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Voice of Exile

The Land of Ulro

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Louis Iribarne
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pp., $17.95

The Land of Ulro opens with a warning: “Dear Reader, this book was not intended for you, and I feel you should be forewarned before you enter its bizarre tangle.” It was conceived, the author tells us, as “an act of perfect freedom,” the “personal whim” of a writer who decided to let us eavesdrop on a longstanding and personal dispute with a phantom audience, an audience that perhaps has very little to do with most of us. “This time I gave free rein to my meditations,” Milosz writes, “and didn’t try to reach anybody in particular, except perhaps a few fastidious people able to read my Polish and belonging to the same circle of the literati.”

This seemingly arrogant remark poses a dilemma that pervades Milosz’s work and is central to the book under review. Freedom from the demands of a literary audience—or, today, of the literary marketplace—can be both a blessing and a danger for the artist, especially for an artist in exile, living far from his own country and his native literary tradition. The question whether such freedom will lead to clarity of vision or become a destructive force is a question that seems to obsess Milosz in The Land of Ulro. For him exile can take several different shapes: it can be the personal exile of a poet from his native land, the historical condition of an entire society or nation, or the philosophical predicament of modern man. The Land of Ulro can best be described as a meditation on exile and the possibilities of transcending exile through the imagination.

For Milosz himself the experience of exile has included virtually every conceivable kind of personal, social, and historical estrangement. He was born in 1911 in provincial Lithuania, where, as he recalls in his memoirs, the people were still living in a seemingly primordial past, a unique blend of traditional rural paganism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. Milosz, like the great Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, chose to call himself a Lithuanian poet writing in Polish. As a boy he traveled through Russia with his father, who was then an official involved with the construction of railroads. Milosz’s early poetry was shaped by the circle of young Wilno writers called “catastrophists” because of what Milosz calls their “vision of massive convulsions, cataclysms, of a crisis of cosmic proportions and of unspecified duration.” To the older generation this was a mere literary pose, but Milosz, in retrospect, believes that these writers were genuinely possessed by premonitions that the Last Judgment would soon come.

Milosz visited France in 1931, when he was twenty, and there he met his distant cousin, the poet Oscar Milosz, whose influence on him he recalls many times in The Land of Ulro. Oscar, a Lithuanian by birth, “one-quarter Italian on his grandmother’s side…half Jewish on his mother’s,” living in France and writing in French, became for Milosz a portent of his own future exile.

Exile, before it became a phenomenon of the age, was once relatively rare; only later did it grow to the dimensions of a universal condition. The fate of Oscar Milosz, no longer exceptional when viewed from the present, from my American perspective, was only a dramatic foreglimpse of the great melting pot of the future.

Two years before the outbreak of World War II Milosz left Lithuania for Warsaw, remaining through the German invasion and the six years of Nazi terror. After the war he was invited to join the diplomatic service of the new Communist regime; he worked briefly as a cultural attaché in Washington and Paris, and then broke with the government in 1951. In 1960 after less than happy years in Europe he arrived in America where he has lived ever since, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In Poland, where his books are banned and must be smuggled in, Milosz has long been widely read and admired, but he had relatively few readers in the West until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the year of the Solidarity uprising.

Milosz refuses to write in English. “I cannot stand writing in a foreign language; I am incapable of it,” he says. “I did not emulate those émigrés in France and the United States who shed one skin and language for another.” He believes that “communing outside a shared language, a shared history” is impossible. The result is an obsession with silence that has been growing during his years of exile, “the fear that if I spoke, no sound would escape from my mouth.” The remedy was to declare that he belonged only to a “literary estate,” in which his work would somehow regain its power to speak to readers. “I belong to the estate of Polish literature and to no other,” he writes, an estate he has constructed from the polyphonies of the Polish language, and has peopled with figures and images recalled from the Polish past. It often seems a wholly private world, eccentric and iconoclastic with respect to established patterns of Polish thought.

As is often the case with contemporary Polish literature, we may not feel we are particularly welcome in this estate to which The Land of Ulro clearly belongs. “If I am to nourish the hope of writing with a free hand, with gaiety, and not under pressure,” he writes, “then I must proceed by keeping only a few Polish readers in mind.” At first glance the book may look like an uncontrolled and uncontrollable flow of personal images, and arguments broken off before their conclusion. It consists of long philosophical meditations, fragments of literary exegesis, profiles of various figures, mostly visionaries, from Western and Polish literature—Swedenborg, William Blake, Mickiewicz, Gombrowicz—interspersed with autobiographical digressions, remembered landscapes, events, and sensations. The central image is that of the Land of Ulro itself, from Blake’s Milton, the barren kingdom of disinherited spirits made to “repent of their human kindness.”

From Blake’s image Milosz constructs his main argument, which sometimes sounds like the familiar complaint about “modernity.” He traces most contemporary problems to the great breakup of the eighteenth century—the “fall” into secular and rationalistic modes of thinking. “We are in the thrall of certain habits of mind acquired over the past couple of centuries,” and “Blake’s Land of Ulro is not a fantasy if we ourselves have been there; …since the eighteenth century something, call it by whatever name one will, has been gaining ground, gathering force.”

According to Milosz the old theological outlook provided man with a sense of the sacred correspondence between the universe and the human spirit. It conceived of human nature as something separate and independent of the physical world, with transcendental possibilities that had to be realized—often against the demands of the laws of nature—if man was to become truly human. These tenets of the old order were the source of moral values, the sense of purpose and security of premodern man when faced with the predicaments of existence. By adopting the scientific vision based on a rationalistic and increasingly materialistic interpretation of nature, which Blake contemptuously called the “Baconian succession,” Western man has involuntarily cut himself off from these values, with the result that his culture became directed toward moral ambiguity, cosmic loneliness, and latent despair.

The modern, secular, and skeptical civilization that emerged can be interpreted as a series of efforts—usually ineffective and often disastrous—to close the resulting gap between deep human aspirations and the naturalistic disillusion of the scientific world view. Milosz appeals to “a tradition in European literature that began when the mind first entered the land of the disinherited—Blake’s Ulro; a land where man is reduced to a supererogatory number, worse, where he becomes as much for himself, in his own eyes, in his own mind.”

In The Land of Ulro, the consequences of the rationalistic revolution of the eighteenth century are seen as culminating in our own time, often in a terrifying fulfillment. Not unlike Solzhenitsyn, Milosz sees the rise of modern totalitarian utopias as the logical and inevitable product of thoroughly secular, materialistic culture. Nature alone—Schopenhauer’s nature that both devours and is devoured—cannot sustain any morality or give meaning to a person’s life. Reduced to an element of nature, man faces a terrible dilemma: he must accept either an unbearable freedom based on the will to exist, often at the expense of another’s being, or he must construct a wholly artificial order of “social justice” achieved through lies, terror, and slavery.

The writer who first saw this choice, according to Milosz, was Dostoevsky, in the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” of The Brothers Karamazov, where Christ declines to intervene in the natural world for the benefit of humanity, abandoning man to the Prince of This World, who appears to be identical with the law of nature. Thus the Grand Inquisitor concludes that man can conquer nature, or Satan, only by becoming its, or his, perfect servant—by creating a social order based on human weakness, fear, and egoism. As Milosz remarks,

The Grand Inquisitor abides with his secret and with his private suffering: deliberately, out of human compassion, he has chosen to collaborate with the devil, because “objective” truth is on the side of evil.

A “good” society can only be one of absolute slavery, a state in which human animals are so conditioned to their bondage that they will mistake it for freedom fulfilled. Marx’s and Lenin’s “scientific socialism” could still conceal itself in humanistic language. Twentieth-century behaviorism, for example in B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, brought totalitarian utopian thinking to its starkest form.

Milosz’s broad indictment of the modern world sounds all too familiar. Modern Waste Lands have been evoked so often in art and literature that they have lost their power to shock. But blaming everything on the rise of rationalism in the eighteenth century has become too easy as a way of dealing with the variety of ills of our times. If rationalism fostered the ideological and utopian thinking that was ultimately responsible for social disasters, it also produced the concept of moral rights and the critical and intellectual approaches that can be used to question authority whenever it threatens to go beyond its legitimate boundaries. That the same civilization produced Western parliamentary democracies as well as gulags and concentration camps may not be reassuring but it makes total condemnation of that civilization unconvincing. If societies based on secular rationalism often end in slavery, those based on some metaphysical concept of authority almost always do. If, as is sometimes claimed, the era of democracy is just a brief interlude in the history of repressive social orders, there is little doubt that democratic institutions were made possible only through the rise of reason.

Milosz, however, shifts his attention from the intellectual to the visionary aspect of the modern crisis. The cataclysm of the great philosophical shift can be felt, he believes, primarily in the imagination, and it is in the imagination that he hopes for

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