Updike on Czeslaw Milosz


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In the issue of 2001-12-24 of the NewYorker, John Updike discusses a new collection of essays by Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Milosz originally came from Poland but has lived in America, working in the Slavic department of the University of California at Berkely since 1960. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he travels back and forth between Berkeley and Poland.

He is now in his 90's but continues to write, both essays and poems.

He lived in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire up to 1918. He moved, in 1937, to Warsaw, where he endured the Second World War and took part in the anti-Nazi underground. He defected to Paris in 1951, then came his eventual residence in the United States and citizenship. Updike comments that such a life "-unlike, say, that of Wordsworth or Wallace Stevens-cannot be imported into poetry without threatening to steal the show from the reflections and expressions it engenders." Here is a glimse at just one thing he experienced:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

Updike comments, "All too smoothly, he sketches a progression from Luther to Rousseau and Nietzsche and thence to the Nazi "worshippers of the magnificent beast in man" and Alfred Rosenberg, the infamous minister of the German-occupied eastern territories and the author of racist theories that radicalized the young Hitler."

Updike goes on to show how Milosz remains true to the teachings of his childhood's priestly instructors, is still a practicing Catholic. "This fact seems to leave him, as much as anything, bemused. The poem "Helene's Religion," from the 1998 collection "Road-Side Dog," might well describe his own:"

On Sunday I go to church and pray with all the others.

Who am I to think I am different?

-Enough that I don't listen to what the priests blabber in their sermons.

Otherwise, I would have to concede that I reject common sense.

"It goes on," says Updike, "to express a credo, a quasi-Thomist proof:"

It's not up to me to know anything about Heaven or Hell.

But in this world there is too much ugliness and horror.

So there must be, somewhere, goodness and truth.

And that means somewhere God must be.

Updike goes on to explain a few things Milosz said in his essays. He said that if he could be convinced people could be moral under their own powers, he would not be interested in Christianity. Milosa thinks men are too dominated by self-love.

Milosz's poetic project, like Whitman's, is to sing the man, the whole man, not the partial man of the modern avant-garde, which has "created out of the poet a creature with a head covered with mathematical lumps, with exceptionally large lenses for its eyes, and suffering from atrophy of the heart and liver." He would counter such "narrowing and desiccation" with a broad realism: "I seek in poems a revelation of reality, of what is known in Greek as epifaneia." Again: "Language must name reality, which exists objectively, massive, tangible, and terrifying in its concreteness." Yet traumatic reality requires "the distance necessary to transform this material artistically." In "Ruins and Poetry," one of the Norton lectures Milosz gave in 1981-82 at Harvard, he states, "The reality of the war years is a great subject, but a great subject is not enough and it even makes inadequacies in workmanship all the more visible." The "many terrifying poems" born of the Holocaust as it was happening last less well than poems more elliptical and plain, even rudimentary, in diction: transcribing the breakdown of civilization, "man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins."

Many sorts of poet leave Milosz dissatisfied: the "Communist orators" Éluard and Aragon; the reflexive pessimists Frost and Larkin; and those who, like Francis Ponge and Wallace Stevens, replace the " 'suchness' of things" with "purely intellectual deconstruction into their component parts." He confesses, "Often these are dazzlingly intelligent constructions, but I find very little in them for myself." For himself, he likes in poetry "the tension that derives from contradictions." He praises Eliot for his "almost unbelievable undertaking: he built out of impossibility, absence, ruins." Cultural confusion and fragmentation have occurred before: "Renaissance man lamented the chaos that surrounded and inhabited him, but that is precisely what led to the greatness of Marlowe and Shakespeare." The situation of Renaissance man, torn between the wisdom of the Church and the wisdom of the rediscovered ancients, between faith and reason, between, like Hamlet, the sins of action and of inaction, remains modern man's situation, and Milosz urges resistance to the "nihilizing pressures" of such monisms as materialism and Buddhism:

"Alas, our fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and God. It is the same with our protest against pain and death. In the poetry I select [in his anthology "A Book of Luminous Things"], I am not seeking an escape from dread but, rather, proof that dread and reverence can exist within us simultaneously."

My reaction: I don't think a big ghost in the sky will help man be moral, and I don't think the problem with man is self-love. Self-love is good, not bad.

Adrianne Rich has the same idea of "I," that it fragments, that "we" is really singing the song of one's self. It's the opposite of Rand's "Anthem," the "we" is really the problem.

Milosz loves dualism and contradiction. He sees monisms as nihilizing pressures. No, he'd rather live in his dream world with God running everything, even when he knows it doesn't make sense. Making too much sense just turns people into heartless machines.

I don't agree.

bis bald,


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