Archive for September 13th, 2011

Brodsky, Miłosz, Wilson, and me on “a big problem”

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
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A few stable points

Over at When Falls the Coliseum, columnist Frank Wilson‘s latest column, “We Need Techniques, Not Rules,” riffs on a few lines from my introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

I wrote:

When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about “être” and “devenir.” He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated.: “We are in a 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. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

Frank’s take on this is somewhat different than my own – read his thoughts here.

For my money, “être” is simply what we are, apart from fashions and superficial imitations. What T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world” can be a cop-out from the obligations imposed on us by choices, by the past and future. I like the simplicity and lack of wriggle room in Miłosz’s hallmarks:  “être” is characterized by a respect for a hierarchy that exists outside of time, and hearkens to a few stable points in history.  Miłosz used, for example, Joseph Brodsky‘s annual Christmas poem as the poet’s fixity, loyalty, and “respect for some stable points.”  (I reviewed the posthumous volume of Nativity Poems here.) 

Miłosz’s whole oeuvre is, from one angle, about precisely that, about “être.”

True confessions:  Miłosz referred to “être” and “devenir.” But I could very well have used the alternate term he used, and perhaps used more frequently, esse, a word that retains all its Thomist resonances. The editor in me got persnickety about pairing French with Latin, but I wonder if he would have preferred the Latin term.

Oh well.  Time to demur.  As I wrote: “Then he retreated to his initial reservations: ‘In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.’” Miłosz would have responded, of course, with a poem.

(My 2000 interview with the Nobel laureate was published in the Georgia Review here.)

Postscript on 9/14:  Hey!  A nice review in Choice here.  Excerpt:

The umbilicus of recollections delivers the poet to posterity. This collection is a must for everyone aspiring to know Miłosz and his work. Summing Up: Highly recommended.