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Journal, Day Two

By Steve Young

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
—Czesław Miłosz, “Dedication,” (Warsaw, 1945)

Truth in literature has been a vexing problem at least since Plato expelled the poets from his republic for being seductive imitators, or worse, subversive liars. Poetry is the foe of philosophy. I imagine Plato’s famous banishment must have had a personal sting for writers like Zagajewski, Miłosz, Barańczak, and others who were either émigrés or exiles during the Communist regime. Miłosz opens his Notes on Exile with a sad paradigm:

He was aware of his task and people were waiting for his words, but he was forbidden to speak. Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.

For some, like Pawel Kloczowski, the day’s first lecturer, exile was a domestic affair; he became active in Poland’s literary underground. And yet, whether produced at home or abroad, Polish literature flourished under the country’s massive 20th-century oppressions. Did it offer a bewitching diversion or a reality that couldn’t be found in official words?

Does poetry tell the truth? According to Professor Kloczowski, Miłosz believed that it does, setting himself against the prevailing skepticism and irony of the age as well as Plato. Yet Plato guides Miłosz’s thinking. Miłosz disliked terms of praise for literature such as “enchanting,” “magical,” and “charming,” exactly the qualities that made poetry misleading and dangerous to the republic. On the contrary, literature must be a witness to reality that cannot be too richly detailed; it must be a discoverer and a revealer of the truth rather than an invention.

Professor Kloczowski turned to Zbigniew Herbert’s retelling of “Apollo and Marsyas.” In the Greek myth, the satyr Marsyas plays a magic flute and is encouraged to believe that not even Apollo could make such beautiful music on his lyre. The god challenges Marsyas and prevails when the foolishly proud satyr thinks that he can both play his flute and sing at the same time. The muses declare Apollo the winner and in punishment for his pride, Marsyas is flayed alive. It’s a cautionary tale against hubris, but also, in Herbert’s poem, an admonition that silencing human singing destroys nature:

the victor departs
wondering
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
will not one day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete

suddenly
at his feet fall
a petrified nightingale

Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter


“Eros Bound” by Igor Mitoraj in Kraków’s Main Market Square.

Miłosz was wise and humble enough to realize that literature could not achieve truth without an appeal to reason. Professor Kloczowski spoke of the first canto of the Paradiso where Dante invokes Apollo to rape him. Miłosz’s outlook paralleled Dante’s: the poet cannot write without prayer, without making himself the instrument—even the victim—of a higher god or another power:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
How difficult it is to remain just one person
—Czesław Miłosz, “Ars Poetica,” (Berkeley, 1969)

Translated with Lillian Vallee

In conclusion, Adam Zagajewski reminded us that Miłosz dreamed reason would include magic and irrationality; in utopia, philosophy and poetry are one.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, July 25th, 2006 by Steve Young.