That the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been largely neglected by academics in the English-speaking world is a dismaying but not altogether surprising fact. Although he has lived in the United States since 1960, he writes in Polish and, to complicate matters further, was born in a country, Lithuania, that is no longer a part of the prewar Polish Commonwealth. Milosz the poet has been less a presence in the American mind than Milosz the dissident, the diplomat working for the Communist state who found political asylum in France and whose first two books, Zniewolony umysl (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) and the novel Zdobycie wladzy (1953; The Seizure of Power, 1955), made him appear something of a Cold War warrior. Even the awarding of the Nobel Prize, coming as it did at the height of the Solidarity movement, and the inscribing of lines from one of his poems on the Solidarity monument outside the Lenin Shipworks in Gdansk only seemed to etch in people’s minds the image of a writer more political than poetic. Fortunately, the publication of the English poet Donald Davie’s Czeslaw Milosz and the Jnsuffciency of Lyric (1986), Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut’s Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz (1987), Ecco Press’s edition of the Collected Poems (1988), and Edward Mozejko’s Between Anxiety and Hope (1988) have made it easier to understand why some have called Milosz one of the greatest poets of the century, both for his explorations in form, as Davie’s book demonstrates, and for his depiction of “the drama of the loss of God,” which Fiut identifies as Milosz’s “great theme.”
Originally published in France in a Polish-language edition, The Eternal Moment takes its title from Milosz’s 1953 poem, “A Notebook: Bon by Lake Leman”:
Whoever finds order,
Peace, and an eternal moment in what is
Passes without trace. Do you agree then
To abolish what is, and take from movement
The eternal moment as a gleam
On the current of a black river? Yes.
The oxymoron “eternal moment” presents in miniature those tensions in thought and language which Fiut believes animate Milosz’s poetry, his “passionate pursuit of the Real,” as Milosz calls it in The Witness of Poetry (1983). It is the pursuit of a reality which lies beyond language in the realm of what is yet unnamed, though not, Milosz contends, necessarily unnameable. In his first chapter, “The Traps of Mimesis,” Fiut considers the results of Milosz’s efforts to reconstruct the spiritual view of man while acknowledging, but not acceding to, the force of the scientific view which has undermined it. Rejecting both complete acceptance of the secular and flight into spiritual abstraction, Milosz attempts to find the point at which the two worlds, where time and eternity, intersect, where the sensuous “fact” is “seen” not as an end but as a metonymic means, a sign of the insufficiency of the world and of man in that world.
The next three chapters attempt to define more precisely Milosz’s “search for the essence of human nature.” In “Love Affair with Nature,” Fiut deals specifically with Milosz’s attraction to a natural world he comes to question, a world of beauty but also of brutality where consciousness of one’s self and of pain destroy the illusion of oneness with nature. In “Facing the End of the World,” Fiut considers a parallel situation: the paradox not (this time) of living in and yet apart from nature, but of living in and yet beyond history. Just as awareness of pain and evil lead him to reject the pastoral visions he would like to affirm, so awareness of dehumanized historical process leads Milosz to see the danger inherent in all utopian schemes, including that of Communist Poland, for which Milosz worked from 1945 until his defection six years later. Fiut’s analysis is especially noteworthy in that it posits an important difference between Milosz and the “Catastrophists” with whom he has often been linked. Whereas the Catastrophists prophesied the destruction of a civilization, Milosz translates Catastrophism into Christian eschatology, prophesying the destruction not of a civilization but of all humanity. It is a destruction which implies man’s need for redemption, his dependency on an extrahuman power. This leads Milosz (as Fiut’s fourth chapter makes clear) to reject Witold Gombrowicz’s “Interhuman Church,” a secular body in which, Milosz fears, “the twentieth-century Everyman becomes simply No One.” The paradoxical nature of the “dialectic of opposing tendencies” in Milosz’s work—of involvement and freedom, of the need for both solidarity and separateness—becomes more pronounced in chapter 5, “In the Grip of Eros,” which concerns Milosz’s portrayal of the place of the individual in love relationships. Fiut contends that, for Milosz, love too fails. Union with the other leads...
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