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Empire, city, and earth

October 12, 2011

Egad! It’s been a week and a half since I posted last. I swore that wouldn’t happen… or would happen less often anyway. So:

This is the poem we looked at in my “Great Poems” class today. It’s by a Polish poet named Czeslaw Milosz. Obviously it’s translated. It’s also quite good.

BYPASSING rue Descartes
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,
A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.

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 together.

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, beautiful ideas.

Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,
Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,
Baking long breads and pouring wine into clay pitchers,
Buying fish, lemons, 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 transformed itself
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 underworlds
And suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of the seasons
Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead.

There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
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 a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.

There’s lots I could say about it, but, as they say, it is late and I am tired, so I’ll just point out a few things.

The action of the poem, which divides into roughly five parts, is as follows. Milosz recalls his youth in Paris, when he abandoned the ways of his homeland and entered what seemed like the “capital of the world” (1-9). There refugees dreamed “universal, beautiful ideas” (like those of Descartes?), and these ideas are linked to the political tragedies, specifically Communism, which grow out of them (10-15). A different aspect of the city is then presented, in which it is not a hub of universal ideas, but somewhere particular, and particularly French, which is “indifferent … to honor and shame and greatness and glory,” the things it seemed earlier that the city ran on (16-23). Now we enter the present, and Milosz has returned to the city as if “from travels through the underworld” with a vision of “the reeling wheel of the seasons / Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead”; he knows now that “the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth” (24-30). Milosz then admits that his greatest sin was the killing of a water snake (sacred in his native land), for which he received “the just punishment” (perhaps: exile) (31-35).

What to say about this? To start with, I find this poem bears a striking resemblance to W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” in how it presents time. Here, as there, there are three types of time in play; in light of the first, it seems man can impose his will on the universe, in light of the second, it seems man can accomplish nothing, and in light of the third, “the time of earth,” which only the poet sees, there is no conflict between universe and man.

But there are notable differences. Most obviously, Auden’s times are lover’s time and clock time, the time of the person striving for human connection versus the cruel erosion of time as sand in an hourglass. We clearly want to be on the lover’s time; it is only unclear if we can be. Milosz has philosopher’s time and city’s time, the time of great ideas, great deeds, and the building of empires (we could call this “imperial time”) versus the time of the common man whose lot has not changed in millennia. We are tempted by the philosopher’s time, but learn soon of its dangers; the city’s time comes as a welcome alternative. The place of earth time in each poem differs accordingly. In Auden’s, it comes in only at the end in the enigmatic line “the deep river ran on,” and the question we are left with is whether or not any consolation at all is offered against the despair in which clock time seems to leave us. (I think some is, but I’m not sure that’s the standard reading.) In Milosz’s, the case is more complicated.

The key question, I think (and not everyone in my class agreed with me), is how exactly the poet’s vision relates to the common city life described in the previous section. The times they represent, I think, are clearly different; “where empires have fallen” is a negation of philosophy’s time and “those once living are now dead” a negation of city’s time, both juxtaposed with “the reeling wheel of the seasons.” But when city’s time and earth’s time are contrasted with philosophy’s time, they seem the same; both are organic as opposed to artificial, passive as opposed to willful; what then the difference?

One think we might say is that philosophy’s time seems Apollonian, ordered, univocal (masculine?), while city’s time seems Dionysian, chaotic, equivocal (feminine?)–and that the “reeling wheel of the seasons” seems a different time to me altogether, which we might call Orphic (the poet does after all travel through the underworld), a chaotic order/ordered chaos, and, perhaps, “analogical.” This would explain the importance of the “customs restored to their small fame”; Milosz offers a path to have both peace and beauty through ritual.

What do we make, then, of the poet’s confession at the end of the poem that he has broken a primordial taboo? I have three suggestions. First, that he presents this breaking of a taboo as the source of the problem of the poem; we are trapped in philosopher’s and city’s time because we have taken ourselves out of earth’s time; the echoes of the Garden of Eden back this up. In this reading the poem approaches the condition of theodicy, the justification of evil in the world. Second, that Milosz claims for himself the mantle of “breaker of a taboo” because that also establishes him as a certain kind of poet, a liminal figure, a sacred heretic. This would explain also why the Eden image seems twisted about–killing the snake is now bad?–and makes the poem also a declaration, though not an enactment, of theomachy. And finally, that it is, in the end, autobiographical; Milosz had, in fact, left his homeland, spent time in Paris, worked as a diplomat for the Polish Communist Party, and then defected to the West; he wrote this poem on returning to Paris on his way to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. Something in this biographical sketch resonates with these last lines.

P.S.: Here’s my copy of the poem with copious notes. I don’t imagine anyone feels like deciphering my handwriting but just in case.

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