Irresolute Heresiarch: Catholicism, Gnosticism and Paganism in the Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz.
The 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Czeslaw Milosz, influenced literature far beyond his native Poland. Although most of his poetry was written in Polish, it was so widely translated and admired that those who otherwise might not have nodded toward that region heard his voice and took notice. As Charles S. Krawzewski of King's College in Pennsylvania notes early on, Milosz is one of the "few peers" ofT. S. Eliot among contemporary poets (13).
In 2004, Milosz died at the age of 93, having returned at last from being an emigre in the United States to his homeland. Upon his death, a controversy ensued that serves as the framework for this study. The poet had wished to be buried in his family's plot in Lithuania (which at the time of his youth had been within the borders of Poland). However, powerful voices in Krakow insisted upon an elaborate funeral and then burial at a church near Wawel Castle. More to the point, however, one detractor published the charge that Milosz was not "Polish" enough, much to the dismay of the many who venerated him and nevertheless gave him a grand funeral.
The question that unsettled others and haunted Milosz himself--as his works demonstrate--was not so much if he was Polish enough, but if he was "Catholic" enough. To resolve the latter question, a telegram from John Paul II was read at the funeral and countered the belief of some that Milosz was thoroughly heterodox. The Archbishop as well sought to defend the great poet from attack.
The question concerning Milosz's worldview and personal faith brings us to the sound approach of Professor Kraszewski: by considering Milosz's poetry in chapters arranged chronologically, Kraszewski seeks to map the spiritual journey of this serious seeker--his struggles, his stumbling questions, his confusion, and his triumphs over Gnosticism and despair. The inner orthodoxy, it seems, informs even his rebellious outcry against God and the Church, and the outer orthodoxy finds its philosophical expression in later years.
At the outset, "Chapter One: Youth and War: 1933-1945" demonstrates why the chronological approach to Milosz's poetry and to questions about his worldview makes sense. Growing up in Wilno (Vilnius), Lithuania (also Poland, due to shifting borders), Milosz witnessed the tragedy of wars, revolution, and fifty years of occupation. As he does in later chapters, writer Kraszewski quotes sections of one poem after another, each followed with some explication and commentary, not to mention copious endnotes. In this chapter, for example, he assesses Milosz's ideas of that period--whether Gnostic, or metaphysical, or dualistic--by employing selected lines; he also locates these ideas within the cultural context of Milosz's peers. As a poet, translator, and critic who specializes in Polish, Czech, and Slovak texts, Kraszewski is eminently qualified to do so, and thus has much to offer researchers who are knowledgeable in his specialized field as well as those who are new to it.
All in all, chapter one praises Milosz's personal strength in creating characters who "dig their heels firmly into the shelf just short of the abyss, and will not be toppled over" adding, "It will not always be thus" (50). On the other hand, "Chapter Two: The Atlantic Milosz: 1946-1960" demonstrates the effects of Milosz's wide-ranging professional experience that informed his work, and the resultant inner conflicts. As a cultural attache in New York City and Washington, he served the communist-led Polish People's Republic who did not completely trust him, while he was also disliked by anti-communist Poles. Eventually he defected to make the West his home, through Rome and eventually to New York. During this period, he embraced the role of poet-prophet, showing in his verses "a sober assessment of the new, threatening reality of the communist world, and his consistent rejection of the same, on behalf of human dignity" (58).
The next chapter considers "Milosz's California Exile: 1960-1980" the years when he lectured at the University of California, Berkeley, in Slavic Languages and Literature. Understandably, his poetry reveals that he has little hope of returning to his homeland, and yet he moves on. Because he is cut off from his native Poland, "his narrators constantly suggest that his journey to California was a journey to oblivion" as in "Over our Land" (92). His narrators are often expressing bewilderment and despair while nevertheless submitting to the will of God.
The chapter "Berkeley and Stockholm" indicates the change that would occur in Milosz's notoriety and artistic freedom due to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 8, 1980. His works had been widely translated, and the American press was quick to claim him as an "American poet" Moreover, Milosz was deeply gratified when underground presses in Poland published his poetry in his homeland, at great personal risk. Now the man recognized as the greatest modern poet from Poland could no longer be completely repressed in his expression without the Communist censors appearing ludicrous to the world. And within this relative freedom that thus entitled him to speak with more boldness, he stretched even more the symbols, the questions, and the sacramental language that articulated the windings of his journey.
"A Chaplain of Shades: Berkeley, Krakow, Milosz's Final Years" follows the days after Poland's self-liberation, when Milosz was free to visit his homeland frequently, eventually living his last years there. Clearly, Kraszewski has far less regard for Milosz's poetry during this period, calling it "more of the same" religious expression (173). Throughout this chapter, in fact, the writer argues with many tenets of Milosz's art, pointing out its flaws in content and method, faulting Milosz for what the poet apparently fails to see in Catholicism. Kraszewski takes issue with Milosz's "excessive reliance on intellect, ratiocination and discourse, all characteristic of gnostic elitism" rather than experiencing the "divine, intuitive, simple trusting and real" Catholic practices (207). He posits that "Milosz's God is not the God of Trinitarian theology, but an image derived from Blake and Baroque heterodoxy" (236). The criticism turns caustic with the charge that "theology is a profession best left to the professionals," not "dilettantish poets" (240-41). Whether or not one agrees with such railings against this poet-seeker, the reader must respect the critic's background in and research into not only the Catholicism of Milosz's youth, but also the pantheistic roots of Lithuanian culture--forces that shaped Milosz throughout his life and art.
The volume concludes with an overview of "Milosz's Inner Orthodoxy in the context of Modern Catholic Poets"; indeed, Catholic poets and modern poets have been mentioned frequently throughout the study. The writer insists that throughout this volume of criticism he has sought to "dissociate the man Czeslaw Milosz from the poetic personae of his narrators" (248) since Milosz himself claimed that a capable artist could employ irony and don the masks of others. Thus, it is often difficult to separate narrator from author and "separate direct monologue from indirect and dramatic monologue" (250). Kraszewski acknowledges that the question that remains unanswered is, when, late in life, did Milosz's faith become more orthodox?
And here, two issues--minor shortcomings to some perhaps--bear mention. First, despite the eloquent prose style of the writer, occasional surface errors may distract one, such as this: "After the war, In [sic] 1945, it was another matter altogether" (39). A more salient issue for researchers will be the omission of an index. If one wishes to find commentary upon a given poem, one must scan the chronologically grouped chapters, using the poems composition or publication date. However, if one wishes to find commentary upon, say, the connections between Milosz and another poet, or other topics that do not fall neatly into chronological compartments, that information may lie embedded almost anywhere.
That said, for scholars of Catholic literature, Slavic literature, and emigre literature--to name a few audiences--I would recommend this volume. I would moreover suggest that those interested in Milosz's considerable and noteworthy body of fiction and non-fiction should peruse this volume. All in all, Irresolute Heresiarch is thought-provoking and valuable criticism. For those who are hoping that Milosz fits into the canon of Catholic poetry neatly, be forewarned that Kraszewski concludes that "Czeslaw Milosz may have been a Catholic, but Czeslaw Milosz is not a Catholic poet" (272).
Dallas Baptist University
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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