Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bejamin Paloff takes Pot Shot at Czeslaw Milosz

I am annoyed by apparent pot shots at the late, great Czeslaw Milosz in an article in the Nation entitled “Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry”.

“Yet Anders is not without serious competition from fellow Polish writers. The most imposing is the latter portion of The History of Polish Literature (1969) by Czeslaw Milosz, with its contentious opinions, occasional errors and imperious language. Milosz describes Wislawa Szymborska--who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, sixteen years after Milosz was awarded it--as a poet who "often leans toward preciosity" and who "is probably at her best where her woman's sensibility outweighs her existential brand of rationalism." Though the Polish language has no definite or indefinite articles, summary judgments like these leave no doubt that Milosz understood what it meant to crown his History with The instead of A. “

While I like both Milosz and Szymborska, I think Milosz may be right about Symborska and Paloff's resort to support from award of the Nobel prize to Symborska is hardly a thoughtful reply. More to the point, the quote Paloff supplies does not serve to support his judgment of Milosz's history as “contentious” and “imperious”. And that snide insinuation about the title of Milosz's history. I suspect Paloff is guided merely by his apparent bias for a postmodern sensibility rather than an actual knowledge of Milosz's demeanor. Couldn't that simply have been the choice of Milosz's editor following publishing conventions of the time?

Paloff cites Jaroslav Anders, whose book he is reviewing, as saying: "Poetry as a 'witness of history,'" Anders writes, "was a constant motif of Milosz's essays as well as of many of his poems. In many cases, this view of literature as mentor and consoler was certainly true. But in time it inevitably led to a one-sided, reductive reading of some of Poland's most complex writers."

Here is the clincher from Paloff: “For the "certain way of reading" to which these essays bid farewell may have had its time and place, but it ultimately proved too orthodox, too programmatic in its vision of good and evil, to survive in a postglobalization, postmodern and--no use avoiding it--post-Communist world.”

Postmodern sensibility should rule is the take away lesson. I'd rather read Milosz. Here for instance is a charming excerpt from him I came across the other day:

“We learned so much, this you know well:
how, gradually, what could not be taken away
is taken. People, countrysides.
And the heart does not die when one thinks it should,
we smile, there is tea and bread on the table.
And only remorse that we did not love the poor ashes in Sachsenhausen
with absolute love, beyond human power...”

-from “Elegy for N.N.” from New and Collected Poems, 1993-2001, p. 267. The poem was written at Berkeley in 1963.

[Sometimes the presumed knowingness of the postmodern strikes me as impoverished and thin, a pitiable delusion, especially beside some the deep seeing eye of one like Milosz. Is appears a knowingness like that of the ancient Gnostics and sophists, inflated with imagination and thin on content and the bold weathering of reality].

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