Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 2 | Summer 1986 (Seattle) /// Issue 16 of 24 /// Master# 64 of 73

willingness to forebear or endure the responsibilities of poet and philosopher to whom the world looks for answers. This tone is apparent in his conversation. His English is precise, accented, measured, and penetrating, but every perception seems quickened by an ironic subtext— as if to force the listener’s attention back to the work, especially the poetry, that realm where contradictory elements are fused into new truths. How does he reconcile this dual role of creative spirit and polemicist? “Maybe I do not speak my mind in my essays, my prose,” he says, working on the irony. “Maybe I move in a much deeper level in my poetry than in my prose. Maybe I mitigate my judgements to spare my audience.” “Spare them from what? Do the poetry and prose work together to achieve some kind of an interior dialogue?” I asked. “Not quite that way, no,” he went on. “I think that in my prose writings I’m much more cautious, not trying to depress people.” We chuckled at that, and I commented that I didn’t find his poetry particularly depressing. “Well,” he said, “btit in poetry there are other sources of joy—even in the midst of complete hopelessness from a political point of view.” Milosz’s voice was barely audible against the backdrop of coffeeshop chatter. He looked out the window. We had arrived at the crux of things. For Milosz, the poet opposes the profanities of a materialist age in the belief that life can have value and meaning only through a restoration of the anthropocentric view of the human individual. One might characterize this perspective as a kind of Christian paganism. Without something sacred, without some sacramental relationship to earth, sky, stars, we are "A man like me, " he writes in The Land of Ulro, "is constantly visited by a voice. . . which accuses him of willing belief in the absence of any real belief." but mere bio-chemical motes lost in the void, fair game for hopelessness, bitterness, and, ultimately, slavery and murder on a global scale. This stubborn, almost stoical attitude sets him apart as a singularly embattled literary figure. “I’m struggling against the current,” he continues, “I’m in rebellion against the prevailing tone in literature, which is despair, lack of hope, and so on.” His enormous, feathery, brown and gray eyebrows flutter when he speaks, but they bristled now. They flared to his temples and marked his countenance with an aspect somewhere between a hawk and a horned owl. His high forehead and the straight back sweep of his dark brown hair contributed to the image I’d had of him: that of a brooding, hermetic man of faith in opposition to the temper of his times, a man who, as poet Robert Hass has put it, “is left with the task of those heretical Christians, the pure ones: to suffer time, to contemplate being, and to live in the hope of the redemption of the world.” Milosz twisted in his seat: “ I feel it is indecent, ” he continued with an almost whispered ferocity. “This sort of wailing and breast-beating, this wailing and tearing one’s hair in modern literature has been for me a sign of weakness—you could say decadence." Decadence. Loss of values. Despair. Nihilism. These are the words and phrases one encounters repeatedly in Milosz’s work. His significance for us is that he refuses to submit to the imperatives of “either-or” propositions as formulated by the last two hundred years of speculative and philosophical thought. On occasion he has written that “my point of view can be defined negatively rather than positively,” and there is value in this. Stringently analytical in his view that the rise of 18th-century rationalism, science, technology, historical necessity, and dialectical materialism have relegated human beings to a plane commensurate with “cockroaches and flies,” a perspective that makes mass murder and totalitarianism not only possible but inevitable. Milosz is equally frank in his admission that a leap of faith is all he has to offer in opposition to these forces: “A man like me,” he writes in The Land of Ulro, “is constantly visited by a voice- . . .which accuses him of willing belief in the absence of any real belief.” Milosz is concerned foremost with the consequences of what appear to be scientific truths. He is not prepared, for example, to argue against the accuracy of the theory of evolution, but in “The Lessons of Biology”—an essay collected in The Witness of Poetry—he gives a passionate account of the ways in which Darwin’s ideas have affected us. Stripped of their significance, their singularity, human beings are animals for whom sacred values are an impossibility. There is nothing “to protect Western civilization from plunging into chaos and barbarity,” Milosz writes. The analysis, though astute, has nothing to offer in rebuttal to “fact” apart from the “childish nature” of poets who resist science with a “desire for the miraculous.” In this way Milosz the essayist picks through his politics deftly. He takes his cue from French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, whose writings he has edited and translated, and whose life has, for Milosz, taken on a kind of saintliness. In Weil, Milosz found a thinker who, apparently, was able to dismantle the force of dialectical materialism while simultaneously recognizing class struggle as a “palpable reality. . .filling thousands of years of history.” “That problem looks as follows,” he writes in “The Importance of Simone Weil”: “Primitive man was oppressed by the hostile forces of Nature. Gradually he won his freedom in constant struggle against it, he harnessed the powers of water, of fire, of electricity, and putthem to use. Yet he could not accomplish that without introducing a division of labor and an organization of production. . . . Facing Nature, the member of a technical civilization holds the position of a god, but he is a slave of society.” In other words liberty and freedom are, necessarily, sacrifices we make to material comfort; tyranny is a result of technology. “If I speak of unification,” he tells me, “it is that I speak of civilization in terms of scientific and technological revolution.” This is Milosz the conversationalist, leaning into his synthesis. Again, the eyebrows bristle: “Unification is the victory of Western Europe,” he goes on, “the original scientific revolution—and this is the great mystery of history: that it occurred in Western Europe under the impact of Christianity, mainly a fusion of Jewish and Greek elements, and an elaboration in the Middle Ages of a fantastic intellectual apparatus which preceded the emergence of science. And that civilization created is now conquering the world. Of course one can say that Marxism is in that tradition, but it’s of Western origin.” It's this atmosphere of the scientific method and technological advances that created a milieu conducive to Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead,” a notion George Orwell sought to explore in all of its implications. “How are we to live in a world without God?” Orwell asked, realizing that we could not begin to entertain the question until such time as we had the leisure to do so, until our bellies were fed. How do we deal with this now? “I think that the two things are closely inter-related,” Milosz answered. “Orwell For Milosz, the poet opposes the profanities of a materialist age in the belief that life can have value and meaning only through a restoration of the anthropocentric view of the human individual. One might characterize this perspective as a kind of Christian paganism. was a very honest writer, an honest man and an honest writer, but he forgot certain aspects and dimensions of human nature—” “Meaning the metaphysical or spiritual,” I interrupted. “Yes,” Milosz said. “I don’t know if such priorities can be established—to feed the hungry first—because there is never such a thing as taking separately certain dimensions of people’s lives and establishing priorities. First to feed the hungry and to dress those who are half- naked, and so on. But there are trappings of a sentimental approach which goes back to the Russian beliefs of the 19th century, which asked the question: what is more important, a pair of boots or a Pushkin? It’s a sort of nihilistic approach. Since I’ve taught Dostoevsky for several years, and have a special interest in history, I’ve begun to understand very well the horror of Russian history when it was confronted with the mentality of Russian nihilists." “Can this same nihilism be seen in the current American situation,” I queried, “in terms of political apathy and the rise of fundamentalism? “It seems to me that maybe living in America I learned tolerance,” Milosz replied, “a lot of tolerance, and I mitigated to some extent my judgement on loss of values and decadence in this society. It is true that these things which are on the surface of this society would go either in the direction of nihilism and complete loss of values, or fundamentalism. But, underneath, there is another group of people who are untouched by it, and who go to their churches and synagogues, and this reflects a different life of the masses. Would you agree with me?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not altogether certain that that is the spirit which will prevail. There seems to be a jingoistic, chauvinistic mentality that’s quite fright- ening in terms of its political ramifications.” “But, you see, I am not a liberal,” Milosz countered. “I don’t identify myself with the American liberal. It is true that for us it is difficult to identify with American conservatives either. But all the controversy is somehow not to my liking, because I believe that action and reaction are here on a level which, well, they correspond to each other, and they are both .shallow. So, personally, I don’t see any danger on the side of fundamentalism “A Frivolous Conversation” —My past is a stupid butterfly’s overseas voyage. My future is a garden where a cook cuts the throat of a rooster. What do I have, with all my pain and rebellion? —Take a moment, just one, and when its fine shell, Two joined palms, slowly opens What do you see? —A pearl, a second. —Inside a second, a pearl, in that star saved from time, What do you see when the wind of mutability ceases? —The earth, the sky and the sea, richly cargoed ships, Spring morning full of dew and faraway princedoms. At marvels displayed in tranquil glory I look and do not desire for I am content. Czeslaw Milosz, 1944 sort of a desperate last stand—unfortunate because this is a last stand and, as I’ve said before, all the morality of the working classes, which was God, my country, my family, has been undercut. You should read a book that’s coming out now in English by Zinovia called Homo Sovieticus. It’s an extremely brutal book full of hatred and scorn for the West. He’s an emigre from the Soviet Union, but he’s different from others because he openly proclaims his faith that the Soviet empire will be victorious on a planetary scale, and that the West is completely decadent. The scorn and hatred of the man is astonishing. It’s very interesting from that point of view, and, precisely, he speaks of the loss of values. His perspective is that any citizen of the West is ready to sell all his secrets for a modest sum of money.” Our time was up. Milosz’ face remained impassive in its brooding, old- worldly sort of way as we shook hands. Had he revealed any secrets? In the days after our talk, finding myself totally immersed in his writings, I found myself caught up in my own symposium. A new poem appeared in the pages of the NY Review of Books, as exciting as anything he had written previously. And I came across a passage in his recent The Witness of Poetry where he describes his “assimilation of Marxism”: “It was based upon the conviction that the Marxist’s touched the most essential problems of our century, which is why one should not bypass their theories with indifference. One should not, however, trust them too much, for often they draw the wrong conclusions from the correct premises, always yielding to the pressure of their own doctrines and bending the facts to them.” The Witness of Poetry Again I had failed to pin the mercurial Milosz down. He is not simply a “refugee from Communism” canonized by the West. I came to understand that the significance of great writers lay not so much in how well they persuade us to a certain view, but rather to what extent they can shake us up and make us think about the world in a new light. “Grub first; ethics second,” I could hear Brecht whisper in one ear. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Milosz whispered in the other. “He who despairs of events is a coward, but he who has hope for the human lot is a fool,” wrote Camus, and the phrase came back to me again and again as I thought about Milosz. I thought he might agree, all the while denying that kind of freedom as unbearable, having himself asserted that: “The fate of poetry depends on whether such a work as Schiller’s and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ is possible,” to which I couldn’t disagree, and so the dynamic continues. Poet Doug Marx writes on literature for a number of regional publications. Stephen Leflar is an artist living in Portland. Clinton St. Quarterly 37