Saturday, September 14, 2013


The Milky Way gladdened them
like a birch-lined road.

       ~ Czeslaw Milosz

Asked on his 90th birthday if he'd had a happy life, Milosz replied, “No.”

(I confess I almost hate going on with this post; how could my many, too many words possibly match the eloquence of this reply?)

One Polish writer commented that Milosz had the luxury of admitting to having had an unhappy life because he’d attained the pinnacle of success: the Nobel Prize (1980). He could afford to say that because he’d never be seen as a failure. To be inundated with admiration and adulation, and then to say you have not had a happy life -- now that is a regal gesture, the defiance not of petty clerk, the Man from the Underground, but of a literary celebrity. Ungracious perhaps, but it takes being part of the elite. As Oscar Wilde remarked, “It’s always nice to be invited and not to come.”

Still, one doesn’t say, “I’ve had an unhappy life” just for the fun of it. It’s not anything to be proud of, once past the young and foolish stage when suffering can be romanticized. The young can be forgiven for being unhappy. But continuing past youth in the state of unhappiness is a kind of failure. A wise man, a mature man should master the art of contentment.

Yet Dickens was not happy in his personal life either. What of it, we may say -- maybe the unhappiness was part of the drive to write those great novels with comic scenes precariously poised over almost unbearable darkness and cruelty.

Was Lenin a happy person? Was Lincoln? Dante?


Almost 20 years after winning the Nobel Prize, and consequently receiving an enormous amount of adulation both in the U.S. and in Poland, Milosz wrote this:

Meditating on my hereditary flaws, I have moments of relief any time I think of my grandfather; I had to have taken something from him, so I cannot be completely worthless.

His grandfather was a decent but rather ordinary man; Milosz writes about him in the brief prose piece, “My Grandfather Sigismund Kunat,” in THIS, his last volume, 2000.  And in an earlier (1986) volume, Unattainable Earth, he states:

From the beginning writing was for me a means of redeeming my true or imaginary worthlessness.

I have some empathy with this view that writing can redeem the badness, the worthlessness of a writer as a human being. We are raised in the ethos of altruism. We are supposed to serve others, live for others. Yet every committed artist realizes that he must be aloof at least some of the time in order to protect his creative solitude against the demands of the family, for instance. A writer has to put writing ahead of everything else in his or her life, including friends and family. If he does not, if he lacks the strength to shut the door and forbid anyone to enter his sacred space, he is not a real writer.

Bukowski put it best:

writers are indecent people
they live unfairly
saving the main part for the page

jesus christ would have been
a duller writer than Theodore Dreiser
jesus christ would have been a
very lousy writer

the beard and hair fit
but he was too good at
conversations and

a good human being may save the world
so the bastards can keep creating art
if you read this after I am long dead
it means I made it
it’s your turn now
to misuse your wife
abuse your children
love thyself
live off the funds of others

dislike all art created before and
during your time,
and dislike or even hate humanity
singly or en masse.

bastard, if you read this after I am long dead
shove me out of here. I
probably wasn’t that

~ Charles Bukowski, from “Measurements from the Creation Coffin”


And here we are, reading this long after Bukowski is dead, and know that he’s telling the truth. No writer would want his daughter or sister to marry a writer. That much conscience is still left: the thought that someone dear to you might get involved with a writer turns you into Munch’s Scream.

But on the redemptive side, there is the hope that our work will be of use.
A friend of mine said that she always misreads the title of Adrienne Rich’s famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” as DYING INTO THE WORK. This is the death of the ego in the service of honesty. If you speak honestly enough, with no respect for things that don’t deserve respect, you may, with luck, say something worth saying.


Until he won the Nobel, Milosz was practically unknown as a poet in the US, and little known in Poland. He wrote about this lack of recognition in the poem “Magic Mountain”:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below
Until it passed. What passed? Life.

Fame came to him when he was 69. Until then, as Robert Hass put it, “He was living in intolerable obscurity and loneliness. He had to invent the idea that there was still somebody to read his poems.”

(A shameless digression: once I realized that my idea of happiness was precisely being alone in a room, that amounted to the discovery that I’ve had a fabulous life! Solitude is a rare privilege for which I am infinitely grateful.)


I love two things in life: gossip and metaphysics. ~ Anna Akhmatova

Milosz made no secret of his unhappy first marriage. He met Janina Dluska (Janka) in the late thirties; both of them worked for the Polish radio in Warsaw. Like Milosz at the time, she was leftist and anti-clerical (Milosz objected to the nationalist and anti-Semitic right-wing Catholicism in pre-war Poland. But he never lost his passionate interest in metaphysics, and was beginning to see hope in religion). They got married in 1944. Janina died in 1986 after suffering for ten years from a spinal tumor that led to almost total paralysis (she was bed-ridden), depression and paranoia (some sources refer to the dementia as Alzheimer’s disease).

Both Milosz and his wife were alcoholics. He famously said, “Heaven is the third vodka.” But excess of alcohol is worse for women, who detoxify it poorly, especially past the age of forty; women alcoholics tend to go downhill much faster than men.

One of the startling things Milosz said was, “For Janka, my winning the Nobel Prize was a tragedy.”

A few of his poems also make it plain that he had affairs, but those poems do not express love for his partners. Rather, he seems to feel sorry for the women.

In one source I learned that the main reason he left Vilnius, a city he loved, for Warsaw, where he already felt in exile, was that in Vilnius he got a woman pregnant; he didn’t want to marry her. He always felt guilty about this abandonment. Later, when he was teaching at Berkeley, he even suggested to a Polish-speaking graduate woman assistant who was about to make a trip to Poland that she introduce herself as his illegitimate daughter.

To make things worse, his younger son began to suffer from mental illness.

In 1992 Milosz married his second wife, Carol Thigpen, a former associate dean at Emory University, thirty years younger than Milosz. She unexpectedly died of leukemia in 2002.

I don’t know just how affectionate Milosz’s second marriage was. But I’m sure there was a huge gap between them, not through anyone’s fault. In a partner we seek someone who can know us and understand us. Marrying an American woman who was much younger meant facing unavoidable differences in background.

In a number of poems Milosz seems to hint that the right woman for him would come from one of the white manors in Lithuania, and be of the same generation. They would share the same native culture, language, landscape. She’d be a dryad almost, with milky skin and chestnut hair. And he also knew that real women who grew up in those white manors likely met with a tragic fate, deported to slave labor in Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Still, Milosz’s second marriage was probably vastly more happy than the first one. How uncanny that the second wife would also succumb to a terrible illness. But perhaps that’s not so unusual when you live in the shadow of a dominant partner. 


Nor was the official Catholicism, which Milosz left in his teens and to which he later returned (for political reasons, I strongly suspect), a safe emotional harbor. In his essay, “On the Turmoil of Many Religions,” Milosz says:

Today the “turn to religion” probably is less social conformism than fear: let us react to the collapse of traditional norms as if everything religion, the guardian of mystery, teaches us were truth. You suspend your judgment and sing along with the others in church, precisely because you doubt your ability to unravel all those intricate questions. Only I have difficulties, only my mind remains empty no matter how many times I try to extract something from my imagination. The others here beside me have no such difficulties. Though I will not admit it to myself, each of them is thinking the same about me. And thus collective belief accumulates from the disbelief of individuals. (emphasis mine)
He also wrote:

The Catholic upbringing I received imposed a severely repressive morality. This is one reason why I tend to distrust my own judgments. I can say nothing good about repression, which crippled me in some ways and poisoned me with pangs of conscience.

How well I know this poisoning of everything with obsession over sin and the supposedly innate human wickedness that dooms us to hell, and the pangs of conscience over minor and at times entirely imaginary sins! Bishop Spong’s definition of religion as a “guilt-inducing control mechanism” applies here. Yes, guilt, shame and the threat of eternal punishment -- those tools were used incessantly to poison childhood’s natural inclination to enjoy life.

The conviction that you are a morally bad person who deserves eternal damnation is hard to uproot. That’s why religions who instill it in children are emotionally abusive.

(Another shameless digression: I love the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism in the chart below: “If I work harder shit won’t happen” versus “If shit happens, I deserve it.”)


Milosz refused to be an orthodox Catholic, espousing the positions of the church. Already in his youth he wrote, “In a Roman Catholic country intellectual freedom always goes hand in hand with atheism.” Even after his return to Catholicism he saw himself as a heretic, with tendencies toward Gnosticism. He always refused to call himself a Catholic writer.

The problem of evil bothered Milosz to the end. In one of his late poems, “An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven,” he says, addressing god, “It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you / deserve your praise.” He didn’t accept Dostoyevski’s idea that it’s better to give up the truth than Christ. He wanted to get through to the truth, no matter the pain.

Milosz was fascinated by the Gnostics (the world was created by an evil demiurge, not the real god) and by Simone Weil. He was leaning toward Weil, who thought that god did create the world, but turned it over to the rule of Satan (the “prince of this world”), and never interfered with the laws of nature. So much for prayers of petition. Milosz also believed -- or at least stated the view -- that the world was ruled by Satan.

This non-interfering god (who reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”) could, however, send grace. After she had a couple of mystical experiences, likely brought about by her fasting (Weil was an anorexic; she died of self-starvation), her faith seems to have become quite intense. She believed that god lived just beyond earth’s atmosphere, in interplanetary space. Thus she too seems hopelessly dated, in spite of her admirable common sense -- of course the laws of physics are not going to be broken just because of a prayer.

Milosz never mentions having had mystical experiences. He was left with the perennial lack of evidence for god’s existence. Milosz knew only one thing with certainty: that no sign would be given. No statue in church would ever nod its head or move its hand, no matter how ardently he prayed -- he too had the common sense to believe in the laws of physics. At most, we may find the presence of god in human affection. But why involve god in it? Affection could be appreciated on its own merit, with credit going to the affectionate humans.

It’s interesting that in his early youth, Milosz experienced a Settembrini and Naphta (referring to the characters in Mann’s Magic Mountain) sort of combat for his soul. He had two mentors: a humanist and Latin scholar, and a priest who hated the world and the flesh. Milosz eventually had a violent disagreement with the priest and renounced Catholicism. In the end, however, he decided that optimistic rationalism could not be trusted. He’d seen so much evil and destruction that he desperately wanted god to exist, since that was a promise of the resurrection -- not just of the individual, but of all things that perished.

But can we truly say that the Jesuit won? No, Milosz became both Naphta and Settembrini. Though a public Catholic, he reserved the right to think for himself rather than blindly accept the doctrine. And though he turned away from Marxist philosophy, he was far from being right-wing. He detested nationalism, and decried the ugliness of commercialism and uncontrolled capitalism. He didn’t glorify the church, only the beauty of the earth.

Thus, neither Settembrini nor Naphta won the battle for the poet’s soul. Rather, he incorporated both. He was both a sensualist and an ascetic, a liberal rationalist and a pessimist who believed that the world was ruled by Satan. God, apparently beyond good and evil, allowed mass destruction; there was no atrocity that he’d prevent.

This is similar to Aleksander Watt’s mystical vision in a Soviet prison during WWII, which led to Watt’s conversion to Catholicism. Watt saw the world totally given over to the rule of Satan; but above it stretched the realm of a perfectly serene god.

Now, Catholicism does not see god as happy; on the contrary, Catholicism is obsessed with suffering and presents images of a suffering god. But the promise of a healing harmony has to be there somewhere. It should be noted that Milosz never mentioned having had a mystical experience or seeing an actual sign that god existed. However, he stated that we can choose to believe; reason rejects religion, but religion is based on feelings. 


Milosz called his depression “delectatio morosa” -- a morbid pleasure in brooding. He had much to brood about. What helped him, he says, is learning from his friend, the Polish-born Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch, about existentialism as a philosophy of freedom.

In Native Realm, Milosz writes: “I am not what I am. My essence escapes me. It is a durable achievement of existential philosophy to remind us that we should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. In other words, my past changes every minute according to  the meaning given to it now, in this moment.”

“The present changes the past” is not an empty formula. The present changes our memory of the past. Memory is a reconstruction, and it continues to evolve. What we do today can change the way we perceive the past. Thus, sooner or later a writer usually recognizes that all his disasters are terrific material. For a writer, “even the bad is good.”

“The snare of happiness will never entangle you,” Milosz prophesied about his own happiness in one of his youthful poems. But it’s depression that is the real snare. Mild depression -- maybe we should call it just a “melancholy mood” -- can fuel creativity. Deep depression is paralyzing.

For Milosz, the first part of liberating himself from depression came from his love of nature:

I would never have been cured of it had it not been for the beauty of the earth. The clear autumn mornings in an Alsatian village surrounded by vineyards, the paths on an Alpine slope over the Isère River, rustling with dry leaves from the chestnut trees, or the sharp light of early spring on the Lake of Four Cantons near Schiller’s Rock, or a small river near Périgueux on whose surface kingfishers traced colored shadows of flight in the July heat–all this reconciled me with the universe and with myself.

Second, he was able to overcome the self-centeredness of depression by connecting with European culture: 

But it was not the same as it had been in America; it was not only nature that cured me. Europe herself gathered me in her warm embrace, and her stones, chiseled by the hands of past generations, the swarm of her faces emerging from carved wood, from paintings, from the gilt of embroidered fabrics, soothed me, and my voice was added to her old challenges and oaths in spite of my refusal to accept her split and her sickliness. Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help. ~ Milosz, “Tiger 2,” Native Realm, 293

And third but perhaps the most important, he threw himself into work: writing and teaching. My guess is that ultimately it was his focus on work that kept depression at bay. He ceased to brood about the past and focused on what lay in front of him and in the future:

The philosophy of freedom, practiced by existentialists, took over the classical methods of confessors and spiritual guides, precisely in that it advises us to direct our sight always ahead, not backwards. Largely thanks to its counsels, I stopped meditating and set about my work, which has always been to me an escape forward.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, 121-122. (emphasis mine)

Actually the advice about dedicated work goes back all the way to Ecclesiastes. After deciding that everything is vanity, the Preacher nevertheless says, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” (Eccl 9:10).  (other versions translate “device” as “planning.”

The Preacher also speaks about putting on clean garments and enjoying life. This is similar to what we find in a more ancient source, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. Siduri, priestess of the waters Gilgamesh, tells the following to the king of Uruk:

. . . fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child who holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.

In Gilgamesh it’s the little child that charms me. But it's interesting that Ecclesiastes adds the missing element, the pleasure of working with all your heart, in spite of the ultimate vanity (cf Freud on what is most important in life: "love and work"). 

Love in the sense of romantic love may not be available. It’s frightening to ponder Milosz’s family situation: a bed-ridden wife, a mentally ill son. One answer may be to try to be as affectionate as possible in spite of stress; being affectionate reduces stress. But we are barely beginning to study this. The other remedy is to “escape forward” into dedicated work. Focus on something challenging preempts worry and is healing to the brain.


Sometimes a change in circumstances can end depression. But usually what is required is a profound change in perspective. When I decided not to be depressed, my external life remained the same, except that I came to love it. As long as I am able to write, I am content. Reading about Milosz’s “escape forward” confirmed what I discovered about the healing nature of work.


What saved Milosz was longevity. He lived long enough not just to win the Nobel Prize, but to heal his wounds and conclude that there was some meaning to everything that happened: some lesson, some step in his development as a writer. He warns readers against the wishful tendency to believe that because something happened, it had to happen, and that it was somehow “for the best”; nevertheless, the older Milosz seems finally reconciled to his past. The suffering had its function, but there came a time to let go of the guilt, real and imaginary, and focus on the blessings. This is beautifully expressed in what is perhaps the best and most moving poem of Milosz’s old age:


Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, 

I felt a door opening in me and I entered 
he clarity of early morning. 

One after another my former lives were departing, 

like ships, together with their sorrow. 

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas 

assigned to my brush came closer, 

ready now to be described better than they were before. 

I was not separated from people, 

grief and pity joined us. 

We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. 

For where we come from there is no division 

into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be. 

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part 

of the gift we received for our long journey. 

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –

a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror 

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel 

staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us, 

waiting for a fulfillment. 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, 

as are all men and women living at the same time, 

whether they are aware of it or not.


As a humanist, I need to translate this poem into secular terms. We are more than ourselves: we are humanity. The vast majority of us are good at heart, and just by being ourselves we contribute to the advancement and welfare of many. If that sounds rather dry, then by all means let’s keep the image of the vineyard. 


Between the ages of seven and ten I lived in perfect happiness on the farm of my grandparents in Lithuania . . . I lived without yesterday or tomorrow, in the eternal present . . . I was a little Adam, running all day in a garden under trees. ~ Milosz, “Happiness”

His happiness as “a little Adam” didn’t last, but his love of nature was to be life-long. It has been said that if we’ve been truly loved, we can never be completely unhappy. Perhaps once we’ve tasted paradise, we can’t be entirely unhappy either. In his essay "Happiness," written after visiting Lithuania at the age of 80, Milosz asserts that the experience of happiness in childhood retains a healing power throughout lifetime. Standing near the remains of his family estate, Milosz experienced that happiness in spite of everything:

"Much was going on inside me, and I was stunned by the strength of that current for which no name seemed adequate. It was like waking up from a long dream and becoming again the person whom I have never ceased to be. Long life, narrow escapes, my two marriages, children, my failures and triumphs, all flickered as if telescoped into a film running at a great speed. No, this is not a proper description, all all that existed in a big lump separated from me, placed in its own dimension of the past, while I was recovering my continuity from myself as a child to myself as an old man."
And he concludes:

"Then something happened -- and I must recognize that the myth of Ithaca stems from profound layers of human sensibility. I was looking at a meadow. Suddenly the realization came that during my years of wandering I had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here, and that I have always been yearning to return. Or, to be precise, I understood this after a huge wave of emotion had overwhelmed me, and the only name I can give it now would be bliss."

He puts it more beautifully in this exquisite little lyric:


It was a riverside meadow, lush, from before the day harvest,
On an immaculate day in the sun of June.
I searched for it, found it, recognized it.
Grasses and flowers grew there familiar in my childhood.
With half-closed eyes I absorbed luminescence.
And the scent garnered me, all knowing ceased.
Suddenly I felt I was disappearing and weeping with joy.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River, 1995


The answer is that Milosz was a writer first. His creativity came first -- his life of the mind. He lived long because he had something to live for. His "escape forward" into work was also an escape from early death.

Those who continue to be creative late in life show a longevity advantage. Their brain appears to reorganize to compensate for loss of speed. Creative work also generates positive emotions. This holds not just for the famous (Nobel Prize winners and Oscar winners tend to live longer), but also for those whose achievement is minor and fame local, if any. They write, paint, play music and so forth for pleasure. And pleasure -- deep, meaningful pleasure -- is vital for health.

Considering his immense creative output and his legendary vitality, I wonder if we should completely accept Milosz’s appraisal of his life as unhappy. After all, he spent most of his life doing the work he loved. And he also seems to have enjoyed teaching at Berkeley, even though he felt intellectual isolated among the leftist faculty. And I wasn’t surprised when a Polish poet told me, “Milosz really loved people.”

I think he became happier as he grew older, in his seventies and eighties. In Unattainable Earth, he writes from the perspective of being past seventy:

Love of life, passion for life. Perhaps one feels it also in one’s youth, but differently and with different words. One must liberate oneself, at least to some extent, from complexities, from taking one’s fate too much to heart, before being able to rejoice simply because one is alive among the living.

True, a disappointment in marriage is a sorrow, and alcoholism is certainly not a source of happiness. But in the end that’s not what will be remembered about Czeslaw Milosz. He will be known as someone who praised earthly life despite all the suffering he experienced and witnessed. And as someone who had an extraordinary, creative, and -- dare we say it? -- happy old age.


Leaves glowing in the sun, zealous hum of bumblebees,
From afar, from somewhere beyond the river, echoes of lingering voices
And the unhurried sounds of a hammer gave joy not only to me.
Before the five senses were opened, and earlier than any beginning
They waited, ready, for all those who would call themselves mortals,
So that they might praise, as I do, life, that is, happiness.


John Guzlowski:

I wonder if he thought about happiness in his day to day life.

My experience is that only the truly unhappy, the clinically depressed, the lost children, think about happiness everyday.  The rest of us -- even those who are poor and hungry and lonely -- go on and on, not thinking much about what our feelings are, instead thinking about the jobs we have to do, the lives waiting for us at home after those jobs are done.

I suspect Milosz was like this. Even factoring in the dark moments of his life, he probably spent most of his time just doing what he enjoyed doing, what gave him satisfaction, if not happiness.

PS -- I love the picture of Milosz and the Pope. Milosz seems wonderfully aware of the ironies in his situation.


And the Pope too may have been aware of those ironies. He was regarded as pretty sophisticated. Let’s not forget that he changed the definition of heaven and hell, but he had to play a subtle game of daring to downgrade supernaturalism just so far but no further.

(By the way, I find it wonderful that the morally repugnant idea of hell as eternal torment is finally being discarded by progressive Christians.)

I agree with you about people’s going on without constantly questioning whether or not they are happy. Maybe happiness is never needing to ask yourself if you are happy. Maybe it's the elemental joy of existence --
life, that is, happiness.

The New Age slogan, “You deserve to be happy,” really gave me a pause. No way -- not according to what I was taught in catechism classes. In the eyes of the Catholic church, you most emphatically did NOT deserve to be happy, either here on earth or in heaven. You were a sinner and what you deserved (except for the pardon bought by the “bloody ransom” of the crucifixion) was eternal punishment.

By the way, I discuss this and more in my latest blog post:

Milosz believed that humans were innately evil, and that man could do no good by his own powers. This is the foundation of the of doctrine of grace. You can find the refutation of this demeaning of human nature in my blog. (“Religion defames human nature; humanism praises the human potential.”)



I don't hear Milosz's NO as eloquent.

I have a 90 year old friend who has said on many occasions that she has "not one happy memory from life."

Odd. She has achieved much by any standard and has (and had) many loving relationships.

I recognize her denial of happiness as the dialog of the depressive personality. Nothing more. No existential exploration is needed. The sadness here is that my friend and Milosz were never able to drown the deceptive, yet predictable voices of depression.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee. And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

~ Emily Dickinson


Milosz’s “No” was eloquent only because it came from a winner (I typed “sinner”) of the Nobel Prize. It’s as if he said, “Look, I won the greatest prize in the world, but if you think that winning the Nobel has anything to do with happiness, think again.”

On the other hand, photos of Milosz, and there are many, not to mention his poems and essays, and there are even more, seem to tell a different story: his life the usual mix of happiness and misery, with everything in between. And his old age was a time of great creative flowering; his diary, A Year of the Hunter, reveals an overwhelming richness. He had the proverbial energy of genius, and he needed it to deal with this richness.

His suffering and his joy (how many people get to win the Nobel Prize?) were perhaps more intense than those of a typical person -- but even here we can’t be sure. Our brain constructs happiness -- “contentment” might be a more accurate word. Studies found that a year after a very happy event (e.g. winning a lottery) or a very unhappy event (e.g. losing a limb), people tend to return to the level of contentment they had before the event. Dickinson was right: barring extremes, it’s more about our state of mind than the external circumstances.

Past a certain age, we know that no one ever gets everything they want -- and there is no special reason why we lose out on certain things. When it comes to the Big Three: love, fulfilling work, and health, an old saying claims you can have at most two of those, but never all three. “Deserve has nothing to do with it.”

But you are absolutely right about your 90-year-old friend’s depression-distorted perspective. Depression feeds on itself: we seek to enhance the sadness, often by thinking of yet another bad thing that happened to us in our late teens or early twenties (a period of life that is most vividly remembered). And once depression becomes a habit, the access to positive memories is blocked. I learned about this blockage when I experienced it; only later I discovered that it’s a typical depressive phenomenon. Nor can one receive love and affection -- it’s at odds with the depressive self-image as someone unloved and unappreciated, and this negative self-image is furiously defended -- how dare you say that my life is rich in friendship? I don’t have any friends; never had a single REAL friend in my WHOLE life.  And this is often said to a friend who’s trying to offer affection and consolation.

At the same time, not to be too hard on Milosz, I need to confess that if someone asked me, “Have you had a happy life?” -- my instant impulse would also be to say No. The memory of catastrophes and suffering is powerful. Luckily, I have regained access to memories of happy moments. It was the slowest part of the recovery, nothing like the instant effect of the paradigm shift. But at this point I am aware of my blessings, and even call myself lucky. And I’m lucky at long last to have realized just how lucky I am.


So sadly true, his comments on religions and life.

It broke my heart to hear him speak of his drinking.  I thought he was too sensitive and soulful to say that “Heaven is the third vodka.” So many poets suffer from doubt and taking all too seriously, and the resulting depression and addictions.


"Heaven is the third vodka" ~ it makes me shudder, that definition heaven. But to alcoholics, being drunk feels magical. A friend once told me, the glow of the first-time euphoria still lighting her face: “All anxieties are gone, all worries, all self-consciousness. You feel witty and brilliant, popular, a star. Life is wonderful and you are happy.”

I suspect that’s the meaning of “heaven is the third vodka” -- but only for an alcoholic. If you are genetically prone to anxiety and alcohol removes that anxiety more quickly and efficiently than anything else, I can see how being drunk seems “magical.”

You and I can't understand it -- it's not a normal experience. Of course we’ve had moments of happiness and even euphoria -- but not as a result of drinking. One reason I loved hiking was that care-free feeling -- at least partly a result of less oxygen, meaning less brain function, not enough for mulling over pedestrian worries. That constant chatter inside the head becomes less, and is blended with the chirping of birds and other sounds of nature -- the most exquisite music there is, at least while hiking. And later, no hangover -- just excellent sleep (exercise really is the best sleep inducer), so you feel great the next morning. That’s rather the opposite of the experience of getting drunk.

In order for addiction to develop, especially perhaps in the case of alcoholism (I think smoking is more socially influenced, and then nicotine is as addictive as heroin), there has to be a genetic susceptibility -- it always runs in the family. Milosz's mother drank, and other relatives (I don't quite remember, but he certainly stated alcoholism was in the family). And then on top of genes, there has to be enough stress, but then life always supplies that sooner or later. Alcohol is a fast-acting sedative -- all anxiety can be gone within minutes. It’s like Valium. And it raises serotonin.

But as alcoholism progresses, the reward is less and less, while the punishment now is “getting the shakes.” Brain damage, liver damage, heart-muscle damage . . . It’s amazing that Milosz lived as long as he did. But then Nobel Prize winners often do. Among actors, Oscar winners also live longer. It’s usually explained as an effect of increased social status. Apparently it’s not the increase in wealth. More likely it’s the sudden adulation. Milosz got plenty of that.


Perhaps I’m wrong, but don’t you find it crazy that a man of his intellect would accept predestination?


No, you're not wrong. It IS crazy that he fell for the most absurd deterministic metaphysics. Once you assume that everything that happens is god’s will, predestination (already in the instant of creation of the world) follows. Milosz must have been desperate at some point, wanting god to exist so much that all kinds of cruelties had to be accepted, including god's "experiment" in alcoholism. I think he wanted the afterlife so idiotically much (as if there would be something to do there for us) that a cruel god was better than none.

I can understand that his having witnessed massive destruction made him want to protect people and things from disappearing. Great art, including great literature, is a form of preservation, however imperfect. But that kind of preservation wasn’t enough for Milosz. He wanted everything restored: not just the birds he saw in childhood, but even the insects that sustained such a large population of birds. But everything changes. Somehow Milosz rebelled against this with all his being. He wasn’t interested in the immortality of the soul; to him the Christian promise was that the whole person would be restored, all the details and personality quirks.

What is crazy is that someone of his intelligence would not realize that of course any religion can make all kinds of attractive promises precisely to recruit followers. These promises are completely empty, but the priests can always say, “Not yet.”

I think the second reason Milosz fell into the trap of predestination was his poor knowledge of physics. At this point we accept probability rather than certainty. The future is not determined, at least not at the micro level of an individual. Also, evolution has progressed toward animals that have more and more freedom, rather than be “predestined.” So Milosz’s ignorance of modern science has done him in on that point. It’s sad that he was able to grasp the idea that the present changes the past, but wasn’t able to apply it more broadly, to rejoice in this “philosophy of freedom.” 


Happiness is what all humans hope to attain. And those that constantly worry, obsess or strive for it usually don't find it. I can see where some would be attracted to the Buddhist philosophy of non striving and simple acceptance. As I've said before, it would be interesting to see what would result from a meeting of leading Quaker, Sufi and Zen leaders. They could start in Damascus!


I think the best guidance for happiness -- though I’d prefer the term CONTENTMENT -- is contained in Ecclesiastes. That wisdom goes back thousands of years. It says that nothing lasts, everything passes away, all is vanity, don’t count on an external reward -- there is no justice, the wicked prosper, etc. Sounds pretty bleak, but then we suddenly get to the advice to enjoy life to the fullest -- and to work in a dedicated manner. “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might” -- this is my #1 favorite sentence in the entire bible. Dedicated work has been my salvation.

And yes, there is wisdom in other traditions as well. I instantly liked Daoism and that part of Buddhism that warns against “striving.” This may seem like contradiction of Ecclesiastes, but I have it figured out in terms of both the creative process and other kinds of work. 


  1. Regarding Milosz's second marriage: I was a grad student at Berkeley and I worked for Milosz from 1990-95, taking dictation in Polish and English. I can say that his relationship with Carol was affectionate; she was utterly charming and a full partner in the relationship. Molly Wesling

  2. Molly, thank you for the comment. I'm glad to hear his second marriage was happy. How tragic that she died . . . I can imagine Milosz's grief.

  3. This is excellent. I had real problems with Milosz because of some of the comments he made. Seeing him in context and realizing how wretched he was at times in his life, makes me respect and like him more. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for commenting. Yes, esp before he became famous, he seems to have carried a lot of bitterness within. And nothing really compensates for a terrible marriage and a son's mental illness. I can see why he took refuge both in writing and in alcohol.

  5. I enjoy reading an article that can make people think.
    Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!