Milosz and modern man. Nobel Prize-winning poet contemplates the Apocalypse

Unattainable Earth, by Czeslaw Milosz. Translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York: The Ecco Press. 141pp. $16.95. Apocalypse haunts the popular imagination, left and right. On the left, Vietnam and the spectre of nuclear holocaust prefigure cosmic destruction. On the fundamentalist right, the prospect of nuclear war has been fused with expectations of the Second Coming.

These popular manifestations of apocalyptic concern have their roots in the two main influences on modern culture, Marxism and Christianity.

One of the great poets of our time, Czeslaw Milosz (Nobel Prize for literature, l980), has thought long and hard on the Apocalypse.

Even more perhaps than by Catholocism and Marxism (the two main influences on his native land), Milosz has been influenced by the fate of his country, Lithuania, which, like all of Central Europe, has been the pawn of successive negotiations by victorious nations. In a sense, Lithuania has disappeared; it's now part of the USSR. Milosz, professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has written a monumental ``History of Polish Literature,'' and frequently writes on the topic of Central Europe. He lived in Poland until 1951, when he moved to France. Ten years later, he became a citizen of the United States.

He has been called the conscience of his nation. When he got the Nobel Prize, it was widely believed he was a stand-in for Lech Walesa and Solidarity. He accepted it with grace and humility.

For one for whom history has been a tale ``extravagant and full of incongruities'' and very sad, the idea of history as a general march toward a war to end all wars can be looked on as a temptation. It doesn't take much historical imagination to believe that many thinkers in like situations have been so tempted.

Milosz is tremendously sensitive to the ethical dimension of apocalyptic thinking. Human history does sometimes seem to be a theater for the battle between good and evil.

In a prose passage included in his new book, ``Unattainable Earth,'' Milosz writes: ``The gates of darkness expend so much energy trying to eradicate divine things that one may see in it a providential revenge of history. Who could bring himself otherwise to confirm so actively the greatest longing of man?''

So the apocalyptic theme is not to be denied. On the other hand, Milosz has done an existential operation on it, subtracting the theme of progress, leaving, it would seem, only the suffering.

In his new book, he quotes a passage of a letter from a friend: ``The mechanical character of crimes, wrongs, downfalls of Poland, of its greatness and pettiness and of that truly noble-minded young wave . . . now trampled upon, should we call all that Providence too?''

Then his friend tells him a story about St. Augustine. ``St. Augustine called in a young monk, Orosius. `I am already old and I'm not strong, but you should write a history of the world so that it will teach people that catastrophes and calamities have been in history always.' ''

The letter concludes: ``. . . Poland trampled upon, coldly violated, hit at what was best in her -- the apocalypse which has already begun -- since always!''

Since always! For his part, Milosz has been involved in apocalyptic speculation since his college days at the University of Wilno, where he led a movement which, nourished on Toynbee and Spengler, specialized in ``catastrophism.'' In 1951, he published an autobiographical account of the fate of intellectuals under Stalin. More recently he has published ``The Land of Ulro,'' a study of the apocalyptic theme in Blake, Swedenborg, and Oscar Milosz (a cousin whom he visited in Paris in the thirties).

But if suffering, physical and intellectual, were the all-in-all of history, who could stand it? In his newest book, Milosz comes closest to a personal mastery of the problem of apocalyptic thinking. And he has done so through his poetry. Readers of Milosz have been prepared for this by certain comments in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, published as ``The Witness of Poetry'' in 1983.

Given the catastrophic nature of history, where God seems to be looking the other way, what role does poetry play? He quotes Simone Weil: `` `Two things cannot be reduced to any rationalism: Time and Beauty. We should start from them.' Or: `Distance is the soul of beauty.' ''

So the historian-poet grasps the present by distancing himself from it, by seeing it as a transparency for history. The present moment is a kaleidoscope of every moment. We see this in the little poem ``At Dawn'' (see box). The present is seen from the perspective of the past, and yet the moment seems beyond time. In the middle of the poem is an image of catastrophe, the tense is past but the feeling of compassion universal. Nothing is real but the present moment, and the young, never-to-be-named, companionable ``she'' walking by his side. Everything else is uncertain, everything but the desire to have the moment last.

``Unattainable Earth'' is a triumph. In it, Milosz, the conscience of Poland, writes as the conscience of modern man. His true peers are not the poets but great modern thinkers such as Simone Weil, Kierkegaard, Lev Shestov, Gabriel Marcel. Through an assemblage of texts -- his own poems, poems by others, letters to and from him, prose passages, quotations -- he has created his most moving meditation on the human situation at the present time.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. AT DAWN How enduring, how we need durability. The sky before sunrise is soaked with light. Rosy color tints buildings, bridges, and the Seine. I was here when she, with whom I walk, wasn't born yet And the cities on a distant plain stood intact Before they rose in the air with the dust of sepulchral brick And the people who lived there didn't know. Only this moment at dawn is real to me. The bygone lives are like my own past life, uncertain. I cast a spell on a city asking it to last.

Czeslaw Milosz

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