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Black Lamb


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Poet and model

June 1st, 2003


Czeslaw Milosz. I have long admired this Polish poet and essayist, and so I was greatly pleased when in 2001 a splendid selection of his essays was published under the title To Begin Where I Am. The same year also saw his New and Collected Poems (1931—2001). Born in 1911 in Szetejnie and raised in Wilno in present-day Lithuania, he was there in 1939 when the Soviets invaded, while Hitler simultaneously invaded Poland. He lived through the horrors of the war in Poland. miloszAfter the war, as part of the Polish intelligentsia, he tried to make a life for himself in his own nation and was part of the diplomatic core of Communist Poland’s postwar government. He was posted in Washington until 1951. In that year he defected to the West and lived in Paris in a Polish exile community for the next nine years. In 1960 he took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, as professor of Slavic literature. Since then he has lived and worked in the United States, spending half-years recently in Krakow. In 1980, at the age of seventy, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. He is still writing at the age of ninety-two.

It is not possible for me to express the importance of Milosz in my own life of thought without this barebones geographical summary of his life. He literally registered in his person virtually the whole of the twentieth century. And all the while he wrote poetry and essays that were profound and challenging meditations on our times.

He has been a model for me of something I want to do in my own life, even if on a lesser scale and with less talent. Milosz has sought to be a player in the culture of his times using the strong insights of his Catholic faith and its wisdoms. For decades he wrote without being explicit about this. He knew he had to weigh in with the best and hold his own by virtue of his craft. He succeeded in doing so, as the Nobel prize indicates. But in his old age he began to reflect more openly on what the role of his faith had been in his writing, and he used his acquired authority to express a protest. His protest gives me the courage to find ways of sharing what I so want to share as a player, however minor, in the culture of my times.

As an example of the sort of sally typical of Milosz, consider the following: “To write on literature or art was considered an honorable occupation, whereas any time notions taken from the language of religion appeared, the one who brought them up was immediately treated as lacking in tact, as if a silent pact had been broken. Yet I lived at a time when a huge change in the contents of the human imagination was occurring. In my lifetime Heaven and Hell disappeared, the belief in life after death was considerably weakened.” Later he concludes, “How could I not think of this? And is it not surprising that my preoccupation was a rare case?”

Milosz does not preach. He communicates a life formed by his faith. He has also struggled enormously with doubt in the face of the tremendous suffering he has seen and felt. He has the true poet’s gift for glorying in life’s countless little splendors. As one struggling beside the other members of his race, he says, “Ought I to try to explain ‘why I believe’? I don’t think so. It should suffice if I attempt to convey the coloring or tone. If I believed that man could do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts… Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually. One can draw momentous conclusions from this.”

In expressing my admiration for Milosz, I am acknowledging how he helps me define my own project. I want to try to draw out the momentous conclusions found in “the resistance of tiny kernels of good.” •

Posted by: The Editors
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