WHEN an author declares in his prefatory remarks,
"Dear Reader, this book was not intended for you, and I feel you should be forewarned before you enter its bizarre tangle," it must be something of an event in publishing history. Since the author is Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet-in- exile and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1980, there would seem to be small chance of his speaking disingenuously to sharpen our attention. But there is a small chance! Milosz, addicted to paradox, customarily thinks against the culture in which he functions, the better to test his own convictions and perhaps to provoke whatever critical asperity his audience may harbor. The Land of Ulro, first published in Polish in 1977, is indeed a bizarre tangle: of personal reminiscence, literary biographies and theological disputes.
In the preface alluded to above (which he wrote for the 1984 translation), Milosz explains that while others of his works had been written with a "Western" readership in mind, this time he has given full scope to his meditations without addressing them to anyone "in particular, -- except perhaps a few fastidious people able to read my Polish and belonging to the same circle of the literati." Within the stride of that sentence, Milosz has further increased his distance from us. (And it may be necesary to point out at once that Milosz is a Roman Catholic.)
Like his Visions from San Francisco Bay (also written primarily for Poles but not for a scholarly elite), the present volume takes the form of an episodic soliloquy which the reader is invited, none too cordially, to overhear. Our principal difficulty is the extent to which Milosz encircles his governing subject, which I'll risk calling the catastrophe of modern man, by engaging at some length not only Swedenborg, Dostoevski and Blake at their most remote (from present- day sympathies) but also several Polish poet-philosophers whom no one save a specialist will have heard of or, up to now, would have been able to read in English. (Forthcoming this year are translations by Czeslaw Milosz of selected works by his cousin, Oscar Milosz, 1877-1939, who lived and wrote in France and acquired there considerable prestige). All the same, Milosz expects his book to "confirm the awareness of our common fate, wherever we live . . . even if we apply modes of thinking stemming from different traditions, we comment upon one universal civilization."
His reassurance is not persuasive. If you apply disparate modes of thought to any given question, you will more than likely come up with radically divergent answers. Milosz himself dismisses in advance the only premises for which anyone who is not a True Believer has any respect, the premises of philosophy and science. Blake's Land of Ulro, which gives him his title, is a metaphor that connotes the condition of increasing dissatisfaction under which we live -- having inherited and approved the separation of consciousness from being.
Pascal expressed the division admirably but even as he quotes him, Milosz seems to disapprove of his insight. "Pascal showed that man, that 'thinking reed,' because of the strange pairing of opposites inherent in him, was distinct from every other living creature and alien to the galactic wastes; that he alone was endowed with consciousness and yet because of the natural, animal part resident in him, lacking in self-governance. . . . There is in Pascal a kind of Manichean distrust of nature and the things of 'this world' which has made him a hero in the eyes of the pessimists, of those who later, in an era proclaiming the intrinsic good of the 'noble savage,' responded with a mordant irony." Surely this is an unfair compounding of Pascal's conclusions. To recognize that man in society has seldom been able to reconcile the consequences of his having a bicameral mind is not therefore to believe in the supremacy of a noble savage. Milosz appears to be rebuking Pascal for having defined a predicament in terms which Milosz would prefer not to accept; at the same time he revives persuasive arguments to support the certainty of a predicament.
He imposes a condition, however: that the ongoing climate of disaster which has accompanied our century has not been inspired by the failure of reason but by our pursuit of it in the form of science. To support his view artfully, he cites the geneticist, Jacques Monod (Nobel Prize winner and author of Chance and Necessity): "the choice of scientific practice . . . has launched the evolution of culture on a one-way path; onto a track which 19th-century scientism saw leading infallibly upward to an empyran noon hour for mankind, whereas what we see opening before us today is an abyss of darkness." The notion of a one-way path to extinction, with no intercession from human reason, is every bit as pessimistic as the inferences of Pascal. Milosz's peculiar defense of the notion is designed to support his belief that Monod, although "a man of no religious inclinations whatever," was echoing Dostoevski, who once said that had he to choose between Christ and truth, he would choose Christ.
The reader for whom, as Milosz began by saying, his book was not intended, may need to be reminded that the author -- for all his erudition, his authentic interest in the poetry of affirmation and his parenthetical skepticism -- is, in doctrinal matters, echoing the encyclicals of Pius X at the turn of our century, in which it was categorically set down that Catholicism was incompatible with the free pursuit of scientific inquiry. CAPTION: Picture, Czeslaw Milosz, Copyright (c) by Thomas Victor