Friday, September 29, 2006

Czeslaw Milosz and George Santayana on Culture and Memory.

According to my security system, I was "last attacked on 9/29/2006 at 8:07 A.M.," 59 intrusion attempts have been made so far this week from: "24.192.121.242." I will continue to write -- for as long as I can -- from this computer. I will write from a public computer, if necessary.


Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30, 1911 in Seteiniai, Lithuania. He attended schools in the ancient city of Wilno, then part of Poland. A co-founder of the literary group "Zagary" ( think of Michel Foucault's comparable early association with the "Tel-Quel" group in Paris). Milosz began publishing in 1930, and also worked for Polish radio. During the war he joined the Polish resistance, writing for the underground press.

An early opponent of Nazism and all forms of fascism, the poet was haunted by the horrors of the Holocaust, especially by the deep wounds inflicted on the Polish national psyche with the creation of death camps and mass murders. Even more loathsome and painful, for Milosz, was the willing complicity of so many fellow citizens in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors.

There is something so disproportional and massive about those events, the so-called "War Against the Jews," that some persons -- myself among them -- will always be haunted by them, even as students of history. An image that occurs often in my imagination is the black and white film of children asked to raise their sleeves to show the numbers tattooed on their arms. One can feel the numbers being written with flames on one's flesh in staring at the surrender and fear in the eyes of those children, some no more than five years-old, yet no longer innocent.

In that single image of scarred children, one senses all that was taken from those young lives -- and from Western civilization -- by the darkness that fell upon the earth during those years. It is still a dark time for humanity because we cannot come to terms with this horror. (See "R.D. Laing and Evil.")

Milosz worked as a diplomat after 1945, until breaking with the Polish "Marxist" government in 1951. Settling in France, where he wrote several books in prose, Milosz earned an international reputation as a scholar and artist. After 1960, he lectured at the University of California at Berkeley, as Professor of Slavic Languages. Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

In his Nobel lecture, Milosz touched on themes which are very important in this twilight time, when efforts to understand the twentieth century's overwhelming legacy of evil -- death camps and gulags -- has not been fully successful. Czeslaw Milosz died on August 14, 2004.

As I write, genocide is taking place in Darfur. This grim reality gets only mild media attention. At a recent rally against these atrocities in New York's Central Park, one United States congressman appeared, Chris Smith (D) of New Jersey, who serves on the relevant sub-committee in the House of Representatives. Despite this being an election year, no other U.S. elected officials, state or federal, spoke to the 22,000 persons present. Fortunately, many artists such as Susan Vega and Mia Sorvino, did speak. Ms. Sorvino was especially eloquent. The event received a minute-and-a-half of network news time that evening. Sports coverage received over seven minutes.

Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion. Moliere becomes a contemprary of Napoleon, Voltaire a contemporary of Lenin.

The sadness comes from the cowardly surrender of memory and responsibility by an entire civilization. We have seen several generations of intellectuals wallowing in a self-chosen stupidity. To prefer not to know is to accept the reality of injustice, allowing the guilty to go free and to repeat their crimes, also damaging the moral and aesthetic capacities of civilization. (See "There comes a time when silence is betrayal.")

Greatness in art, according to some, is no longer possible for post-Holocaust survivors. We are a people who accept a diminished identity, as ape-like beasts, slithering through darkness and nothing more. We hear the recorded voice of T.S. Eliot reciting his haunting lines and issuing a warning, even as he embodied the contradictions that he both detected and opposed. "April is the cruelest month ..."

We no longer reach out to touch God, as in Michelangelo's vision. We now hide in darkness, covered in feces. Hence, Tracy Emin supplies a soiled bedsheet as her vision of humanity in its totality -- and this vision is accepted by museums and universities as "important art" that is somehow "accurate" and true to the human condition.

Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? If humans are indistinguishable from rats or apes in any significant sense, then what does that make you?

The [poet] feels anxiety, for he senses in this [abandonment of memory] a foreboding of a not distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, because it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated.

In sadness and humility, then, a poet may still reach for his or her pen to keep alive memory and discharge that solemn duty owed, as Virginia Woolf also urged, to all who have written and painted, made music and sculpted or danced, creating -- even for one brief and eternal moment -- a fragile beauty in defiance of all makers of pain and death:

Memory thus is our force; it protects us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find support on a tree or a wall.

A few minutes ago I expressed my longing for the end of a contradiction which opposes the poet's need of distance to his feeling of solidarity with his fellow men. And yet, if we take a flight above the Earth, as a metaphor of the poet's vocation, it is not difficult to notice that a kind of contradiction is implied, even in those epochs when the poet is relatively free from the snares of history. For how to be above and simultaneously see the Earth in every detail? ... "to see" means not only to have before one's eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. "To see and to describe" may mean also to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler.

Culture is shared memory. It is a return to life for all that has been killed, taken from us in the youth of our civilization -- hopefulness about the possibilities of man and woman, confidence in the reality of goodness and of achieving justice, together with the preservation of these hopes and ideals in our artistic creations as our gift to children and young people everywhere.

We give our fallen ancestors life again by reading their books and seeing their works of art, understanding what they tell us of mortality, longing and loss. We join hands with them in the aesthetic meeting which always takes place in an eternal "now." (See "Why philosophy is for everybody" and "Schopenhauer's Metaphysics of Art.")

I will not let someone I love -- who has been deeply hurt and blighted in her once infinite life-prospects be forgotten -- and so I will sing a song for her, for those I love, even in my broken and pain-filled voice. We raise our sleeves together, she and I, so you can see our numbers and scars. They are also your scars.

The works of art we create and preserve are being taken from us, forgotten, abandoned, so as to condemn us to silence. Efforts will be made to destroy these words. Knowing that the effort is tragic, ordinary men and women (like us) must continue to fight for memory, suffering and beauty. It is with love and because of love that life's prospects become infinite again. Mozart will be playing in my apartment later, as I write my book, I will remember and repeat Santayana's words to Frederick Prokosch that will now conclude my essay:

"One must always, without necessarily being a pessimist, be prepared for the worst. For the end of what we call our Western civilization -- I include the Athenian -- and all that grandeur of Christian romanticism." His head sagged a little. His [aged] eyes began to water. His voice rose imperceptibly, as though for a final effort. "We are sailing ever deeper into the dark, uncharted waters. The lights in the lighthouses are beginning to go out. Is there anything to guide us? Is there anyone worth listening to? I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm cold with terror ..."

The words died away. The eyelids fell wearily. He nodded his head and was suddenly fast asleep.

I whispered, "Goodbye, Mr. Santayana. And thank you."

For an instant the eyes peeped out from under their lids and in their blackness and weariness, so sad and aristocratic, I caught a glimpse of all that it meant to be alive, to be human. ...

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