When Max Beerbohm’s failed poet Enoch Soames, by virtue of a pact with the Devil, was permitted to inspect the British Museum catalog a hundred years in the future, he found to his utter discouragement that under the name “Soames, Enoch” nothing at all had been added to the three cherished slips for his own “slim volumes.” It would have been otherwise with Oskar Wladyslaw Milosz (1877-1939), though a failed poet in his own lifetime too; he would have found quite a respectable column of posthumous additions, including various critical studies, a series of Cahiers by the “Friends of Milosz,” a handsome Collected Works in ten volumes, and a valuable volume of translations (The Noble Traveller) introduced by his distant cousin the poet Czeslaw Milosz.
“Failed poet” is a harsh phrase, but one will have to use it, for it is to the point. Thus it is important to insist, before going further, that—unlike poor Soames—Milosz possessed an unmistakable, though minor, talent. It is impossible to resist the seductive, sepulchral harmonies of lines such as these from “Aux sons d’une musique…” in his Les Sept solitudes of 1906.
Aux sons de ta chanson de harpe rouillée,
Tiède fille qui luis comme une pomme mouillée,
—(Ma tête est si lourde d’éternité vide,
Les mouches d’or font un bruit doux et stupide
Qui prennent tes grands yeux de vache pour des fenêtres),
Aux sons de ta dormante et rousse voix d’été
Fais que je rêve à ce qui aurait pu être
Et n’a pas été…
Quels beaux yeux de n’importe quel animal tu as,
Blanche fille de juin, grande dormeuse!
Mon âme, mon âme est pluvieuse,
D’être et de n’être pas je suis tout las.
It is Baudelaire filtered through Verlaine or Ernest Dowson and quite untranslatable, so much of its charm being purely acoustic and residing in those richly deliquescent rhymes. His more Laforguian (and more translatable) “Symphonie de Novembre” was, however, turned by Ezra Pound into a magnificent English poem.
Oskar Milosz was born at Czereia in Byelorussia, in what in earlier times had been the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His father, the owner of vast estates, was a half-mad Polish nobleman, in his youth a great hell-raiser and Don Juan. He was a wild and freakish character altogether, who would harness bears to his carriage to take him to the lake for his morning swim. Much interested in aeronautics, he had the village girls help make him a balloon, in which he ascended, crashing into a tree and smashing half the bones in his body. The young Oskar was afraid of him, but half-admiring also. Once he came on his father bleeding from a saber-wound in the belly after an attempted suicide, and he remembered rushing, frantic, through endless corridors in search of help. As for his mother, a Jewess from Warsaw, he claimed to have felt little fondness for her, being repelled by her “materialistic and uncomprehending tenderness.” Thus he mainly spent his boyhood days in lonely daydreaming, hiding in remote corners of their estate.
In 1889 the family came to Paris for the father to have treatment by the famous Charcot, and Oskar was sent to the Lycée Janson de Sailly, proceeding later to study Hebrew and Assyrian at the Ecole du Louvre and Ecole des Langues Orientales. He was by this time a poet in the Symbolist manner, and there are stories of his meetings with Oscar Wilde. Seeing him side-by-side with Jean Moréas in the Café des Deux Magots, Wilde remarked: “Voilà Moréas-le-poète, et voici Milosz-la-poésie” (“There is Moréas-the-poet, and here is Milosz, poetry in person”), a slightly two-edged remark.
Milosz’s first volume, Le Poème des décadences, was published in 1889. It did not make much impact, though it earned him a warm published letter of praise from Paul Fort. At this time he was thrown a good deal on his father’s company, with bitter quarrels as a result; and on January 1, 1901—“with perfect calm, a cigarette at my lips,” as he reported to a friend—he tried to kill himself. His revolver missed its aim, however, and he survived.
His father died sometime between 1902 and 1904, and a year or two later he or his mother sold their estates to a government-sponsored agency, which was parceling out land to the peasants. Over the next few years Milosz, now a very rich man, seems to have wandered throughout Europe and in North Africa. It is not clear what he was doing during these Wanderjahre. A friend remarked later that one could not quite make out if he had actually gone to Persia, and had adventures there, or merely had half-thought of going.
He was still writing, winning no more recognition than before, and was doing much translation. What becomes clear, though, in reading his verse of this time and later, is the extraordinarily limited nature of his inspiration: how much, that is to say, he was a poet of loneliness and sheer frustration. His languorous and defunctive reveries are all about nostalgia, not for some lost childhood Eden but rather a childhood in which nothing at all happened. Rather touchingly, his poems create a shadowy kindred for themselves by means of personification; as poetic tropes, “husbands” and “wives” abound, and Sorrow, Madness, and even Solitude become his “mother.” In “Symphonie de Septembre,” by a characteristic reversal or double-take, Solitude is yearning to return to the poet’s heart, where she was born and where she used to scribble her name on the walls. They are the poems, one perceives, of a man who could never actually imagine a human relationship.
In 1910, returning to Paris, he published the fantastic novel Amorous Initiation. It was the high season of Paul Claudel and Catholic revivalism, and the novel treats of sinning one’s way to God. The word “Initiation” reveals a significant development: Milosz has become a mystic. A letter of the same year to the sculptor Léon Vogt, though no doubt meant with a touch of irony, spells this out: “Priest-King I am, have been and shall be. My power even grows hourly greater; I am the Abode of Love and speak to God face to face.” During World War I he helped form an occult secret society, “Les Veilleurs,” and by the 1920s he had more or less given up poetry, or at least verse, in favor of esoteric philosophy, expounding his own Swedenborgian-alchemical-Rosicrucian Catholic system in two strange treatises, Ars Magna (1924) and Les Arcanes (1928).
He had meanwhile, having been ruined by the Russian Revolution, found himself a worldly career, first as “diplomatic writer” to the Lithuanian delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference and then, from 1920 onward, Lithuanian chargé d’affaires. Though speaking no Lithuanian, he became an ardent exponent of visionary nationalism and of the historical role of Lithuania and Latvia, as “the mothers of this Indo-European race, the spiritual center of the modern Aryan world.”
His diplomatic activity ceased in 1931. In the following year he discovered the “key to the Apocalypse” and began an exegesis of its hidden meaning; and in 1934 he signified his rejection of fallen humanity by installing an official bird-table or “Nourissoir” in the park of the château of Fontainebleau. A Saint Francis to the birds, he would whistle the theme with which Siegfried summoned Fafner from his cave, whereupon his protégés would gather from allquarters, clustering round his head in a cloud. He died chasing a favorite song-bird who refused to go back into his cage.
Milosz’s career raises painful questions about the relationship of poetry to mysticism. There are poets, Yeats and Blake among them, with whom a step into mysticism does no harm to their talent and may even nourish it; but for a failed poet, or even a poet threatened with failure, it tends to be exceedingly dangerous. The pattern is all too familiar. The next step will be that they lose faith in art. They decide that literature is not good enough for them, language being too clumsy a vehicle to convey the precious truths they now have access to, and that human beings are not good enough for them either. To put it brutally, they throw their weight about in the mystical sphere in compensation for their frustrations in the earthly one.
It was so with Milosz. Rejecting the Symbolist aesthetic, he evolved a theory of poetry as “accompaniment of the magical rites of Piltdown Man; guardian, with all pseudo-primitive religions, of the obscured memory of the ‘life under Chronos,’ embellished from Sumerian and Thinite times by works such as the ‘Just Man of Babylon’ or the ‘Hymn to the Sun,’ intimately associated finally with the great illusion of evolution.” He claimed to have at last created a poetic language which “outstripped music itself” and directly reflected, by means of the “soul” of words, “ineffable modes of existence.” From now on he could afford to neglect “external rearrangements,” since his inspiration would come from prayer; and though Mallarmé had made stumbling efforts in the same direction, these had to be dismissed, pityingly, as too purely “mechanical.” A poet who writes in these tones, even a gifted one like Milosz, is in a bad relation to his art. He is also in a bad relation to the world, which is being punished for not listening to him.
His case moreover prompts more general thoughts about mysticism. It would seem that mysticism is faced with a problem about tradition. Logically speaking, there can be no tradition of mystical revelation, such as was granted to Saint John of the Cross, since the whole point of such experience is that its message is utterly new, and moreover cannot properly be conveyed in words. By contrast, occultism invariably appeals to tradition, but to a secret tradition—the hermetic tradition, the “ancient philosophy,” or the like. Now to outsiders it is exactly the secretness of the occult tradition that arouses their suspicion or aversion. Of course in times of bitter persecution by Church or state one may well need to keep one’s way of thinking secret; but occultists like Milosz actually relish secrecy, and it is really rather hard to think of any good motive for their doing so. It would seem it must at least express an arrogant exclusiveness and contempt for their fellow citizens, if not some definitely sinister plan for them. It is worth noting that Swedenborg, whom Milosz draws on in his own system, is totally exempt from this failing. He held that, through an accident of history, certain of God’s secrets or arcana had not yet been understood by humankind, and it was his task to spread them abroad. If Swedenborg belongs to a tradition, it is not occultism but the utopian tradition of Fourier and Comte.
Milosz’s system of thought, as expounded in Ars Magna and Les Arcanes, is a philosophy of love, according to which the human being has no definable place in the world (space and time, and the childish conception of an eternity divided into past, present, and future, being unrealities), and his reality consists solely of movement—this movement being typified by blood. The blood of the cosmos is still under the impulsion of the first ejaculation, and its movement is to be understood not as movement only but also as instantaneity, “of which rotation at infinite speed would be an imperfect image.” Once, in a visionary experience, Milosz is taken up into the heavens and, he writes,
with what compassion, then, I was seized at the sight of all that cosmos below! I lost all sense of external things; love became charity again, and I felt my own blood course through the whole of creation, and the manifestation of Being appeared to me in its feminine shape and light. Thus was revealed to me the Conjugal Arcanum.
In another visionary experience he is taken to an infernal region, where rationalists and scientists are condemned to multiply and divide to all eternity. He only escapes by calling out, as a redeemer, to his Redeemer.
Paralysis, homelessness, a heart overflowing with love but finding no human object worthy to receive it, so forced to fall back on self-love—like God, who created the universe so that he might love himself: this, for Milosz, is at once the problem of philosophy and a picture of his personal plight. The fact comes out rather movingly in the “Epistle to Storge” (“Storge” is Swedenborg’s word for “natural affection”) with which Ars Magna begins.
The table I am sitting at, the inkwell into which I plunge my pen, propose to my brain (all movement) the insoluble problem. Son of man, I have nowhere to lay my head. No place; and certainly it would be little help to me to know where I come from or where I am going; but I do not know where I am, and nevertheless I exist, I who love!
One is torn between personalsympathy for Milosz and distaste for the overweeningness of his whole enterprise: the angry dismissal of theeveryday human scene, the semi-blasphemous identification with Christ, the absurdity of claiming, as he does, that, by meditation, he discovered all the general conclusions of the theory of relativity two years before he had read a word of Einstein. Then, one must notice what political notions these mystical reveries lead to. In Les Arcanes Milosz describes the thoughts prompted by the sight of workmen on the Métro, with their bag of tools on their shoulders, “touching emblem of future guild-organization.” It gives him a vision of the ideal future society which will arise when the Holy Spirit makes itself heard in Rome and the “necessary” men appear. A “United States of the World” will come into being, run by a Congregation of Initiates, who constitute “the summit of the hierarchy and base of the Spiritual Monarchy.” Each state will be allowed to retain its own national traditions, but the commandments of the Church will be observed with “the last rigor” and Catholic anniversaries celebrated with indescribable pomp. The first day of the universal Reign will be marked by the conversion of the Jews.
Amorous Initiation came at the crossroads of Milosz’s career, when he had embarked on his mystical quest but had not yet turned his back on literature and literary tradition. The story begins when, in a street in Naples in the later years of the eighteenth century, a Danish nobleman stumbles on the pavement outside a gambling den, and a stranger, the thirteenth and last Duke of Brettinoro, helps him to recover his hat. The Duke, a bizarre figure, with “the magnetic stare of a nocturnal rodent” and a wrinkled parchment visage, of “simpering, facetious melancholy,” insists on taking him back to his gloomy mansion, pausing outside as, “lifting high in the manner of a dog a leg thin as that of an old dancing master,” he hastily waters the leprous wall of his garden. His scarecrow servants are summoned; supper is served; and thereupon the unquenchably voluble Duke insists on telling his new acquaintance the story of his life.
It is a tale, set in Venice, of a sexual obsession, through which he has been led to an understanding of divine love. The object of his love was a friend’s mistress, Clarice-Annalena de Mérone de Sulmerre. In all the days of his manhood until he met her, he had been a morose traveler, experiencing “a thousand vulgar adventures of the Court, the coach, and the inn,” but only at home in the back streets and wastelands of gloomy northern cities, dreaming of the phantom sister who should have, but did not, console his boyhood. Meeting Clarice at a reception at the palace of the Duke of B—, he at once seems to recognize in her his phantom beloved. They exchange a few polite nothings; then, taking her apart into the palace garden, he throws her down savagely and takes her “in an unimaginable position with delight, sadness, and disgust.”
There follows an odyssey of sexual rapture and repulsion, spiritual ardors and despair, jealousies and mad vagaries. At one point, under some obscure impulsion, the Duke employs his days in slum-visiting, though he detests the poor. An end is reached when he comes upon Clarice-Annalena and three male friends stark naked in a sexual foursome. Being a grand seigneur n, he begs them politely to continue; returns home and packs his belongings; and bids a light-hearted farewell to Venice, his flesh shivering with “the voluptuousness of prayer.”
The opening pages, describing the Duke’s encounter with his listener, are, in a fantastic, Hoffmannesque, eighteenth-century pastiche way, exceedingly brilliant and promising. The intention evidently is that, by grotesquerie and protective ironic devices, the reader will be led on to participate in a profound chapter of human experience. But the truth is, this is doomed to failure, for the reason that nobody in the novel acquires any real existence save the Duke himself. Clarice (“There was child and she-goat in her flesh, and in her soul both angel and baboon”) is never really a presence to us, merely a pretext for one after another of the Duke’s extravagant disquisitions. By an odd failure of construction, moreover, though it is made plain that the Danish nobleman has been another of Clarice’s victims, and this is why the Duke has maliciously chosen him as a listener, we learn nothing of the Dane’s reactions. Again, the basic conception of the Duke—too obviously Milosz’s swaggering Don Juanesque father joined to the timid daydreaming Oskar himself—simply makes no sense, the parts do not cohere. Thus, as the Duke’s bravura tirades begin to modulate into Milosz’s serious mystical theories, the reader, battered and bemused by so much exorbitant phrase-making, can no longer quite silence the whisper at the back of his mind, that what the book suffers from is silliness.
All praise is due to Inner Traditions for resurrecting this fascinating text, and to Belle N. Burke for her admirable translation; but it will not quite do to call it, as Czeslaw Milosz does, “one of the great love stories of French literature.”
July 14, 1994