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The Writing Life

At Century's End: Recovering a Reverence for Being

Czeslaw Milosz

July 25, 1999|NATHAN GARDELS | Nathan Gardels, editor of "Summing Up the Century" and "Global Viewpoint," recently spoke with Milosz at the poet's home in the Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives part of the year when not in residence in Krakow, Poland

Editor's Note: Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. His most recent works include "A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry" (Harcourt Brace) and "Road-side Dog" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Nathan Gardels, editor of "Summing Up the Century" and "Global Viewpoint," recently spoke with Milosz at the poet's home in the Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives part of the year when not in residence in Krakow, Poland.

NATHAN GARDELS: In your anthology of poetry, you quote Goethe as saying that "when eras are in decline, all tendencies are subjective, but when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective." Goethe thus praised "objective art," as you do. You have even opined that the "objective" order in music ended precisely at the time of Goethe, when the classical period gave way to the romantic. Can you explain what you mean by objective art?

CZESLAW MILOSZ: We live in a world of languages--painting, music, cinema, poetry. But besides that language, there is a reality. That reality can be defined as everything that is not captured by our language but is directly perceived by our senses.

I believe that reality is the great measure of art. It judges art. Aesthetic value depends on the amount of reality a work of art captures.

One can see this in the paintings of Cezanne. He loved to paint his mountain, San Victoire. He wanted to be faithful to nature. That was, for him, an objective reality that he tried to capture, to attain. His credo was "Beauty is only in the true, only the true is lovable." "My code," Cezanne declared, "is realism." He was against the disintegration of objects into fragments. In that sense, this forerunner of 20th century painting was betrayed by his followers.

In "A Book of Luminous Things," my recent anthology of poetry, you can see that I search for poems in which there is an attitude of reverence toward reality. What is important in these poems is not the words themselves or combinations of words but something beyond words. That is what a poet tries to capture, be it a landscape, a flower on the lapel, lips, a relationship between people. . . .

I try to say this in "An Appeal," a poem from my "Collected Works":

. . . If one day our word

Comes so close to the bark of trees in the forest,

And to orange blossoms, that they become one with them,

It will mean that we have always defended a great hope.

How should I defend it? By naming things."

The fact is, the world of the past, the world before the 19th century, the world of objective art, had its own limitations. Since that time, we have invented means of capturing the world through subjective approaches.

The best example would be Proust. Reality for Proust was very important, but it had to pass through his subjective apprehension, namely, his remembrances. He reconstructed reality through memory. So here we must distinguish between subjective approaches that capture reality, at least in part, and those that are purely subjective constructions that completely lose touch with reality--illusion.

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GARDELS: The German philosopher Odo Marquard argues that subjective perceptions so reign today--not only in art, but in society--that we live in "an age of fiction." People are free to choose their illusions, and while some see apocalypse, others see utopia.

MILOSZ: I agree. The human mind has an infinite capacity to create phantoms. More than this, I see an increasing dependence on language. Instead of talking about a tree, we talk about a text on a tree, or about the text about a text about a tree. Or an image of that tree. Cultural references are infinite. From fashion to jokes to talk television, we swim today in the swirl of these references. These references, however, are not real, but shadows in the cave.

And those from outside the sphere of enclosed references don't get what is going on. That is the opposite of the universality of objective art.

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GARDELS: Marquard calls this media soup in which we swim an "adolescent" culture that has not grown up to a mature grasp of reality, of will and desire versus natural limits.

Certainly, this kind of culture propels the spiral of decline Goethe worried about, taking us further from any sense of reverence.

MILOSZ: Aesthetic decline is connected to the disintegration of the notion of truth--a nihilism that in turn leads to disaster in the social order.

I have been a witness in my life and in my country, Poland, to the influence on the human mind of the three masters of suspicion--Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. They suspected that a natural order, discerned by reason, was somehow a cover-up behind which lurked other determinate forces--the libido, economics and the will to power. As a result, it has been left to a spiritual leader, Pope John Paul II, to remind us, in his recent encyclical, "Faith and Reason," of the value of human reason.

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