The Land of Ulro Critical Essays

Czesław Miłosz


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“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...

(The entire section is 1508 words.)