Cynthia L Haven wrote in a recent Times Literary Supplement essay (November 23rd) about the wave of commemorations and celebrations that attended the hundredth anniversary this year of the birth of the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. Yet she emphasises the difficulties that many will have in understanding the now largely vanished world of religion and ideology in which he was formed.
There were centenary events in Warsaw, Vilnius, Krasnogruda, Moscow, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Madrid, Bucharest, Paris, Rome and across the United Kingdom [and in Dublin too – drb] throughout the year. The fever was naturally less acute in the English-speaking world, but here the divide may indeed be more generational than linguistic. Miłosz’s former assistant Natalie Gerber, now a professor in New York, described the perils of presenting the poet’s work to her undergraduates in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Miłosz (reviewed in the TLS, April 8th, 2011): “Few have much experience with verse, and almost none have read poetry that overtly wrestles with conscience and historical circumstance, as does Miłosz’s, or, for that matter, poetry that requires its reader to work as hard as his does to understand both its literal meaning and its ethical import … [They] don’t presume that the morally complex and personally engaged stances taken by the speakers in Miłosz’s poems are even possible.” At the conference in Cracow, Artur Sebastian Rosman, a doctoral student, recalled a discussion at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, devoted to Miłosz. “All, and I mean all, of the Americans there were convinced that Miłosz was most likely a postmodern spiritual seeker, probably much like them, possibly fascinated by archetypes, certainly spiritual, and definitely not religious.” Had Miłosz been there, said Rosman, he might have repeated his claim that his readers don’t “take into account a particular, quite fundamental fact: all my intellectual impulses are religious and in that sense my poetry is religious”.
But what does that mean? An Irish Catholic, or at least one whose schooling goes back a few decades, may have some idea of what is going on with Miłosz’s great interest in the taxonomy of sin, even if, as is normally the case, he or she is more or less “lapsed”, but what of an American brought up without any religious education? Haven recalls that the poet Brenda Hillman, wife of Miłosz’s translator Robert Hass, once asked him: “What is heaven? What is it like?”. To which the poet replied decisively: “Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.” A fine answer, but one wonders if it would be much use to Seattle’s postmodern spiritual seekers, who, one suspects, would on the whole have found just one vodka quite enough thank you.
Could it also be that Miłosz, a man who from time to time worried about his own drinking (though he lived well into his nineties), was unconsciously echoing the more worldly bon mot of James Thurber, who once described “that third martini feeling” as occurring “when you are beginning to feel increasingly sophisticated, but can no longer pronounce it”?