An argument in a cafe: A college professor was remarking that one of the things all of his students knew for sure was that imperialism was a very bad thing. And he found himself thinking, as the post-Cold War erupted into spasm after spasm of ethnic violence, that there was something to be said for empires. At least they imposed some order and tried to command loyalty to something other than the tribal identities that were sending people raging into the streets, murdering their neighbors. Another friend, a journalist, asked him what higher loyalty Indonesia was imposing on East Timor. And the argument ran through Bosnia, Russia and Chechnya; the CIA's support of Pinochet in Chile; England and Northern Ireland; Hutus and Tutsis; Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo; Pol Pot in Phnom Pen.
I found myself thinking of a poem by Czeslaw Milosz about the great ideological wars of the century. Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and wrote his poems, of course, in Polish. When he went off to Paris in the 1930s, to the great capital of the world, he was following the path of hundreds of young men and women, artists, writers, philosophers, future politicians and revolutionaries from the small, provincial countries who went abroad to get an education or spend time soaking up art and ideas. The poem I was thinking of is about that. It was written in 1980, when the older man, in Paris again, thinks about the violence of the century he has lived through and what had been for him the glamour of Paris.
Bypassing Rue Descartes
Bypassing Rue Descartes
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,
A young barbarian just come to the capital of
We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar,
Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which nobody here should ever be told:
The clapping for servants, barefooted girls hurry in,
Dividing food with incantations,
Choral prayers recited by master and household
I had left the cloudy provinces behind,
I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or
Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish
the customs of their homes.
Soon enough their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal,
Meanwhile the city behaved according to
Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,
Baking long breads and pouring wine from
Buying fish, lemon, and garlic at street markets,
Indifferent as it was to honor and shame and
greatness and glory,
Because that had been done already and had
Into monuments representing nobody knows whom,
Into arias hardly audible and into turns of speech.
Again I lean on the rough granite of the embankment,
As if I had returned from travels through the
And suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of
Where empires have fallen and those once living
are now dead.
There is no capital of the world, neither here nor
And the abolished customs are restored to their
And now I know that the time of human generations
is not like the time of the earth.
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled
in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just
Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.
In a note to the poem, in his Collected Poems (Ecco/Harper), Milosz writes: "In Lithuania, where the author grew up, many pagan beliefs survived, among them the cult of the water snakes, which were associated with the sun. A strict taboo protected a water snake from any harm inflicted by man."
He gets so much history into this poem. He's thinking, I'm sure, about the Marxism, or rather the Stalinism, of Parisian intellectuals in the 1930s. It occurred to me that Ho Chi Minh must have been in Paris at the same time Milosz was, and lots of others who would figure in the history of the century. This poem -- Lithuania, like Poland, had been gobbled up by the Russians -- comes down on the side of the local custom and against empire. Custom, but not tribe. It interested me to read that the water snake is associated with the sun. It argues against the grand ideas, which must be part of what he means by "Bypassing Rue Descartes," but not against ideas. The sun, after all, is the source of life. To place a prohibition on our relationship to some aspect of nature seems to be for him a way of setting all the political and tribal passions of the "time of human generations" aside and acknowledging the time of the earth, wondering at the time of the earth.
Poems, of course, are not finally made from ideas. What's so vivid to me in this one is that young man dazed by Paris and the old man's sudden vision of the "reeling wheel of seasons." An image to think about as the last year of the century turns toward its winter.
"Bypassing Rue Descartes," reprinted from "The Collected Poems, 1931-1987" by Czeslaw Milosz, by arrangement with
The Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.