For a moment, let me return to the Aula in Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum. (In fact, I must return to it in more than a literary sense in just a few minutes, when I go to meet a leading Miłosz scholar and Jagiellonian professor Aleksander Fiut).
Artur Sebastian Rosman, in a paper on Czesław Miłosz and Hans von Balthasar, recalled his own “first encounter with an honest-to-God, no holds barred, direct American reception of Milosz’s work and its religious dimension”:
It took place at an evening poetry discussion at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. It was a meeting devoted to [Miłosz’s] Second Space, which had recently appeared in English. All, and I mean all, of the Americans there were convinced that Miłosz was most likely a postmodern spiritual seeker, probably much like them, possibly fascinated by archetypes, certainly spiritual, and definitely not religious. Had Miłosz been there he might have recycled the words he hurled at Kisiel in A Year of the Hunter, “[They don’t] take into account a particular, quite fundamental fact: all my intellectual impulses are religious and in that sense my poetry is religious.” No such luck. Yet, unbeknownst to me, I had an ally who was in on the joke Miłosz was playing, in absentia, upon this poor but sincere American audience. This stranger/ally clearly had an Eastern European accent and he kept taking up my cause. He kept waving the flag of Miłosz as a homo religiosus and, anathema sit, a practicing Catholic! We quoted poems from Second Space, made reference to his other work, and cited countless details of his biography. All to no avail. I’m convinced the Americans thought we were trying to play an inverse Polack joke on them.
His comments meshed quite nicely with my own reflections from An Invisible Rope. I cited one of my contributors, Natalie Gerber, Miłosz’s former assistant in Berkeley, now an associate professor at SUNY-Fredonia, where she teaches the poetry of Miłosz, among others:
The students come from a range of majors and, not infrequently, are intimidated by or resistant to reading poetry. Few have much experience with verse, and almost none have read poetry that overtly wrestles with conscience and historical circumstance, as does Miłosz’s, or, for that matter, poetry that requires its reader to work as hard as his does to understand both its literal meaning and its ethical import. … used to a culture that conditions all of us to read carelessly—they misread it and mistake its core lessons, its vital distinctions, at who knows what cost. … [they] don’t presume that the morally complex and personally engaged stances taken by the speakers in Miłosz’s poems are even possible.
It alarms me that we are increasingly unable as a society to meet an authors on their own terms, in their own times. We make them “like us” and therefore fail to mark, learn, and inwardly digest from earlier modes of thinking, of being. We need not live wholly in our own era and subscribe to all its follies and fashions – we have an historical and international palette to choose from. These thoughts always return me to Robertson Davies‘ What’s Bred in the Bone, where the protagonist, a Canadian painter, cannot relate to the modern era and instead creates new masterpieces of the early Renaissance, which only after his death are revealed to be “fakes” – but are they? An extreme and admittedly arguable case, but Miłosz argued more simply for the world of Thomistic esse. As he said to me in 2000 on Grizzly Peak:
“We are in an era of flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.”“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Post-modernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”
At the end of his talk, Artur said: “Milosz is almost universally recognized as a poet of wartime atrocities, the problem of evil and the ugliness of modernity, however, we should not make the mistake of identifying his frequent references to these 20th century phenomena as a preference for them. Just like René Girard is not an aficionado of violence.”
Of course, I thought he was joking, and we both laughed about it afterward. Except him. No, it’s not a joke, he said. After such books as Violence and the Sacred, René Girard told a colleague that enthusiastic readers were sending him slasher films, because they thought the mild-mannered and highly civilized Académie Française scholar would enjoy them.
I rest my case.