Confronting nothingness

Milosz: A Biography, Andrzej Franaszek, Belknap/Harvard

Poetry may seem like a quaint pastime these days, but in the twentieth century literary art, like faith, was seen as a counter to totalitarianism, an upholding of the nobler aspects of life that cultivated goodness in humanity, against the inhumanity of war, and a vehicle for truth-telling against lies from governments and other tyrannies.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian-born Polish poet, won the Nobel Prize in Literature partly for championing the worth of individual lives in the face of the twentieth century’s horrors. Milosz lived through World War II, where he witnessed first the Nazis then the Soviets rolling through Poland. After the war he defected to Paris and then the US, and was criticised by both left and right for leaving Poland, though decades later, after years of feeling alienated, he discovered his poetry had been an underground inspiration during the Soviet occupation years.

He became famous for The Captive Mind, one of the best criticisms of Stalinism in book form, though he was also disgusted by the materialism and inequality of capitalism and the spiritual emptiness it generated in the US. As his friend Thomas Merton noted, Milosz tried to tread the necessary but narrow middle path, partly inspired by his Catholic faith. His relationship with the Polish Church was rocky, but he treasured it as a counterbalance to the forces that were suppressing truth and individuality. Although he made his own translations of parts of the Bible into Polish for the sake of freshness and relevance, he was a traditionalist in some ways, regretting the change to the vernacular mass.

Clive James writes in his Cultural Amnesia that Milosz loved the language of the Church but couldn’t believe its doctrines, but this is rubbish. Milosz wavered at times, but affirmed his belief, among other places in a letter to John Paul II, a figure he admired, in such traditional doctrines as the resurrection. He was dismayed at the American modernisation of the faith, which included dropping belief in Hell and the Devil. Affluent Americans saw little relevance in such medieval doctrines, but Milosz believed he saw manifestations of evil first-hand in Europe and felt that the shallowness of American faith showed a certain naivety towards evil.

Andrzej Franaszek notes in this biography that Milosz confronted the grand themes of twentieth century history, but was wary of generalisations, which is why Milosz’s poetry contains striking details. For Milosz there is dignity, wonder and significance in the way an individual lives life, rather than in just the cumulative effect of many lives. He was wary of the Marxist idea of life being boiled down to historical determinism. (Mind you, he also hated the determinism of capitalist consumerism.) Poetry for Milosz was more than just aesthetic technique, but it was also not to serve the purposes of ideology. Poetry should capture beauty as apprehended by individuals in order to validate the individual and the human. His poetry continually suggests that there are larger forces at work in the universe but human beings are not just flotsam in the currents of these forces.

His faith reassured him of that fact. He counted theology as the most important influence on his poetry. Faith for him was not merely ethical behaviour but a comforting metaphysical response to an encroaching nothingness (a feeling so prevalent in the twentieth century and in twentieth century art), with which Milosz seemed to be dealing for most of his life.

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