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Remembering Milosz on Marx’s 200th

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rescued from my defunct blog ( 9/1/2004):

czesaw-miosz-prezentacja-1-638One Eastern European poet whose work I fancy a lot has just died. In his memory, I am posting an obituary which appeared in the New York Times. Milosz is also a great essayist and in my small library I have a copy of his most recent book, an anthology of his essays, where the running theme is that of the recovery of faith at a time when the great ideologies of his youth have all died :



Czeslaw Milosz, Poet and Nobelist Who Wrote of Modern Cruelties, Dies    

August 15, 2004 By RAYMOND H. ANDERSON

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish émigré writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, in part for a powerful pre-mortem dissection of Communism, in part for tragic, ironic poetry that set a standard for the world, died Saturday at his home in Krakow, his assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, told The Associated Press. He was 93

An artist of extraordinary intellectual energy, Mr. Milosz was also an essayist, literary translator and scholar of the first rank.

Many of his fellow poets were in awe of his skills. When another Nobel poet and exile from totalitarianism, the Russian Joseph Brodsky, presented Mr. Milosz with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978, he said, ”I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz in one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”

Mr. Milosz was often described as a poet of memory and a poet of witness.

Terrence Des Pres, writing in The Nation, said of him: ”In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.”

In 1951, he was in Paris, on duty there as a Polish cultural attaché following elite assignments in the United States at the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. An urbane man fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French, Mr. Milosz had established close associations with leading left-wing intellectuals in Paris.
These diplomatic contacts were important to the Warsaw authorities, but Mr. Milosz, a skeptic about Marxist rule, was tipped off that he faced arrest and trial in the Stalinist purges then under way if he returned to Poland. So he denounced the Moscow-dominated system that was tightening its grip on his homeland and took political asylum in France.

Formulating a New ‘New Faith’

In his youth, Mr. Milosz had been drawn to some of the idealized aspects of Marxism but he rejected dictatorship. In large measure, he defected, he explained later, because of damage he saw inflicted on spiritual values and intellect by Communist dogma, which he scorned as the ”New Faith.” For Mr. Milosz, faith was something else, as he made clear in a 1985 poem under that title:

Faith is in you whenever you look

At a dewdrop or a floating leaf

And know that they are because they have to be.

Even if you close your eyes and dream up things

The world will remain as it has always been

And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.

Mr. Milosz detested Socialist Realism, the Soviet-contrived literary doctrine that distorted truth into propaganda to promote the political and ideological goals of the Communist Party.

Two years after defecting, Czeslaw Milosz, (pronounced CHESS-wahf MEE-wosh) published ”The Captive Mind,” a searing analysis of Stalinist tactics and their numbing effect on intellectuals. ”The Captive Mind” was translated and published in many countries, becoming itself a historical document.

In it, Mr. Milosz wrote:

”The philosophy of history emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New Faith.

”At the same time, Stalinism attacks him from within, saying his opposition is caused by his ‘class consciousness,’ just as psychoanalysts accuse their foes of wanting to preserve their complexes.”

”Still,” he added, prophetically, ”it is not hard to imagine the day when millions of obedient followers of the New Faith may suddenly turn against it.”

”The Captive Mind” was among a powerful group of books in the early 1950’s that condemned Communist ideology and foreshadowed the downfall of Communist power. A similar book was ”The New Class” by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident, which deplored self-aggrandizement and moral rot in the Communist leadership.

After his defection, Mr. Milosz explained in a speech: ”I have rejected the New Faith because the practice of the lie is one of its principal commandments, and Socialist Realism is nothing more than a different name for a lie.”

In the same year ”The Captive Mind” appeared, Mr. Milosz also published ”The Seizure of Power,” a fictionalized scrutiny of the relationship between Communism and intellectuals.

By 1960, Mr. Milosz had tired of his life amid leftist intellectual squabbling in France. Years later he would speak with acerbity of those in Western Europe who continued to regard the Soviet Union as the hope of the future, particularly those ”French intellectuals who considered that only a man who was insane could abandon his position of a writer in a people’s democracy in order to choose the capitalistic, decadent West.” He accepted a professorship in the Slavic Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

He became an American citizen and lived in the Berkeley hills in a modest house with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay. He celebrated that vista in his poetry (”Views From San Francisco Bay” in 1972), but he also spoke of the alien remoteness of the California landscape.

Mr. Milosz, with his bushy eyebrows, herringbone tweed jacket, wry humor and brilliant lectures was soon a popular figure on campus, especially in his seminars and lectures on Dostoyevsky. He continued to write verse, translated literary masterpieces into Polish and compiled a large volume, ”History of Polish Literature,” published in 1969.

The hardships and dangers in Mr. Milosz’s life, first under Nazi military terror and then under Communist oppression, followed by long years as an émigré in the West, clearly marked his writing.

”In both an outward and inward sense he is an exile writer, a stranger for whom physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical — or even religious — spiritual exile applying to humanity in general,” the Nobel Committee observed in 1980. ”The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry, prose and essays is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of Paradise.”

A Multilingual Boyhood

Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30, 1911, to a Polish-speaking family in Szetejnie, Lithuania, which together with Poland, Latvia and Estonia was part of the Russian empire at the time. The complex, multiethnic Baltic region was inhabited by communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Russians and others, all speaking their separate languages and living their own cultures.

His family was not rich but it was distinguished and intellectual. He was only 3 when World War I broke out, and his father, a civil engineer, served in the czar’s army, while his family was kept on the run from advancing German armies.

From his childhood on, Mr. Milosz had a rich inner life, reading widely. He also had a challenging array of talents, interests and skills. As a schoolboy, he was fascinated by the scientific world of animals.

But in the end, he enrolled in law school at the University of Vilnius, graduating at the age of 23. He worked several years in radio, and sometimes remarked in interviews that he felt guilty for having abandoned science.

Mr. Milosz traced the distinctive imagery of his poetry to his boyhood experiences in the rural countryside of Lithuania; his childhood is evoked in an autobiographical novel published in the United States as ”The Issa Valley” (1981) and in ”Native Realm,” an autobiography. In one of his essays he wrote: ”If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from I would say that its roots are in my childhood in Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible.”

The author Eva Hoffman, a native of Poland, said of him: ”He has never been a provincial artist. His writing may bear the marks of his particular Lithuanian-Polish past, but the material of his own life is filtered through a fully cultivated intelligence and probed to those depths at which individual experience becomes universal.”

He attended high school in the city of Vilnius, which by then had been transferred from Lithuania to Poland, and later restored to Lithuania, and published his first poem at the age of 15, He studied Latin for seven years in school, and in his Nobel acceptance speech credited that underlying linguistic discipline and classroom translations of poems with helping him to develop his mastery. He also learned Hebrew and Greek well enough to later translate the Bible into Polish.

Poetic Vision Born of War

At the age of 22, while attending law school, Mr. Milosz published his first experimental verse, ”Poem on Time Frozen.” Favorable reaction helped him win a state scholarship to study literature in Paris after he was awarded a law degree in 1934. A relative there, Oscar Milosz, who worked in the Lithuanian legation and wrote poetry in French, helped broaden his world outlook and shape his poetic style.

He returned to Vilnius after the publication of a second book of poems called ”Three Winters” but was fired from his job at a local Polish radio station for being too liberal. Mr. Milosz was working in Warsaw for Polish Radio when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939.

During the Nazi occupation, he worked in the Warsaw University Library, wrote for the anti-Nazi underground, heard the screams and gunfire in 1943 as Germans killed or captured the remaining Jews in the walled Ghetto and witnessed the razing of nearly all Warsaw after the uprising in 1944.

One of his most moving poems, ”A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” (1943), described the assault on the Jews:

Bees build around red liver,

Ants around black bone.

It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel,

silver, foam

Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls,


Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls

Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,

Ants build around white bone.

Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,

Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.

The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the


Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,

With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,

With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.

He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,

He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,

The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.

Bees build around a red trace.

Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.

He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch

Who has sat much in the light of candles

Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,

Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?

My broken body will deliver me to his sight

And he will count me among the helpers of death:

The uncircumcised.

After the war, a collection of poems called ”Rescue,” which showed the influence of T.S. Eliot, established him among Poland’s pre-eminent writers. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party he was accepted into the diplomatic corps in 1946 and began the journey that ended with his defection in 1951 in Paris.

Mr. Milosz chose throughout his life to compose his poetry in the complex but rich Polish language, even after he mastered French and English. Poetry can be true, he said, only if created in one’s mother tongue.

As his work won increasing attention and respect, Mr. Milosz developed close ties to many leading world intellectuals, writers, and political and religious leaders, especially to Pope John Paul II, his countryman and leader of his faith.

When he consulted on his plan to break with Communism, it was with no less a figure than Albert Einstein, who advised him during a talk at Princeton University that he should go home to Poland, not defect to the West to join the sad fate of exiles.

‘A Poet Remembers’

Mr. Milosz also knew Lech Walesa, the electrician who led the anti-Communist Solidarity movement and went on to become president of Poland. Lines from a verse by Mr. Milosz were put on a memorial in Gdansk to honor Mr. Walesa’s fellow shipyard workers who were shot by the police in the early 1970’s:

”You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure: for a poet remembers.”

When Communism was smashed in Poland, Mr. Milosz returned to what he called ”the country of my first immigration.” Arriving in Warsaw after an absence of three decades, he received a hero’s welcome. Mr. Milosz was regarded as one of the world’s literary immortals. When he chose, he walked and talked with the great men of his time, but he remained humble.

He also had a remarkable memory and could readily recall the names of his early teachers, companions and friends, and he remembered in vivid detail the first books he read, his adventures and mishaps. He demonstrated that acute memory in his 1968 book ”Native Realm, A Search for Self-Definition,” a compelling and mildly ironic account of his life, work and thoughts in the illuminating context of Baltic and family history.

Mr. Milosz enjoyed pleasures of the body as well as of the mind, as he acknowledged in his 1985 poem, ”A Confession,” translated by himself and Robert Hass:

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man? Many others

Were justly called, and trustworthy.

Who would have trusted me? For they saw

How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,

And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.

Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,

Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,

And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,

I know what was left for smaller men like me:

A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud.

A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

At times, Mr. Milosz fell into melancholy, but he firmly fended off any would-be therapists. His early poetry was in what was called the ”Catastrophist” school of the 1930’s, which foresaw the annihilation of the principal values of modern culture and a devastating war. His wartime ordeals tended in ways to bear out the forebodings.

Mr. Milosz was a man of quiet manner but strong opinions and he expressed them, sometimes to the distress of his admirers. For example, in a PEN congress talk he reminded his fellow writers, ”Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia — either progressive or reactionary, and always there were writers who provided convincing justifications for massacre.”

Reacting to the atrocities in the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990’s, Mr. Milosz blamed intellectuals more than politicians and generals.

”These people who had liberated themselves from Marxist doctrine very quickly became nationalists,” he said in 1996. ”And we see what happens now in Yugoslavia. In my opinion, intellectuals are responsible for the horrors in Bosnia, for they initiated the new nationalist tendencies there.”

Mr. Milosz was married twice. His first wife, Janina Dluska, shared his ordeals in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation and went into exile with him. She died in 1986. They had two sons, Anthony and John Peter, who survive him. In 1992, Mr. Milosz married Carol Thigpen, a historian. Ms. Thigpen died in 2003, The Associated Press said.

After Mr. Milosz was awarded the Nobel, many of his books were translated into English and published in the United States. Ecco Press gathered a half-century of his work in ”The Collected Poems 1931-1987.” In it is a 1986 poem called ”And Yet the Books,” which contained these lines:

I imagine the earth when I am no more:

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Spiritual Voice in a Ruined World

These selections are from ”Czeslaw Milosz: The Collected Poems, 1931-1987,” The Ecco Press, New York. 1988.


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder. Vilnius, 1936

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee


On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing,

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

There will be no other end of the world,

There will be no other end of the world. Warsaw, 1944

Translated by Anthony Milosz


Before Mary Magdalene, albescent in the dusk,

A skull. The candle flickers. Which of her lovers

Is this dried-up bone, she does not try to guess.

She remains like that, for an age or two

In meditation, while sand in the hourglass

Has fallen asleep — because once she saw,

And felt on her shoulder the touch of His hand,

Then, at daybreak, when she exclaimed: ”Rabboni!”

I gather dreams of the skull for I am it,

Impetuous, enamored, suffering in the gardens

Under a dark window, uncertain whether it’s mine

And for no one else, the secret of her pleasure.

Raptures, solemn oaths. She does not quite remember.

And only that moment persists, unrevoked,

When she was almost on the other side.

Berkeley, 1985, Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass




Written by Romel

May 4, 2018 at 4:33 pm

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Poetry Month’s last salvo, from Knopf

April, T.S. Eliot’s cruelest month, has finally bid us goodbye. With its passing, poetry month also ended. Knopf’s last feature for the month is yet another Polish master of the craft, with whom I am delighted to be acquainted for the first time:

* They Carry a Promise, the first collection in English of the poems
of the Polish master Janusz Szuber, who here ponders the duties of his


Written Late at Night

Almost all day I sat at the table
And, swapping two pens, wrote letters.
One of them, as a joke, was in gothic script.
I tried to be honest, avoid untruth
As far as the truth about myself and events
In their general contour was accessible to me.
Then a few longer phone conversations
And a short break to read eight poems by Cavafy.
How great! Superb! Who can write like that about desire and love,
Admitting that when they burn out
And the bitter tasting of the body is taken away,
They guide the poet’s hand. In them and only in them
All future incantations.

(Translation by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough)

Written by Romel

May 1, 2009 at 11:58 am

Posted in polish poetry, Szuber

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Another Beauty

I am trying to reconstruct the pieces from my old blog and here’s one that I particularly liked, an appreciation for a fine book I found in a booksale shop at SM Manila:

In Praise of a Poet of Tortured Beauty

The magazine Books and Culture tells us that the New Yorker’s special issue on 9/11 carried on the back page his poem, Try to Praise Our Mutilated World, and many people clipped the poem and posted it on refrigerator doors, sent it to grieving friends, read it in public gatherings, even quoted it in sermons. In the interview with B &C (August/September 2002 issue), the Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, explains that he wrote the poem long before the ghastly events at the World Trade Center took place; yet for many, it spoke of a way to cope with tragedy, of a world, which, though hideously imperfect, still offers us visions of hope:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(Translated by Renata Gorczynski)

The poet, who grew up in the ruins of postwar Poland, says the poem embodies “the experience of someone who tries to live and write,” one that “is very rich and encompasses the register of ecstasy, of joy,” indeed, of one, who, because he has accepted that the world we live in is wounded, finds reasons in the mundane details of the everyday to rejoice amidst its pains and sorrows. I find more of the musicality of this optimism in his book Another Beauty, which is a memoir that details his growth in his persona as a poet as well as a citizen. The title is taken from a poem from his first ever collection of poetry published in English, Tremor, and in this work, I readily see the dedicated predilection to acknowledge that beauty, yes, salvation, even if temporal, is found in recognition that relationships, and yes, community, matter:

We find comfort only in
another beauty, in others’
music, in the poetry of others.
Salvation lies with others,
though solitude may taste like
opium. Other people aren’t hell
if you glimpse them at dawn, when
their brows are clean, rinsed by dreams.
This is why I pause: which word
to use, you or he. Each he
betrays some you, but
calm conversations bides its time
in others’ poems.

(translated by Clare Cavanagh)

To me, this is, really, a hyperbole for community – where one comes face to face with the realization that the self, by itself, does not really amount to much outside his or her recognition of the beauty that the Other radiates. It is as well a call to the discipline of humility, for when we acknowledge that we are, by ourselves, inherently incomplete, we see the intrinsic worth of the lives of the Other; this insight, to me, is a theological wonder.

This appreciation for the Other is glimpsed in his recollection of a fellow dissident who fought against the communist dictatorship with him in Poland, Adam Michnik (an interesting study of character, as you can read here, and the founding editor of Poland’s largest daily newspaper, the Gazeta Wyborcza):

I first met (him) in Warsaw in 1973. I had already gotten to know many intellectuals in the opposition. Almost all of them spoke sotto voce, not exactly in a whisper, but in carefully modulated tones. Their caution was rational and justified; we all lived beneath the enormous roof of the secret police, our conscience had been rationalized, microphones might be hidden in the lamps, in the flowerpots that held seemingly innocent plants, in the walls themselves. We’d all head of stories about bugs concealed in chandeliers, in the tables and sofas. I knew people who kept their hands over their lips even at home, and who transmitted important information only on scraps of paper, which were then destroyed. Intellectuals fell into two camps, the conformists and the resisters, but even these resisted cautiously. Adam didn’t belong to this category. He couldn’t be placed in any standard, psychological or sociological bracket. He didn’t keep his voice down, he was loud and witty, he radiated courage and joie de vivre. He wasn’t a poet, he didn’t write poems. But he recited them: he knew scores of poems by heart, Milosz, Herbert, Slonimski. This wasn’t the main thing, though; all it takes is a good memory to quote poems. Something else was important. Adam was then, I think, one of the few happy people in Poland (and perhaps, in all of Eastern Europe).

I don’t mean the kind of private happiness that consists of finding a nice, pretty wife and an interesting, well-paid job, the happiness that comes from the consciousness that you are a healthy, decent, and useful individual. I have in mind the much rarer form of happiness that arises when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.

The mystery of Adam’s calling lay in its paradoxical nature. Adam drew upon his own anarchic needs and dreams whenever he confronted – so boldly, with panache and glee – the secret police, the Party, corrupt and well-fed prosecutors, dim-witted ministers. He was a joyous anarchist, tossing down his challenge to the vast apparatus of power. He wasn’t your typical anarchist, though; he stood for good and honorable things, he sided with right and justice (as they ought to be, not as they were).

A person like Adam who’d happened to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in an orderly bourgeois society, would no doubt have turned to dark and evil gods. He would have read and recognized De Sade and the other spiteful, downcast, bitter masters who’ve turned against the world. He would have praised doubtful powers, made his pact with Satan. In this world, though, Adam realized that he’d been given an extraordinary opportunity. He could be both good and furious at once, both negative and decent, critical and honest, maniacal and just. He could be a subversive, an anarchist, a revolutionary, and at the same time, a conservative defending basic human decency and order; the order in which we lived had squelched the ordinary, imperfect human world.

I came to know other dissidents later, but only a few shared Adam’s peculiarity, the mad joy he experienced being an upright anarchist, a reasonable revolutionary who had reconciled fire and water, the passion for destruction and the desire to build. What luck, to find in this world a calling both contradictory and genuine, impossible and actual, that fits one’s life like a suit cut by the finest tailor!

(Incidentally, there’s an interview with Michnik in the Spring 2004 issue of Dissent Magazine, where we read that the man has now become an ardent supporter of the US-led war in Iraq).

I like Zagajewksi’s definition of happiness, which you find “when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.” Much of the paralysis affecting many of us today precisely arises from this failure to locate with “pinpoint precision” what we are in this world for, though it can well be said that the deepest discontentment happens when we know what we are here for, but are unable to do anything about it.

Zagajewski, like his compatriot and literary model Czeslaw Milosz, belongs to a generation of Eastern European writers who clung on perilously to faith in the Transcendent in the face of a Marxist Police State. Perhaps, it’s the fact that Zagajewski comes from a country devoutly Catholic, where, as in East Germany, the church offered space for voices of dissent that drew strength from the deep mysteries of faith. In his book Another Beauty, I read of the city of his obsession, where he studied philosophy as a young man, Krakow, a city he knows by heart despite all these years, “a city cluttered with the massive clod of churches and convents, broad and heavy like aging peasant women gathering on a rainy autumn day.”

Here he writes of his agnostic uncle, who many years ago, regularly entertained in his home a young priest by the name of Karol Wojtyla to debate with him on the intricacies of belief, or the lack of it, in God. Here, he writes of his dislike for the nihilists, for Nietzsche, most of all, whom he calls “that splendid saboteur”:

As I read the bitter, ironic, modern writers, I ask myself: Why do we keep turning back to Nietzsche? There’s not doubt that they are Nietzsche’s offspring; they’re entranced by that great stylist, that splendid saboteur. And I ask myself: Apart from anxiety, apart from ironic, inspired sorrow, what have they got on their side? Since only a child would argue that on the one hand we have profound, witty, mocking geniuses, and on the other, relentless routine, mediocrity, the quotidian with its gray suits and dull poets, the dreariness of the orthodoxy and parliaments, the monotony of academic painters, clergymen with professionally pitched voices, churches, offices, banks, the international corporations that fund obedient professors who sing the praises of virtue, the family, and the balanced check-book. No, the situation is far more complex. On this side, too, you find despair in search of fire, clarity, affirmation, despair seeking expression and finding it, if at all, only at great cost. But after all, this isn’t a speech-and-debate competition!

Zagajewski’s uncle in old age, would return to the folds of faith. He wryly remarks of this as a victory for the young priest, who would later become Pope John Paul II, the first Pole, and the first non-Italian in a long, long time, to ascend to the throne of the Roman Pontiff – a fact that his countrymen relished no end, and celebrated with much fanfare.

Here, the poet writes of his love for music, which, he says, shares this common ground with poetry: poetry itself. Music, for him, is a poetic language that excites the emotion as well as the imagination: “Music out forth form and rhythm, it builds its airy structures on a substance as delicate as breath, as time.” Which is why as a student in Krakow, he was an ardent habitué of the concerts conducted by the city’s many music schools. (As a collector of vinyl records myself , I can identify with his pleasure at finding phonograph records being sold for a song in bargain music shops!).

Here, in Another Beauty, Zagajewski too, writes of his countless ruminations into the world of learning, yes of books, as a wide-eyed student enamored with a city with a long history, his favorite refuge being Krakow’s Jagiellonian Library where he spent countless hours reading two sets of books: the first, of those meant to please his professors, the second, of those meant for him. The first type consisted of textbooks, the second, of poems, stories, essays.

Inside that library, he says, he would meet the modern masters, people who not only did not believe in God, but had forsaken everything “noble and lofty;” yet he also discovered in the books of the old library people “who managed to combine in some astonishing fashion deep, unostentatious faith with a powerful sense of humor and an unacknowledged love of good that was active and practical.” He found in them the powerful truth that he himself “wasn’t alone in those old churches; and not all the other visitors belonged to the ranks of careless tourists using their cameras instead of their heads.” It was certainly a consolation for him to have found intellectual giants with whom he can discuss the “mysteries, the things that can’t be talked about.”

Yet being young, and consumed with the passion of youth, he somehow set these things aside for an urgent activism. But in the end, the confession comes that as an adult, he would rediscover what he said was his “earlier responsiveness to religion.” In that same library he found the works of Milosz, most of which had been banned by the State.

Milosz, too, would write of his slow but sure recovery of faith; though he might not be classed by the devout among the Poles as a practicing Roman Catholic, he had come, after an intense personal struggle with the collapse of the ideologies of his youth, to the inescapable conclusion that the only thing that really gave meaning to the human phenomenon is the idea of the Transcendent; in short, God. (When he died last September, Pope John Paul II, who had become close to him in his later years, would write a short note to fellow Poles who had questioned Milosz’s catholicity to assure them that yes, he died in the embrace of the church of his birth). I especially like Milosz’s ruminations on the French philosopher Simone Weil, an enigmatic figure in the annals of 20th century thinkers for her conversion from atheism to unorthodox Roman Catholic mysticism.

It seems to me that in the days of the Cold War, intellectuals in the West, because of the freedom from pain and want they enjoy in their capitalist milieu, and perhaps, because of a profound ennui arising from a pointless material comfort, can afford to live in the theater of the absurd they have constructed for themselves and their followers; their poor cousins in the East, however – in the dark realities of the Marxist Police States that have engulfed their countries – can only find hope and strength to go on with life and struggle in the faith of their forebears. I remember reading an account of how Harvey Cox (yes, the liberal theologian, now with Harvard Divinity School), was serving as a youth minister in Germany at the time when the country was being partitioned between the liberal democratic West and the communist East.

Cox spoke of having repeatedly smuggled volumes of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics into contacts in the East, at a time when the reigning theological rock stars in the so-called “Free World” were the Death of God theologians.

When asked why he chose the hefty but by then anachronistic works of the neo-orthodox theologian over those of the existentialists who proclaimed, after Nietzsche, that God is dead, he replied to the effect that it really was a choice between hope and hopelessness. He wanted to give the Christians in East Germany something solid to stand on; it was simply cruel and pointless to give them something that would only sink them deeper into despair. (The more fundamentalist of the lot, of course, would still fault Cox: why not smuggle the Bible instead?)

Of course, for today’s postmoderns, Cox’s logic makes a lot of sense, even in the absence of belief in the metaphysical worth of the claims of faith (whether or not God exists or that He offers real hope does not matter, as long as people find their lives cloaked with a new sense of purpose and meaning in these very assertions of faith). That, perhaps, is what someone like Rudolf Bultmann would call a Myth that must be De-Mythologized.

But back to Zagajewski, for whom the quest for the Transcendent is much like the sublime pursuit of poetry, which, he says, a poet rarely attains, if at all; “One can even imagine a poet who experiences the sublime and demand a high style to express it,” he writes, “but precisely because this is a rare event that requires patient waiting, in daily life he becomes one of poetry’s ironic prosecutors.

The poet believes it is the possibility of impossibility – the experience of the bliss of the sublime – that brings him back to the experience of the reality of the “painful world;” and where does it leave him, then, once the force of gravity pulls him back?

Here, to an essentially existentialist confession of the continuing yet seemingly unattainable struggle of life: “To wake and fall asleep, drowse off and waken, to pass through seasons of doubt, melancholy dark as lead, indifference, boredom, and then the spells of vitality, clarity, hard and happy work, contentment, gaiety, to remember and forget and recollect again, that an eternal fire burns beside us, a God with an unknown name, whom we will never reach.” Still, he struggles with hope, with the poetry of hope anchored on the tortured beauty around us – his “God of an unknown name” perhaps – though to the orthodox and evangelical, it may sound like an empty one (or to C.S. Lewis, yet another evocation of that “weight of glory” only a better world beyond the present reality could offer).

Written by Romel

June 14, 2008 at 3:55 am

with 2 comments

(Non)stirrings of the past

I feel a certain tug in the heart reading this poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska:


They say
the first love’s most important
but not my experience.

Something was and wasn’t there between us,
something went on and went away.

My hands never tremble
when I stumble on silly keepsakes
and a sheaf of letters tied with string —
not even ribbon.

Our only meeting after years:
the conversation of two chairs
and a chilly table.

Other loves
still breathe deep inside me.
This one’s too short of breath even to sigh.

Yet, just exactly as it is,
it does what others still can’t manage:
not even seen in dreams,
it introduces me to death.

– from the New Yorker Anniversary Issue (2004)
(translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

Written by Romel

June 2, 2008 at 2:54 pm

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