Milosz in prose

So Czeslaw Milosz finally kicked off (thanks to Siona for the link). He was 93! I find it encouraging that someone so fundamentally dour could live so long. It challenges our idiotic pseudo-Christian cultural predilection to look askance at anyone who dares to utter a discouraging word.

In the last year he lived in the United States, Milosz kept a journal subsequently published as The Year of the Hunter (translated by Madeline Levine, FSG, 1994). On March 30, 1988, Milosz contrasted his worldview with that of the hugely influential Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz:

Do you really like Gombrowicz’s novels and plays? Now, be honest! No. I don’t envy him his having written them; I would not wish to be their author. Do they disturb me? Yes. Because if people really exist only for other people, if the cocoon we have spun vanished in a cosmos about which we can say nothing, not even whether it exists (at most, that it exists in our minds), if this is so, then perhaps we really do live in hell. My anxiety derives from my thinking of Gombrowicz as a modern writer, so that I have to consider myself old-fashioned. A polite little boy who believes in a dear little God, who tries to avoid sin, encounters an uncivilized rapscallion who sticks out his tongue and thumbs his nose at the authorities of two millennia. In the final analysis, what I can oppose to Gombrowicz comes straight from the strorehouse of ancient concepts:

“The world exists, not just in my mind.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because it is observed by God.”

. . . I have a tremendous need to go outside of myself, beyond my persona; the more I am aware of my aging organism, the stronger is this need, this desire to be somehow a part of God’s thoughts when he observes the world, a need for perfect objectivity, for a sphere that endures independently of people’s fleeting interconnections. I have tested this; my poetry is like that, it moves outward, it travels beyond me. The ideal: to be able to say that, although things are not good with me, the world endures and moves along its path, and in this world, despite all its ghastliness, there is another side, a true side, a lining visible to the eyes of Divinity. In other words, my quarrel with Gombrowicz really revolves around his “argument about the existence of the world”; that is, his stubborn denial of assertions that something other than our perceptions exists. That is one of his attacks on objective truth. The other is the way that people entangle themselves in a single interconnected body; hence, the truth is always their truth, God is their God.

Milosz’s view was essentially tragic. Later in the same entry, describing a Palm Sunday mass, he muses on his feeling of identification with millions of other believers over the centuries, and his intuition that a figure like Christ is necessary because “every individual is alone with his threshold of pain, of dereliction, and I in my egotism am unable to enter into my fellow man.”

A day later (April 1), Milosz references the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani, whose critique of Sartre and Nietzsche for their “subjectivization of atheism” also seemed to fit Gombrowicz.

What remains is to reflect on the virtually inescapable conclusions of extraordinary intellects like Gombrowicz (because, after all, Sartre and Gombrowicz arrive at the same conclusion independently of each other), and to consider also the probability that the post-Christian West opens to the philosophy of the East where the subject-object problem is crossed out.

Farewell, old prophet.

For appreciations of Milosz as a poet, see the cassandra pages, the vernacular body and languagehat. And be sure to check out Siona’s recollection of a classroom visit by Milosz linked to above.

Back on January 26, I quoted from Milosz’s appreciation of a poem by Izumi Shikibu, also in A Year of the Hunter.

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