Friday, May 22, 2015

A Thought for the Long Weekend

"The worst, most corrupting kinds of lies are problems poorly stated." - Georges Bernanos

Some people will say (a related ploy was explored in my post of September 30, 2014) something like, "We've spent all this money on anti-poverty programs, and welfare, etc., etc., etc., and, gee, people still live in poverty and we have an underclass" and so on and so forth.  If these same persons heard, or read, something like, "Gosh, I don't understand, we pass laws and have police, and there is still a lot of crime," or "Man, we spend billions on the military, and there are still wars,and we still have enemies" - wouldn't they pounce on the illogic of these rhetorical questions? 

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Little Blogosphere Cross-Pollination

My post of two days ago  (March 25) has been very skillfully excerpted, along with some very nice remarks, over at The Book Haven.  Many thanks to Cynthia Haven. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brief Encounters with Greatness

Cynthia Haven, over at The Book Haven (and fellow Milosz fanatic) asked me recently to write about having met the great man.  So, what follows is an account, with my inadequate reflections:
On April 30, 1988 I attended a reading by Czeslaw Milosz at Mount Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon.  Before I pen my impressions, let me quote what the poet himself had to say, from his printed diary of August 1987 to July 1988, The Year of the Hunter.  The previous day, Milosz had a reading at Oregon State University in Corvallis:

     …The reading was difficult, the auditorium was not entirely appropriate – a lack of direct contact.  Then drinks with the faculty.  The next day, this morning, that is, again the drive from Corvallis to Portland.   Sitting on the campus, I prepare a new program for my performance from twelve to one; very successful, direct contact.  Lunch in a restaurant with a few people, and then they drive me to the airport.
          All the time, however, I’m divided into the person who already knows how to play the game the way they want him to, and another person who is immersed in his own thoughts.  About human society as a marvel.  And about Polish themes, thanks to that issue of Literary Notebooks.

“Direct contact” – yes, I (the divided person in the audience) can testify, there was.  A bachelor then, working a swing-shift job at a hospital, I could drive across Portland and attend a poetry reading (!) by a Nobel laureate on a community college campus and then return to my “usual” life.  (But, at the time, sitting in the tiered class-room, not too big for the direct contact Milosz craved, I also thought about the man reading his poetry and his much younger self - I had read Native Realm about a month earlier - who had weighed his chances and escaped from Soviet-occupied Lithuania into the Nazi Government-General of occupied Poland.)   
Anyway, there was direct contact between the small numbers huddled in the front rows and the burly man with his brief-case of poems and his Slavic accent.  Was it only me, or was there a reason that, especially, “Magpiety,” the prose poem “Esse” (which he prefaced by calling it, both ironically and truthfully, “a philosophical poem – profoundly philosophical”) and the only Milosz poem I know of written first in English, “To Raja Rao,” held his audience’s attention so firmly?  Part of the answer was revealed to to me five and a half years later, the second time I heard Milosz read – an occasion to which I shall return. 
After the reading, we repaired to another room for the reception, such as it was.  Milosz sat at the end of a long table.  I heard him tell a questioner he thought of himself as a Polish-speaking Lithuanian, and suddenly it was my turn in line.  I had brought my copy of his Nobel lecture.  He flipped it over to make sure of what he was signing, scribbled his name, and I put out my hand.  He looked mildly surprised, we shook hands, and I took off like (on the most superficial level at least) the pathetic fan-boy I was. 

I continued my assiduous reading of Milosz (in translation, of course).  Precisely because I had to read in translation I have considered that his prose has necessarily meant more to me than his verse, despite my absolute love of many of his poems.  (I contrasted this with my reading of Auden, to me a very comparable figure in terms of intelligence, philosophical depth, and religious commitment: because Auden wrote in my language his prose and verse held a rough balance for me).  In January of 1989 I read The Land of Ulro and had the singular experience of finishing a book which I then immediately began to re-read.  It is my favorite of his prose works, and I have read it perhaps a dozen times.  That autumn and winter of 1989 the Soviet imperium collapsed and no figure came to mind more than Milosz as incarnating the decades leading up to those events. 
As they say in the movies, “the years passed.”  Now it was the autumn of 1993.  I was married, with a toddler daughter, and Milosz and Robert Hass were billed as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.  A friend of mine (thank you, Terry!) had access to a free ticket.  This was a very different affair.  No community college, but the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.  Not two or three dozen in attendance, but hundreds.  A real reception afterwards.    When Milosz and Robert Hass were introduced and went on stage, you could see the difference five and a half years had made.  Milosz was now 82, somehow physically diminished, and I noticed the nervous tic, for lack of a better term, that sometimes besets the elderly, as his eyebrows (those eyebrows!) shot up and down.   When he read, his voice was softer and higher, and his recitation more rapid.  Still, we were hardly watching a man in mental decline.  The “contact” was different than the previous reading, but still palpable.  The audience was able to write out questions for Milosz and Hass, which the M.C. selected and interspersed with some of his own.  At some point, Milosz remarked (this was the partial revelation I alluded to earlier) that poetry readings took place all over America, that he had lived in France for a decade, and that he hardly ever saw anything like that there, and that for any one poetry reading in France, there must be fifty in the United States.  I have since considered that, allowing for the “concert-going” mentality, there must be a larger part of the audience at poetry readings who leaven the lump than at other “cultural events” and mysteriously make for the contact that a poet has to hope for in public.  I, too, had a question, and I scribbled away, hoping it would pass the gate-keeper on stage.  I wondered (big surprise) about translations.  Why had Treatise on Morals (from the late 40s) never been translated?  Why had only part of Treatise on Poetry (written in 1956 in Paris) appeared in The Collected Poems (this would be the late 80s edition).  [One of the best chapters in Conversations with Cseslaw Milosz is the one on that long poem, IMHO.]  Finally, only two chapters of Milosz’s volume on Stanislaw Brozozowski, Man Among Scorpions (1962) had been translated and included in the book of essays, Emperor of the Earth (1977) – like The Land of Ulro read over and over again.  Anyway, the M.C. read only the part about the two poetic Treatises.  Did he stumble over pronouncing “Brozozowski”?  All I can remember now for an answer is that the earlier poem was written in a meter which precluded translation (as my knowledge of prosody matches my knowledge of quantum physics, I had to take his word for it).
The reception followed.  Something to eat and drink, people greeting one another while wondering (how? when?) to approach the poets.  I was actually on one side of a table when Milosz, beer in hand, went for something to eat.  He was otherwise unattended.  So, leaning forward, I began the conversation which went something like:
     “I was the one who asked about translations.”  Pause.  “About Treatise on Morals and Treatise on Poetry.  Pause 2.0.  “Also, I wondered about your book on Brozozowski.”
     Here he corrected my pronunciation, though to my untrained ear it sounded the same, and then asked, “You are student of Slavic languages?” 
     “No, and that’s why I’m interested in translations.  I’m particularly wondering about Brozozowki.”   [No correction this time, incidentally.  Not worth the bother?]  “I’ve read the chapter in Emperor of the Earth over and over again.  Has the whole work ever been translated?”
     “No.”  This was said with a certain resignation, I think, and then a woman came up to Milosz, telling him how much his poetry meant to her, etc.  The poet and I exchanged a mutual nod and the conversation was over.
Well.  What does it mean to meet, however fleetingly, someone famous?  Where are the borders between fandom (for lack of better word) and the wish for direct contact (exactly the right words) with someone whose work has meant a world (not the world, but a world shared between an author and you and, at a remove, with that author’s other readers)?  There is nothing inherently trivial about someone’s wish to see “in the flesh” another human being who has assumed some kind of importance in your life, and whom you only “know” through their work and whatever images the media offers up to you – which is why “celebrity” and the attraction to it is so pernicious.  It perverts the healthy instinct of admiration for achievement into its infinitely inferior parody. 
What does it mean to know someone on a more continuous basis whose work has re-directed your life’s interests?  I was the relatively undistinguished student of an unjustly neglected historian who bent my attention toward American history, especially the early national period.   I had several classes with him, wrote my senior thesis for him, and would continue to visit his office after graduation.  I knew I had arrived when we were discussing another historian, and Professor Govan said to me quite casually, “X’s problem is, he thinks he’s Thorstein Veblen.”  There I was, 23 years of age, to his 69, so I said something trite, like, “Well, they say it keeps you young.”  Govan replied, “X thinks it’s one of the prerogatives of genius.”  Of course, we discussed more substantial matters, like the economics of slavery, Hamilton and how there might have been a war with France in the 1790s, and why the United States didn’t have “national” political parties the way European countries do.  A few years ago, I discovered a wonderful link: readers of Milosz’s ABC’s will remember his moving pages about the historian and polymath Arthur Quinn.  Quinn taught at the University of Oregon for a couple of years before going on to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.  In his forward to The Rivals, Quinn wrote, “Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my understanding of this period of American history was shaped decades ago by conversations with the late Thomas Payne Govan, whose published work – as good as it is – gives but a faint indication of the subtlety and passion of his historical understanding.”        
Anyway, my literary “meetings” have been few.  I once met Norman Mailer (whose work was interesting, but not important to me) when he was pushing The Fifth Estate (if you are of an age to remember that).  He was personable enough, at least on that occasion, and shorter than on television.  I met the great historian John Lukacs (whose work has been very important to me) once in Washington, DC at a book signing, where the conversation was even shorter than that with Milosz (“Thank you for all your books.”  “Oh, you’re very nice.”).  Lukacs has often quoted from one his masters, Johan Huizinga:
     There is in our historical consciousness an element of great importance that is best defined by the term historical sensation.  One might also call it historical contact…This contact with the past, a contact which it is impossible to determine or analyze completely…is one of the ways given to man to reach beyond himself, to experience truth.  The object of this feeling is not people as individuals…It is hardly an image which our mind forms…If it takes on a form at all this remains composite and vague: an Ahhung [sense] of streets, houses, as sounds and colours or people moving or being moved.  There is in this manner of contact with the past the absolute conviction of reality…The historical sensation is not the sensation of living the past again, but of understanding the world as one does when listening to music  
I knew exactly this historical contact (at one remove: the remove between life and death) when visiting the grave of Walker Percy at St. Joseph’s Abbey just about six months after he died.  It was a beautiful autumn day in St. Tammany parish, such as he might have described in one of his novels.  As my wife and I walked away, a man who looked incredibly like Shelby Foote was walking toward the grave.  Was he visiting the grave of his old friend?  It wasn’t until we were practically on top of him, when we saw it wasn’t.  Later, I thought, how many times must this gentleman have been stopped by people saying how much they enjoyed him on Ken Burns’ documentaries (embarrassing all parties involved)?

Several years ago, when I was avoiding work by commenting heavily on Amy Welborn’s old Open Book blog, the subject came up of meeting “famous people.”  It caused me to reflect.  I had grown up in Oregon, the son of a Teamster business agent, and from an early age was used to seeing prominent political people around the place, including a certain United State Senator who was certainly a family friend and at our house any number of times.  Since then, I’ve met any number of people “in the news.”  Why, to put the matter crudely, is coming into contact with writers of a different order than with people in “public life”?  I think I see the answer, very dimly, but damned if I could articulate it…

I read of Milosz’s death in the Washington Post on a Sunday morning in August 2004.  My family was away, and I was nursing a headache from the previous night (yes, I know) as the sunlight poured on the dining room and I was flooded with memories of my two encounters with the man, of having read almost everything of his translated into English, and of what I knew of his life now come to an end.  As if in confirmation of that life’s struggles, over the next few days certain nationalists in Poland crawled out from under the rocks, casting aspersions on Milosz as insufficiently Polish and hence not Catholic “enough” (echoes of Native Realm) and the Pope, dying in Rome, had to telegraph that this was not so.
Now, a decade later, I await the day when his massive biography is translated for dullards like me…And speaking of translations, any reader who has borne with me for this long remembers that early on in this piece I telegraphed a punch.  A full English translation of Treatise on Poetry was published in 2001, and ever since I have taken utterly unjustified credit (if only to myself) for having planted the idea in Czeslaw Milosz’s head.