Monday, May 16, 2011

`You Have to Have Some Basis in Being'

My ten-year-old returned dripping from a Boy Scout campout in the mountains, and brought home everything in black plastic trash bags that made an audible splat! when dropped on the kitchen floor. His sleeping bag was swollen and heavy with rain, and wouldn’t fit in our washing machine, so I made rare visit to the coin laundry where washers and driers are spacious enough to accommodate Shetland ponies. Odd that a place dedicated to cleanliness should smell so unhygienic. The word that came to mind was “fetor,” exacerbated by cigarette smoke, blaring television and bawling children.

I was not, however, without resources. In my bag I carried An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, edited by my friend Cynthia Haven and recently published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Collected are thirty-two remembrances of the great Polish poet (1911-2004), as well as Cynthia’s generous introduction, “From Devenir to Être” – that is, in a Thomistic sense, from becoming to being. Cynthia quotes something Miłosz told her during an interview at his home in Berkeley a decade ago:

“We are in flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir [no italics in the original]. 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.”

This is bracing and common-sensical. It’s no coincidence Miłosz was a Pole, whose land was ravaged by ideologies dedicated to “denying any attempt at truth.” Let Cynthia take over:

“The first victim in our technology age has been time, even more than space. The net effect isolated us in the `Little Now’ of devenir. As a result, we lose the ability to think and learn from the past—the very past in which the `now’ is invisibly rooted. We become walled off from the world, which comprises centuries as well as nations. Without such context, we only fetishize culture—extol it without understanding it, memorialize it without being able to profit from it.”

From Miłosz, a poet of genius, such words would be laudatory but hardly unexpected. From an American, a writer and blogger, they are cause for hope. For the last week, Cynthia has been in Kraków, celebrating and taking part in the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival. The poet was born June 30, 1911. All week, Cynthia has posted impressions from what sounds like a city-wide, even nation-wide party, including here, here, here and here.


Rick Freeman said...

Milosz, an impressive poet and great world intellectual, to me loses some credibility when his debate with fellow emigre Polish writer Gustav Herling is recalled. Milosz maintained that the massive sellout of Polish intellectuals to the mind-controlling Communist regime was a matter of expediency and self preservation. He refused to condemn the sellouts. Herling (please see his Paris Review interview) condemned them for falling back on intellectual chic and gutless moral resignation.

Cynthia Haven said...

Thank you for the kind words, Patrick! And I'm glad Miłosz's words resonated with someone else besides me. In fact, I used this very passage from my interview with Miłosz in my address at Jagiellonian University last week.

Rick, I understand his refusal to condemn the sellouts. He was once one of them, and he knew the price that had to be paid for martyrdom or defection. I don't feel in a position to condemn people who buckled under much greater pressures than I have had to withstand.

I look at all the small cowardly failures of my own life and know I am lucky that my lack of courage has carried a small price tag for others, at least most of the time.

Miłosz would have been the last to call himself a hero. Captive Mind makes that clear.

He also said that "we live by contradiction."

Writing from Kraków,