope struck from the river and the sky. The hope was also in the book, and in the fact that it had returned to its own town.
Later in Poland I read other books by Milosz. There almost everyone read and reads them, and citations from Milosz have become a code which many people use in conversing among themselves. Mandelstam became such a secret code in Russia; in Lithuania, perhaps, it is sometimes Brazd6ionis, sometimes Radauskas. In exile Milosz remained the most vital and the most important poet of his motherland. If one considers exile to be not a misfortune but a destiny and a problem, then Milosz solved this problem at least as well as the nineteenth-century Polish poets Norwid and Mickiewicz.
Incidentally, Lithuania links these three names. The Lithuanians love to explain, but are not always able to explain to foreigners, that most complex amalgam of cultures which has existed in the so-called historical Lithuania and the Vilnius territory. Milosz explains this better than others: as a matter of fact, he dedicates the entire abovementioned book and many pages in his other books to this very question. It is not every resident of an area who understands this fine mixture, this aggregate of languages, traditions, behavioral aspects, and even the genetic conglomeration which gives birth to great poets and for which it is difficult to find an analogy in the West. The analogy to Ireland is by no means complete; it may be that the analogy to Alexandria is more accurate. Here cultures came in contact, projected onto each other, at times destroyed each other, but they also fostered each other. The most ancient, substratal, and, at the same time, the youngest culture is the Lithuanian, which was finally formed only in the twentieth century; the most powerful over several centuries is the Polish. For a certain time they existed in an absurd antagonism which has by now been almost entirely overcome, and this rather complex situation was made even more complex by the cultures of immigrants, conquerors, and neighbors from near and far. Oscar Milosz, Czeslaw's elder relative and his poetic teacher, is, as it were, a symbol of this complexity. He was a Lusatian Sorb through distant ancestors, Jewish (on his mother's side), Belorussian by place of birth, Polish by his upbringing, Lithuanian by choice, and a great French poet. Not only languages but epochs coexisted within this world: "One lived in the twentieth century, another in the nineteenth, a third in the fourteenth" (NR, 68). I will add that later on people of this region experienced that "real twentieth century" about which Akhmatova speaks, and the complete absence of time.
The overlapping of cultures, their intersection and coalescence, their impermeability, their dissimilar rhythms teach many things. First of all, they gave Milosz the sense of distance which is so necessary for a poet in our day. The spatial juxtaposition of the civilizations permitted him to sense keenly their relativity in time. As is known, civilizations know that they are mortal. For a resident of Eastern Europe, this phrase of Valery is far from being an idle one. Simultaneously, however, civilizations (or, more accurately, cultures) possess a power for survival and rebirth about which they themselves seldom know. The attentive observer will note the indestructibility of several cultural archetypes conjoined with the very existence of mankind. They repeat themselves as the appearance of the river and the sky is repeated. The task is to write poetry that is adequate both for the disasters which are destroying cultures and for that striking strength of cultures to survive. It can be written only with a living sympathy for the cultures, and it is inseparable from a living sympathy for people. In the epoch of the Gulag, Milosz expressed this sympathy perhaps more strongly than anyone else. It is worth recalling his beautiful pages on the Balts in The Captive Mind, where this question is directly addressed: "The problem of the Baltics is much more important for every contemporary poet than are questions of style, metrics, and metaphor."2 Reflection on the fate of the Balts, on the milling of persons and peoples in the totalitarian machine, leads to the only possible and true words.
There must be, after all, some standard one dare not destroy lest the fruits of tomorrow prove to be rotten. If I think thus it is because for the last two thousand years or more there have been not only brigands, conquistadors and hangmen, but also people for whom evil was evil and had to be called evil. (CM, 225)
Having imagined the totality of evil throughout history, a man may "either turn gray with horror-or become completely indifferent" (CM, 223). It would seem that there is no third option. Yet Milosz gives us this third choice: how to live with the consciousness of the mortality of cultures, of the irreversible suffering of peoples, of the immensity of evil, and nevertheless live and overcome the evil automatism of history.
It is hardly necessary to cite Milosz's poetry here. If a thinker and cultural historian at times provides formulae which concisely express the thoughts of many pages (and Milosz possesses this skill to a high degree), one should probably just read the poetry in its entirety or copy it. It is a question of the poetry's substance, of the correlation of the parts, of the change in intonation, of the glitter and darkness of the language. In addition, it is necessary to read and copy the poetry in the original; a good translation is also a poem, but a different poem. Furthermore, each reader has his own poems which are important for him but which are not necessarily noted by consensus. (For me, for example, it is Milosz's "Mittelbergheim," the amazing coda of the collection ewiatlo dzienne [Daylight].) But it is still possible to say a few words about the construction of this poetry, about its course and flow.
It is known that Milosz had to find his own way among several strong traditions. One usually speaks of Skamandarites and Avant-gardists. The former created poetry which was vital but which suffered from a certain lack of tempo and therefore aged quickly, whereas the latter, as it soon became apparent, caught only the superficial and not the deep structures of the age. But apparently the magical names of the Polish past are more important: Milosz, who grew up in Vilnius, had particular ties with them as well as particular accounts to settle. He found his own voice early. Almost from the beginning, a solemn incandescence was heard in it, as well as that surprise from which, it is said, philosophy begins. An irregular rhythm, elliptical images, a peculiar visionary stance were a means for conversing with the age. What always distinguished Milosz were a penetrating sympathy for people and an awareness of the "clamor of the times" (and almost everything which later happened could be heard in it). He was always an antiformalist and a moralist. Formalism, the creation of a special language for the initiated (which upon examination often turns out to be the simplest Esperanto), is almost the primary temptation of contemporary poetry. In Milosz's own words, totalitarianism is ready to permit avant-garde eccentricities so that the poet will be occupied with something and will not attempt to influence reality; it is true that in Russia (and, in its own time, in Germany) totalitarianism still did not understand this, but it did understand it in many East European countries, and even perhaps in contemporary Lithuania.
Still, Milosz has always wanted (as he does even now) to influence reality with verse, to find his place in time, by no means becoming its servant. The poet is the instrument of the epoch (just as he is the instrument of the language); the epoch and the language "think through the poet"; however, this thought should influence the epoch and the language by itself; and here a particular sobriety of view, integrity, and self-control are necessary. At first Milosz experienced an interest in the ideology of the Left, in the Marxist "alteration of the world." It may be that such a period is useful in our times for the maturation of the personality: many have passed through it, and some traces of it, remaining behind in the subconscious, give it an additional dimension of not little importance. But he who remains "left" forever obviously did not understand something significant. Milosz understood the most significant thing: the poet is not so much the reformer as he is the conscience of the world.
Besides, the poet is the keeper of tradition, the keeper of the word. This interest in tradition and in the word distinguished Milosz from the earliest years on, but it became unusually strong when the poet acquired the experience of war, of the Occupation, and of the first years after the war. Totalitarianism, as well as all the chaos of history, threatens the temporal dimensions of humanity first of all; if we wish to have a future, we must have a past. A destroying (and destroyed) world should find a new integrity in consciousness and in verse. It is from here that Milosz takes his interest in man's attachment in time and space, and from here also derives his love for "persisting matter," his rare understanding and ability to transmit its paradoxicality with a few words. From here comes his love of culture; Milosz perceives it as a living whole, as the "realia" of the Middle Ages (in general, he is most likely a realist in the medieval sense, in opposition to the nominalist). In this regard he knows and values those areas of European culture which are now known only to a few but which are significantly important; he knows that Swedenborg or the arguments of the Trinitarians and the anti-Trinitarians of the seventeenth century have a direct relationship to our problems.
Milosz, along with a majority of East European writers, was fated to see history where it actually occurred and assumed eschatological import. Neither political nor poetic doctrines remained intact, nor could they remain intact in this cataclysm; but poetry itself remained, proving to be a higher, unpolitical politics (NR, 247). Milosz formulated this in his philosophical treatise, The Captive Mind.
The war years taught me that a man should not take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat. . . . Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological, that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change. (CM, 206, 237)
In all probability, it is necessary to understand the term eschatology here not in the figurative sense, but in the direct, biblical sense. During his time Oscar Milosz instilled in the young Czeslaw a skeptical attitude toward the poetic experiments of the age and explained to him that poetry is, in general, a rarity: it was revealed to people in full only in the Bible, and from that time hence it is given to them only as an exception.
Now the poetry of Milosz has actually proven to be such an exception. It was necessary to respond to questions for which man has no answer, to write when it seemed senseless and intolerable to write, yet also an unavoidable task. In such a situation a poet is justified in using anything which happens to fall into his hands-ancient and antiquated forms, echoes from folklore, from the Baroque and Romanticism, from primitive syllabic verse, from treatises of the Enlightenment and Greek tragedy. The poetic world is created from fragments of culture. It is structurally similar to bricolage, the process of creating a myth, as described by Levi-Strauss; in an emigre period the tendencies toward bricolage are likely to be strongly intensified. Here Milosz attains the heights and suggestiveness characteristic of myth. His poetry is precise, condensed, filled with the knowledge of man and stripped of any sentimentality, exaltation, or unworthy tendency toward irony. At times it is simply a shining, restrained despair, a despair brightened by sense, having measure and rhythm. The measure of thought and vision is the only form of verse and is the sole grace of the poet.
The primary purpose of verse is to overcome despair, to be victorious over entropy; the degree to which this goal is attainable is a secondary question. It arises before the poet at any point on the globe. The space of poetry changes as experience is acquired: it changed sharply and significantly for Milosz. He was compelled to choose emigration, since he was and still remains an enemy of any kind of totalitarianism. The success of the social experiment never justifies the means (even if there were that success). Whether to remain in a country where similar experiments are being conducted or to abandon it is a complex problem which is resolved in its own way every time. During the time that Milosz was resolving it, to remain behind meant to condemn oneself to asphyxia and physical destruction, or to something worse-ketman. This Arabic word, to the interpretation of which an entire chapter of The Captive Mind is devoted, may be very roughly rendered in English as "conformity" or "hypocrisy." Today  many East European artists are abandoning their native countries, sometimes by their own will, at other times against it. Milosz passed that way twenty years earlier. At that time he already knew and spoke of the Gulag civilization in both its variants, the German and the Russian; he spoke and shouted about the rights of man, and in that day there did not exist even the slightest "vogue for dissent" which nowadays, preserving all the unpleasant properties of fashion, nevertheless supports new exiles; and even then he had to confront the so-called leftist intellectuals, the provincial, narrowly nationalistic emigration, as well as the simple incomprehension, which he overcame to a great extent.
Milosz says that at a distance from one's own country, knowledge of it gradually becomes theoretical. His own particular example refutes his words. I have not seen many people who could sense contemporary Poland as well, and not just Poland. He senses the vital rhythm of all of Eastern Europe and speaks for us all-and by no means last of all, for the Lithuanians. Eastern Europe, with its conglomeration of impenetrable cultures which nevertheless illuminate each other, became a model of the entire contemporary world for him. That which happened there could, alas, turn out to be the fate of the entire world. Milosz also understood this earlier than many, many people.
His poems have remained on the same lofty plane for several decades. One cannot say which are better and which are worse. Rare poets attain this level where, for practical purposes, there is no hierarchy of values. But the poetry has changed. It may be that the tendency toward a symbolic and mystical vision of the world has been strengthened. Without doubt, the lexicon has been refined, strengthened, has become more archaic. Space, as Milosz himself has noted, became dual, and the poet's vision acquired a profound stereoscopic quality. The sacral center of the world, the Lithuania of genealogy and childhood, is seen in a California perspective, and the whole contemporary world in the perspective of Lithuania. Vilnius and the Lithuanian provinces arise in the poetry with an evocative power like that of Martinville and Combray in Proust. This had already appeared in Milosz's prose, in Dolina Issy (Eng. The Issa Valley). It always seems to me that this novel belongs to a certain conceivable, ideal Lithuanian literature: we have these types and motifs, there are these landscapes and seasons (in Donelaitis), but alas, we have no novel in which everything could be united into such an integral and beautiful entity. The novel belongs to Polish literature. However, from a certain point of view, this is ultimately unimportant.
There is, however, one thing which has changed in Milosz's poetics; I have already spoken of how he has more and more of a tendency for creating a poetic world from fragments, from "the material at hand." The best example of this is the poem "Gdzie wschodzi slo-ce i k-dy zapada" (From Where the Sun Rises to Where It Sets), which is perhaps Milosz's magnum opus. This is a reflection on time, on the responsibility of contemporary man, but probably, above all, on the existence of language and its frailty. The registers of language, or simply the languages-Polish, Lithuanian, Old Russian, English, Greek, and Latin-emerge here in a type of medieval debate. Verse and prose collide, as do the naive epigram and the psalm, folklore and the historical essay of the nineteenth century, an ancient testament and a contemporary encyclopedia, a quote from a great poet and a semi-parody of a scientific text. In a polylogue not deprived of carnival spirit echo cultures, landscapes, people, truths, and untruths. "The creative conscience stands, as it were, on the border line between languages and styles."3 As in Borges's El aleph, everything closes in on one point. Thus Milosz returns to the Lithuanian-Polish amalgam of traditions in order to reevaluate it constantly for future resurrection; thus he speaks, seemingly beyond time, of the "zaprzeszly czas krajow niedokonanych" (plusquamperfectum of imperfect countries) so that he, with great courage, might accept his fate, the entire measure of despair, and the entire boundlessness of grace.
The example of Czeslaw Milosz inspires hope. He did that which it is now imperative for people leaving the countries of Eastern Europe to do: he preserved his spiritual integrity and made his way back to the motherland. And what was done once may be done in general.
Translated from the Russian
By Alexandra Heidi Karriker
1 Czeslaw Milosz, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, Catherine S. Leach, tr., New York, Doubleday, 1968, p. 185. Subsequent references carry the abbreviation NR.
2 Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, Jane Zielonko, tr., New York, Knopf, 1953, pp. 236-37. Abbreviated as CM.
3 M. Bakhtin, Voprosy literatury i estetiki, Moscow, 1975, p. 426.
Tomas Venclova is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University and one of the leading Lithuanian poets of the last thirty years. His recent book publications include the verse collections Tankjanti }viesa (Ever Denser Light; 1990) and Winter Dialogue (1997), a critical study and biography of the Polish poet Aleksander Wat (1996), and the essay volume Forms of Hope (1999). The present essay first appeared in the Summer 1978 issue of WLT, when Venclova was affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles.
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|Title Annotation:||Nobel Prize winner, poet|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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