Tuesday, May 31, 2011


     Czeslaw Milosz, Krakow 2002. Photo: Judyta Papp


What kind of man I was to be you’ve known since the beginning,
since the beginning of every creature.

It must be horrible to be aware, simultaneously,
of what is, what was,
and what will be.

I began my life confident and happy,
certain that the Sun rose every day for me
and that flowers opened for me every morning.
I ran all day in an enchanted garden.

Not suspecting that you had picked me from the Book of Genes
for another experiment altogether.
As if there were not proof enough
that free will is useless against destiny.

Under your amused glance I suffered
like a caterpillar impaled on the spike of a blackthorn.
The terror of the world opened itself to me.

Could I have avoided escape into illusion?
Into a liquor which stopped the chattering of teeth
and melted the burning ball in my breast
and made me think I could live like others?

I realized I was wandering from hope to hope
and I asked you, All Knowing, why you torture me.
Is it a trial like Job’s, so that I call faith a phantom
and say: You are not, nor do your verdicts exist,
and the earth is ruled by accident?

Who can contemplate
simultaneous, a-billion-times-multiplied pain?

It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you
deserve our praise.

But perhaps because you were overwhelmed by pity,
you descended to the earth
to experience the condition of mortal creatures.

Bore the pain of crucifixion for a sin, but committed by whom?

I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.

Because my heart desires you,
though I do not believe you would cure me.

And so it must be, that those who suffer will continue to suffer,
praising your name.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, This, 2000


Sober Reader, you yawn: yet another famous poet turns out to have been an alcoholic. “Heaven is the third vodka” – should we even bother discussing what for non-alcoholics is sheer nonsense? And is it really true that great writers need a “charismatic flaw,” as the literary critic Leslie Fiedler claimed, that flaw generally being dependence on alcohol?

Milosz writes: “My real drinking began in earnest in occupied Warsaw with my future wife Janka and Jerzy Andrzejewski (author of Ashes and Diamond) . . .  I drank a lot, but always took care to separate time for work from time for letting go . . .  Alas, too many generations of my ancestors drank for me to have been free from the urge for the bottle.” (Milosz’s ABC, p. 18)

The fact that Milosz had the self-discipline to separate work and drinking possibly accounts for his amazing creativity in old age. Or maybe it was the positive emotions generated by the Nobel Prize when he was almost seventy, receiving recognition and adulation at last. I prefer not to delve into this puzzle, except for acknowledging how inspiring it always is to find a writer who in his or her old age experiences a creative blossoming rather than a decline. Instead, I am interested in the acutely bitter tone of this unique poem. Is this Job speaking, subtly accusing the Old One (as Einstein liked to refer to God)? Let’s not forget that Milosz is a metaphysical poet, and can provide us with a certain metaphysical shiver when we consider the kind of cruel deterministic theology that is still very powerful, while progressive Christian theologies remain anemic.

“An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven” is especially interesting in the light of the recent prediction by a fundamentalist preacher, Harold Camping (a happy camper, since he regards himself as one of those predestined to taste paradise) that the Last Judgment would take place Saturday May 21st at 6 PM (Eastern Standard Time, I think). I have also just read an interesting summary of crucifixion-centered theologies versus progressive theologies. The preacher who was predicting the end of the world belongs to the first tradition, of Christ seen both as a sacrificial victim, a "sin sacrifice," and – this seems an egregiously un-Christian concept – as the ultimate judge who will accept the chosen few and hurl billions of souls into eternal torment.

Progressive theologies, on the other hand, are fascinated by early Christianity that emphasized agape (loving kindness; a community of affection) and paradise rather than hell. The basic tenet of progressive theologies is that the Second Coming is the birth of Christ Consciousness within us and among us, in the global community. We are here to build the kingdom of God on earth. God intends all souls to be saved. Paradise is here and now.

Alas, progressive theologians do not seem to have the PR resources commanded by the “blood of the Lamb/Armageddon” theologies. The only time there seemed to be true hope for progressive theologies was when Rabbi Kushner’s famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, became a best-seller. Kushner posited a deity with limited powers, one who neither causes nor prevents cancer, heart attacks, tsunamis, and other disasters. God does not decide which child will get leukemia, or who will grow up to be an alcoholic. Some evil is the work of natural laws (these days, an earthquake is rarely called an “act of God”); other kinds of evil are the work of man. Afterwards, everything depends on our response: do we curse and despair and can’t move on, or do we summon the strength to transcend the tragedy? Faith is one of the resources that can increase people’s strength to endure and recover. (Twelve-step programs also come to mind.)

Alas, Milosz was brought up in old-time Catholicism. Even though he forayed into such unorthodox theologians as Swedenborg and Simone Weil, he could not accept the notion that God’s power is limited and it wasn’t God who planted alcoholic genes in a particular individual: it just happened. The first lines of the poem tell us that God knew who’d be an alcoholic “since the beginning of every creature,” i.e. since the moment of creation. Predestination? Yes. A Calvinist doctrine, is has wormed its way into any theology which agrees with the statement, “Everything that happens is the will of God.” And if the belief in omniscience, including the knowledge of everything that will happen, is the required trait of divine perfection, then logic grimly leads to the conclusion that only predestination can account for omniscience. Everything was decided for eternity at the moment of creation. And countless millions were predestined to become alcoholics.

What kind of man I was to be you’ve known since the beginning,
since the beginning of every creature.

I remember my father’s saying that the only way out of these theological conundrums is those religions where the gods have limited knowledge and limited power. This idea has been around for a long time, certainly long enough for Milosz to have heard of it. But when the doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience are drummed into a child’s mind, reinforced with the fear of eternal damnation is you dare question dogma, it is difficult to shake off toxic beliefs. It seems to me that Milosz caused himself untold anguish by not being able to liberate himself from the toxic theology of “old-time religion.”

True, the Catholic Church emphasizes free will. I don’t remember the word “predestination” being ever used in my catechism classes. In fact the existence of evil was explained in a simple and powerful way: “Because God has granted man free will.” Thus God will allow genocide rather than interfere with man’s free will. Case closed. It’s only the more intellectual Catholics who ponder omniscience, connect the dots, and arrive at the moral monstrosity of predestination.

It is interesting that in this poem Milosz does not use the capital “You.” Maybe the god who predestines so much suffering doesn’t deserve to be capitalized. In fact, already in the second stanza, the poet winces at the idea of what it must be like to be an omniscient god who knows what will happen since he planned it down to the smallest detail. Milosz startles the reader by announcing that it must be horrible to be God:

It must be horrible to be aware, simultaneously,
of what is, what was,
and what will be.

~ and later

Who can contemplate
simultaneous, a billion-times-multiplied pain?

and then the stanza that is bound to shock the pious:

It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you
deserve your praise.

But the pathos of the poem lies in the personal part:

I began my life confident and happy . . .
I ran all day in an enchanted garden.

Not suspecting that you had picked me from the Book of Genes
for another experiment altogether.
As if there were not proof enough
that free will is useless against destiny.

Note also:

Under your amused glance I suffered
like a caterpillar impaled on the spike of a blackthorn. [emphasis mine]

The experiment of making someone an alcoholic somehow amuses this kind of God, even though the results are known in advance. Maybe God would be bored if the world were filled with goodness. He wants to be entertained with some people’s drunken antics, their remorse, their broken promises. If the alcoholic’s wife and children suffer, that’s “collateral damage.”

The speaker wonders if perhaps he is like Job, being tested to see not so much if he’ll curse God (cursing God would imply that God exists), but, in the modern context, if he’ll become an atheist and decide that the world is ruled by accident.

I asked you, All Knowing, why you torture me.
It is a trial like Job’s, so that I call faith a phantom
and say: You are not, nor do your verdicts exist,
and the earth is ruled by accident?

The God who performs such experiments, having already predestined their outcome, the God who can contemplate pain multiplied billions of times, does not appear to be synonymous with love. Let me quote the startling lines again:

It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you
deserve your praise.

The poet then ponders the possibility that God is not an amused sadist, but is overwhelmed by pity instead. The proof of it is crucifixion

for a sin, but committed by whom?

By Adam and Eve? Is it the old “ransom” theology here, demanding that someone must pay with blood for the first humans’ having dared to reach for knowledge? Or is it the sum of the collective sin, all the sins committed in the past and present, and the sins about to be committed in the future? The whole obsession with sin seems a monstrosity.

Nevertheless, Milosz decides that atheism would be impossible for him

Because my heart desires you,
though I do not believe you would cure me.

Here Milosz falls into his own trap, since if God happened to predestine his cure, then the cure would certainly happen. So “I do not believe you would cure me” stems from some bitter intuition that cannot be rationally explained.

Milosz knows that faith rests on emotional need, not on reason. And thus, like Job, he decides that the solution is to praise the author of the suffering. Thus he joins the community of those who “continue to suffer, / praising your name.”

Czeslaw, I want to scream, even the gospels provide a less deterministic and sin-obsessed scenario. For instance, in Matthew 25: 31 and onward, we see that the Last Judgment separates not the sinless from the sinful, but those who did good works such as feeding and clothing the poor and visiting the sick from those who did not perform such kind deeds. Thus, at least according to St. Matthew, doing good is the criterion for admission to heaven. Long live orthopraxy (right conduct) as opposed to the Protestant doctrine of “by faith alone” (sola fide). I have always praised the Catholic church for maintaining that faith without works is dead: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).

Nevertheless, we are still stuck with the existence of eternal punishment, even if the non-doers of good somehow deserve it. The hellfire that is the foundation of traditional Christianity remains a problem. The current Pope, a former Grand Inquisitor in charge of maintaining the purity of the doctrine, has changed the definition of hell to a state of mind in which a human being is separated from God. Thus, hell can be experienced here on earth (no one would argue with that), and it need not be eternal. It seems that almost everyone experiences both hell and heaven right here on earth, and several times at that. Swedenborg’s idea that a soul can decide to leave hell for heaven makes intuitive sense.

And simply dropping the idea of predestination, even if it implies no omniscience, would cleanse God of the charge of cruelty. No need to posit an “amused glance.” Karl Barth, regarded as one of the greatest theologians who ever lived, rejected immutable predestination at the moment of creation because it would negate grace and Christ’s power of redemption. (It puzzles me that Milosz would not be of the same persuasion. Is not believing that God would cure him equivalent to the sin of despair?)

Likewise, if we assume the atheist position, the universe may be indifferent, but at least it does not watch our suffering with an amused glance.

Besides, both chaos theory and quantum theory cast doubt on the deterministic universe. It can seriously be doubted if Milosz’s genes were determined in the first nanosecond of the Big Bang. As for the so-called genetic lottery, neither malice nor kindness was involved, no Job-like experiment and no amusement – and we are learning that DNA is not destiny.

Furthermore, Milosz did admire and accept Sartre’s “philosophy of freedom.” One of its main tenets is that the present changes the past. We know that human memory is meaning-based, and that meaning is subject to evolution and insight. This is what allowed Milosz his escape from depression by “escaping forward.” There may be no consolation, but there is work to be done. It’s pointless to be stuck in the Middle Ages, wasting time on theological conundrums. And besides, as the title indicates, even an alcoholic can enter heaven. For me, this means heaven right here, right now – right this moment as I am typing these words, knowing they might be helpful to someone – or at least interesting. And even apart from that, and in spite of aches and pains and dissatisfactions, there is an elementary pleasure in existing.

Actually, this poem interests me not because of its presentation of old-time theology, but because I see a wider meaning that has nothing to do with religion. I see it as somewhat related to Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense,” which also deals with the existence of enormous suffering in the world. Great poets and writers frequently grapple with the problem of evil, of innocent suffering, and that is one reason we regard them as great.

The question need not be whether to praise God, but whether to continue to affirm life in spite of suffering. One thing that a writer can do is fully acknowledge and lament suffering, but also juxtapose it with something good. Even if the world ends on some fine Saturday, we can still take delight in the blossoming jacarandas and whatever other fragments of paradise are within our sight. “We must risk delight,” as Gilbert puts it. That, perhaps, is the greatest piety.

Milosz did know how to risk delight. Poems of his that people tend to love most are not Augustinian torments, but an acknowledgment that we do the best we can and that life is a gift, and our cup runneth over:


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

Berkeley, 1971

“Gift” is one of Milosz’s Blakean songs of innocence, at least borderline transcendent: a day in which the ordinary earthly life is a paradise – if only we forget the evil we have suffered, do not feel guilty or embarrassed by our past, and envy no one. To see the birds, the flowers, the ocean with no thought of the self – “if the doors of perceptions were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” – that, sages agree, is paradise. And if we experience enough paradise here on earth, perhaps the longing for some vague heaven will lose at least some of its appeal. If not, then we have to seriously reconsider the concepts of God and the kind of afterlife that would be something else than floating in the clouds, “doing nothing and nothing forever.” That can never be a poet’s dream. A poet takes the gift of his/her life and transforms it into a gift for others. That would be heaven enough for me. 

                                        Milosz, Krakow 2001. Photo: Judyta Papp

You may be wondering how Milosz managed to live to be ninety-three, sharp and productive to the end. It’s possible that alcohol actually helped him. Recent studies on drinking have come up with politically incorrect results. It turns out that even heavy drinkers outlive tee-totalers. The effect of alcohol in preventing heart disease and stroke is greater than the effect of measures such as exercise, diet, and statins.

Benefits of moderate drinking (1-2 glasses a day; daily alcohol consumption is more beneficial than less frequent drinking) includes decreased incidence of heart attack and stroke, diabetes, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, several major cancers, osteoporosis, gallstones, kidney stones, thrombosis, and enlarged prostate.

Large recent studies have established that people who drink 1-2 glasses a day have the lowest death rate from all causes.

It doesn't have to be red wine since the benefits are due to alcohol per se. Alcohol is anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, and dilates blood vessels better than anything else. It also raises the levels of serotonin.

Why even heavy drinkers tend to live longer than tee-totalers is unclear. Stress reduction may be the main factor.

                                                 Photo: Judyta Papp

But there is heavy habitual drinking, and then there is the tragedy of progressive, out-of-control alcoholism. Binge drinking, and/or drinking the first thing is the morning, are signs of advanced alcoholism, with its shortened life expectancy. Given that Milosz lived to be ninety-three, and continued to be productive, my guess is that his alcoholism, while undeniable (“Heaven is the third vodka” – take that, all you theologians who would define heaven!), was not of the worst kind. The pious may take it as a sign of grace. I am simply grateful that Milosz had a wonderfully productive old age, creating fascinating poems.

(My thanks to Jon Wesick for enlightening me on chaos theory and quantum mechanics in regard to the concept of the deterministic universe) 

Michael (from Walker Pass, waiting for the snow to melt so he can resume hiking on Pacific Crest Trail):

If one must order life by shuffling pieces around on the game board called god, predestination is a worthy fiction, as are a 7-day creation, sin, heaven, and hell. If. Feats of creativity at playing this game are written on every dusty page of Christianity. If. But my impatience is large. I cannot sit quietly by watching men and women earnestly working out the next move when the game board itself should be scrapped. We need to begin again. 


I completely agree with you. In Wisdom of the Psyche, (thanks for recommending the book), Ginette Paris says more than once that it’s still very soon after the death of God, and it will take a few more generations before we (at least the Western civilization) are done mourning and fully concentrate on living this life well, doing our best to create at last an approximate paradise of beauty and affection and meaningful work right here on earth. 

Doing away with both predestination and divine punishment was announced also by Rabbi Kushner in his When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is possible to develop a spirituality without a cruel, monstrous being who in the moment of creation decided which child to make leukemic, which deformed, which doomed to struggle with alcoholic genes, and so on. Nor is everything that happens to be seen as either punishment or reward. The same goes for the equally monstrous law of karma that exacts retribution for something done during a lifetime four hundred years ago. I love the way both Kushner’s and Paris’s books praise the healing power of human affection.

I think we also have to deal with the human, all too human yearning for the absolute. It took me a while to realize that aside from facts such as “the earth is round,” we simply can’t speak of absolute truth. We speak of points of view, perspectives, interpretations. I used to yearn for a divine voice (or any voice of superior wisdom) to explain the meaning of my life to me. Then with the suddenness that tends to accompany insight, I realized that there is no such thing as THE meaning of my life. We have a meaning-seeking brain, however, and mine set to work in no time to provide possible meanings, depending on the point of view.

Oddly enough, that turned out to be more satisfying than hearing some variation of that “divine voice” I used to yearn for. If I were to hear that voice now, I’d immediately reply, “From whose point of view?” Anything absolute now strikes me as constricting and authoritarian. But it takes a lot of life experience to stop waiting for THE answer, THE book, THE man, THE job. The list varies somewhat from person to person, but the notion of the absolute and of magical, all-satisfying person or condition underlies it all. Not all people manage to outgrow the yearning for the absolute; there are octogenarians still waiting for their Prince or Princess instead of loving the imperfect partner they are lucky to have. But as ideas such as multiple perspectives, more than one vocation per lifetime, partial truth and partial satisfaction make their way into the collective psyche, there is at least hope for more maturity and tolerance. 


My favorite poem by Milosz is “The Gift”. Milosz touches me in some of his lines and these are the most lyrical and touching. I read a quote from Thoreau this morning: "My truest, serenest moments are too still for emotion; they have woolen feet." That I understand: these moments of silence of the "soul." There are certain meadows and moments that have "woolen feet" for me too.


Let me shamelessly digress with this precious quotation about Thoreau:

Alcott and George William Curtis were both visiting Mr. Ricketson, and interesting discourse had gone on at the dinner, Thoreau talking very well. After dinner, Alcott and Curtis went with Mr. Ricketson to his “Shanty” for serious talk, but the others went into the parlor to consult some bird book. Mrs. Ricketson, playing at her piano, struck into “The Campbells are Coming.” Thoreau put down his book and began to dance—a sylvan dance, as of a faun among rocks and bushes in a sort of labyrinthine fashion, now leaping over obstacles, then advancing with stately strides, returning in curves, then coming back in leaps. Alcott, coming in, stood thunderstruck to see “Thoreau acting his feelings in motion” as he called it. Alcott did not have that kind of feelings. 

Edward Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend, 1917 (the youngest son of the famous Emerson)

“The Gift” is a timeless, wonderful poem. I hope Milosz had many more of those moments, and didn’t really lose sleep over predestination – though we can’t be sure. A nasty theology can do so much damage. I mean chiefly the classic Calvinism with its “total depravity” and “limited election.” It horrifies me that people went for it.


It's not surprising that Milosz lived with alcoholism. So many poets have mood disorders and self-medicate. I recognized something bipolar in Milosz when I discovered his work in my teens, though I didn't yet know that word or description. There is something about alcoholic thinking that meshes with the theology of this poem – the fear, guilt, shame. At the same time, I wonder, why did humans evolve to have genes for alcoholism?

Biologists have found adaptive purposes for other disease genes. Two copies of the sickle cell gene create sickle cell anemia, but one copy, like my half African American grandson has, confers resistance to malaria. And even when people end up with genetic diseases – not all but a part of the suffering is due to disability not as some predetermined biological damnation to an irredeemably horrible life, but as the construction of an excluding, unaccommodating culture. I have a number of genetically based disorders – a big reason for my fatigue – and have thought about this issue a lot. Maybe there are dimensions to it that go beyond the individual's suffering, intense as that can be.


Alcoholism among creative people is certainly no surprise. Neither is the bipolar disorder. I can understand the temptation, even among some professionals, to associate mood disorders and alcoholism with creativity. But I’ve come across too many alcoholics who were NOT creative (reminding me of “Artists are such fools.” – “There are so many fools who are not artists) to make me swallow the supposed connection between alcohol and the “inner fire” of creativity.

True, creative and high-achieving people very often have something at least partly abnormal about them, something that makes them outsiders who deeply understand the tragic dimension of human existence. But alcoholism is a particularly destructive way of being abnormal, most often leading to premature creative decline.  Milosz’s alcoholism was of the fascinating “disciplined” sort. The capacity for self-restraint and persistent, disciplined effort are also supposed to be genetic. Perhaps Milosz should have been mainly thankful for his genes. I feel the poem presents an unfortunate, mistaken perspective. Imagine if we had here a poem of thanksgiving instead! Milosz’s poems of gratitude also happen to be more lyrical.

I’ve come across the theory that there is less alcoholism among Mediterranean peoples because they have lived with alcohol for thousands of years, and the worst alcoholics – those who start drinking heavily already in their teens – just didn’t get to live long enough to reproduce in a significant way, so those genes got “weeded out” over many centuries (hence the myth that there are no Jewish alcoholics). In Northern Europe – so the theory goes – not enough time has elapsed, and now alcoholics get to live longer, etc. These theorists also point out to the Native American population: look what happened when whisky was introduced. 

I don’t know if I buy that, but the persistence of alcoholism has certainly been one of the genetic puzzles. My guess is that it is not purely genetic. As you say, culture has something to do with it. A repressive, stress-causing culture, one that uses “fear, guilt, shame” to manipulate people, creates the conditions when “release” is of tremendous value. There are certainly alcoholics in every social class, but it seems to me that the association with poverty and the “social bottom” is real. I’ve been to places in rural America where it’s just scary to see those hollow faces and burned-out eyes, especially in women.

In terms of “side benefits,” it’s been pointed out that early on in the disease, thanks to having reliable stress release, an alcoholic has an advantage over the “normie,” and can do better in a stressful job. Drinking is easier than meditation or physical exercise. I am terrifically grateful for having been spared the alcoholic genes, so I was forced to find other means of escape – or I’d probably be dead by now. Fortunately, my love of books and ideas created a sufficiently rewarding alternate reality for me. Once I had a marvelous dream about having decided to commit suicide and walking around a (generic) college campus and saying goodbye to strangers. Then, in the dream, I stood in front of the library, glassy, all lit up. And I woke up in awe, repeating, “So many books! So many books!” And of course I have writing too. I am so blessed.

Stress reduction, art education, enjoyable physical exercise, affordable mental health services – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had more of these? There’d still be alcoholism and other substance abuse, but to a lesser degree, I think, since the amount of stress is a well-established factor. I think lives might be saved. And no toxic theology please.

Saturday, May 21, 2011



I sleep a lot and read Thomas Aquinas
or The Death of God (a Protestant work).
To my right the bay as if poured in tin;
beyond the bay, the city; beyond the city, ocean,
beyond the ocean, ocean, until Japan.
To my left dry hills with bleached grass,
beyond the hills, an irrigated valley where they grow rice;
beyond the valley, mountains and ponderosa pines;
beyond the mountains, the desert and sheep.
When I couldn't live without alcohol, I lived on alcohol.
When I couldn't live without coffee and cigarettes,
I lived on coffee and cigarettes
I was brave. Industrious. Almost a paragon of virtue.
But what use is that.

Doctor, I am in pain.
Not here. No, not here. I no longer know where.
Maybe it’s too many islands and continents,
unsaid words, bazaars and wooden flutes,
or toasting the mirror, without beauty,
though one was supposed to be a sort of archangel
or Saint George on St. George’s Prospect.

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.
Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets,
one should help his neighbor.
I have read many books but I don’t believe them.
When we hurt we return to the shores of other rivers,
remember those other crosses with the signs of sun and moon,
and medicine men busy during an epidemic of typhoid.
Send your other soul beyond the mountains, beyond time.
I’ll wait for you to tell me what you’ve seen.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Berkeley, 1962,
translated from Polish by Oriana Ivy


I am particularly drawn to this passage in the final stanza.

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.


I was just reading one of Milosz’s essays where he talks about having two souls, and suddenly I see that already in the poem it’s obvious what he meant: the Catholic (or religious, ascetic) soul, and the pagan soul, sensual and loving the earthly life. One need not be a Catholic to understand Milosz’s point. It is enough to have developed the intellect, and thus experienced the pull of the life of the mind versus the “pagan” demands of the body.

In the essay “If Only This Could Be Said,” Milosz writes:

. . . struggling with my two souls, I cannot break free of them. One: passionate, fanatical, unyielding in its attachment to discipline and duty, to the enemy of the world; Manichaean, identifying sex with the work of the Devil. The other: reckless, pagan, sensual, ignoble, perfidious. And how could the ascetic in me, with the clenched jaws, think well of that other me? He could only aim for false sublimations, for deceptive Platonisms, convincing himself that amore sacro is his calling, and smothering the thought that I am entirely on the side of amore profano, even if I clasp my hands and primly purse my lips like a well-behaved young miss.

Contempt for the world or the love of life in all its sensory splendor? The split has been with us for millennia. Plato was, unknowingly, on the side of the Catholic soul. Some writers (D.H. Lawrence comes to mind) spent endless hours of ascetic, solitary toil praising the pleasures and power of the senses as the only truth. Others, like Tolstoy, may have thundered against sensuality, while every page of their major works is suffused with sensory richness -- and the fact of having fathered thirteen children (counting only the legitimate offspring) speaks for itself. 

Of course the idea that women have only one soul, and that soul is of the church-going kind rather than pagan, is completely ludicrous, so let’s chuckle and forget it. Nevertheless, the reason I write this post is not in order to ponder how many souls men and women may have, but to point out that it’s actually useful, when reading Milosz’s poems, to keep in mind Milosz’s Catholic soul and his pagan soul. He has poems that seem to have been written by his Catholic soul and those written by his pagan, Lithuanian soul.

I sense a split in Milosz, his reluctance to be Polish and Catholic rather than Lithuanian and pagan. In “Ars Poetica?” he states:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person

This is my favorite Milosz aphorism. Poetry deals with the coexistence of opposites. It reminds us how complex we are, doomed to the fact that life always says both Yes and No, as Rilke put it. We are walking oxymorons, living with our contradictions, having not one soul, but two. Some would argue for a multitude of souls or subpersonalities, but let’s keep it simple. Two brain hemispheres, two souls. 


In A Year of the Hunter, Milosz reminisces: “I had even published in Verbum [a liberal Catholic periodical, in contrast to “the hideous Catholicism of The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin”], and Jerzy Andrzejewski [the author of Ashes and Diamonds] and I used to go retreats there, without any good results, but at least we honestly confessed to each other that the ascetic, prayerful atmosphere produced in us a wild craving for vodka and steak.” (p. 197) This craving for sensory satisfaction, rejected by Catholicism as sinful, is part of the pagan love of life, of carpe diem rather than the hope for heaven, which another liberal Catholic described as “only another hell, a hell of boredom” (Karol Koniński, quoted on p. 193).

For the sake of clarity, let me state the obvious: Milosz was raised in old-style Catholicism with its heavy emphasis on sin and punishment. As he says in “If Only This Could Be Said”:

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 what he means . . . The anguish over trivial or downright imaginary sins, the scrupulous “examination of conscience,” the incessant self-judgment and self-condemnation. It was insufferable for anyone who took it seriously; Milosz left the church in his teens, just as I did. He returned, at least in part for political reasons, to distance himself from Communism. He fully recognized himself as a doubter and heretic. The problem of evil was eating away at him.

It has been often observed that Lithuania stayed pagan longer than any other region in Europe. It managed to preserve the pagan Baltic tradition much better than Slavic countries did when it comes to old Slavic mythologies (I know of only one Slavic god, the four-faced Światowid, “He-Who Sees-the-World”; I don’t know a single name of a Slavic goddess, utterly erased by the conquering Catholic church).

For all his public Catholicism, Milosz felt a life-long allegiance to Lithuanian folklore. He had a Lithuanian nanny; as a child and an adolescent, he observed the life of the villagers. The meadows and forests were full of spirits; Milosz felt those spirits never left him. He was not a Warsaw intellectual. Warsaw was not his spiritual home; it was already exile from his homeland, where roadside crosses bore carved signs of the sun and moon. 

But one need not invoke the Baltic mythology to present universal inner contradictions. Below is one of the poems that acknowledges the sensual soul:


My Lord, I loved strawberry jam 
And the dark sweetness of a woman's body. 
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil, 
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves. 
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit 
Have visited such a man? Many others 
Were justly called, and trustworthy. 
Who would have trusted me? For they saw 
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food, 
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck. 
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness, 
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is, 
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant, 
I knew what was left for smaller men like me: 
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud, 
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

Berkeley, 1985

(I have looked at the Polish original, and “clairvoyant” does not strike me as the right word. Milosz says, “with only partial clarity of vision.” The Polish word for “proud” that Milosz uses is stronger than “proud,” and closer to “arrogant.” It makes me think of the foremost of the seven deadly sins, superbia. In addition, the Polish version is faster paced, and the phrase translated [correctly] as "a tournament of hunchback" has more bite in Polish; perhaps "hunchback Olympics" would render that.)

How simple life would be without the distracting “spirit.” Note, however, that even this confession of sensuality acknowledges the poet’s desire for greatness. Not that I’d assign this desire to either the Catholic or the pagan soul, but it’s probably closer to the Greek notion of virtue, arête, excellence.  

Both the ancient Greeks with their “moderation is best,” and the Buddhist sages with their “middle way” warn that neither asceticism nor hedonism are the answer. But an intense person is interested precisely in the extremes, and the middle way seems unexciting. I understand Milosz’s refusal to pretend to be a sage who can reconcile the two souls (or you could say: the two temptations), and his admission of living with the contradiction: torn, wanting to believe yet doubting, rarely at peace.

Some of Milosz’s poems of religious yearning (rather than of sensual desire, or yearning for the Lithuanian paradise) are quite beautiful. This might be called a homesickness for an ideal future homeland, unstained with horrors of history. My favorite is “Dante.”


To be so poor. No heaven, no abyss,
A revolving wheel of the seasons.
Humans under the stars
Walk and disintegrate
Into ash or stellar dust.
Molecular machines work faultlessly, self-propelled.
Lilium columbianum opens its tiger-striped flowers
And in an instant they shrink into a sticky pulp.

O alchemist Alighieri, how distant
From your harmony is that crazy sequence,
That cosmos at which I wonder and in which I vanish,
Not knowing anything about the immortal soul,
My eyes riveted to unpopulated screens.

Colorful slippers, ribbons, rings
Are sold as always on the bridge at Arno.
I choose a gift for Theodora,
Elvira or Julia, whatever the name
Of her with whom I sleep and play chess.
In a bathroom, sitting at the edge of a tub
I look at her, flesh-colored in greenish water.
Not at her, at nakedness, abstraction,
Which makes our bodies not our own.

Ideas, words, emotions abandon us
As if our ancestors were a different species.
It’s more and more difficult to compose love songs,
Wedding canzones, a solemn music.

And only, as once for you, this remains real:
La concreata e perpetua sete,
The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno – for a God-like domain.
There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’etterna margarita.

from Provinces

Milosz felt close to Dante because, among other things, Dante knew what the meaning of exile. But can we really imagine Milosz (or ourselves, for that matter) inside the eternal pearl, not matter how beautiful the luminescence? How utterly monotonous that sheen is, compared to the wildflowers and herbs and grasses of a Lithuanian meadow (or, in the case of Dante, the city of Florence). On the other hand, those lines could be read as longing for light, for knowledge and clarity, not necessarily for being enclosed inside a pearl as opposed to standing in a meadow. For me, the quintessential Milosz is the man who arrives in Lithuania after fifty years, and stands there hugging an oak tree.

For all its beauty, “Dante” suffers from the problem of credibility, at least for the secular reader. Can the wheel of the seasons ever come to signify poverty rather than incredible riches? And when a man sits at the edge of a bathtub, looking at a woman’s naked body caressed by the soft water, is he contemplating nakedness as an abstraction? A lustful look at the waitress’s neck is much more credible, as is, in “Undressing Justine,” the utterly pagan delight in a woman’s body, in the heft of her breast, the luxurious fall of long hair – even if that woman is a literary character.

Milosz’s Catholic-Swedenborgian, intellectual soul is dominant in his essays. Most of his poems, however, seem to have been written by the pagan soul, the soul that loves the earth and does not yearn for any other paradise. Milosz felt very close to nature, as is obvious in this poem, written when he had no hope of ever seeing Lithuania again:

In my homeland, where I will not return,
I remember, in the woods, a large lake
And slow clouds, bursting, miraculous.
And from low waters whispers in the dark

And bottom covered up with prickly weeds.
The cry of black seagulls, blush of icy sunsets,
The startling whistle of wild ducks in flight.
This thorny lake sleeps in my heaven-sky.

I bend over it and see down below
The twilight of my life.
And that which frightens me is there,
Before death consummates my shape.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, tr. Oriana Ivy


The lyricism of this poem stands in great contrast to those poems of Milosz that read more like prose essays with line breaks. Here, in the image of the lake that has become an inner landscape, the mystery, so necessary for the poetic effect, is fully present. Hushed awe interrupted by sharp cries of birds expresses the sense of the sacred that has nothing to do with going to church. This miraculous lake is indeed a place of worship. Its whisper is the whisper of the soul, and the soul is a woman, indelibly pagan in spite of catechism lessons.

Milosz felt cramped in lyrical poetry. He regarded it as the “poetry of hormones” (A Year of the Hunter. p. 166), followed by the “age of the mind.” If I regarded this idea as ridiculous, I wouldn’t bring it up. I have personally experienced this phenomenon in my own creative work – not in an absolute fashion, but still . . . I can tell which poems were written when men were still important. The lyricism of nature has not entirely left me, but poetry in general seems to have ebbed, while my love of the essay, that is, of the mind, is greater than ever.

Yet life is full of surprises. We know that Milosz did return to his homeland, and that the twilight of his life was glorious not just in terms of the recognition and adulation brought by the Nobel Prize, but in terms of the late blossoming of his creative work, including lyrical and sensual poems, though these do not predominate. But the grief of the loss announced in the first line is more universal than may seem. We all lose our magical childhood; we are all exiles – though it’s a matter of degree. Exile, you may remember, was considered by Joyce to be essential for a writer. Milosz made it more universal, saying that the secret of poetry is distance. Had he never lost the physical lake, had it not existed only in his homesick pagan soul, he might not have written about it.

Did the pagan soul win in the end? I could claim so by pointing out that his last great poem, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” is a triumph of the earth, not heaven, being able to offer solace. Such claim is made at one’s peril, of course, given the number of late poems that belong to the Catholic soul, including the wonderful “Late Ripeness.” And yet in a typical old-age poem Milosz cannot forgive God either for allowing all the wars or for having given him alcoholic genes, as though the power of biology needed further proof.

In vain would we argue that it’s human-caused evil and random genetic luck. Milosz’s only idea of God concedes nothing of omnipotence and omniscience, which leads us back to predestination and thus the hypothesis of divine cruelty, or at least indifference, or perhaps a vast experiment based on a wager with the Prince of This World, first briefly outlined in the book of Job. As for the suffering of Christ, it obviously cannot prevent suffering in the world, and to the end, Milosz cares about the world.

Only the beauty of nature never seems to fail. Below is one of my favorite poems by Milosz – maybe because I can imagine so well standing in a Carpathian meadow and feeling the same bliss. And this could be called a pagan rapture, belonging to Milosz’s second, pagan soul, which yearns for the union with nature.


It was a riverside meadow, lush, from before the hay 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 eyelids I absorbed luminescence.
And the scent gathered me, all knowing ceased.
Suddenly I felt I was disappearing and weeping with joy.

from Facing the River

Here the earthly paradise is fully accepted. All contradictions are gone; he experiences bliss with his whole being. For fifty years, he had yearned to return to this meadow, without believing his wish would come true. In spite of the saying that you can’t go home again – the truth he learned only too well when he looked at what had become of his family estate – he was home again when he stood in a Lithuanian meadow, weeping with joy.


Brilliant. I thought the other was the artist soul but you made it so clear.
Also the interpretation was amazing. Milosz would be proud of your translation. What's there not to love.

By the way, another great image too.


True, the right/left hemisphere difference is often seen as Artist (presumably more pagan, though Dante would resent that) versus Scientist (not really Catholic, but let’s just call it intellectual).

The middle image is the interior of the Gothic cathedral in Sandomierz, a lovely ancient town in Southern Poland, near the Mountains of the Holy Cross (but the highest peak is the Bald Mountain, a site of the witches’ Sabbath). Just before WWII, my mother was a young biology teacher in Sandomierz. 


I gave a reading at a festival in Sandomierz a couple of years ago! The people I randomly met, on my own, in the town, and the town itself, were beautiful . . . The town – wow, so lovely. And the people I met in the cafes and just walking from the old part of town to the new – through a kind of forest, as I remember – well, there was something strange and quite magical about those "connections" and the spirit there . . .


Whenever my mother mentioned Sandomierz, the word “beautiful” was not far behind, and her face would light up (how beauty nourishes us – it’s a kind of happiness). She remembered walking through ravines, like Queen Yadviga’s Ravine (Queen Yadviga is arguably the most beloved monarch in Polish history -- though this honor should go to King Jan Sobieski, a military genius who saved Vienna from the Turks).  

I think the two souls become one when it comes to beauty, though I suppose the Catholic soul would prefer to take Eros out of beauty. This can’t be entirely done. I don’t mean just Mary Magdalen being presented as a sensual redhead. I found the painters’ Jesus to be strikingly handsome, and had some impure thoughts on that account. I confessed them, of course, but only in general terms; I was afraid the old priest would have a heart attack if he knew.


Great work, very good translation, and "A Confession" is my perfect manifesto, starting with strawberry jam and ending with literature as a bunch of tricks to get awards from the crowd – and so full of passion or rather longing for passion.


It’s startling to ponder how much greatness can be found in literature – I mean the kind of literature that lasts – given that it was created by very flawed human beings. The only answer I ever found was collective wisdom, including the wisdom inherent in the language itself. During the creative process, I at least am very strongly led by language itself, by the music it imposes, so that meanings emerge on their own, often surprising me. In a nutshell, “the poem is smarter than the poet.” 

Milosz has passion where Szymborska seems to be all intellect (a wonderful intellect, to be sure). In Milosz we can see the inner struggle. Herbert’s passion is different – he passionately believed in certain ideals. 


Thanks, Oriana...but I can't help but think of how late Poland too converted to Christianity, only a thousand years ago. Paganism and Christianity converge in the culture still. Maybe the two souls are not so much Christian and Pagan, but cerebrum and heart.


Oh, definitely, in each European country you find that pagan-Christian fusion.. Just the infusion of Greek philosophy into Christianity meant fusion. "In the beginning was the Logos" – Aramaic was a very concrete language, and we don't have Aramaic gospels (to my knowledge). In Milosz's case, he was familiar with the nature-oriented Lithuanian folklore, which also crops up in Mickiewicz. Lillian Vallee astonished me by stating that Poland's central image is the Sacred Child. For me it's more Mary as the loving mother – Serdeczna Matka, opiekunka ludzi: Loving Mother, protector of people. And that is the heart, no question.

On further thought, however, I stand by my Catholic soul versus pagan soul as a useful if imperfect distinction. Milosz was raised in old-time Catholicism with its toxic emphasis on sin and damnation, its rejection of the world, the body and especially of sexuality as evil. And this, alas, was the “Catholic soul,” full of self-condemnation, as opposed to the acceptance of the world, body, and sex as basically good – the “pagan soul.” It may not be relevant today, but it was relevant when Milosz was growing up, and even when I was growing up. I have personally experienced the psychological torments that stem from this identifying yourself as a sinner fit only for being tossed into the Lake of Fire – except for the Doctrine of Redemption, with its own archaic cruelty. The church made me believe in a cruel God. Ultimately only Mary could be trusted not to be cruel.

Even though I left the church at 14, it was only at 17, and in America, that I found more relief from what was eating at me at the emotional level, i.e. the chance, at least, that a cruel god, one I refused to worship because I would rather go to hell than worship cruelty, would indeed take revenge. One of the wonderful moments in the first weeks of my arrival in the U.S. was the first time I ventured into town (Washington, DC) on my own, and found myself standing in front of a bookstore. In the window were pasted “Desiderata,” including this statement: “You are a child of the Universe. You have the right to be here.” Immediately I felt a wave of peace. It still took years – decades – before I truly accepted myself as someone good, with a right to be alive, and to see life as beautiful and infinitely precious even if it must end. I nourish my mystical side with the mystery and beauty of nature.

The concept of being the child of the universe, whose infinite beauty I could see, versus the concept of being a child of the King, was much more consoling. The universe wasn’t out to get me. It wasn’t spying on me to see what sins I was committing, writing them down in a great book of sins that was to be brought out on Judgment Day. Though it’s not in the Gospels, that was the unfortunate picture the church put in our minds (I know I wasn’t the only one), along with devils with pitchforks. Very primitive and un-Christian, yes, but that’s what the paintings showed, and we children knew exactly was hell was like; worse, if expected to end up there, since only a minority escaped that fate – and I speak here of the minority of Catholics, never mind the billions of non-Catholics who would end up in hell regardless of having been kind, morally beautiful people.

On the intellectual level, it’s obvious nonsense, but none of it can be erased from the emotional brain, and the priests knew it and rejoiced in “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” There is some recovery from the cruel old-time Catholicism, but one can question if it can ever be complete because deep down it’s very difficult, after old-time Catholic upbringing, to say to yourself, “I’m OK.” Judging from his late poems, Milosz mostly remained a torn, tormented man until the end – with only moments of respite when he managed to see that the afterlife, if any, would not be about punishment or reward. In “Werki,” published posthumously in Second Space, he says:

The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.
Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.
I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,
Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.


So at least he was moving toward his own version of an accepting, non-punitive deity, but the ravages of guilt and all kinds of useless suffering left their mark. What relief he found was through creative work, and not through the church.


I am a little younger than you but unfortunately did not miss out on this kind of fear-driven, punitive, flesh-hating theology. I can remember being a very small child and contemplating how it did not fit at all with what I could know and perceive and intuit myself about the universe. The farther I have gone along in my life, the more I have left the residues of that theology behind - but it is indeed difficult to shed. What's been healing for me: understanding better the historical traumas in which such a theology originates. Some of my ancestors were refugees from the Great Hunger in Ireland, a human made genocide. After the Famine Irish Catholicism adopted this kind of theology there before it affirmed the goodness of this world.


Mary, I am so grateful to you for reminding me of the trauma origin of fear-driven, world-and-flesh-hating theology. This is exactly Robert Wright’s main point in The Evolution of God: hard times = monstrous, cruel deity; good times = merciful, kind deity – with overall progress since antiquity from cruelty toward more compassion. Seeing the world and the body as wicked had its peak during the Middle Ages – no surprise. Some modern social thinkers (not Robert Wright) have put forth the hypothesis that people in the prosperous Western countries simply “have it too good” to have any need to believe in God. Milosz agrees that belief is not based on rational evidence, but on emotional need, and acknowledges having this need (“my heart desires you”). If we ponder Milosz’s traumatic losses, it is all the more fascinating that Milosz did not become a one-dimensional religious writer, but, like Dostoyevski, kept presenting both the voice of doubt and the voice of belief, often in the same poem. I admire Milosz’s honesty, his fidelity to complexity.

Even when a great emotional need exists, an intellectual is likely to suffer from doubt. It’s the so-called Athens versus Jerusalem contradiction. For Milosz, maybe “Athens” is not the best metaphor for the intellect – and making it “Vilnius” would not correct the inaccuracy. Athens in general is only of historical importance now; maybe we should speak of MIT and/or the Scripps Institute of Biosciences, or UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. But is science versus faith Milosz’s central conflict? Not really. He did not grow up with much grounding in the theory of evolution, and the whole evolutionary outlook applied to practically everything, including the concept of God. His grounding in Catholic theology was much more thorough; in addition, his later adult interests were in Swedenborg, Blake, Shestov, Dostoyevski, Simone Weil – the metaphysical writers and thinkers. He desperately tried to find an “intellectually respectable” theology he could live with.

We know that Milosz was disturbed by the scientific viewpoint, which he identified with Blake's Land of Ulro and Eliot's Wasteland. He had a faint hope that eventually there will be no conflict between scientific and religious truth (for now, though, between truth and God, it seems better to choose God, he seems to be saying). But what interests me is that at least in some poems what emerges is more the Szetejnie-Jerusalem conflict: the Lithuanian forest culture, remembered as idyllic paradise lost, and Jerusalem’s hard-times desert culture with its greater trauma and more pleas to God to wipe out the enemies.

At the same time, and this is perhaps the core of the matter (though not in “I Sleep a Lot”), there is what I would call the “Auschwitz-Jerusalem” question, or “trauma-trauma.” Milosz religious doubts stemmed from the witnessed and experienced enormity of suffering– a compassionate God, Milosz explicitly stated, would not have allowed such atrocities. The simple solution is to posit that God is not omnipotent, or at least has chosen to limit his power – something that Milosz cannot accept. He was born too early for process theology and Robert Wright, with humanity progressing toward a more gentle theology (though we know that trauma – or even simply “hard times” – could cause a relapse into the fear-and-hate-based, “kill them wherever you find them” – or else “repent, the end is near” – theology).

The unpleasant irony is that hate-driven theologies create a great emotional intensity, while love-based theologies feel tepid – except for the minority of people capable of mystical experiences. For the average person, it’s easier to be secular, seeking emotional support from other people. But that is not a tragedy; in my opinion, secularism that believes in kindness and social contract is much better than the theologies of fear and hate. An atheist can be a morally beautiful person; not so a devout cleric who recruits suicide bombers.


The new post is quite beautiful....wonderful selection of images, as usual. To tell the truth, I'm not all that impressed with Milosz, but perhaps it's just because the usual translations aren't as good as yours. (In fact, I think you are a better poet than many of the poets you are promoting in the blog!)

I'm frankly confused about pronouns and whom he's addressing in the poem. And his claim about one soul/two soul is stupid. Nobel prize winner or not, his claim is stupid.

(1) Must we assume "we" means men? As you say, it's a ludricrous statement. I give him the benefit of the doubt by wondering if that's really what he's saying. Women have always been shamans and practitioners of the old ways. It's men who are usually too rational for such things.

(2) Are we to assume that he is addressing the reader when he says "Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets." ? Or the witch doctor whom he addresses at the beginning of the passage? He doesn't need to tell women to put on the feather amulets....we're already wearing them!

Witch doctor, I am in pain.
I have always believed in superstitions.
Women have only one, Catholic soul,
but we have two. When we dance,
visit in dreams faraway pueblos
and even regions never seen.
Put on, I beg you, these feather amulets,
one should help his neighbor


I love it that you say women are already wearing feather amulets!

I think Milosz us addressing the witch doctor/shaman, hoping that this pagan mystic will bring him news of another, better reality where no one needs to rely on alcohol, for instance, to endure daily stress. Maybe it’s a retro yearning for the idealized archaic world with its dances and other nature rituals rather than the modern world with its oppressive jobs and economic necessity. Milosz is smart enough to leave the longing unresolved.

Milosz was a tormented soul – note the repetition of the word “pain” in this poem. I'm not sure if Hass and Pinsky, both quite cerebral, were the best when it came to translating Milosz's driving passions. Actually Milosz wasn't happy with being Polish either . . . this man had enough conflicts and guilt for a dozen poets.

I agree that it’s embarrassing, to say the least, for Milosz to have made the statements about men having two souls while women have only one. The interesting thing is that the soul Milosz grants women is a Catholic one. The doctors of the church would be more likely to argue that women are more bound to the flesh and less spiritual. But Milosz knows better. The assertion that women are less inclined to piety flies in the face of evidence: in religions that didn’t exclude them from religious participation, women have always been more devout, perhaps due to greater emotional need. 

These days, if not for elderly women, there’d hardly be any faithful in the more and more empty Christian churches of the Western world. "My congregation is mainly elderly women, and no, I cannot tell them that God is the power of ideals," a Protestant minister admitted in a lecture I attended. He knew, as I think most clergymen do, that Christianity has always been the religion of the oppressed, or at least the non-dominant, the long-suffering; of mothers rather than fathers; of those who do not go to university library and search for answers in books, but of those who kneel to ask for help and guidance. 

At the same time, something else is afoot: the rise of interest in pagan traditions among women of the boomer generation and younger. They see that this is an ancient tradition where women have always been priestesses, healers, and wise elders. And let's face it, those feather amulets make attractive jewelry. 

Michael (waiting for the snow pack to melt on Pacific Crest Trail):

We dissect to understand. Though I question our need to dissect (I mean, must we?), I question more our cavalier picking up the specimen tray and sliding the study into the trash and walking away with notes. Is this because we have do not have enough skill to reassemble the parts?  Did we dissect too long and the life ebbed away? Worse, maybe we're not interested in the whole. Milosz's two souls isn't the end, it isn't an ontological summary, merely an observer's notes – I wonder if he knew that. I think not. The whole is always more interesting, it is the reason.


Your response puzzles me somewhat. I’m sure you know that poetry is a miniature form and a poet generally presents this or that bit of his or her thoughts and feelings without aiming at an ontological summary. Some great poems are indeed profound enough to serve as a commentary on the whole, but many poems can give delight simply as a “narrow slice” – or, as you put it, an observer’s notes. An intelligent observer can give us notes that are a pleasure to read (I agree with Wallace Stevens that poetry must give pleasure; but what gives pleasure to one reader does not necessarily delight another – that’s a given).

But I am sure that you didn’t mean to say that Milosz presents the two-soul metaphor as his rational attempt to understand the human condition. This is an exceptionally emotional poem, as Milosz’s poems go. It’s a lamentation on his literal exile and the hardship of his life, but also on how little help has come to him from books, from the intellect.

Doctor, I am in pain.
Not here. No, not here. I no longer know where.
. . .
I have read many books but I don’t believe them.

Maybe the answer can be provided by the pagan soul, but the poem is far from any triumphant certainty about that. I think the reason people tend to like this poem is that it seems honest and charming at the same time. We can easily imagine the speaker reading now Thomas Aquinas, now The Death of God, toasting the mirror, consulting now an MD, then a “psychic healer” (to use a New Age parlance). Given the enormous popularity of psychics in California, yes, we do understand that desperate search for answers.

We might wish for a wiser, more “mature” poem. But if this poem even briefly increases our empathy, if it makes us remember that everyone’s life is full of losses and difficulties and failed ambitions (“one was supposed to be a sort of archangel” or St. George, the dragon-slayer), then it’s not a failure. If it makes it easier for the reader to accept his or her own frustrations and other difficulties, it’s not a failure. I can appreciate poems that say as seemingly as little as “here I am, stumbling all over the place, looking for answers. They remind me of my own stumbling, so who am I to judge someone else’s? This increase in non-judgment and compassion is enough for me.

Not that I necessarily knew all that when I chose to translate this poem. Translation is an awful labor, and a poem has to appeal to me so much that it begins to translate itself, i.e. I literally start hearing a possible English version in my head, as if trying on another soul. I know I am not the only translator to whom that happens, though probably only someone with translating experience will nod his or her head while reading this paragraph. This gives me an idea for another post . . .  thank you, Michael! One more post on Milosz, and then a post related to learning languages.