Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

A book is born! A celebratory lunch for “‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in California” with publisher, friend Steve Wasserman

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
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The Bandol Rosé was excellent.

A toast, a book, and bon appétit with Steve Wasserman at Chez Panisse. He promised me a celebratory repast for my National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar grant, and he delivered. The book that I will undertake during 2018-19 will be “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California.

What did it mean for one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20th century for to spend most of his career in California? In a 1975 poem “Magic Mountain” the lonely exile expressed his isolation and alienation this way:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
.
But he also grew to love it, even as he criticized it – and he had a career here that would have been impossible in Communist Poland.

At Chez Panisse, we demonstrated some contrary California spirit with a French wine – a 2015 Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier. Steve told me it is one of the favorites of Chez Panisse founder and chef, the legendary Alice Waters, an old friend.

He worked quickly.

He recalled stories about his good friends Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, and the experience of coming back to California after decades away, his most recent port-of-call at Yale University Press, where he was editor at large. I also recalled the Polish poet’s own adventures at Chez Panisse, as related by Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. 

And I retold something that poet Robert Hass, a California native, once said after I mentioned I had grown up in Michigan. He paused a moment, and said, “Then your eye must be always searching for a shade of green it never finds here.” And so it does.

We talked about California – land of endless invention, miraculous weather, and addictive sunshine. Everywhere else is something of a disappointment. He recalled traveling through the Catskills as a child, and the adults pointing out the “mountains.” “Where?” he asked eagerly. “There!” they said. “I don’t see them!” “Over there.” Those were hills, he told me scornfully, “eroded stubs!” He pulled out a pen and swiftly drew a picture on the paper tablecloth. This, this is a mountain: snow at the top, timberline, hills at the bottom. The Sierras.

What did we eat? Normally I don’t say, but … Chez Panisse. I ordered the fettuccine with chanterelles, gremolata, and Parmesan; Steve had the summer vegetable tagine with shell beans, couscous, yogurt, and chermoula. I started with the baked andante dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces, he had the fennel and rocket salad with crème fraîche, mint, figs, and toasted almonds. We shared a bittersweet chocolate pavé with caramel ice cream and candied hazelnuts. No, we didn’t take any photos of our food. And yes, we had to ask the waiter what some of these words meant.

And I left with a celebratory gift from Steve: Heyday’s best-selling The California Field Atlas by Obi Kauffman, and a catalog of books-to-come. Spirit of the Place won’t be in it for a while yet.

Congratulations to me! I’m a 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar”!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018
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The news is out! I’m a brand-new 2018 National Endowment for the Humanities “Public Scholar.” It is obviously a great honor, and I am thrilled beyond words. The letter of announcement is here and list of recipients is here. The Washington Post story is here. As for the project I will be undertaking as an NEH Public Scholar:

“I did not choose California. It was given to me,” wrote Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. His attempt to come to grips with California was a lifelong psychological journey, and one that changed America as well as the poet himself. This story will be told in “The Spirit of the Place”: Czesław Miłosz in California, a book that was born in a British Academy talk I gave in London, 2012. It is the first book-length study to consider the Lithuanian-born Polish poet as an American.

The Berkeley poet.

It all started at a Christmas party, a year-and-a-half ago, when I was still knee-deep in bringing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard to press (Wall Street Journal review is here).  Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Time Book Review when it was the best in the nation, and more recently editor-at-large for Yale University Press, was returning to his rodina, Berkeley. He had just taken the helm at Heyday Books – in his words, “a unique cultural institution that promotes awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures and boundary-breaking ideas. Through well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, Heyday seeks to build a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”

We had spoken on the phone, we had emailed each other, but we had never actually met face to face until that chilly night on December 17, 2016.

The setting was Heyday’s cozy offices on University Avenue, only a mile from Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant that is Steve’s second home. Heyday was a rabbit warren of booklined walls and dark wood paneling. Old Berkeley at its best. (It’s since had to move house, alas.)

That night, the corridors were crowded with chattering people and the tables laden with a lavish spread of potluck offerings. The band performing by the entryway made conversation improbable. Nevertheless, Steve and I found a quiet room to chat, and he told me about his new publishing initiative at Heyday called “California Lives.”

In his words again: “The series will consist of book-length biographical essays on the men and women who, taken singly and together, have built a state which is a source of relentless reinvention, a magnet for peoples the world over who have sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility.” He wondered if I had any ideas.

“Yeah, what about Czesław Miłosz?” I suggested. But … he’s Polish, he answered. “Well, we’re all from somewhere else, aren’t we?” I answered – it’s especially true in California. And, after all, the Nobel poet was a U.S. citizen – UC Berkeley’s first and only Nobelist in the humanities. Steve’s brow furrowed. But didn’t he dislike the U.S.?  And California, for that matter? Consider his arguments about Robinson Jeffers. “What could be more American than opposition?” I answered. “We’re all protesting something.” He loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Jeffers, and he engaged American culture – while always remaining ambivalent about it. I had the expertise to advance the argument: I’ve written a welter of articles about Miłosz, and have two volumes about him to my credit, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAnd I’m a longstanding Californian – though across the Bay from Miłosz’s (and Steve’s) Berkeley.

Steve was won over. Here’s what he wrote about the poet in a publisher’s statement for the NEH: “He is emblematic of a host of mid-century émigrés who sought refuge from the calamities of the twentieth century in California. It is a state that is both a place and a state of mind whose literature reflects a range of affection and unease. Miłosz’s contribution to that literature is a red thread that runs through some of his most important work, but is curiously neglected in most of the critical commentary. Heyday aims to correct that omission.”

Steve has another reason to be drawn to the subject: “I confess a personal stake in his story. I grew up in Berkeley and went to high school with his two sons. I spent time in his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Later, when I was deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion section I was among the first to interview him when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.”

Steve has also been a longstanding champion of the proposed author of the book, too. Let me conclude with some praise for my humble self:

Thank you, Steve.

“Cynthia Haven’s writing on East European and Central European writers is superb, as I know from my years publishing her reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, as a longtime resident of California, she brings to bear a deep understanding of the state and its paradoxes. She is alive to irony and knows the virtues of a short declarative sentence. She is remarkably clear without neglecting nuance. She embraces the Eros of the difficult and translates it into terms that can be grasped by ordinary readers. Her perspicacity, diligence, and acute intelligence are ideal for this necessary book on Miłosz. She will help Californians in particular, and Americans more generally, enter Miłosz’s mostly unfamiliar but remarkably influential and important world. Her gifts as a researcher and writer—indeed, as a cultural journalist—are very nearly unrivaled in this arena.”

Steve was almost as pleased as I was by the NEH honor. And of course he suggested we celebrate at Chez Panisse soon, soon…

Adam Zagajewski and “the battle to imbue life with maximal meaning”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
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A distinctive, insistent, civilized stance.

Adam Zagajewski is an absolutely foundational figure for many of us – not only because of his own poems and essays, but for his quietly insistent, civilized stance towards a world that teeters on the edge of chaos – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. I once asked him, in an email interview a dozen years ago, what do we do in a world that seems to be averting its face from the non-consumerist values of reading, literature, poetry, philosophy? His reply: “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.” It’s starting to sound like a good idea. Yet he remains in Kraków, and I stay put in Palo Alto.

So it was a privilege to review Slight Exaggeration, his book-length essay on… oh, just about everything. It’s up today at The Weekly Standard (and on the home page, too, no less). Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

Gone, but still with us…

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

The recurring Romanian…

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

The battle for clear vision…

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapskis integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Tomas Venclova in the TLS: “All will end well, but I will not see it.”

Friday, February 2nd, 2018
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A “historical optimist” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

My review of  Lithuanian poet, essayist, and freedom fighter Tomas Venclova‘s Magnetic North, “No Pigeons in the Attic,” is featured in this week’s Times Literary Supplement here. Readers of the Book Haven will recognize the name of the eminent European intellectual, although it is, in general, too little recognized on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. Magnetic North is a book-length Q&A with translator Ellen Hinsey, recapping his life, his art, and his nation’s turbulent history.

A few excerpts from my piece:

He rejects the romantic notion that a poet’s work only thrives in his or her homeland. “It would be absurd to maintain that a writer needs permanent contact with his or her native soil and withers when deprived of it”, he says, citing Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov and Brodsky among the dislocated Russians; Mickiewicz, Norwid, Miłosz and Gombrowicz among the Poles. He finds something fortunate even in exile, and seems to enjoy the role of lucid observer: “As a rule, one sees the general contours of the country’s development more clearly if one is not embroiled in local squabbles. For  an ‘outsider,’ these contours are projected on the larger screen of history”. But his international wanderings have not eroded his love of country – he has written three books on Vilnius, one of them the most commercially successful of his long career. He likens his beloved capital to a European Jerusalem. “I once said that these heterogeneous, asymmetric, and extraordinary buildings kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization”, he recalls. “I still believe this.”

***

Lithuanian, the native tongue of 3 million people, continues to fascinate and sustain him, as it is “not only archaic, but rich and sonorous, virtually on a par with the Greek of Homer and Aeschylus. To me, as a poet, this has been rewarding”. He likens its rough phonetics to feldspar, adding that it has retained an archaic vocabulary and grammatical structure akin to preclassical Latin of the third century BC. And, Venclova points out, while it is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic, it is the only one of them that  is still alive. It nearly was not so. In the nineteenth century, it was in serious decline, like Gaelic or Welsh. Venclova compares it to the former, another archaic language that embodies an ancient past. Neighbouring Poland views Lithuania the way the English view Scotland, as wild and untamed, with “more primeval forests and a valiant but not-too-civilized people”.

***

And the historical winner is…

Venclova has described himself as an “historical optimist”, which he characterizes thus: “All will end well, but I will not see it”. He views with dismay the growing nationalism that is threatening the cosmopolitanism he embraces. He notes that everyone in the twentieth century was a “loser” – Franz Joseph, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill, even Mahatma Gandhi. All except for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, an obscure Serbian nationalist: “The only winner was Gavrilo Princip, since his mentality has survived – indeed, it has resolutely endured”.

 Read the rest here.  As for the title,  “No Pigeons in the Attic,” well … read the article.

Postscript on 2/21: And some nice feedback in the TLS letters column, as tweeted:

Great news! Rome revokes Ovid’s exile!

Friday, December 15th, 2017
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Come back, Ovid! All is forgiven! Whatever you did!

According to a report from ANSA,  the Rome city council yesterday revoked the Emperor Augustus‘s direct order exiling the poet from the city. It’s a little late: the poet died 2,000 years ago, in the year 17 or 18 A.D. He was between 58 and 60 years old.

The motion came from the ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), which said it wanted to “repair the serious wrong suffered” by Publius Ovidius Naso, the the author of the Metamophoses and the Art of Love.

Ovid, one of the three canonical Roman poets along with Virgil and Horace, was exiled to a remote Black Sea town, Tomis, in today’s Romania, in 8 AD, in one of the mysteries of literary history. [Ettore Ferrari’s statue of Ovid in modernday Constanta at right.]

Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

According to a local website, the council unanimously approved the motion, which calls for “necessary measures” to be adopted to repeal the exile order, Repubblica reported. However, only the M5S took part in Thursday afternoon’s vote.

Rome’s deputy mayor and councillor for culture Luca Bergamo said the decision was “an important symbol because it’s about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in a society in which the freedom of artistic expression is more and more repressed”.

Ovid has previously been acquitted by a court in Sulmona, the Abruzzo town where he was born, which passed its verdict onto Rome authorities.

Ovid wrote several poetry collections describing the pain of banishment. I wrote a little about this in my 2011 Kenyon Review piece about two other exiles, Nobel poets Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz:

According to a legend, Ovid wrote poetry in the language of the Gatae during his long exile on the Black Sea coast. “Brodsky would be an heir to that tradition, although his exile was not as dramatic as that of the Roman poet” (242), [Irena] Gross writes. She suggests Ovid may have been a literary “genotype” for Brodsky (285).

The pattern of Ovid, exiled for nobody knows what, may have absorbed Brodsky even earlier than generally supposed. I remember the poet in a melancholy mood in 1975. He asked me if I had read Ovid’s Tristia. I hadn’t, but got the book from the University of Michigan library, eager to please him. It’s still with me, with its sedate green cover and dog-eared edges, with exiled Ovid keening:

I am a Roman poet—forgive me, my Muses, forgive me—
 And I am forced to say many things in Sarmatian speech.
(Book vii, 11. 55-56)

Judy Stone interviewing Miłosz: In the West, “everything can be explained away; everything is relative.”

Monday, October 9th, 2017
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I had looked forward to meeting Judy Stone, The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. She wasn’t solely a film buff. The passionate advocate for world cinema also published a number of stunning interviews with leading figures in literature and culture.

While going through old boxes of papers, I stumbled across a xerox I’d made of her excellent and insightful interview with Nobel poet laureate Czesław Miłosz, which was included in her 2006 Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books, the World. I googled her, and learned she was still alive and living in the Bay Area … but not for long. The celebrated critic died in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 6, of natural causes.

An excerpt from the interview:

In his Nobel address, Miłosz referred to the number of published books that have denied that the Holocaust ever took place, suggesting that it was invented by Jewish propagandists. “If such an insanity is possible,” he asked, “is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering and/or poisoning of the natural environment?”

Such a loss of memory is probable, he reasons. Referring to the television miniseries Holocaust, he asks with a sense of horror: “Do people really have to see reality changed into melodrama to come a little closer to visualizing how it really was?”

Are we losing memory?

Miłosz has played a role in stimulating different levels of consciousness in Poland – for instance, through his 1958 translation into Polish of the writing of Simone Weil. …

“I have been influenced by Weil in a profound way,” Miłosz says. “Primarily because of her very deep concern with evil. That was her main preoccupation: suffering, pain, the evil of the world. This goes back to my preconceptions when I was a schoolboy. I was interested in heresies which were concerned with evil and with suffering, and Simone Weil is a slightly heretical writer.”

Miłosz’s preoccupation with Weil and Dostoevsky is linked to his meditations on the figure of Job, who dared to question God but whose faith withstood the test of all calamities.

“Job is at the center of Weil’s attention, and I quote at length from her in my introduction to the Book of Job. We are again close to the Book of Job with Dostoevsky. It plays a crucial part in the structure of The Brothers Karamazov. I have never taught other Russian writers. Only Dostoevsky. I laughingly tell my students that Dostoevsky, who hated Poles and Catholics, is taught by a man who is very far from Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox views. But I’m fascinated by those deeply felt contradictions in Dostoevsky and his sensitivity to the question of evil. So you see, we are always turning around the same problem.”

“Only Dostoevsky.”

I ask if he sees the world in terms of good and evil.

“Unfortunately, I guess I do,” Miłosz replies. “I have a very clear, very strong feeling of opposed forces of good or evil. It’s something which you acquire only through experience and very elemental. That’s precisely the gist of what Nadezhda Mandelstam says in her memoir. This is characteristic of her and of Solzhenitsyn and all who went through misfortune, affliction. In those extreme situations, good and evil acquire elemental force. Western civilization is losing that clear distinction: Everything can be explained away; everything is relative. In dramatic circumstances, you feel clearly the good forces and the demonic forces in action.”

***

I ask if his wartime experiences in Poland had influenced his decision to translate the Bible.

“To some extent, my memories elude my consciousness,” Miłosz replies. “I suspect it’s been operating on a much deeper level of horror, so translating the Bible is a quite logical way of coping with some subconscious things … like dreams.”

“Nothing is as it was…To understand nothing”: Julia Hartwig, “the Grand Dame of Polish Poetry,” 1921-2017

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
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At her house in Warsaw, 2011 (Photo: Humble Moi)

The poet Julia Hartwig was buried in Warsaw today. That was the first news I heard. Then I learned that she had died in her sleep on July 13, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where her daughter lives. A shock, but not a surprise.

She was the “Grand Dame of Polish poetry”  – so said the president of Poland, but it’s hardly the first time the tag was applied to her. Czesław Miłosz said it decades before. I’ve written about her here and here and here. Or you can read about her in my own 2011 article in World Literature Today. To my best knowledge, it is the only interview with the poet in an English-language publication. It was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.

She was buried today next to her husband, the poet and translator Artur Międzyrzecki. She was 95.

She was my friend in Warsaw – more than that, my psychological north star in that reconstructed city. We met at the suggestion of Adam Zagajewski, and the introduction was made by Marek Zagańczyk of Zeszyty Literackie.  I would visit her on my return to Poland, either at her home in Warsaw or in Kraków, at the Czesław Miłosz centenary.

The photo at above was taken at our first meeting in 2008, after Marek guided me on foot through the backstreets of Warsaw at dusk of a hot August day. She was a gracious hostess. She always had a glass of wine and at least a light meal or snack prepared for me – and on that day, she also gave me a hardcover copy of In Praise of the Unfinished, newly published in English. Her accented English was formal but fluent,  for she and her husband had spent years in America on the academic circuit. She told me of the war years – she had been a courier for the Home Army during the German Occupation, and as a teenager, was tipped off that the Gestapo were looking for her. She had to walk out of the city with the clothes on her back. (I write about her description of that experience and others in World Literature Today article, again here.)

I wondered if that sense of a vanished life, disappearing in an instant that was fixed in fear, left a poetic mark on her – as shown in lines like this one, from “Return to My Childhood Home”:

Amid a dark silence of pines – the shouts of
young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was. . . .
To understand nothing. Each time in a
different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the
past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Julia before, and still…

As Rita Signorelli-Pappas wrote while reviewing In Praise of the Unfinished in World Literature Today, “Although Julia Hartwig, like her fellow Polish poets, suffered and survived the constraints that postwar communism imposed on personal freedom, the experience has not irrevocably darkened her poems, which continue to affirm natural beauty and childlike wonder. In ‘Return to My Childhood Home,’ what is too painful to be understood is firmly held in counterpoise with remembered contentment.”

From the Signorelli-Pappas review again:

What gives Hartwig’s poems their unusual freshness is her lightness of touch—she seems able to effortlessly balance the real and the mythic. In “Philemon and Baucis,” she presents a modern epilogue to the Ovidian myth. A husband who distractedly listens to his wife’s shuffling footsteps in the middle of the night suddenly becomes disoriented and asks, “Is this shuffling real, or is it only a memory, in the past, in nonexistence?” In Ovid, the couple’s generosity to the gods was rewarded with a gift that froze them in eternal union, but Hartwig’s poem suggests an elastic, reversible sense of time in which the present looks back at the past and the past points forward to the present.

I have one quibble with my own photograph, and the images included in the Polish news coverage: why do we always honor the dead with photos of decrepitude and old age? The smaller photo above is also Julia, and equally her, and equally the way we should remember her.

I made a habit of celebrating her birthday with a phone call to Warsaw or a blogpost. Her birthday wasn’t hard to remember – it was the same birthday as my own mother, and of Miłosz’s death: August 14. Her birthday greeting this year went unanswered.

Warsaw poet Julia Fiedorczuk and “the only solid ground for empathy”

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017
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“The vulnerability of bodies” (Photo: Radek Kobierski)

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Yesterday was the anniversary of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz‘s death. What better way to celebrate his legacy than to note the influence he’s had on a younger generation?

In his later years, the Polish maestro worked on translating the Psalms into Polish – he even taught himself Hebrew for the task. The result became a classic in the Polish language. And the endeavor bore fruit in his own poetry. His last poems are redolent with the cadences of the Psalms, along with their timeless spirit of grief and hope.

His psalms, and the effort to recreate them, have inspired others – notably the Warsaw poet Julia Fiedorczuk. “I gradually started studying the Hebrew originals with the help of a friend who knows Hebrew. I also looked at other translations into Polish – many Polish poets have translated the Psalms.”

“I’m attracted to Psalms because they express an attitude of gratitude and trust, even though some of them are written from the depth of despair,” she wrote me. “It is a desperate moment for the world right now, and in my Psalms I focus on contemporary problems. I also attempt to articulate a kind of post-religious metaphysics rooted in the experience of the vulnerability of bodies (human and non-human), which I believe to be the only solid ground for empathy.”

“My Psalms do relate to the originals, some very loosely, some a bit more closely. Sometimes they contain quotes (the Polish versions will allude to Miłosz’s versions). My Psalm 25 is a kind of ‘translation.’ Sometimes the allusion is only thematic, sometimes there is irony and distance (where Psalms of David glorify violence and anthropocentrism). It is an on-going experiment and I have no idea where it will take me.”

Psalm 31 was my favorite among the ones I’ve seen. Now it’s included in her new collection in English, Oxygen (translated by the inestimable Bill Johnston), published by Zephyr Press. The connection with its majestic prototype is indeed loose – it’s more a meditation on it. I see the homage, however, in the “mesh of branches,” which recalls the fourth verse of the psalm: “Pull me out of the net that they have laid privily for me: for thou art my strength.”

 

Psalm XXXI

for K.K.

a chickadee had perched on the windowsill like a message
generated by the mist, October
was turning into November in the birches oaks alders,
in the frost-resistant flowers, in the cemeteries
where our fathers wrote no memoirs,
where they would not recognize our children, our
poems, ourselves. The television was showing Poland
that had perished, and then had not perished, and then
again had perished, and then not, and then the sun
flung up a mesh of branches, all at once
the chickadee was absorbed by sky before I could say
remember, remember me –

Trans. Bill Johnston

The death of reading and the state of the soul

Monday, July 24th, 2017
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Years ago, when I wrote the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszI made some remarks about the Nobel poet’s consideration of the world of “être” and “devenir” – and a world where reading has been replaced by tweets. We live in an era of globalization—as literary scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.”

My publisher chided me for sounding like an old fogey – but of course I wasn’t talking about what was happening to the younger generation. I was talking about what was happening to me, and the fragmentation of my own attention. The passage in question:

Sven Birkerts regrets the loss of “deep reading.”

Miłosz’s worldview, his sense of hierarchy and values, puts him squarely, if reluctantly, in a select spiritual salon. In our times, it is a lonely place to be. Miłosz has become an icon, his works canonical, but head-on-a-coin status can often be a substitute for real understanding. This is particularly true when those spending the coins never lived under the Generalgouvernement of the Gestapo. For Generation Y, the communism years (and communism itself) constitute only a tedious chapter in history textbooks. … It may be a universal truth that a younger generation must try to distance itself from the seriousness of purpose in an older generation of giants.

This mileage provides a raison d’être for this book, as the distance stretches to the horizon’s vanishing point and threatens with extinction the very values Miłosz endeavored to preserve. This statement is more than old fogeyism or the specter of apocalypse—for Miłosz’s peers are almost entirely gone (he would have been one hundred years old in 2011), and, moreover, the restlessness, the segmentation of attention, and the increasing difficulty in absorbing anything more than 140 characters long are not merely traits of the younger generation but affect us all. Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and Twitter back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remain essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, he uses the Latin esse elsewhere.) 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.”

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.”

That was seven or eight years ago. Now everyone’s caught up with me, or perhaps everyone has caught up with Miłosz. Most recently, Philip Yancey observed the same thing. From the Washington Post:

The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.

In “The Gutenberg Elegies,” Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age,” and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Multmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?

Why indeed? Time to open all those J.M. Coetzee novels I have waiting on the shelves. Or return to Dostoevsky. Read the WaPo article here.

Happy birthday, Czesław Miłosz! He answers a few embarrassing questions on the occasion.

Thursday, June 29th, 2017
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It started in childhood.

Tomorrow, June 30, is Czesław Miłosz‘s 106th birthday. And the late Nobel poet himself offered me a kind of present.

As I was thinning the ranks of my bookshelves – a very rare and reluctant activity – I stumbled across a 1982 issue of Ironwood, a once esteemed by now defunct journal. It was one of many random journal issues around the house, and before tossing it in the discard pile, I thumbed through to see what treasures it might disclose. Surprise! I found a 1979 Q&A interview with Miłosz I swear I’d never seen before. I’m sure I hadn’t seen it when I compiled my Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. How did I miss it? On consideration, however, no surprise: I’d barely heard of the poet’s name back in 1982, and I think the volume had been sitting on my shelves undisturbed for all the years since. I was even more pleased to see that the interviewer is a Polish friend, Aleksander Fiut, of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

What better way to celebrate his birthday than to share a few excerpts from the interview? You won’t find this easily anywhere else.

The eminent writer is often considered a philosophical poet, which he denied in the interview: “Because the philosopher thinks first before he formulates his thoughts into sentences. Whereas for me, the meaning is incorporated into the sentence, already present in the rhythm,” he said.

“One develops one’s ear for language in childhood. I did not, after all, grow up in an environment where Polish was spoken daily. It’s true, we spoke Polish at home, but the language we heard around us was not Polish. It was either Russian, at the time of my childhood in Russia, or Lithuanian, or Byelorussian, or that strange mixture spoken by the people in Wilno … But it may be that it is a sensibility developed through contacts with West European languages. The incantation may also be the result of the influence of church Latin, I don’t know.”

Interlocutor

Much of the interview concerns questions of Polish prosody, which he was, however, reluctant to discuss: “These are, how shall I say, embarrassing questions. These are intimate questions, questions of private craftsmanship.”

From the interview:

Fiut: What makes you choose traditional poetic forms? When you write a poem, how does it happen? Maybe I’m entering here into the intimate sphere of craftsmanship, but this is really interesting to me. Why do you sometimes choose a simple form, say for example, from the Middle Ages, and at other times a very refined and complex form?

Miłosz: It’s difficult to answer. That is to say, some questions are easy to answer, but not necessarily truthfully. I’m used to always having an answer ready when students ask me. But that does not mean that the answer is the most truthful one. Here it seems to me that several factors come into play. Who knows? Maybe the fact that I found myself isolated from Poland, that I”ve had to establish myself inside Polish literature, make it my home, maybe that is one of the reasons. That is to say, the entire past of the language feels like a palace of mine, a palace that I visit. I go into this room, open that door…

Fiut: You seem to have, as it were, two heroes in Antiquity, Heraclitus and Herodotus.

Miłosz: I’ve read Heraclitus. As much of Heraclitus as there is to read that is, what has been preserved. The little, the few fragments which have been preserved.

Fiut: You seem to return often to these authors.

Miłosz: Because Heraclitus interests me.

Fiut: Why Heraclitus in particular?

Miłosz: Because when I was a student, I was fascinated by what is usually called the river of time. And I remember, I wrote an essay on this particular subject at the examination that took place at the end of secondary school. Well, as far as Heraclitus goes, it was his preoccupation with flux and change, with the river of time that interested me. That’s one thing. The other thing was that he wept so much over human fate.

Fiut: In “From the Rising of the Sun” you write: “And if they say that all I heard was the rushing of the Heraclitean river/That will be enough, for the mere listening to it wore me down.” Yet the poem “Heraclitus” does not deal with change, but with the dialectical relation between the particular and general existence that is the Cosmos.

Miłosz: The conflict between the universal and the particular: But that is, I imagine, the fundamental conflict that underlies everything I have written. That is a fundamentally unsolvable, awful problem. When you start thinking about it, you realize everything is there. The entire riddle of human existence. Also the conflict between free will and determinism. It’s the same. Or between grace and will, to use theological terminology, but there are no answers.