Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
“Ulro” is a term used in the poetic mythology of William Blake to designate the lowest of the four states of existence: the extremity of selfhood and rationalism. Miosz, whose interest in the English Romantic writer springs from his work in a Warsaw library during the Nazi occupation of Poland,...
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“Ulro” is a term used in the poetic mythology of William Blake to designate the lowest of the four states of existence: the extremity of selfhood and rationalism. Miosz, whose interest in the English Romantic writer springs from his work in a Warsaw library during the Nazi occupation of Poland, when he came across him for the first time, defines Ulro as “that realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man.” Miosz also likens Ulro to the state of the “disinherited mind” mentioned by Germanist Erich Heller, in whose book of the same name the problem of the cold, lifeless, and value-indifferent laws of science, contrasted with man’s inner need for meaning and spiritual wholeness, is shown as the essence of the Romantic Weltschmerz of the nineteenth century. The mechanistic worldview of the Deistic scientists of the Enlightenment proved a strong enough challenge to European man’s traditional, meaning-fraught, theocentric worldview as to give the heretofore balanced human psyche a jolt from which it has never fully recovered. The claims of empirical knowledge have pinned man into a corner, forcing him to make a choice between that which can be “proved” scientifically and that which can be accepted only on the basis of faith.
Miosz states in The Land of Ulro that the dehumanizing tendencies of the rationalistic mind-set have been “gaining ground, gathering force” since the age of the Enlightenment, and he singles out Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod as the extreme case of the scientific mind, which rejects any proposition that cannot be verified empirically. Miosz, following Blake, sees such an ideology as catastrophic to European culture, which was born and has been nurtured in the faith of a metaphysical meaning for life and the world’s existence without which no faith, ethical code, or premise for human dignity can exist.
Blake has a central role to play in the system of thought presented by Miosz in The Land of Ulro because it was this Romantic who, like Emanuel Swedenborg before him, recognized the decadent tendencies of eighteenth century rationalism and warred passionately against it. As he wrote in book 2 of Milton: A Poem (1804-1808):
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur ofInspiration, To cast off Rational Demonstrationby Faith in the Saviour, To cast off the rotten ragsof Memory by Inspiration, To cast off Bacon, Locke &Newton from Albion’s covering; To take off his filthygarments & clothe him with Imagination...
Explicating Blake’s work in the manner of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), Miosz explains that once man is plucked out of the center of the universe, once his planet becomes but a speck of dust in a whirling cosmos governed by chance and amoral biological selection, man’s acquiescence to the “truth” of his situation breeds cynicism, indifference, and selfishness; all of these signify a shrinking of his cultural and spiritual horizons, which in turn signifies his own bestialization. Miosz remarks, “Man can be a computer—to adopt our modern vocabulary—and atomize the world only at the expense of his own humanity.”
Once the focus of Miosz’s “mosaic” becomes apparent to the reader, once he understands that Miosz himself is, in a certain sense, carrying the Blakean torch into Monod’s “abyss of darkness,” which yawns before late twentieth century man, he realizes that the author’s seemingly incomprehensible, encyclopedic style is indicative of his search for a proper tongue in which to address the crisis and, eventually, to express his proposed solution. In other words, The Land of Ulro is a journey of sorts, in which Miosz leads the reader from point A—the rationalistic revolution which disinherited the spiritually grounded mind of man—to point B— the return to the footpath which leads to the regaining of complete personhood. Yet, although the guide has his eyes fixed on the destination, he too is a pilgrim, coming across new discoveries time and again along the way.
As mentioned earlier, the crisis which gave birth to modern man’s disinherited state occurred in the eighteenth century. Accordingly, the first entry in Miosz’s spiritual encyclopedia has to do with Swedenborg, who first realized the threat inherent in the idea that “Nature, perceived as a system of mathematical relations, had begun to usurp the minds of the educated.”
The choice humans face, as Miosz and Frye suggest, is between living as a vital component of the resurrected Eternal Man or assenting to existence in a universe of meaningless “starry wheels” which amount to a “wheel of death.” Dostoevski, who also plays a great role in Miosz’s book as another soul who sought escape from the “land of Ulro,” formulated the problem along the lines of Christ’s Resurrection— the central underpinning of pre-Enlightenment European culture. Either the blind, biological workings of a mechanical universe are all that really exist or at one point in time a man—a Divine Man—came along to devastate the “immutable” laws of Charles Darwin and Monod, thus attesting the existence of a moral order and man’s God-grounded dignity. According to Miosz, Dostoevski thus chose: “Even if it be shown that truth is on the side of scientific determinism, I remain with Christ.” Miosz stands beside him, nodding his head.
Is this, then, the exit path from the land of the disinherited mind—assent to empirically improbable metaphysical tenets? In the end, Miosz tells his readers, this is all on which one has to rely. Yet he is far from suggesting that such assent is a weak man’s weapon. There have been, he states, since Swedenborg’s days, champions of the meaningfulness of humanity who have struggled with empirical science on its own grounds. Such a man was Swedenborg, whose theosophical works were intended to convince men in rational terms of the truth of seemingly irrational postulates; such were William Blake the metaphysician and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the scientist, who strove to replace atheistic, poetically void science with systems of physics designed to appeal to the whole man and not merely to his animal half; such a man in the twentieth century was French poet Oscar Miosz, who revered Paracelsus and the earlier medieval alchemists as learned men who failed not to bring God into the realm of science. Miosz hailed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as the hammer which definitively crushed Sir Isaac Newton’s compasses once and for all. With all meaning to measurement of the immeasurable voided, three hundred years of skepticism were brought to a close. Now man was to turn his thoughts—his imagination—to the real world which exists inside him.
It is inside themselves, where tradition and meaning and human dignity are lodged, that Miosz directs his reader’s eyes. Rejecting the assumption of the rationalists that man is but an animal, a statistic, an object of empirical inquiry in much the same sense as is a seashell or fossil, Miosz, following the Romantic poet Mickiewicz, asserts that man’s most important books are not those penned by Francis Bacon, Newton, and John Locke—that unholy trinity—but are the calendar and the breviary. In the first group of volumes numbers, doubt, and dehumanizing chemical formulas are found; in the latter, surety, inspiration, and purpose, which feed the holy imagination of man, setting him above, yet not apart from, a world firmly placed in the center of a purposeful universe in which the dignity of man serves as the music of the spheres. Commenting on Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917) Miosz remarks, “Ultimately, only a time measured by sacral standards, and not mechanical clock-time, can sanction a belief in the reality of things.” Only charged meaning—such as man, his spirit, his imagination—is real; what is meaningless—statistics, meter sticks, and Newtonian physics—does not belong to the living body of the universe. They are the “filthy garments” which must be cast off renewed Albion.
Such ideas are anathema to fallen man, who has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and thereby bound himself to the wheel of death. Miosz admits this:A man like me, in other words, is constantly visited by a voice/ . . ./ which accuses him of Willing belief in the absence of any real belief. And to this unquitting voice he replies with a mental shrug: So?
The leap of faith required by both Sren Kierkegaard and Miosz is not, as rationalists would have it, a leap into nothingness. It is rather a leap from the nothingness of meaningless determinism to the solid shore of full personhood. Miosz, ever conscious of the worm of doubt which has gnawed at humans since the eighteenth century, brings The Land of Ulro to a close with a supplication: “Be tolerant of me. And of yourself. And of the singular aspirations of the human race.” In other words, stand up straight and leave the anthill behind for the mansions of the gods, the true fatherland.