Advertisement
 
(Page 2 of 2)

What Remains Is Silence : Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz meditates on the human desire to leave behind a mark of our existence : A YEAR OF THE HUNTER, By Czeslaw Milosz Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 288 pp.)

August 14, 1994|Ian Buruma | Ian Buruma's latest book, "The Wages of Guilt," is about memories of World War II in Germany and Japan

Milosz's distrust of elevated spiritual rhetoric is matched by his dislike of psychoanalysis. He reflects, philosophizes and questions, but he does not want to put himself on the couch, so to speak. He is "aware that a lot of things are happening in the depths," but prefers "not to look." But this, too, is perhaps a mark of the "not quite believer." For he does wish to reveal himself--otherwise, why bother to publish a diary? What he reveals is a man of several contradictory personalities: a disciplinarian (to himself), as well as a drinker and a flirt; a modest man who revels in applause; a private man who adores to perform in public; a secularist, and a man of the flesh haunted by spiritual questions.

Not surprisingly, Milosz is obsessed by the division of body and soul. People write poetry, engage in trade or politics, observe customs and rituals, and worship in churches--"Yet they have to rush to the toilet every minute to empty their bladder or take a crap." Milosz writes that if Beatrice "remained a spirit for Dante, it was only because he was married not to Beatrice, but to another woman."

Poetry, then, would be a way for the man of the flesh, for the not quite believer, to enter the world of the spirit, or "God's thoughts," or "the sphere that endures." It is also the answer to the spiritual void left by the slow death of God. Here Milosz's thoughts are close to many writers of our Secular Age, not just Singer, but V. S. Naipaul, too. Milosz wonders how people should behave "in the face of ultimate things," such as the death of people close to them. The liturgy and rituals of religion would be a help. But what if the liturgy of organized religion loses its meaning? "Couldn't poetry be the liturgy of a substitute religion?"

It is a romantic notion, expressed by an anti-romantic man. But there is something to it. Poems, some poems, passed on from generation to generation, do endure. People die. Memories fade. Countries cease to exist. But we still have the books. For that we should be grateful.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|