Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1855
Czesław Miłosz, one of the most highly respected writers of the twentieth century, has accumulated the wealth of a lifetime in his book Milosz’s ABC’s. He suggests he has written this book “instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir.” Indeed, the book encompasses each of these genres in turn, offering the reader a rare glimpse into the life of a great poet living out his life in the twentieth century.
Milosz’s ABC’s is a collection of short entries covering a wide variety of topics. As the title suggests, Milosz’s ABC’s is arranged alphabetically by subject, much the way an encyclopedia is structured. Generically, the ABC book has its roots in Poland, and since Miłosz writes only in Polish, the choice of the genre seems fitting. There are both joys and difficulties in this choice, however. The structure of the book is from the outside; that is, there is no organic connection between essays that appear next to each other. Their titles simply follow each other in the alphabet. Consequently, the book sometimes seems fragmented and without direction, one random entry following another. On the other hand, the juxtapositions of widely varying topics often open interesting connections between two or more seemingly unrelated topics. In this way, the book sometimes comes close to resembling poetry, where the unexpected image butts up against some other unlikely idea. The reader’s comfort with randomness will probably affect the response to the book. Those readers needing clear, logical transitions will not find them and may be disconcerted by the leaps between entries. Those readers who delight in the unexpected twist of the text will find the abecedarian approach filled with surprise and serendipity.
Miłosz writes biographies of people he knows and of people he does not know, historical essays about Poland and the world, literary criticism, philosophical treatises, and a variety of other less well-defined pieces. Each piece is firmly grounded in the twentieth century (with a few exceptions, such as the entry on the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman), and the totality of the book captures a sense of a recently departed past.
As a reader, it would be possible to build one’s own path through the book, perhaps reading all the biographies first, then examining the philosophy. Another reader might choose to dip into the book at random spots, creating a different set of juxtapositions. Yet another reader might start at the beginning and work through the essays to the last page. Each of these choices would produce a particular kind of reading, different from that produced by another choice.
Miłosz chooses to begin his book with an entry on Ludwik Abramowicz, the publisher of The Wilno Review, an important influence on Miłosz’s early years. In this first entry, Miłosz also introduces his memories of and love for the town in which he grew up. This first essay, then, sets up a number of themes to which Miłosz will return: Wilno, Poland, the twentieth century, and memory.
Miłosz also addresses the horror of the twentieth century in a number of essays. In “Anus Mundi,” an expression that means “the world’s anus,” he reflects on Auschwitz, Poland, and the role of art and poetry in the face of such evil. In addition, he responds to philosopher Theodor Adorno’s statement that “it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz.” Miłosz himself lived in Poland, the place a German described as “anus mundi” in 1942, and wrote lyric poetry throughout. He counters Adorno’s statement with one of his own, that “gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction.” For Miłosz, poetry offers comfort, and as such must be written in spite of the horror of human existence.
Miłosz writes not only of Polish historic and literary figures, he also includes some Americans in his ABC’s. Two poets who receive very different treatment are Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. Miłosz takes Frost to task for hiding his biography behind the guise of the New England farmer. Indeed, Miłosz goes so far as to say that he does not like Frost’s poetry. Whitman, on the other hand, receives the highest praise from Miłosz: “The divine literatus’ had conquered the distance between the I’ and the crowd, had devoured religions and philosophies, so that instead of contradictions, mortality and immortality both fit into his poetry, a leaf of grass and eternity.” Whitman’s presence can be felt in many of the essays in this book; it seems as though he is a benchmark against which Miłosz measures other poets.
As favorable as Miłosz is to some of the subjects of his essays, he is just as brutal to others. He opens an essay about French feminist Simone de Beauvoir with the words, “I never met her, but my antipathy for her has not lessened even now, after her death when she is rapidly slipping away into the land of small-print footnotes to the history of her epoch.” Miłosz thus not only seems to slash at Beauvoir personally, he also attacks her work and her place in history. While it is entirely possible to attack Beauvoir on a number of fronts, Miłosz’s sentiments seem almost petty. Although he states in the essay that he holds feminists in the highest regard, one cannot help but wonder about misogyny, particularly given that he ends the essay as he begins it, closing with the words, “A nasty hag.”
Miłosz’s best writing appears in the essays that deal with abstract concepts, such as time or truth. In these, he is able to transcend his personal feelings about one person or another, as interesting as those personal feelings may be. In the essay “Time,” for example, he connects the concept with human life, and with all that is human. Language itself moves in time. In considering time, he also returns to memory, “the memory of people who lived and died.” This memory tells him that he, too, is controlled by time, and that soon, he will be gone, too. As a consequence, the essay has a palpable sadness to it that is perhaps present because of the reader’s awareness of Miłosz’s age.
Any writer of memoir must confront the inevitable duplicity of memory, the way that the years shift and change the recollection of events long past. Miłosz is at his best at these moments. Here is where the voice of the poet seems strongest, in that near-melancholy of a long life lived fully, with time inevitably closing in. He struggles to get at the truth of his life, his century, his persona. In what is surely the finest essay in the book, “Truth,” Miłosz tackles what has become one of the great battlegrounds of the postmodern age. He notes that “[d]espite the attacks on the very concept of truth, such that faith in the possibility of an objective discovery of the past has been destroyed, people continue to write memoirs fervently to demonstrate how it was, in truth.” Miłosz is humble in his own effort; he says that he has tried hard to be honest, but he also calls it “my” twentieth century, implying that the truth residing in the twentieth century of Miłosz might be very different for some other person. The last lines in the essay are among the most beautiful in the book, as Miłosz considers the connections among all the people who come in contact with one another:
We exist as separate beings, but at the same time each of us acts as a medium propelled by a power we do not know well, a current of the great river, as it were, through which we resemble each other in our common style or form. The truth about us will remind us of a mosaic composed of little stones of different value and colors.
The final passages in the book appear as an envoi in the closing pages. This essay is called “Disappearance,” and like Miłosz’s reflections on time, this essay takes as its subject memory, life, death, and transition between worlds. “People disappear,” Miłosz writes, “as do animals, trees landscapes, and as everyone knows who lives long enough, the memory of those who once were alive disappears, too.” In some ways, these lines echo the theme of ubi sunt (where has it all gone?) that echoes through so much English poetry. In the last pages, Miłosz seems almost overwhelmed with the certainty of his own death. He ponders the question of what kind of life, if any, there is after death, and he considers the boundaries between the world, noting that only poets willing to go to hell and back communicate with the dead. For Miłosz, the twentieth century weighs heavily. The weight, he writes, is “a host of voices and the faces of people whom I once knew, or heard about, and now they no longer exist.” These voices and faces, Miłosz asserts, use him “in order to return among the living for a brief moment.” He understands himself as a man of the twentieth century who somehow remained to tell the tale, using the time to come to terms with the people and places of his life. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Miłosz returns to share with readers what the past century has wrought.
Milosz’s ABC’s is at times difficult, at times charming, at times heartbreaking. For readers unfamiliar with the history of Poland, many of the names and events Miłosz refers to will be unfamiliar. This can be disconcerting, because Miłosz writes with a confidence that all readers will recognize the names, the places, and the events of which he writes. Miłosz is not to be blamed, of course, for the ignorance of his audience. In addition, there is, at times, the whiff of self-indulgence here, the scent of the self-satisfied writer coming to the close of his life having earned the right to say what he will to readers and listeners, and yet, is this not exactly what Miłosz has achieved? The years of his life were tumultuous, his vision of life large. As witness to the horror of war, as witness to the life and death struggles of his family, friends, compatriots, fellow writers, surely he has much to tell. This would be an important book, if for no other reason than being written by Czeslaw Miłosz, the great voice of Poland in the twentieth century; however, its importance resides in the breadth of history, the vision of culture, and the sheer artistry of language the book encompasses.
Sources for Further Study
Commonweal 128 (February 23, 2001): 20.
The New Leader 84 (March/April, 2001): 24.
The New York Times, February 21, 2001, p. E7.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 18, 2001): 10.
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