Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731
Perhaps the most well known contemporary Polish poet, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, Czesaw Miosz never restricted himself solely to the composition of verse, although this prolific man of letters considers poetry as his true vocation. Although many critics consider his early work, published in the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as the volumes Trzy zimy (1936; three winters) and Ocalenie (1945; rescue), to be his best, Miosz continues to exert a powerful influence on poets both in Poland and abroad. A capable translator of contemporary verse, Miosz’s position as professor of Slavic literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, has had beneficial results for the propagation of modern Polish poetry in the Anglo-Saxon nations.
After five years in the diplomatic service of the Polish People’s Republic, Miosz decided on political exile away from his homeland. Residing first in France, and finally in the United States, he composed the best-known and most influential volumes of his belles lettres during this period.
The Land of Ulro, as a journal-like volume of reflective essays, springs from the same belletristic tradition as Zniewolony umsyl (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) and Rodzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968). Nevertheless, there is one important difference between these volumes and The Land of Ulro. While the two former works were written expressly with the Western reader in mind, Miosz considers The Land of Ulro his one “maverick” work which, as he confides to Ewa Czarnecka in Podrozny swiata: Rozmowy z Czesawem Mioszem (1983; Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987), he wrote for himself, “without thinking about whether it would ever have readers.”
The Land of Ulro is a difficult book to categorize. Because of the personal nature of the book, written for the writer alone, one might classify it as a diary. Yet since it deals with the author’s faith in human nature and his struggle against the dehumanizing elements of rationalist, Newtonian physics, which threatens to turn man into a dispossessed creature akin to the characters which people the plays of Samuel Beckett, The Land of Ulro might be termed an essay in cultural anthropology or philosophy, a favorite subject of this author, who has a decidedly metaphysical bent. Also, one of the important leitmotifs of this volume is literary criticism: Here one sees Miosz as an apt literary critic, addressing the works of authors such as William Blake, Adam Mickiewicz, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Oscar Miosz with the same assurance and penetrating insights which characterize his impressive The History of Polish Literature (1969). Perhaps it would be best to classify The Land of Ulro as a kind of personal encyclopedia. In reading the book, one can almost hear shuffling index cards in the poet’s mind as he explores and reexamines the multifaceted cultural makeup of his being, and as he organizes his thoughts concerning the spiritual crisis facing the modern intellectual: Surrender to the cold, genetic-biological truth of a world without any verifiable metaphysical purpose or suspend disbelief, which faith in miracles, fraught with significance, demands. The former threatens to turn humanity into a “planet of two-legged insects,” while the rational mind-set, a legacy of the eighteenth century which modern man carries within himself, prickles at the latter proposition.
This dilemma is at the heart of The Land of Ulro; it is the concern which binds the seemingly rambling chapters of the work together. The book’s style is indicative of the self-investigative process which the poet undergoes in the writing of his volume. Although it was originally intended to be a short essay, the force of association caused the discussion to grow into a work of greater dimensions as Miosz was spurred from topic to associated topic in the working out of his intellectual puzzle. The poet describes his process of writing The Land of Ulro thus: “My strategy . . . is to keep adding new pebbles to the mosaic until a definite pattern begins to form.” Yet although the selection of the pebbles was a long, careful process laden with surprises for the author himself, he was never in doubt as to the image which the mosaic was to show at its completion: Miosz is ever on the side of “all who have sought exit from the ‘wasteland’” of the teeming, senseless anthill and who “have been . . . justified in their endeavor even if their efforts ended in failure and were bought at the prices of various ‘abnormalities.’”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1707
The Land of Ulro first appeared in Polish in 1977 as Ziemia Ulro, issued by the émigré publisher Institut Littéraire in Paris. At that time, Czesaw Miosz could not have guessed that within several years he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature and see many of his works, theretofore largely inaccessible to non-Polish readers, translated into English and many other languages.
It is fortunate that Miosz was not granted knowledge of the future, for if he had been, he would not have written The Land of Ulro. As he explains in a preface written for the English-language edition,Dear reader, this book was not intended for you, and I feel you should be forewarned before you enter its bizarre tangle. When writing it, I indulged in a personal whim, dismissing in advance the idea of its publication in English. While other books of mine, such as The Captive Mind or Native Realm, took into account a Western audience, to whom I tried to explain the corner of Europe from which I come, this time I gave free rein to my meditations.
Miosz goes on to say that the “decision to write The Land of Ulro was an act of perfect freedom.” That freedom, which makes The Land of Ulro such an extraordinary book, would not have been available to him had he known that he was writing for a worldwide (if still modest by best-seller standards) readership.
Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Certainly, freedom from the realm of the purely “literary”; this is a recurring theme throughout the book. At one point, Miosz steps back for a moment: “The name Dostoyevsky keeps issuing from my pen. That is so because life is short, and I am attracted less and less to a literature which is self-consciously literary.” Freedom to explore “an unorthodox tradition,” to pursue unfashionable currents of thought in a highly personal manner.
Miosz himself has referred to The Land of Ulro as a “spiritual autobiography.” In an earlier autobiographical work, Rodzinna Europa (1958), published in English translation as Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition (1968; reissued 1981), Miosz concentrated on those aspects of his life that were exemplary of the Central European experience. Missing were the personal details that are the stuff of most autobiographies. In that respect, The Land of Ulro is no more revealing, yet in another sense it is an intimate self-portrait, for it traces Miosz’s intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage. Still, here as in Native Realm, Miosz’s emphasis is not on his experience for its own sake but rather on its exemplary character. If in Native Realm he bore witness as a child of the “corner of Europe” that shaped him, here he speaks as one who has dwelled in Ulro.
What—or where—is Ulro? The book’s epigraph, taken from William Blake’s Jerusalem—“They rage like wild beasts in the forests of affliction/ In the dreams of Ulro they repent of their human kindness”—gives the reader a clue, and Miosz soon provides a fuller answer:The name Ulro is from Blake. It denotes that realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man. Blake himself was not one of its inhabitants, unlike the scientists, those proponents of Newtonian physics, the philosophers, and most other poets and artists of his day. And that goes for their descendants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to and including the present.
What has crippled human beings in the period demarked by Miosz is the ever-growing “dichotomy between the world of scientific laws—cold, indifferent to human values—and man’s inner world.” This dichotomy produces what Erich Heller has termed “the disinherited mind,” defined by Miosz as “a mind torn between the certainty of man’s insignificance in the immensity of a hostile universe, and an urge, born of wounded pride, to endow man with preeminence.”
At this point, the reader may become impatient, asking: Is the Land of Ulro merely another name for “the Waste Land”? Is Miosz’s book, then, an all-too-familiar account of the modern malaise? The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. Not only T. S. Eliot but also countless other writers, both famous and obscure, have shared Miosz’s conviction “that since the eighteenth century something, call it by whatever name one will, has been gaining ground, gathering force.” Miosz’s diagnosis of this malign condition must of necessity resemble other testimony concerning the same reality. To the second question, however, the answer is an unequivocal no: There is nothing overly familiar in Miosz’s wrestling with the demons of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is the freshness of his perspective—the freedom from all the intellectual fads and orthodoxies of the day, each with its own predictable language—that gives The Land of Ulro such authority.
When Saul Bellow wants to commend a book, he says that it is “essential” or “necessary”: “We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next.” The Land of Ulro, although not written with English-speaking readers in mind, is necessary reading for them precisely because it brings news from the “peripheries,” not from the American-Western European axis. One of the strangest features of the contemporary intellectual scene is the radical overvaluation of books written in “major” languages, particularly English and French, simply because of sociopolitical factors such as the international hegemony of the English language and the accompanying indifferences to and ignorance of “minor” literatures. Art has nothing to do with numbers, nor does the quality of a philosopher’s thought depend on the language in which, by historical circumstance, he happens to write. Language barriers pose formidable obstacles, but Swedish or Catalan should prove no more or less resistant to translation than the Greek of Homer or the Italian of Dante.
Against such condescension, Miosz has suggested, in his preface to Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (1977), that “in the new context of this last quarter of the twentieth century, the possibility of a shift from the center to the peripheries cannot be dismissed lightly.” From his “marginal” vantage point, then, Lithuanian-born, educated in Poland, resident of France for almost a decade in the 1950’s, writing in Polish in the mid-1970’s on the California coast, Miosz constructs an eccentric tradition of thinkers who have struggled in or sought exit from the Land of Ulro. They include, in addition to Blake, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; the national poet of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz; Fyodor Dostoevski; Miosz’s older cousin, Oscar Milosz, a poet and seer who, although reared in Polish-speaking Byelorussia, spent most of his adult life in Paris and wrote in French; the French philosopher and religious writer Simone Weil; and Miosz’s contemporary and compatriot, the novelist, playwright, and diarist Witold Gombrowicz.
Blake, whom Miosz first read under unusual conditions (“I acquired my English in wartime Warsaw—self-taught, but enough to read the poets”), is of particular importance in this tradition because he consciously resisted the dichotomy between the scientific (or scientistic) worldview and the human scale of values, according to which each individual man or woman is more than a particle in a mechanistic universe. Blake saw that his contemporaries were willing to compartmentalize their experience, at terrible psychic cost, giving “science” its due in one realm while paying tribute to “the spirit” in another. Thus, as Miosz writes, when Blake said that “Earth is flat, circumscribed by the horizon and the celestial dome,” he was not propounding “scientific fact”; rather, “he treated both images”—that is, both the scientific description of the Earth as a sphere and the image of the Earth as flat—“as constructively antithetical, in the sense of issuing from the power of the intellect, whereas man’s spiritual needs are better satisfied by the ’naïve’ imagination.”
To those who would say that Blake’s visions are indeed poetic and can be appreciated as such but have nothing to do with the real world, Miosz would reply that they are under the spell of a materialistic dogma which forces them to deny their deepest longings, their very humanity—a denial the extent of which can often be gauged by an explosion of repressed spirituality, as in the nineteenth century fad for spiritualism and psychic research in Great Britain and the contemporary vogue for the occult.
All the thinkers in Miosz’s ad hoc tradition experienced this conflict; all share an anthropocentric vision and a resistance to Nature (that is, the purely material world). Miosz takes seriously the “bizarre tangle” of their thought, well aware that in doing so he is opening himself to condescension if not outright ridicule: “To speak of Swedenborg is to violate a Polish taboo that prohibits writers from taking a serious interest in religion. The penalty is already preordained in the form of the parroted cliché: ’He succumbed to mysticism.’” As he explicates the writings of Oscar Milosz, Mickiewicz, and the others, Miosz does not hesitate to criticize their flights of messianic delusion, their wild excesses, yet his criticism is sympathetic, for he suggests that such is the price that one pays for resistance to Ulro:Here I must touch on a painful dilemma. That which is most crucial to the human imagination, indeed, that which Blake took to be its very essence, namely, a rebellious attitude toward Nature in the name of an august hope, is also fraught with peril because it verges constantly on folly, on a mania for self-destruction, on mental illness.
In tracing the growth of his own hard-won and unorthodox faith, then, Miosz does not announce an imminent millennium. Rather, suggesting that “we are too apt to think of the ’final things’ in solemn and august terms, as the province of gray-bearded sages and prophets,” he notes as a corrective “how much of millenaristic yearning betrays a childish instinct.” He would not renounce that instinct, for the boy who dreamed in Lithuania of “an idyllic earth” and the “old professor in Berkeley” who has written this book “are the same man.” Thus, he concludes with a request: “Reader, be tolerant of me. And of yourself. And of the singular aspirations of our human race.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98
America. CLI, December 15, 1984, p. 409.
Book World. XIV, September 2, 1984, p. 14.
Booklist. LXXXI, September 1, 1984, p. 18.
Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksander Fiut. Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987.
Davies, Norman. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (September 2, 1984), p. 1.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, June 15, 1984, p. 571.
Levine, Madeline G. Contemporary Polish Poetry, 1925-1975, 1981.
Library Journal. CIX, September 1, 1984, p. 1675.
Los Angeles Times. August 24, 1984, V, p. 22.
Miosz, Czesaw. The History of Polish Literature, 1983 (revised edition).
New Leader. LXVII, October 15, 1984, p. 13.
The New Yorker. LX, September 17, 1984, p. 142.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, July 6, 1984, p. 56.
Scherer, Olga. “The Ulro Through San Francisco Bay,” in World Literature Today. III (1978), pp. 408-412.