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
a possible deliverance…not in any accusations brought against science, as if it were to blame for the great desolation, but in its construction of a vision of man and the world vastly different from that adduced by eighteenth-century science and its modern descendants.
The medieval mind was rooted, according to Milosz, not only in theological doctrine but in the religious images that organized outer and inner life so as to give special significance to human existence. Perhaps the most important of these, Milosz suggests, was the Christian image of God-as-Man, or divinity in human shape, which conveyed a message that the world of being had one inherent goal: a realization of some kind of perfect, absolute, humanity. Christian religious imagery was radically antinaturalistic; it placed man apart from the ceaseless transformations of the material world. “At Chartres,” Milosz writes, “on a statue showing the creation of Adam, God bears Christ’s face and fashions Adam from clay in His own image and likeness.” This vision, larger and more persistent than dogmatic faith, was undermined when science started to produce powerful images of its own. Instead of Dante’s hierarchical architecture of Heaven and Hell, we have Newton’s absolute space and time; instead of God-as-Man, as a symbol of transcendental humanity, we have man as god, who has to be his own maker and redeemer.
Of relevance here are not concepts so much as images of the cosmos, which is why I prefer to speak of the religious imagination. The role of science in shaping the imagination was immense, that of post-Tridentine Catholicism rather negligible.
Yet the new imagery could not completely win. Subconsciously people have never relinquished their longing for the old images and notions. One of the consequences was a kind of vacillating imagination, which Milosz sees as largely responsible for the European Romantic movement. He is fascinated by, and feels affinity with, everything that happened at the “frontier where religious and scientific imagination skirmished.” He describes how nondenominational mysticism drew liberally from the traditions of Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Cabala, and the occult. Milosz argues that after the defeats of organized religion a “second line of defense” was being formed, by such visionary thinkers as Swedenborg, Blake, and Goethe, as well as the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, and Oscar Milosz.
All these writers figure in The Land of Ulro. Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences defining all creation as a divine language in which God speaks to man; Goethe’s and Blake’s war against Newton; Blake’s Human Form Divine and Swedenborg’s Heaven-in-the-shape-of-a-human-body—each is presented as a desperate effort of imagination to oppose the abstractness and diffusion of the universe, and to restore its lost anthropocentric character.
Milosz’s interpretation of Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), himself a native of Lithuania and an exile for most of his life, is perhaps the most original and illuminating part of the book. Polish literary historians have tended to see the Romantic movement in Poland—where Mickiewicz is the dominating figure—primarily as patriotic, a strategy for national survival. The rise of Polish Romanticism coincided with the fall of Napoleonic power, in which many Poles had placed their hopes of national resurrection; the Romantic movement then flourished during the heroic defeat of the uprising against Russia in 1830 and 1831. Poles suffered cruel repression and were left with only the vestiges of independence, governed by one of the most paradoxical creations of the Congress of Vienna—the semiautonomous, constitutional Kingdom of Poland under the sovereignty of the czar of Russia. Faced with dark political prospects, yet unwilling to give up the cause of national independence, Poles sought to translate the notion of “Polishness” into metaphysical concepts that would be invulnerable to the pressures of history. Central to this was Romantic poetry, written both in Poland and in exile.
Milosz does not reject this interpretation of Polish Romanticism, but he wants to point to the movement’s deeper and more universal sources in the struggle between the new and the old imagination. In his view, Mickiewicz and other poets of the period were concerned less with the creation of a patriotic myth than with recreating a prescientific cosmology, in which patriotic myth simply proved to be a very useful vehicle. The best example is Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, perhaps the major work of Polish Romanticism, which has been understood mainly as a political drama about the Russian domination of Poland. When the play was staged in Warsaw in 1968 it set off the first surge of antigovernment unrest in Poland since 1956. But for Milosz the central event in the play is the vision of the monk, Father Peter, in which the sufferings of Poland are identified with the Passion of Christ. According to Milosz the play “is only ostensibly a political drama. Its real theme is neither freedom, nor equality, nor fraternity, nor national sovereignty. It is a drama of the Apocalypse.” This apocalyptic vision, he argues, derived from the same philosophical sources as Blake’s poetry, even though Mickiewicz’s dark prophecy did not draw on the images of industrial squalor, exploitation, and impoverishment, or the landscapes of the “Infernal city,” but on the historical experience of invasion and suppression of Polish nationhood. “For reasons difficult to define,” Milosz writes,
Polish culture is marked by an optimistic faith in a preordained, divinely sanctioned order, which may be violated but not for long…. And just because the rights of the Prince of Darkness are not acknowledged, a foreign invasion becomes a jolting experience, literally a bolt out of the blue, a misfortune of moral proportions.
For Milosz the apocalyptic vision prompted by the crisis of the European imagination, combined with the acute Polish sense of national tragedy, produced effects very different from those in Western Europe. To Mickiewicz and other Polish Romantics, the most threatening aspect of the modern “scientific” world view was not the materialistic, dehumanizing interpretation of nature, but its equally dehumanizing view of history. If history was to be seen as a series of perpetual clashes of blind forces in which the strong would always dominate, then Poland was truly condemned to be a historical loser. All national hopes, aspirations, and sacrifices were useless. The only alternative was to conceive of some kind of transcendental order, in which Poland’s hope could be preserved and its suffering would assume special significance.
Mickiewicz constructed this order out of a mixture of Christian and Jewish elements. In his lectures on Slavic literature at the Collège de France he formulated the doctrine of “Polish Messianism” depicting Poland as the “Christ of Nations,” chosen to suffer, die, and rise from the dead as redeemer and provider of spiritual life to a Europe ensnared by false prophecy. As Milosz observes, this idea of a collective Polish Messiah is not far removed from that of Dostoevsky’s “Russian Christ.” One should not perhaps overestimate the influence of this nineteenth-century myth on social life in Poland today, but it partly explains the religious language in which the Poles often express their hope and defiance.
Polish Romanticism has been only one of many ways in which, Milosz suggests, the imagination can fill in the chasms created by history and the evolution of culture. Yet it is the most significant example, since it brings together the sense of modern alienation in general and the more concrete experience of homelessness and estrangement felt in societies that have, like Poland, been deprived of what they consider their legitimate place in the community of nations. Of his cousin Oscar, Milosz writes: “Homelessness, in the tribal as well as the geographical sense, became a correspondence of the spiritual exile of modern man, and his own quest for homeland, for place, acquired a double meaning.” This correspondence is the key to the intricate structure of The Land of Ulro, and to the author’s aims in his poetry. His book can be read both as a story of European imagination exiled in the land of modernity, and as the story of the poet himself, who understands that a homeland is “very much a need and a product of the imagination,” and that it is born “of the same realm as myth and fable.”
In Milosz’s poetry, one finds the metaphysical strivings of a mind cut loose from inherited modes of thinking and feeling, and one follows the interior journey of the poet who tries to reconstruct, from scraps of memory and language, the geographical homeland he has lost, as in this sequence from “The Separate Notebooks:”
I had a dream of return. Multi- colored. Joyous. I was able to fly.
And the trees were even higher than in childhood, because they had been growing during all the years since they had been cut down.
The loss of a native province, of a homeland,
Wandering one’s whole life among foreign tribes—
Is only romantic, i.e., bearable.
(translated by Robert Hass and Renata Gorczynski)
Both kinds of exile threaten to reduce experience to an abstraction, and for both the only deliverance is the poetic imagination. Hence the absolute importance attributed by Milosz to poetry, which becomes for him nothing less than the struggle for survival of individuals and societies. The ability, and need, of the human animal to believe unverifiable truths is in Milosz’s view identical with his imaginative ability. Thus for Milosz theology and poetry often merge. Nobody lives in the “objective” world, only in a world filtered through imagination. Imagination can fashion the world into a homeland, as well as into a prison or a place of battle. The immense significance of poetry derives from its being both the reflection and a shaping force of the world we really live in.
Today this claim for the power of poetry may sound extreme and preemptory. As if aware of the intimidating gravity of his tone, Milosz often returns in his writing to the modest world of his childhood. His favorite image of himself is that of a child—whether the hero of his novel The Issa Valley, or the lyrical subject of his great poem, “The World,” which he subtitles “A Naive Poem.” In that poem, composed during the war, Milosz writes with the simplicity of Blake’s songs of the wonder and majesty of the world seen through the eyes of a child. One section is called “From the Window”:
Beyond the field, a forest and a field,
Then huge bays flashing a white mirror.
The land, among them, hovers yellow- gold
Like a tulip floating in a bowl of water.
Father says this is Europe. And on clear days
You see it as if you held it in your palm,
Still steaming from repeated floods. It is,
For people, dogs, horses and cats, a home.
The tall spires of vivid cities shine.
Small streams run together like silver braid.
And here and there, a color like goosedown
Gleams where the moons of moun- tains spread.
(translated by Robert Pinsky with Renata Gorczynski)
It is appropriate, then, that at the end of The Land of Ulro, the gravest and most overbearing book he has yet written, Milosz should return to this world of childhood:
In the end I am that boy who as he sat at his school desk, oblivious to the teacher’s words except as a monotonous humming sound, spent hour after hour filling his notebooks with the fantastic sketches of his ideal countries. Their borders, their lakes and rivers meant not only that I was organizing space but that I was surmounting the present tense, because these were countries as they ought to have been.
In the imagination of this child, a naive poet, a traveler longing for his homeland, and a prophet dreaming of renewed civilization meet to give evidence that the goals of the imagination can be reached by a lighter, more playful road than that of apocalyptic prophecies and millenarian visions: “The song of innnocence and the song of experience share a common theme.”
February 27, 1986