Czesław Miłosz: “Literature is a great vanity fair.”


rubensIt’s Czesław Miłosz‘s birthday today.  He would have been 103.  Somehow it didn’t seem right to write of anything else on this anniversary.  A friend, Artur Sebastian Rosman, asked me about a passage in the Nobel poet’s Native Realm.  Naturally, I couldn’t find it – somewhere in the house there is a monster who has eaten all the books I cannot find.  But I did find A Year of the Hunter, his 1987-88 diary that is addictive and easily digestible in small chunks – I have penciled passages and post-its all through the volume.

Here’s a page on vanity – no particular reason, except it was a theme he returned to more than once, and was marked in my book by a thick Verizon bill:


I have always thought that consciousness is therapeutic. That is, that it avoids repetition of what has once been assimilated, even to the extent that it is possible to ward off death, since we are conscious of the repetitive nature of death. This proves that my mind was mythologizing and childlike. How many printed pages have been devoted, for example, to human vanity! It has been analyzed this way and that, and to no avail; those who are most conscious of its subterfuges yield to it and lay themselves open to the mockery of their fellows who are clever at tracking down the faults of others, but not their own.

miloszVanity is one of the chief comic seasonings of the human spectacle; if one were to take away vanity and take away sex, not much would be left of natural, so to speak, humor. Maybe Eros is vain, and all vanity is erotic? Now my imagination suggests a treatise on mirrors. On a vast number, thousands, of mirrors, and on the faces that have looked at themselves in those mirrors. Teenage girls and mature women, the combing of hair, hour-long sessions thinking about noses, chins, curls, necklaces, and earrings, how I look today, how will he see me today, whether this dress is sufficiently flattering. Mirrors ought to retain at least a storehouse of glances left behind by all those beings, but there is not a trace. And then men! Predatory – conquering nostrils, overpowering sideburns, a look of irresistable male power, the preening of roosters.  It is easy to laugh; only we ourselves were once him and her.

hunterOther types of vanity; for example, authorial vanity … In old age, vanity seeks confirmation of our existence. That is, an intelligent essay or a book about our poetry reminds us that we did exist; after all, we did write – the consciousness of which, despite what one might think, is definitely not present at all times.

birthday cakeLiterature is a great vanity fair; just the sight of it evokes empty laughter and dread. The ranks of people who write poems, novels, plays grow with every year, but hte hopes of those who aspire to the profession are mostly deceptive, and among those who are published, the majority strut about in vain. What do they want? To be liked. Eros, just as in front of the mirror.


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