At Century's End: Recovering a Reverence for Being

Nathan Gardels, editor of "Summing Up the Century" and "Global Viewpoint," recently spoke with Milosz at the poet's home in the Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives part of the year when not in residence in Krakow, Poland

Editor's Note: Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. His most recent works include "A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry" (Harcourt Brace) and "Road-side Dog" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Nathan Gardels, editor of "Summing Up the Century" and "Global Viewpoint," recently spoke with Milosz at the poet's home in the Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives part of the year when not in residence in Krakow, Poland.

NATHAN GARDELS: In your anthology of poetry, you quote Goethe as saying that "when eras are in decline, all tendencies are subjective, but when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective." Goethe thus praised "objective art," as you do. You have even opined that the "objective" order in music ended precisely at the time of Goethe, when the classical period gave way to the romantic. Can you explain what you mean by objective art?

CZESLAW MILOSZ: We live in a world of languages--painting, music, cinema, poetry. But besides that language, there is a reality. That reality can be defined as everything that is not captured by our language but is directly perceived by our senses.

I believe that reality is the great measure of art. It judges art. Aesthetic value depends on the amount of reality a work of art captures.

One can see this in the paintings of Cezanne. He loved to paint his mountain, San Victoire. He wanted to be faithful to nature. That was, for him, an objective reality that he tried to capture, to attain. His credo was "Beauty is only in the true, only the true is lovable." "My code," Cezanne declared, "is realism." He was against the disintegration of objects into fragments. In that sense, this forerunner of 20th century painting was betrayed by his followers.

In "A Book of Luminous Things," my recent anthology of poetry, you can see that I search for poems in which there is an attitude of reverence toward reality. What is important in these poems is not the words themselves or combinations of words but something beyond words. That is what a poet tries to capture, be it a landscape, a flower on the lapel, lips, a relationship between people. . . .

I try to say this in "An Appeal," a poem from my "Collected Works":

. . . If one day our word

Comes so close to the bark of trees in the forest,

And to orange blossoms, that they become one with them,

It will mean that we have always defended a great hope.

How should I defend it? By naming things."

The fact is, the world of the past, the world before the 19th century, the world of objective art, had its own limitations. Since that time, we have invented means of capturing the world through subjective approaches.

The best example would be Proust. Reality for Proust was very important, but it had to pass through his subjective apprehension, namely, his remembrances. He reconstructed reality through memory. So here we must distinguish between subjective approaches that capture reality, at least in part, and those that are purely subjective constructions that completely lose touch with reality--illusion.


GARDELS: The German philosopher Odo Marquard argues that subjective perceptions so reign today--not only in art, but in society--that we live in "an age of fiction." People are free to choose their illusions, and while some see apocalypse, others see utopia.

MILOSZ: I agree. The human mind has an infinite capacity to create phantoms. More than this, I see an increasing dependence on language. Instead of talking about a tree, we talk about a text on a tree, or about the text about a text about a tree. Or an image of that tree. Cultural references are infinite. From fashion to jokes to talk television, we swim today in the swirl of these references. These references, however, are not real, but shadows in the cave.

And those from outside the sphere of enclosed references don't get what is going on. That is the opposite of the universality of objective art.


GARDELS: Marquard calls this media soup in which we swim an "adolescent" culture that has not grown up to a mature grasp of reality, of will and desire versus natural limits.

Certainly, this kind of culture propels the spiral of decline Goethe worried about, taking us further from any sense of reverence.

MILOSZ: Aesthetic decline is connected to the disintegration of the notion of truth--a nihilism that in turn leads to disaster in the social order.

I have been a witness in my life and in my country, Poland, to the influence on the human mind of the three masters of suspicion--Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. They suspected that a natural order, discerned by reason, was somehow a cover-up behind which lurked other determinate forces--the libido, economics and the will to power. As a result, it has been left to a spiritual leader, Pope John Paul II, to remind us, in his recent encyclical, "Faith and Reason," of the value of human reason.

The pope rightly questions the future of reason. Will we still be able to understand each other on the basis of general principles that are not subjective? Everyone going his own way according to his own truth is not only a denial of objective reality but, by definition, leads to disintegration of moral order. That is what Goethe meant when he associated subjectivity and decline. Goethe understood there could be no universality without reason. Subjectivity, he understood, is the sleep of reason.


GARDELS: An earlier encyclical by Pope John Paul II, "The Splendor of Truth," made a connected point. In that encyclical, he opposed the contemporary tendency to judge our actions according to the "subjective conscience" of each individual--relativism--instead of by the objective standards of "God's truth." Like Goethe in his time, the pope today believes we live in a retrograde era defined by subjectivity.

What is the link between aesthetic and moral judgment here?

MILOSZ: I have used the word "reality" instead of "truth" when talking of art. The reality of the 20th century abounded in so much human pain, such suffering, that it meant hell on earth created by man for man.

That reality immediately introduces a certain sense of hierarchy and judges works of art accordingly. It places a certain limit on the value of our subjectivity.

That doesn't mean I would like to use this notion for demagogical reasons and underestimate a poem of two lines depicting a mountain, as in a Japanese haiku. Not at all. But the terrible reality of the 20th century, in the end, will be judgment of art that endures from our time.


GARDELS: A compatriot of yours, the literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, worries, as you do, that literature in the West has lost any concern with history and turned instead toward the interior life, the wife, the husband, home, the divorce, the midlife crisis. What is it about Polish writers and poets that makes them so outward-looking?

MILOSZ: It is a burden of experience--the war, communist oppression--that makes us all think in a similar way. That is why I feel there is a "Polish school" of poetry. It is no accident that two Polish poets--Wislawa Szymborskia and I--have been awarded the Nobel Prize. She doesn't write about great historical subjects, but about personal things. But in her, nonetheless, I feel the same sense of hierarchy, the same sense of reverence for reality.

An example from one of her poems:

. . . I can't dwell on it forever

or keep asking endlessly,

what's next, what's next.

Day to day I trust in permanence,

in history's prospects.

How can I sink my teeth into apples

in a constant state of terror?


GARDELS: Milan Kundera once remarked that the soft lives of consumer democracies, to which even Catholic Poland aspires today, don't yield great art but art judged, as it were, against a trip to the shopping mall.

MILOSZ: I was over-optimistic in 1989 that the experiences we had lived through under war and communism would lead to a wiser culture, wiser literature for our part of Europe. It was my illusion. On the one side, the ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia shows little has been learned; on the other side, one hoped for more than the rush to an indifferent consumerism.

Let us not heap abuse on the consumer democracies, though. What Kundera says is not untrue, but at the same time, there is a deep awareness of some blind alleys. There is a great searching going on. If you take poetry in the Western world, there is, especially in America, a kind of theological search. There is clearly a religious urge.


GARDELS: Scientists are on the verge of mapping the human genome--penetrating the deepest objective reality--yet the subjectivity associated with decline impoverishes cultural and spiritual life. Can a society be "ripening for a new epoch" and tending toward decline at the same time?

MILOSZ: A race is on between disintegration and construction. And each aspect is related to the other. The advances of science and technology have further eroded the religious imagination.

For that reason, believers and nonbelievers are in the same boat because the quality of the imagination does not depend upon what you believe, but how that imagination is conditioned by technological civilization and science.

There is a certain deprivation for believers and nonbelievers alike. I am Roman Catholic, but I'm not sure that churchgoers have a very different vision than nonchurchgoers.

As I wrote in the introduction to "A Book of Luminous Things," when the world is deprived of clear-cut outlines, of up and down, of good and evil, it succumbs to a peculiar nihilization. It loses its colors. Grayness covers not only things of this Earth and space, but also the very flow of time, the minutes, days and years.

Abstract considerations are of little hope or remedy. Poetry, if it is good, matters greatly in the face of this deprivation because it looks at the singular, not the general. It cannot look at things of this Earth other than honestly, with reverence, as colorful and variegated; it cannot reduce life with all its pain and ecstasy into a unified tonality. By necessity, it is on the side of being. Naming is a defense of hope.


GARDELS: The recovery of being, then, depends on reverence?

MILOSZ: Yes. In both my poetry and essays, I have expressed reverence, even piety. You know, I have been very respectful as far as Buddhism is concerned. The definition of Buddhism, really, is mindfulness. And mindfulness is precisely the feeling of reverence.


GARDELS: Mindfulness in art is expressed in a number of ways--in Japanese haiku, in Cezanne or in the Dutch still-lifes. In poetry it is what you have called "the eternal moment." In his last poem, "Response and Reconciliation," Octavio Paz touches this:

For a moment, sometimes we see

not with our eyes, but with our thoughts

time resting in a pause.

The world half-opens and we glimpse

the immaculate kingdom

the pure forms, presences,

unmoving, floating

on the hour,

a river stopped.

What is the link between mindfulness and the "eternal moment" of the poet?


MILOSZ: Mindfulness occurs in the moment when time stops. And what is time? Time is suffering. Time is our regrets, our shame. Time contains all things toward which we strive and from which we escape.

In that moment of time stopped--in the instant captured by a Dutch still-life, for example--reality is liberated from suffering. Then, in art, you can have a purified vision of things. Not things in themselves, but things as they are independently of our dirt. Everything that concerns us disappears, is dissolved, and it does not matter whether the eye that looks is that of a beggar or a king.

A poem comes to mind by the late Zbigniew Herbert titled "A Pebble." It too illustrates this mindfulness:

The pebble is a perfect creature

Equal to itself

Mindful of its limits

Filled exactly with a pebbly meaning

With a scent that doesn't remind one of anything

Does not frighten anything away

Doesn't arouse desires

Its ardor and coolness are a just and cruel dignity

I feel a heavy remorse when I hold it in my hand

And its noble body is permeated by a false warmth

Pebbles cannot be tamed

Till the end they will look at us

with a calm and very clear eye.


GARDELS: If anything, our globalizing world is not one of mindfulness but the opposite: one of speed, acceleration, noise. Baud rates, not pebbles, are the emblem of our age.

MILOSZ: This is true. Yet, at the same time, one cannot deny one very great and hopeful tendency--the ecological consciousness. Ecology is basically a call for mindfulness.

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