After the Fall

On the Writings of Czesław Miłosz

by Tomasz Garbol (Author)
Monographs 418 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads

Table Of Content

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Abbreviation List

The publication uses the following abbreviations for books by Czesław Miłosz.


A Year of the Hunter A Year of the Hunter. Trans. M. G. Levine. New York 1995.
Abecadło Abecadło (ABC). Kraków 2001.
Autoportret przekorny Autoportret przekorny. Rozmowy z Aleksandrem Fiutem (A Spiteful Self-Portrait: Conversations with Aleksander Fiut). Kraków 2003.
Conversations E. Czarnecka, A. Fiut: Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz. New York 1987.
Człowiek wśród skorpionów Człowiek wśród skorpionów. Studium o Stanisławie Brzozowskim (A Man Among Scorpions: A Study of Stanisław Brzozowski). Kraków 2000.
Dolina Issy Dolina Issy (The Issa Valley). Kraków 2000.
The Issa Valley The Issa Valley: A Novel. Trans. L. Iribarne. New York 2000
Emperor of the Earth Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. Berkeley 1977.
Eseje Eseje (Essays). Wybór i posłowie Marek Zaleski. Warszawa 2000.
History The History of Polish Literature. Los Angeles 1983.
Kontynenty Kontynenty (Continents). Kraków 1999.
Księgi biblijne Księgi biblijne (Books of the Bible). Przekłady z języka greckiego i hebrajskiego. Księga Psalmów. Księga Hioba. Księga Pięciu Megilot. Księga Mądrości. Ewangelia według Marka. Apokalipsa. Kraków 2003.
Legendy Legendy nowoczesności (Legends of Modernity). Kraków 2009.
Native Realm Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. Trans. C. S. Leach. Los Angeles 1981.
NCP New and Collected Poems 1931–2001, New York 2001.←7 | 8→
O podróżach O podróżach w czasie (On Time Travels). Wybór opracowanie i wstęp. Joanna Gromek. Kraków 2010.
Ogród nauk Ogród nauk (The Garden of Sciences). Kraków 1998.
Pauza Metafizyczna pauza (Metaphysical Pause). Wybór, wstęp i opracowanie Joanna Gromek. Kraków 1989.
Piesek Piesek przydrożny (A Road-Side Dog). Kraków 2011.
Podróżny świata Podróżny świata. Rozmowy z Renatą Gorczyńską (Traveler of the World: Conversations with Renata Gorczyńska). Kraków 2002.
Prywatne obowiązki Prywatne obowiązki (Private Obligations). Kraków 2001.
Przekłady poetyckie Przekłady poetyckie (Poetry Translations). Zebrała i opracowała Magda Heydel. Kraków 2005.
Przygody Przygody młodego umysłu. Publicystyka i proza 1931 – 1939 (Adventures of a Young Mind: Journalistic Texts and Prose 1931–1939). Ed. Agnieszka Stawiarska. Kraków 2003.
Rodzinna Europa Rodzinna Europa (Native Realm). Kraków 2001.
Rok myśliwego Rok myśliwego (A Year of the Hunter). Kraków 2001.
Rozmowy polskie I Rozmowy polskie 1979 – 1998 (Polish Conversations). Kraków 2006.
Rozmowy polskie II Rozmowy polskie 1999 – 2004 (Polish Conversations). Kraków 2011.
Second Space Second Space: New Poems, New York 2005.
SLP Selected and Last Poems: 1931–2004, New York 2011.
Spiżarnia Spiżarnia literacka (A Literary Larder). Kraków 2011.
Storge Oskar Miłosz: Storge. Trans. and introduction. C. Miłosz. Kraków 1993.
Świadectwo poezji Świadectwo poezji (The Witness of Poetry). Sześć wykładów o dotkliwościach naszego wieku. Kraków 2004.←8 | 9→
Szukanie Szukanie ojczyzny (In Search of Homeland). Kraków 2001.
The Witness of Poetry The Witness of Poetry. Cambridge 1983.
Ulro The Land of Ulro, trans. L. Iribarne. New York 2000.
Visions Visions from San Francisco Bay. New York 1983.
Widzenia Widzenia nad Zatoką San Francisco (Visions from San Francisco Bay). Kraków 2000
Wiersze, Vol. 1–5 Wiersze (Poems), Vol. 1–5, Kraków 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009.
Wypisy Wypisy z ksiąg użytecznych (Fragments from Useful Books). Kraków 2000.
Zaczynając Zaczynając od moich ulic (Beginning from My Streets). Kraków 2006.
Zaraz po wojnie Zaraz po wojnie. Korespondencja z pisarzami 1945 – 1950 (Right After the War: Letters with Writers). Kraków 2007.
Zdobycie Zdobycie władzy (The Usurpers). Kraków 1999.
Ziemia Ulro Ziemia Ulro (The Land of Ulro). Kraków 2000
Życie na wyspach Życie na wyspach (Life on Islands). Kraków 1997.

Frequently quoted subject literature:

The Eternal Moment Aleksander Fiut: The Eternal Moment. Trans. T. S. Robertson. Berkeley 1990.
Miłosz jak świat Jan Błoński: Miłosz jak świat (Miłosz Like the World). Wydanie drugie poszerzone. Kraków 2011.
Moment wieczny Aleksander Fiut: Moment wieczny. Poezja Czesława Miłosza (The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czesław Miłosz). Kraków 2011.
Poznawanie Miłosza Poznawanie Miłosza. Studia i szkice o twórczości poety. Pod redakcją naukową J. Kwiatkowskiego. Kraków 1985.
Poznawanie Miłosza 2 cz. 1 Poznawanie Miłosza 2 cz. 1: 1980 – 1998. Pod red. A. Fiuta. Kraków 2000.
Poznawanie Miłosza 2 cz. 2 Poznawanie Miłosza 2 cz. 2: 1980 – 1998. Pod red. A. Fiuta. Kraków 2001.
Poznawanie Miłosza 3 Poznawanie Miłosza 3. 1999 – 2010. Pod red. A. Fiuta. Kraków 2011.
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Reminders and Motivations

In the Shadow of the Tree of Knowledge

Aleksander Fiut writes:

With the passage of time it is increasingly clear that through his writing Milosz relates the history of his own disinheritance, and not just his alone. He is reminiscent of Zbigniew Herbert, in whose poetry … the fundamental opposition is that of the “realm of inheritance” (“obszar dziedzictwa”) versus the “realm of disinheritance” (“obszar wydziedziczenia”). … Herbert and Milosz interpret the Fall differently. For Herbert, it is a symbol of the loss of an idyll – personal, patriotic, cultural. For Milosz, it is the image of existential division. Herbert sees himself outside the gates of Paradise; Milosz, in the shadow of the tree of knowledge (The Eternal Moment, p. 159).

Fiut was the first to draw such emphatic attention to the importance of Miłosz’s work attributes to the event of the Fall. The shadow which lingers over the poet’s writings is cast by a tree deprived of one fruit, picked against God’s prohibition. By recalling the shadow of the tree of knowledge metaphor, Fiut emphasizes that in Miłosz’s work, the Fall’s fundamental consequence is the existentially torn person. This division concerns oppositions between nature and culture, history and transcendence, religion and science.

Fiut sheds light on a significant aspect of this issue. In fact, the constant presence in the shadow of the tree of knowledge illustrates a longing for the state before the fruit was picked and the inevitability of the situation that followed. Man affected by sin is condemned to culture, science, and history: in other words, to civilization. Indeed, to Miłosz, the rebellion against God’s prohibition is the founding act of civilization. Man cannot free himself from these oppositions, because he is unable to renounce his focus on what is his own, what he created, what is his sole merit, what satisfies his ambition. At the same time, he remains in the shadow of the tree of knowledge: he longs for the state he lost. This longing does not preclude hope; Fiut considers Miłosz as a poet of hope: “Milosz is a poet of hope, but of a defiant hope, a tragic hope” (The Eternal Moment, p. 194). The tragic nature of this hope takes shape through the perception of reality, marked by the consequences of the Fall, tainted with death.

As Fiut notes, it is the existential dimension of the Fall that Miłosz considers to be the most important. Not moral, but existential dimension. Not moral guilt, but the quality of being profoundly transformed by sin is the fundamental consequence of what the Book of Genesis vividly portrays as the eating of the forbidden fruit. In consequence, the Last Judgment for Miłosz has “not so much a moral ←11 | 12→meaning as an ontological one. More than a just assessment of human actions, it signifies a change in all reality” (The Eternal Moment, p. 79). Can such a vision of the Last Judgment be a source of hope? Fiut claims it can, and he explains that in Miłosz’s work, the Fall is no fate, as it leaves room for hope, albeit a tragic one. Undoubtedly, this would be a hope infiltrated by the experience of death and its inevitability. If one may speak of the tragic nature of hope in this case, it lies in the unavoidability of death and its tragic irreversibility. At the same time, the ontological, rather than moral, character of the Last Judgment deprives man of any influence on its outcome: in the face of the Last Judgment, he remains helpless. All this makes the Fall a mystery of existence, an inexplicable existential flaw, independent of man’s intentions and actions.

In the shadow of the tree of knowledge means no longer in paradise, but longing after it, with hope, albeit a tragic one. According to Fiut’s interpretation, the existential suspension “in-between” is the fundamental consequence of the Fall in Miłosz’s eyes.

Regarding the issue of the Fall, in Jerzy Szymik interpretation Miłosz’s writings are fraught with the question of the problem of evil, where does evil come from?1 While Fiut states that Miłosz perceives the experience of the Fall primarily in existential categories, Szymik considers the theological aspect to be most important, as being a “vote of no confidence against God.”2 Szymik notes that for Miłosz, the theological interpretation of the Fall constitutes a basis for the understanding of man.3 Of course, this is not to say that one ignores man himself, but theology is the starting point. Szymik focuses on theological categories, including original sin. Although Szymik’s text may be the most exhaustive analysis of the Fall in Miłosz’s work, it is hardly exhaustive from the literary studies viewpoint, due to its theological and analytical perspective. It belongs to the sphere of theology of literature, rather than theology in literature.4

In fact, there exists no comprehensive literary discussion of the problem of the Fall in the extensive literature on Miłosz’s work, although many have approached this subject. This includes the most eminent researchers of Miłosz, such as – apart from Aleksander Fiut – Jan Błoński, Marian Stala, and, slightly later, Joanna Zach.

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According to Marian Stala, the protagonists of Miłosz’s poems “are aware that they lost their primary state of being and original place in the whole of existence. They know that the world is not in harmony, that the Earth is not home to all living beings, that nature is not kind to man. They see and experience the world as exiles from the Garden of Eden.”5 In this view, the consequences of the Fall are, above all, loss and exile; loss of the primary state of being, and exile into the world – foreign and repulsive, hostile and unfriendly. In Stala’s interpretation, it is not a world that is devoid of any hope; nevertheless, the preservation of hope is an indication of naivety, in the meaning expressed in the cycle The World: A Naïve Poem. Stala describes this meaning as “almost religious:” “A “naïve” man is one who comes close to a primary, fundamental connection to the world.”6 This naivety operates as religious imagination, helping to save the meaningfulness of the world from the destructive influence of science, which denies it. To save this meaningfulness is to persist in assuming that a world order exists.

Jan Błoński highlights the inevitability of a post-Fall attitude of rejection of life and hatred for it, present in Miłosz’s artistic stance. This rejection is difficult to avoid, but also necessary, as it is creative and provides the artistic distance necessary for any creative endeavor; it is also inevitably immoral, because an act of the artist’s self-admiration always lies behind it. In Błoński’s interpretation, Miłosz understands the Fall as an event rich in consequences that are significant for man’s creative work. It is through the Fall that “ego, Eros, matter, and poetry are on one side;”7 “under a lyrical cauldron an aggressive, cruel, contemptible ego must light the fire. The Devil adds the coal”8 Without the Fall, an act of elevation of the ego, poetry would be impossible, at least in the form we know.

For Joanna Zach, however, to Miłosz the Fall is above all an idea that constitutes the important point of reference in the poet’s dispute with the Enlightenment concept of a rational order founded on the good of human nature. All of Miłosz’s work stems from the discovery of evil – in nature and in man – as a result of the Fall, and from the eschatological hope of the redemption of that evil.9

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Texts that identify Miłosz’s religious perspective with Manicheism also include an indirect interpretation of Miłosz’s understanding of the Fall. Donald Davie is one of those who make such an identification. Manicheism, as reactivated by Miłosz, assumes that “Nature is not directly a divine creation,”10 but the creation of an intermediate deity called Demiurge. The fall of the world is therefore absolute, since reality as we know it is the work of malice, not love. However, Davie notes that Miłosz adds signs of irony to his Manicheism, although he does not specify to which elements of the Manichean doctrine this irony refers.

Łukasz Tischner observes that Miłosz is mainly concerned with the mystery of experiencing evil (German Übel) and, more broadly, metaphysical evil, which is the basic fact of finiteness and limitations in the created world.11 Such a description of Miłosz’s intellectual inclinations is consistent with the evocation of Manicheism as an idea that constitutes an important interpretative context for the problem of evil in his work. Namely, Manicheism focuses on metaphysical evil and treats moral evil as the consequence of the world’s subjugation to the will of the evil Demiurge, independent of man. Miłosz’s relationship with Manicheism is a matter of shared sensitivity to evil, not a simple adoption of the philosophical-religious system.

Kris van Heuckelom also recognizes the important role of Manicheism in Miłosz’s poetic worldview. The Manichean rejection of the Earth’s beauty is, in his opinion, an element of the bipolar construction of Miłosz’s reflections, which we may synthetically classify as “ecstatic pessimism.” The second element of this construction is the ecstatic admiration for the world’s sensual beauty. Here, Heuckelom refers to Fiut’s observation of an unsolved dilemma present in Miłosz’s poetry: “The poetic, and hence childlike and religious, side of Miłosz’s imagination instinctively seeks the “childish earth of illusion,” while another side, rational and infected with the poisons of twentieth-century science, history, and philosophy, scornfully mocks the first” (The Eternal Moment, pp. 60). Therefore, the poetic side of the imagination suggests an ecstatic vision of the world, while the rational a rather pessimistic one; however, Fiut does not attribute Manichean origins to the latter.

In his discussion on the ambivalence of Miłosz’s poetic attitude, Heuckelom refers to a confession of the poet himself from The Land of Ulro, where Miłosz confesses that he is experiencing an internal conflict between an angel and a ←14 | 15→devil. A victory of the former causes one to see the world as beautiful. A victory of the latter leads to a heightened perception of the world’s meaninglessness (see Ulro, p. 246). A fundamental question arises here concerning the legitimacy of seeing Miłosz’s thought as a bipolar construction. A review of the most important opinions on the issue of the Fall in Miłosz’s work shows that there is no consensus among researchers on the bipolarity of Miłosz’s poetic worldview. Not every one of them is as inclined to emphasize this aspect of the discussed work as Fiut. It appears that Stala, Błoński, and Tischner remarks Miłosz’s sensitivity to what is contaminated and desolate in the world, but they do not attribute to this sensitivity a role equal to that of a positive worldview, with tenderness for what is beautiful and hopeful. The difference is subtle yet clear.

For instance, Błoński’s interpretation is characteristic in that it highlights the perspective of hope. In the conclusion to a well-known essay, “Epifanie Miłosza” (Miłosz’s Epiphanies), he points to the idea of the resurrection of the body as a justification of the hope that poetry will be able to fulfill its redemptive mission.12 This hope refers to poetry: “the work of imagination will not be left for ruination.”13 However, the idea of bodily resurrection also means the victory of being over non-being, existence over nothingness; a victory that undermines the equal role of the positive and negative worldviews. Zach also emphasizes Miłosz’s eschatological hope, “which feeds on the vision of a redeemed world.”14

In his interpretation of the long poem From the Rising of the Sun, Tischner also accentuates Miłosz’s admiration, not doubt, even though it is the latter that prevails in the ending of the poem,15 as Tischner argues that despair is not the last word, for hope hides in admiration.16 Even if the temptation of despair remains alive and admiration is only a matter of the moment – eternal moments17 – the bipolar structure of poetic thought remains shaken.

The question regarding the bipolarity of Miłosz’s poetic worldview is an indirect question on his understanding of the consequences of the Fall. In his poetry, is the world completely immersed in the Fall, or is rather contaminated with its consequences? Whenever there arises the question of doubt caused by the world’s inexorable cruelty, we must take into account the event with which the history of man’s earthly existence begins: man’s and nature’s loss of the paradisiac state.

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Those interpretations of Miłosz’s work in which the Fall is an experience with no religious meaning – a myth that organizes the relationship between man and nature devoid of transcendence – also confirm the usefulness of the Fall category. Agata Bielik-Robson portrays Miłosz’s creative biography as a fall into nature, caused by the rejection of the perspective offered by Marxism: leaving “the house of natural bondage.” One of the consequences of this fall was that Miłosz “wrote the stillborn Treatise on Theology …; which fell from the cycle of Nature, which Miłosz first called after Blake the Great Wheel, a terrible wheel of being, to finally adore it, in a Catholic, Thomas Aquinas’s way.”18 Miłosz is to fall into nature out of fear of Promethean and messianic Marxism, he is to settle on the shallow of the Catholic vision of reality. In Bielik-Robson’s interpretation, the affirmation of being proves an existential and intellectual sluggishness.19

Is Miłosz’s understanding of the problem of the Fall subject to evolution? In his work published in 2011, Zbigniew Kaźmierczyk provides a clearly affirmative answer. The caesura of Miłosz’s artistic and spiritual biography is to be the year 1943 and his publication of The World. Kaźmierczyk states that 1943 closes “the phase of the Gnostic experience of existence.”20 However, did the breakthrough, which Miłosz himself mentions in Native Realm (see Native Realm, pp. 248–249), really concern the poet’s attitude toward Gnosticism, above all else? “I also accepted my none-too-enviable place on earth” (Native Realm, ←16 | 17→p. 248). These words sound like a confession of someone who freed himself from Gnostic hatred for the world. However, is that really the meaning of these words? The transformation Miłosz observed in himself21 – engaged in discussions with Tadeusz Kroński – rather concerns the understanding of the tasks of poetry:22 situated between the ideals of pure and engaged poetry, poetry dares to seek the heart of personal experience to universalize it; with the poet feeling free of any obligations to the community, which no longer count in a tragic historical situation. Indeed, the affirmation of reality accompanies this experience, but it is not at its core; it is not the subject of the poetic clarification of perspective that Miłosz mentions. After all, in his essay on the wartime escapade from Vilnius to Warsaw, he already confesses: “The world was imperturbable, magnificent. I loved it, because with every turn it offered itself to me ever new, ever different” (Native Realm, p. 228). Miłosz was probably never a sufficiently ardent follower of Gnostic ideas for them to act as an interpretative key to his works. He was not a Manichaean in the strict sense of the word, but he always held a deep conviction that the Manichaean component was an important element for his poetic sensitivity (see Ulro, p. 164).

Noteworthy is Fiut’s understanding of the 1943 caesura in Miłosz’s work. Fiut asserts that, above all, 1943 has a strictly poetic sense: after 1943 changes the way Miłosz treats objects in his poetry, singled out and combined to capture one unchanging detail (Moment wieczny, p. 34). However, Fiut does not make this caesura the criterion for ordering the image of the poet’s work. In principle, Fiut captures Miłosz’s work in a synchronic perspective, which does not interfere with occasional diachronic approaches, for instance in the form of his remark that “the suggestion of autobiographism becomes most pronounced in Miłosz ←17 | 18→… in the USA”(Moment wieczny, p. 141). Nevertheless, Fiut contests Ryszard Nycz’s thesis, well-known among Miłosz researchers, that in the 1960s, Miłosz’s conviction about the existence of a hidden order of reality becomes balanced by the fact that reality is perceived as an unrestricted whole:23 “Miłosz worldview sustains a permanent oscillation, a testing of forces, an incessant subversion of certainty.” These fluctuations concern not only epistemological problems but also questions about the ultimate meaning: “agnostic or nihilistic temptation” coexists with “compelling professinos of faith in primordial world order.”

Miłosz’s work, considered as a vision of the world after the Fall and exile, does not call for the emphasis on the caesura of 1943 or any other caesuras possible to establish. It is true that this vision undergoes certain changes; however, Miłosz’s poetic imagination constantly revolves around the theme of the world’s flaws. A difference in its understanding is clearly visible in two works devoted to Miłosz’s secondary school catechist – father Leopold Chomski: “Father Ch.” and “Father Ch., Many Years Later.” Miłosz created them fifty years apart: fifty years of the poet’s life and work. In the former, included in the volume Three Winters, the dominant images are darkness, nothingness, and a sense of destruction (see Wiersze, Vol. 1 pp. 108–109). In the latter (see NCP, pp. 436–440) – from the volume Unattainable Earth, intensely affirmative of the world – dominates a tension between sensual delight in the world’s beauty and a sense of power of the “Great Spirit of Nonbeing.” In both, the former student talks to the catechist about his religious teachings, about “the nothingness of seductive forms” (Wiersze, Vol. 1, p. 108): one time, this truth seems unquestionable, while another time, confronted with the touch of the belly of a beloved woman, or “close-grained pear wood” (NCP, p. 439), unacceptable, but not effectively rejected. The general sense of destruction visible in the former poem is already a plague of nothingness and annihilation of being, lurking at every step, in the latter poem. Yet, in both poems the world is an arena of man’s fight against the forces of darkness, “a bitter, bitter earth,” as Miłosz writes in another poem from Unattainable Earth, “After Paradise.”

Thus, the presence of the theme of the Fall and its intensity remains unchanged in Miłosz. It is the understanding of the consequences of the Fall that is subject to change. However, the changes in this area do not form a clear line of evolution. Rather, the pattern Fiut observed is confirmed here: constant fluctuation. Already in Miłosz’s pre-war works, one can find the heralds of a mature ←18 | 19→affirmation of being. In the essay “Zejście na ziemię” (Descent to the Earth), a sober, although deliberately exaggerated, depressing image of the Warsaw proletariat, viewed from the perspective of the biblical truth about exile: “their every move confessed the grief of Adams, harnessed to a yoke,” becomes a starting point for a more general reflection: “Everything today speaks against the truth of the immortality of individual being” (“Zejście na ziemię,” p. 221). Nevertheless, the “descent to the Earth” is to happen so that this truth can be saved.

The second boundary point in Miłosz’s intellectual and spiritual biography, important for his work – liberating oneself from fascination with historical necessity – is also not a reason for an evolutionary understanding of the Fall, which in Miłosz’s work often proves an experience of the work of the demon of history. Submission to necessity – in its historical and biological variations – is a curse of life after the Fall in Miłosz’s work. However, the poet never treated his fascination with history-immersed thinking as a heritage that deserved an explicit rejection. Rather, he saw in it an opportunity to deepen the understanding of Christian revelation. The influence of Stanisław Brzozowski’s works is clear in this respect. To Miłosz himself, we can refer the comment on the essay’s protagonist: “Brzozowski showed with own example what happens when history is so saturated that it has an ambition to embrace everything. Inevitable then is what it seemed to prevent: a question about the sense of existence of the only historical being – man” (“Człowiek wśród skorpionów,” p. 183). Tomasz Burek’s remark would serve as a confirmation of this comment:

The saturation of history – in the condensation of a single moment – can lead to the emergence of eternity. Miłosz poetically tamed this discovery in the formula of “the eternal moment,” which I will discuss below.

In a poetic study of the problem of the Fall, Miłosz’s theological explorations become clearer: they reveal the author’s tendency to take more or less traditional paths. After the publication of Treatise on Theology emerged interpretations of Miłosz – explorer of the regions of theology – as a poet who remains “in the ←19 | 20→circle of his native religious tradition, mainly related to Catholicism.”25 Stefan Sawicki considers this work disappointing: “However, a poetic theological treatise written at the beginning of the twenty-first century would be expected not so much to disseminate known critical judgments … as to attempt to transcend the current religious consciousness of the elite, to deepen it, to show new perspectives of faith.”26 He describes Miłosz’s theological search as corresponding to the formula of intellectus quaerens fidem rather than to its traditional form, fides quaerens intellectum. Yet the specificity of Treatise on Theology lies in that it is a poetic statement of the helplessness of man confronted with theological questions. Miłosz does not consider himself an informed critic of theologians; he merely states that their findings are insufficient.

Noteworthy in the description of Mary’s revelations, ending the Treatise, is the emphasis on the desire to remain faithful to “Your unfathomable intention // When you appeared to the children at Fatima and Lourdes” (Second Space, p. 64). Faithful to the unfathomable intention: what, then, would he try to understand, what kind of truth of faith, if ambiguity and unfathomability took its place? To remain faithful: this aspect, and Miłosz’s work in general, approaches another traditional formula, credo quia absurdum. I only signal this convergence here: I will elaborate on the issue in the following chapters, because the absurdity of faith is a formula that changes the perspective of understanding the question on the proportions of modernity and tradition, originality and repetition, in Miłosz as a theologian. I mention it to justify the declaration that this question will not be the focus of my attention. Namely, when I reconstruct Miłosz’s vision of the world after the Fall, above all else, I discover a courage to face the challenges of reality affected by the consequences of the Fall: an experience that always has the same meaning, but also distinct features in different periods. Faith after the Fall appears absurd to Miłosz, whose consequences are amplified with the progress of human civilization, which to Miłosz is a consequence of the post-Fall exile. He draws conclusions from this conviction in his work.

For Miłosz, the Fall is an important issue not only from an eschatological perspective. Formulated in Unattainable Earth, the thought on the contradiction between man’s likeness to God and the experience of the “ordinary order of things,” that is inhuman suffering, solved “probably only” through faith in “the Fall and the human infinite ability to return to divine humanhood” (Wiersze, ←20 | 21→Vol. 4, p. 77), should be understood as a record of a poetic experience rooted in earthly existence, a model of thinking about reality in such a way that it starts to make sense. Therefore, it is not only the case that the mystery of suffering finds an explanation in the eschatological perspective, but also that man’s earthly life is revealed to him anew. Miłosz’s poetic writings on the momentary experiences of reality in its clarity and fullness confirm this interpretation, which will be discussed further.

The address to Mary as the Beautiful Lady, which concludes Treatise on Theology, contains a reminder that “beauty is one of the components of the world” (Second Space, p. 64). It is a reference point for a mind that desires to believe in a clearer meaning of reality, contrary to the truth of the Fall. Not in the strictly theological sense of being free from the stain of original sin – as it is called in theology – but in the very order of thought that reveals an order of things that is not “ordinary.” Immaterial materiality – the state of floating above the ground but, simultaneously, a buttoned dress – does not have to be treated as a sign of a phenomenon’s supernaturality. This apparent contradiction is a consequence of our way of thinking: beauty does not fall into the ordinary order of things, yet belongs to it; it should not exist, yet we experience it.

Therefore, Tischner is right when he emphasizes the low presence of the figure of Christ in Treatise on Theology.27 Does the Beautiful Lady not take his place? Not in the sense of a theological exchange of places or an apotheosis of Mary, but out of the need of the mind, which seeks to establish itself in the sense that it is possible to think of reality as if it were as it should be (see Podróżny świata, p. 64; Traveller of the World). I agree with Tischner’s claim that in the fourteenth part of the work, “the treatise ends and the “existential autobiography” begins.”28 Along with the questionable treatise, theology also ends here. As for the conclusion, what begins and culminates there? However disappointing this answer would sound to readers who await answers to the final deepest questions: a poetic exercise of imagination.

Published approximately sixty years earlier, The World stems from the same need to see if it is possible to think of the world as it should be, instead of falling into the ordinary order of things, revealing itself in the atrocities of war. It is a direct consequence of the experience of the Fall, as proved by the context in which Miłosz created both works. In The World: World War II. In the Treatise, as ←21 | 22→in the whole of Miłosz’s mature poetry: “the decadence / Into which the language of poetry in my age has fallen” (Second Space, p. 47) the cultural situation, a state of erosion of the imagination. Living in a world affected by the consequences of the Fall generates a need expressed in the first part of the Treatise: “Let reality return to our speech.” Here, Miłosz compares poetry to “a bird thrashing against the transparency.” Miłosz used a similar analogy when in one of his essays, he claimed that he lacked the courage to “be sharp, like a diamond cutting glass” (Native Realm, p. 247) in his poetic attempts before The World. Although the images are not identical – in the latter, the sharpness, clearness, may be more important – each time the message concerns the situation where poetic speech makes its way into reality, difficult for it to access.

Miłosz draws conclusions from his thoughts on the Fall to seek truth in theology, yet he finds dogmas. However, the mysteries of the Trinity, of original sin, of redemption, seem to him “armored against reason” (Second Space, p. 49). Thus, in his search for meaning, he turns to poetic imagination, open to biblical tradition (“Why not concede that I have not progressed, in my religion, / past the Book of Job?”), to signs such as a bypass, whose one arm “leads to San Francisco, one to Sacramento,” to human greatness and smallness, clearest when one sings with others in church; to the beauty of the world, to childlike intuitions restituted in oneself and discovered in one’s surroundings.

Can we therefore reliably answer the question Michał Masłowski poses: which of the four currents of twentieth-century theological thought – dialectic, anthropological, hopeful, or ecumenical – would be closest to Miłosz?29 Masłowski claims that it would be the anthropological current, represented by theologians such as Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.30 It is a closeness not in the sense of direct influence, but the intellectual context of the era. However, I find it difficult to resist a conviction that none of these great thinkers would meet Miłosz’s expectations. A warning against attempts at such an identification is the case of Teilhard de Chardin, whom Miłosz claims to sincerely despise (see Ulro, p. 147), yet treats him as the patron of “new theology, which prostrates itself before the world”31 (Ulro, p. 256). To Miłosz, traditional theology seems helpless in the face of the needs of ←22 | 23→religious imagination pervaded by science, and post-conciliar theology appears to him an act of surrender before the world, reluctant toward religion.32


There have been no satisfactory interpretative solutions to the issue of the bipolarity of Miłosz’s poetic worldview, which results from the subject of his work, intellectually and existentially torn between pessimism and ecstasy, and to the issue of understanding the consequences of the Fall. I see this lack as a good reason to revisit these issues. The object of my consideration is Miłosz’s vision of the world, as one established on the reflection on the experience of the Fall. There have been no exhaustive descriptions of this vision in this respect. The main direction of my observations will be provided by the already signaled conviction that this vision of the world assumes its shape primarily through the need for contact with the meaning of reality, and that the poet seeks to satisfy this need with the activity of his poetic imagination.33 Thus, the issue of imagination will repeatedly recur in the course of my discussion.

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The Fall

From the very beginning of Czesław Miłosz’s work, an important feature is his interest in the finiteness of the world, its atrophy, and the stigma of its decline. Some have described this feature as catastrophism. However, to stop at such a historical-literary qualification of this issue would be a simplification.34 Namely, Miłosz’s sensitivity to the signs of the end of the world is more basic in nature. It has a connection not only to history-based premonitions, but also to metaphysical intuitions.

Miłosz’s different writings repeatedly portray an image of the world seen from the perspective of decline, suffering, and defeat. In Unattainable Earth, we can see an image of an anonymous current which flows through the stream of people, a current of destructive power:

The sight of old, faded, mumbling people, using a cane, neither men nor women, because the gender difference is blurred. And next to them, bulky boys and wide-eyed girls: clearly the same people, only a number of years earlier. It seems as if an anonymous current is flowing through people, leaving their shells after a few turns of the hourglass, leaving a community of broken dolls in the place of living beings (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 108).

Miłosz reinforces the power of this poignant image of the destructive influence of time through his reflection on the uniqueness of the soul: “And how, when ←24 | 25→we look at it, can we believe in the destiny of one unique soul?” (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 108). Destruction affects not anonymous beings but individuals. The world appears to be under the rule of a power which makes beautiful people a collection of broken dolls, seeking to destroy what is unique.

To a certain extent, the poet’s childhood experience shaped his vanitative sensitivity, which he indicates in one of his conversations:

It so happened that I lived in worlds that were just ending. As a child, I witnessed the end of Tsarist Russia, and later on, when I lived in Vilnius, I had a feeling that this also would have to end soon. Even later, when I lived in Warsaw just before the Second World War, I had a similar feeling. It did not leave me in the West, although I tried to heal myself of it, since all around me lived people who experienced no such feeling whatsoever (Rozmowy polskie 1, pp. 702–703).

As a witness of the ends of various particular worlds – systems, states, eras – Miłosz acquired the ability to discern the symptoms of the absolute end of the world. With his experience of passing, he could see the signs of the definite passing of all. They proved present in nature, especially when viewed from the perspective of sensitivity to his own misery. This is the case in the essay “Symbolic Mountains and Forests,” where the Californian Death Valley becomes a sign of catastrophe in the eyes of a wanderer who spent his entire life going to a place where it becomes clear that everything transforms into nothingness:

A silence so mighty it reverberates with the shifting sands in the dunes, the crunch of the petrified salt underfoot, a sky without clouds or circling birds, the horizon closed in on all sides by mountain ranges …. Then it begins to seem that throughout our lives we have been striving to get there, to this place where our most vivid memories fade, the weaker ones lose their consistency entirely and go to pieces; it costs us great effort to reinstate their significance, continuity breaks, scenes unconnected with anything else arise in our minds – the tango danced by the crowd at a student ball in a distant epoch, for example, as if the phantasmagorical quality of those dancers were appropriate to this desert which turns the living into phantoms (Visions, pp. 15–16).

Miłosz observes the heralds of the threat of destruction, similar to the one that nature and human nihilism wreak, in historical events, in historical institutions which materialize human indifference to what is unique and present. In the essay “A Poet Between East and West,” he contests the view that twentieth-century tyrants are nothing but a disruption in the natural order or events and should not be considered as more than an incident. In the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, Miłosz finds a grim omen of a possible future catastrophe:

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In one of his writings from the volume Road-side Dog,36 Miłosz suggests that one should seek the essence of the twentieth century’s atrocity in the deepest intuitions, in the sphere of what is independent of historical incidents. It is something much deeper than the two wars and the suffering they caused – the deepest truth on human fate: “What is deepest and most deeply felt in life, the transitoriness of human beings, illness, death, the vanity of opinions and convictions” (Road-side Dog, p. 21); “Atrocity is a truth of the world of living beings” (Abecadło, p. 40).

This flaw of reality also reveals itself in the situation of exile, experienced by so many people in the twentieth century, which allows us to see this exile’s deeper, metaphysical meaning: “The Earth, with all its beauty and charm, is ultimately the land of “the exiles of Eve” (Szukanie, p. 217).

In universalizing the meaning of his fate, Miłosz appears to follow in the footsteps of his French cousin, Oscar Milosz. In The Land of Ulro, the poet noted that in his reflection on the meaning of life, he discovered “a symbolic equivalence of his vision and his ancestry. Homelessness, in the tribal as well as the geographical sense, became a correspondence of the spiritual exile of the modern man, and his own quest for a homeland, for place, acquired a double meaning” (Ulro, p. 76).

According to Miłosz, life is “This eternal, unchanging sediment of horro, with that festive noisy spectacle on the surface” (Hunter, p. 251, May 24, 1988). In the same passage from A Year of the Hunter, Miłosz also recalls Stanisław Vincenz’s story of the mountain bandit Dobosh. Dobosh is invited to a magnificent ball in a castle situated in the Carpathian Mountains. However, the orchestra proves ←26 | 27→to be composed of devils, and the dancers are skeletons. Noteworthy, Miłosz mentions this story once more in Road-side Dog (see pp. 200–201). For the poet, this story is the metaphor of a world where the surface drastically differs from what lies beneath. Yet the metaphor is not unambiguously pessimistic. The colorful splendor of the ball hides a horrible truth: this is the first meaning of the metaphor. Still, at the same time, Dobosh’s story turns our attention to the ambiguous nature of the world’s images, which can be a certain source of consolation. In the story, what emerges under the surface is the effect of a devilish trick, the consequence of Dobosh and his companions applying the devil musicians’ liquid on their eyelids.

The distinction between illusory consolation and painful truth in the image of the world is a mental context for what Miłosz described as his maladjustment to the world in “List półprywatny o poezji” (A Semi-Private Letter on Poetry): “I see no reasons why I would have to adjust and loudly declare that everything works perfectly on this best of all worlds” (Kontynenty, pp. 89–90). The clear irony in this passage testifies to Miłosz’s deliberate detachment from reality,37 to his experience of pain and injury. Without this experience, there is no poetry. Miłosz constantly feels what he admits in the letter to Aleksander Wat: “Despite ←27 | 28→the lack of sunshine, or maybe because it is so grey and rainy, it is alright; but the fear is always there.”38

What is the atrocity of the world, to which Miłosz is so sensitive? Where lies the root of what reveals itself in the inhuman terror of nature and the cruelty of history, in the physical suffering of man, in his death and the annihilation of all that is dear to his heart, in the constantly recurring sense of artistic and existential unfulfillment, in the blemish of corruption which pervades the whole of reality?

In his conversation with Renata Gorczyńska, Miłosz claims: “Yes, for me the Fall and original sin are the key mysteries. And I think I’ve always written too little about them. To study and analyze original sin is extraordinary, absorbing” (Conversations, p. 296). This confession is Miłosz’s reaction to the remark that the justification for his Nobel Prize indicated man’s exile from paradise as the main theme of his poetry and prose. Miłosz’s interest in the issue of the Fall is visible in his writings; it is a literary fact, not just a declaration. To Miłosz, the Fall and its consequences are “a basic law of the world:” “the survival of the fittest, the battle of all against all, is a basic law of the world, and is to be applied to God” (Conversations, p. 298).

Life invariably appears to man as a source of torment, and he feels hurt by the Creator, who condemned him to his fate. Even if he does not consciously consider God responsible, he blames Him for his misfortune. The feeling of hurt leads him to question the meaning of reality as a whole. This act of opposition shapes man’s attitude to the world. In the conversation with Gorczyńska, when Miłosz mentions Léon-Dufour’s Dictionary of Biblical Theology, he indicates the mechanism which makes the original Fall an act so fraught with consequences:

Man does not trust God, who has become his rival. The very concept of God has been distorted. A God who is completely disinterested because He is completely perfect, who has everything and can only give, is replaced by a mean and indifferent being solely concerned with protecting Himself against His own creation. Sin had deranged man’s mind before it caused him to sin, and since it overtakes him in his very relationship with God, of whom man is the image, it is difficult to imagine any more thoroughgoing corruption or to be surprised that it entailed such far-reaching consequences (Conversations, pp. 298–299).39

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Man’s “depraved” mind is the beginning of sin. A “depraved” mind fundamentally changes the image of man, God, and the world. Instead of the principle of love, the mind follows the principle of fight. God is my enemy, and the world is the instrument of his ill will: this is the basic supposition such a mind makes.

In Miłosz’s conversation with Gorczyńska on modern theological interpretations of the Fall, the focus on Biblical tradition is particularly noteworthy. The poet approvingly quotes excerpts from the Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Their discussion mainly concerns the findings this work contains. The interlocutors also refer to the Judaic tradition, when they mention the distinction between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Miłosz notes that the Tree of Life has a direct connection to the Tree of the Kabbalists, the Sefirot tree (see Podróżny świata, p. 299). Since in Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything, along with eternal life, “they had no need to reach for the tree of life. But they lost eternal life as soon as they reached for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—they were no longer immortal. So maybe it was then that they reached for the tree of life” (Conversations, p. 299).

Miłosz does not focus on the distinct character of the Judaist interpretation. At the same time, when he turns his attention to the role of the mind in this act (“Sin had deranged man’s mind before it caused him to sin,” Conversations, p. 299), his interpretation bears similarities to the one we can read in a Rabbinic commentary on the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), which references Rashi, a classic of Judaist tradition. The text highlights the role of the intellect in the events which unfolded in the garden of Eden by explaining that man holds intellect as his most precious ability, which he received before his disobiedence. Thanks to this gift of intellect, God could have given man the commandments,40 but man later broke the commandment he received because of his mind.41 Only man could comprehend the commandments, that is distinguish between truth and falsehood; when his intellectual ability became flawed, he reached for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Both in the Rabbinic commentary and in Miłosz’s quote from Catholic tradition, what unfolded in man’s mind is the heart of the Fall. As Miłosz indicates in his conversation with Gorczyńska, the Fall’s most important consequence is the destruction of bonds, not just that between man and God, but also between human beings: “breaking the link between man and ←29 | 30→God. Original sin also breaks the link among the members of the human community, even in Eden, beginning with the first two” (Conversations, p. 300).

The shattering of the original unity of creation is the first, painful consequence of what happened in the human mind: after the sin, the man accuses the woman, destroying their primary bond. He does not assume responsibility for her action and ascribes the whole blame to Eve: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:12). Adam separating himself from Eve is an act of emphasis on the man’s individuality and a destruction of the bond of unity. Instead of unity emerges antagonism, rivalry. The man is now only focused on himself; he wants to save himself, his status quo, which becomes a rule. One evidence of this rule is the biblical description of the crime of Cain. It clearly highlights the fact that the principle of rivalry – survival of the fittest – has dominated the world. The same enmity is visible in man’s attitude toward nature: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:17). The Bible leaves no room for doubt: the Fall proved total.

To this completeness contribute both the multitude of contaminated relationships and a kind of common heredity of this contamination. This heredity is not any kind of automatism, but the sin’s violation of the delicate matter of relationships. We can put it in the same way as Joseph Ratzinger: “when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. … Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves.”42 Entangled in broken relationships, every human being has a false conviction of his or her own self-sufficiency, which drives the mechanism of sin. This mechanism unravels in a mind guided by false premises.

Christian tradition emphasized the role of the intellect in the Fall almost from the beginning. For instance, Augustine of Hippo, in a classical Christian text, commentary to the Book of Genesis, describes the first parents as fools: “They said they were wise … but when he turned his face away they became fools.”43 The context of the Epistle to the Romans (1:21–22: “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, ←30 | 31→they became fools”) brings to the fore the biblical meaning of foolishness, which is directly connected to the neglect of God and strongly tied to evil. The biblical fool is also an evil man, who rejects God in his heart to behave disgracefully. This association is clear in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 14 describes a fool who negates the existence of God to a man who seeks God: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 14:1); “if there were any that did understand, and seek God” (Psalm 14:2).

Augustine of Hippo interprets the sin of the first parents as the mind’s submission to lust: “If … the reason does consent and decide that what lust or greed is urging on it should be done, then the man is expelled from the entire life of bliss, as from paradise.”44 For Miłosz, such an understanding of sin would be difficult to accept. After all, in his conversation with Gorczyńska, he distances himself from the interpretation of exile from Paradise as punishment for sex; to this traditional, colloquial approach to the Fall45 he opposes the idea of duality: as a result of sin, the primary unity of Adam and Eve transformed into duality, into the awareness of duality.

In Léon-Dufour’s Dictionary, Miłosz points to one other element of the biblical description of the Fall: “The mystery of sin exceeds the limits of the human world. A third person comes between God and man, a person of whom the Old Testament says absolutely nothing, no doubt to avoid making a second God of him, but one whom the Book of Wisdom calls the devil or Satan, and who appears again in the New Testament” (Conversations, p. 300). He refers to the Book of Wisdom as its translator and commentator. Interestingly, this is the only one of the Bible books which he translated that he provided commentary for, explaining: “I did not mean to provide this book with commentary, but apparently certain passages deeply spoke to me, since I could not forget them, and they came back to me in different circumstances” (Księgi biblijne, p. 508).

In these remarks, the issue of the Fall reemerges. In Podróżny świata, Miłosz discusses a fragment from the Book of Wisdom where it is the devil that is deemed responsible for bringing death into the world. This is verse 2.24, which is also recalled in the Dictionary: “Death came into the world only through the ←31 | 32→Devil’s envy, as those who belong to him find to their cost.” In a note to the Polish translation of the verse, Miłosz writes:

For what reasons did the devil, having assumed the form of a snake, tempt our first parents in the garden of Eden? He himself existed before the world’s creation and had to observe the Creator’s action with unease, as he preferred nothingness. And suddenly appear a couple of people, “indestructible” entities, shaped in the image and likeness of God, who receive both spiritual and corporeal life: the devil knows the former, but it is not a happy one. His rivals. This is one possible interpretation. The second apocryphal book of Enoch mentions another interpretation: “Deeply sighing, the devil said Adam, you are the reason for all my enmity, jealousy, and sadness, because it is due to you that I was banished from my glory.” Therefore, the devil was not an angel, fallen in the archetypal world of pre-creation; on earth he acted perhaps as the Creator’s official, until, offended by the appearance of a rival in the form of Adam, he resorted to a ruse and as punishment, was deprived of his angelic dignity (Księgi biblijne, p. 533).

Both interpretations emphasize the devil’s envy of people. Regardless of its cause – hatred of any existence, or man’s burden of personal responsibility for the devil’s misery – it is envy that forms the essence of Satan’s relationship with the Divine creation. We could say that what Miłosz defines as the principle of the survival of the fittest is a form of this envy. The fallen angel’s hatred toward man and a radical change in man’s relationship with God brought death into the world. It is a direct and the most noticeable consequence of the Fall. Miłosz provides the following comment to the verse in Wisdom 1:13: “For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living:” “The violation of God’s prohibition by picking an apple from the Tree of Knowledge was a vote of no confidence in God (also of the conscience?). In the Book of Genesis, we read that Adam was then cast down into mortality, to subdue his pride (Księgi biblijne, pp. 526–527). Although the biblical text does not directly refer to the Book of Genesis here, Miłosz does in his comment. Indeed, to him, death is inextricably connected to the Fall: “Nature did not know death at first, it was man’s sin that caused it” (Księgi biblijne, p. 527). Thus, Miłosz introduces the subject of the cosmic consequences of man’s sin, which encompass the whole nature. In his comment, Miłosz associates the fragment of the Letter to the Romans (8:19–22), in which we can read that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now,” with the original sin. Man’s fall disrupted the whole order of creation. It will cease only when nature is delivered from death, which sin brought onto it.

Miłosz draws such a strong connection between death and sin because of his conviction that in the event of the Fall emerges the fundamental opposition between existence and nothingness, life and death. Sin is a descent into death and ←32 | 33→nothingness. The hope to overcome sin is connected to the expectation of life’s victory. Miłosz interprets the Book of Wisdom’s emphasis on the fact that God did not create death as a testament to the affirmation of life and existence: “any evil, including death, is a minus sign, a shortage of being” (Księgi biblijne, p. 526). The comment on this passage from the Book counts among the longest: it is one of the issues which most concerned the translator and commentator, who admits to being particularly affected by some passages from the Book in the introduction. Noteworthy is the conclusion of Miłosz’s reflection on Paul’s remark on the suffering of nature: “Nature second will be delivered from death by man: the king of creation, Adam Kadmon, Logos, or God who eternally exists in the shape of man” (Księgi biblijne, p. 527). The anthropocentrism revealed in this approach to the history of salvation is characteristic of Miłosz’s entire reflection on the Fall. Man is in the heart of this event. It is due to him that envy awakens in the devil; it is man who succumbs to temptation and brings death into the world. He is also the one who delivers nature from death. We should also understand the reference to the cabbalistic idea of Adam Kadmon in the spirit of anthropocentrism thus defined. Man is the crown of creation. In man, God’s creation has reached its fullness and through him, it can recover this fullness. To Miłosz, the experience of the Fall is important not solely as a theological truth, an intellectual problem that demands a solution, but above all as a human experience, the painful feeling of the whole reality being tainted with death. The sensitivity to the suffering of nature, clear in Miłosz’s work, is directly related to this human experience. For, in nature, man finds a confirmation of the completeness of his own downfall.

The Religious in Literature

The issue of the Fall as the fundamental aspect of the poetic vision of the world, which I reconstruct in this book, indicates the main methodological features of my discussion. For Miłosz, the Fall is a religious matter, above all in the sense present in Christian biblical theology and, to a lesser degree and rather in reference to the so-called first Fall, in Judaic religious thought rooted in cabbalistic tradition. Therefore, the discussion I present here belongs to the current of literary research focused on the relationship between “literature and religion:” in so far as “research into the “religious” in literature always has a reference system of some specific religion in the background.”46

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Miłosz’s poetic reflections on the Fall call for a reference to this background, in the form of the Christian heritage of thought in this area. Miłosz himself leads us to the biblical tradition, close to him since his early work from the period of Three Winters, and with which he became more familiar when he worked on biblical translation.47 Such a formula of a religious reference system, independent of any particular confession, makes it possible to incorporate various currents of Christian thought on the Fall, both unorthodox (e.g. Jacob Boehme) and non-Catholic (e.g. Orthodoxy). However, this does not engender any specific methodological issues. After all, as I already mentioned, the aim of this work is not to show the compatibility, or its lack, of literary approaches to religious issues with concrete theological truths. In the very subject matter of research on the relationship between “literature and religion,” there are “both works that relate to specific religions, with all their internal diversity, and works of non-confessional religiousness.”48

This is a dissertation in the field of literary studies: the starting point and subject of analysis here are literary texts, primarily poetic texts, but also essays, prose, epistolographic texts, and Miłosz’s discursive statements having the nature of self-commentary, taken mainly from published conversations with the poet. In Miłosz’s extensive and thought-rich work, the issue of the Fall appears particularly important. Considering the entirety of this work from the perspective of the issue of the Fall can be an attempt at its monograph, in the variety that consists of interpreting the entire work through the lens of its most significant aspect. Such an approach to Miłosz’s writings would entail the renouncement of a diachronic analysis thereof.

For a reflection on the issue of the Fall in Miłosz’s work, considering the meaning of the author understood as a particular individual in the role of the creator49 proves necessary. We should not omit here an extensive collection of texts that I already mentioned: self-commentary, diary records, letters, conversations. ←34 | 35→However, in all of them we will find it difficult to separate Miłosz’s function as the author from the other functions he fulfils, such as that of a commentator of his own work or simply an individual who refers to his own biography in his works, indirectly and with the use of literary devices that complicate the nature of these references. For instance, we would not fully understand Miłosz’s sensitivity to the signs of the world’s disintegration without taking into account his experience of exile and loss of his homeland. Much would also be lost if we did not inquire about the author’s source of inspiration: his readings and intellectual contacts reflected in his work, which are an important interpretive context.

The present work consists of six chapters. Chapter one presents the rationale behind the selection of the problem area, based on the state of research, and on a preliminary outline of Miłosz’s vision of the world. It also contains an elementary explanation of how I will understand the term “Fall”50 in my work and the methodological orientation of the study. The second chapter is devoted to the Fall experienced in the corporeal sphere of human existence and in the relationship between the man and the woman. The main theme of the third chapter is the phenomenon of the rhythm, a quality of art rooted in existential experience, marked by the ambiguity of the situation of an exile who experiences loss but also admiration, a rhythm poetically established in opposition to the scientific image of the world dominated by the idea of an infinite spacetime continuum. The next chapter reveals the complexity of the consequences of the Fall: not only a frustrating imperfection, but also a sense of disinheritance that restores the right proportions in looking at reality. The abhorrent fallen form of the world is always also the space in which revelation occurs. Chapter five has a comparative character. It is a reflection on the historical-literary context of Miłosz’s understanding of the Fall, an attempt to answer the question on the significance of Mickiewicz and Norwid’s heritage for this understanding. For all the poetry of the interwar period, Romantic poetry was the primary point of reference.51 Of no less importance are the personal judgments of Miłosz himself, for whom Mickiewicz and Norwid are the most intriguing poets, most often evoking the ←35 | 36→reactions visible in his work. The goal of this chapter is to highlight the most important features of Miłosz’s vision of the world affected by the Fall, referring to the work of the two above authors for context. The conclusion is an attempt to discuss the three most important qualities of a poetic worldview affected by the Fall: mindfulness, understanding, and wisdom.

1 See Rev. J. Szymik, Problem teologicznego wymiaru dzieła literackiego Czesława Miłosza, Katowice 1996, pp. 268–269.

2 Szymik, Problem teologicznego wymiaru, p. 274.

3 Szymik, Problem teologicznego wymiaru, p. 278.

4 See S. Sawicki, “Teolog o twórczości Czesława Miłosza,” in: S. Sawicki, Wartość – sacrum – Norwid 2. Studia i szkice aksjologicznoliterackie. Lublin 2007, p. 107.

5 M. Stala, “Ekstaza o wschodzie słońca. W kręgu głównych tematów poezji Czesława Miłosza,” in: M. Stala, Trzy nieskończoności. O poezji Adama Mickiewicza, Bolesława Leśmiana i Czesława Miłosza, Krakow 2001, p. 180.

6 “Poza ziemią Ulro,” in: Poznawanie Miłosza 2. Cz. 1, p. 169.

7 J. Błoński, “Epifanie Miłosza,” in: J. Błoński, Miłosz jak świat, p. 58.

8 Błoński, “Epifanie,” p. 64.

9 See J. Zach, “Spór o naturę ludzką: między katastrofą a utopią,” in: Po Miłoszu, eds. M. Bielecki, W. Browarny and J. Orska. Krakow 2011, pp. 16–21 (for a discussion on the Fall, see the whole text: pp. 13–21).

10 D. Davie, “From the Marches of Christendom: Mandelstam & Milosz,” Southwest Review 80/4 (Autumn 1995), pp. 448–474, here p. 455.

11 Ł. Tischner, Sekrety manichejskich trucizn. Miłosz wobec zła, Krakow 2001, p. 230.

12 See Błoński, Miłosz jak świat, p. 70.

13 Błoński, Miłosz jak świat, p. 70.

14 Zach, “Spór o naturę ludzką,” p. 20.

15 “I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.” NCP, p. 331.

16 Tischner, Sekrety manichejskich trucizn, p. 229.

17 Tischner, Sekrety manichejskich trucizn, p. 231

18 A. Bielik-Robson, “„Faust warszawski” albo nienawiść do miasta,” Konteksty 4/2011, p. 195.

19 According to Wawrzyniec Rymkiewicz, immersion in the visible world and acceptance thereof became the downfall of Miłosz and a betrayal of the metaphysical task of poetry. See W. Rymkiewicz, “Głód rzeczywistości. Badiou przeciwko Miłoszowi,” Kronos 1/2012, p. 149. Contributing to Bielik-Robson’s criticism of Miłosz, Rymkiewicz formulates his personal judgment (however, he provides a surprising conclusion: “When the Gdańsk Shipyard, which shared the fate of thousands of other Polish factories, was closing, Czesław Miłosz explored his private salvation and immortality in his last poems” (Rymkiewicz, “Głód rzeczywistości,” p. 149); in his comment on a text by Alain Badou, “Francuski filozof w odpowiedzi polskiemu poecie,” trans. S. Królak, Kronos 1/2012, pp. 142–147 (Badiou’s text is a fragment from his book Petit manuel d’inesthétique, Éditions de Seuil, 1998). Badiou is critical of Miłosz’s comments on poetry after the so-called Mallarmean revolution and argues that, contrary to Miłosz’s expectations, it is impossible, either in poetry or in thinking, to seek the Whole (p. 145). According to Badiou, one can only reveal the hum of the truth of the world after stripping it of all cohesion.

20 Z. Kaźmierczyk, Dzieło demiurga. Zapis gnostyckiego doświadczenia egzystencji we wczesnej poezji Czesława Miłosza, Gdańsk 2011, p. 297.

21 A similar literary testimony of Miłosz – as a poet who uncovers the essence of the world in extremely unfavorable circumstances, from the position of a man who lies on a street under fire and remarks with astonishment that “the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine” (see Mind, p. 39) – which made a powerful impression on American critics. Bożena Karwowska draws attention to this phenomenon, mentioning Geoffrey Hill, John Bayley, and Donald Davie. See B. Karwowska, Miłosz i Brodski. Recepcja krytyczna w krajach anglosaskich, Warsaw 2000, pp. 25–26.

22 This interpretation confirms the validity of the remark made by the authors of the American introduction to Miłosz’s poetry. According to Natan and Quinn, art is a particularly important area of conflict between Gnosticism (with its iconoclastic tendency) and orthodoxy (which accepts the figurative nature of artistic representations). See L. Natan and A. Quinn, The Poet’s Work. An Introduction to Czesław Milosz, Harvard University Press 1991, p. 110.

23 See R. Nycz, “„Nostalgia za nieosiągalnym”. O późnych poematach Czesława Miłosza,” in: Poznawanie Miłosza 2. Cz. 1, p. 302.

24 T. Burek, “Dialog Wolności i Konieczności albo historyczne wtajemniczenie,” in: Poznawanie Miłosza, p. 280.

25 S. Sawicki, “Dwa poematy teologiczne. Próba lektury,” in: Wartość. Sacrum. Norwid 2, p. 68.

26 Sawicki, “Dwa poematy,” p. 69.

27 See Ł. Tischner, “Podróże niespokojnego serca,” in: Ł. Tischner, Miłosz w krainie odczarowanej. Gdańsk 2011, p. 84.

28 Tischner, “Podróże niespokojnego serca,” p. 82.

29 See M. Masłowski, “Religia Miłosza,” Pamiętnik Literacki 2007/4, p. 57. Masłowski employs Rossin Gibellini’s distinction from the latter’s Panorama de la théologie au XXe siécle, trans. J. Mignon. Paris 2004, p. 248.

30 See Masłowski, “Religia Miłosza,” p. 57.

31 One may also ask: which of these theologians would Miłosz place in the anthropological current?

32 In Miłosz’s work, Fiut emphasizes the individuality of artistic endeavor, in which the poet attempts to imagine the afterlife. See A. Fiut, “Zwiedzanie zaświatów,” Kwartalnik Artystyczny 2/2012, p. 101.

33 For Miłosz, imagination is the ability to organize the external and internal space (see Ulro, p. 245). When we account for his fascination with the mimetic abilities of art and his distrust of poetry that renounces the description of reality and focuses on, generally speaking, the poetic word itself, imagination proves to be an element on which we can make at least two significant remarks. Firstly, in reference to Coleridge’s famous distinction, important for the Romantics (see S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Oxford University Press, London: 1954, p. 1202; and Charles Taylor’s comment in Sources of The Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Harvard University Press 2001, p. 379; also M. H. Abrams, “Coleridge’s Mechanical Fancy and Organic Imagination”, in: M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical Tradition, New York 1971, pp. 167–176) into reproductive fancy and creative imagination: in Miłosz’s works, imagination is closer to repetition than to revelation. However, at the same time, revelation as the result of object perception is inseparable from the state of mind, that is, from the way one perceives it (see R. Nycz, Literatura jako trop rzeczywistości. Poetyka epifanii w nowoczesnej literaturze polskiej, Krakow 2001, p. 11). This would be an adequate concept for Miłosz’s poetic understanding of an object perceived as fascinating, but inaccessible. Second, for Miłosz, the imagination is rational in its focus on the subject of description. See also Malcolm Bradbury, “Imagination” in: Peter Childs and Roger Fowler, The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms, based on A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, ed. R. Fowler, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group; and, on the subject of the distinction between imagination and fancy: N. Frye, “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement”, in: N. Frye, Fables of Identity, New York 1963, pp. 21–39. Bibliographically, “the debate on imagination” is discussed by Zdzisław Łapiński in: Kulturowe wizualizacje doświadczenia, eds. W. Bolecki and A. Dziadek, Warsaw 2010, p. 485, fn. 19. Jan Błoński characterizes Miłosz’s poetic imagination in a similar way, and divides it into three layers: from Mickiewicz, “accuracy of the eye” and the resulting poetic “roughness;” from twentieth century avant-garde, “metaphorical emboldenment;” from Anglo-Saxon poetry, “conscious play with somebody else’s words.” See J. Błoński, “Miłosz jak świat,” in: Błoński, Miłosz jak świat, p. 72. In his synthesis of artistic ideologies in Polish poetry, Edward Balcerzan defines the poet’s striving for the poetic restoration of man’s “sense of certainty in the world of empiricism,” contrasted with “oneiric phantasmagorias,” as “the semi-private” classicism of Miłosz.” See E. Balcerzan, Poezja polska w latach 1939–1965. Cz. II: Ideologie artystyczne, Warsaw 1988, p. 28. Balcerzan’s remarks imply that in classical forms of indirect lyric, one should reconstruct the poetic imagination, with the conviction that “in the zone of the sacred, the voices of the author and the role become identical; they are different in the sphere of sin, where we recognize the voice of the role as “inferior” to the author’s voice” (Balcerzan, Poezja polska, p. 30).

34 See a chapter of Aleksander Fiut’s monograph Moment wieczny, “Czy tylko katastrofizm?,” pp. 124–139.

35 The essay appeared initially in English as “A Poet Between East and West,” Michigan Quarterly Review 16/3 (Summer 1977), pp. 263–271, here p. 267, in which the similar fragment reads: Such reasoning bypasses the possibility that the presumed “disturbance” was the first phase of something new and that we all, as a species, are menaced by implementations of an idea: that of the State conceived as an owner of human beings, both of their bodies and their souls. Since such a State must also be an owner of their language, that is giving to words such meaning as it desires, a moment may be near when the apparent similarity of people living in various political zones will be reduced to their having two eyes, two hands and two legs.” Translator’s note.

36 See “A Search,” in: Road-side Dog, p. 7.

37 Although the text is dated New York 1946, the phrase “the best of all worlds” does not limit itself to only political meanings. Zdzisław Łapiński’s observation of “Miłosz’s reception of Miłosz,” in which “a metaphysical poet renounces a political poet,” (Z. Łapiński, “Miłosz „zaraz po wojnie,” in: Teksty Drugie, vol. 3–4 2001, p. 171) has its background in ambiguities which encompass these two conceptual circles, such as those visible in the Letter. A mentality which is inclined to extract the unobvious from different phenomena and situations reveals itself here. Without this inclination, in the postwar years, it would probably be more difficult for Miłosz’s work to perform its function, which Łapiński describes as “the strongest and most permanent voice of independent literary opposition” (Łapiński, “Miłosz „zaraz po wojnie,” p. 181). Politically, socially, and religiously, an important concretization of this feature of Miłosz’s imagination is the tendency to see his own situation as a dialectic of privilege and non-privilege (see Łapiński, “Miłosz „zaraz po wojnie,” p. 176). The former emerged in the “Miłosz case,” that is in the whole complexity of his situation after the decision to stay in exile in 1951. Joanna Pyszny thoroughly discusses the “case” in “„Sprawa Miłosza”, czyli poeta w czyśćcu,” in: Poznawanie Miłosza 2, part 1, pp. 53–81. A second aspect of the “Miłosz case” is the discussion on the poet’s place of burial. On this topic, see P. Czapliński, “Pogrzeb Założycielski,” in: P. Czapliński, Polska do wymiany. Późna nowoczesność i nasze wielkie narracje. Warsaw 2009, pp. 253–266.

38 A. Wat, Pisma zebrane, vol. 4: Korespondencja, part 2, ed. A. Kowalczykowa, Warsaw 2005, pp. 205–206.

39 See Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Léon-Dufour, trans. K. Romaniuk, Poznań 1990, p. 304. Miłosz turns his attention to the depravity of the mind, while the Polish translation of the Dictionary speaks of the spirit, the depravity of the spirit.

40 Tora Pardes Lauder, b. I: Bereszit, ed. Rabbi Sacha Pecaric. Trans. S. Pecaric and E. Gordon, Krakow 2001, p. 22.

41 Tora Pardes Lauder, p. 24.

42 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Cambridge 1995, p. 73.

43 Augustine of Hippo, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. 13: On Genesis, trans. E. Hill, New York 2002, p. 456.

44 Augustine of Hippo, The Works of Saint Augustine, p. 85.

45 In this tradition, the apple is a symbol of sensual temptation. For instance, in the apocryphal text of Adam’s Penance, before giving Eve the fruit, Satan “hides [in it] a ploy, that is, a desire for sins, depravity, adultery, greed.” See “Pokuta Adama,” trans. A. Tronina, in: Apokryfy Starego Testamentu, ed. Ryszard Rubinkiewicz, Warsaw 1999, p. 35.

46 S. Sawicki, “Metafizyczne – sakralne – religijne,” in: S. Sawicki, Wartość – sacrum – Norwid 2, p. 58.

47 We can find the evidence for Miłosz’s interest in this tradition in his references to the Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

48 See P. Nowaczyński, “Z historii i teorii badań nad literaturą religijną,” in: P. Nowaczyński, Studia z literatury XX wieku. Lublin, p. 76. The remark of Maria Jasińska-Wojtkowska on the typological and not classificational character of the term “religious poetry” may be rightly referred to the relation “literature and religion.” See M. Jasińska-Wojtkowska, “Uwagi o poezji religijnej,” in: M. Jasińska-Wojtkowska, Horyzonty literackiego sacrum. Lublin 2003, p. 40.

49 See S. Sawicki, “O sytuacji w metodologii badań literackich,” in: S. Sawicki Wartość – sacrum – Norwid. Lublin 1994, p. 45.

50 I reserve the capital letter in the spelling of this word to its uses which concern the archetypal meaning of this event and the associated quality of human existence.

51 Noteworthy here is the remark of Iwaszkiewicz, who visited Paris in the interwar years: “For us, and even for Germans and Russians, Romanticism is the peak of the literary era, it is the cradle from which all the subsequent currents were born, and which, for us, even cultivated in itself … seeds of realism …. For a Polish person, the adjective “romantic” is positive and means something full of splendor and poetry, even power.” J. Iwaszkiewicz, “Paryż,” in: Książka moich wspomnień. Krakow 1968, p. 248.

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She Was One of My Initiations

Number and Eros

For Miłosz, love between a man and a woman and the sphere of human Eros in general is the space in which the important truths about people come to the fore. In Treatise on Theology, the poet says:

While I wanted to believe in Adam and Eve, and in the Fall,

And in the hope of Restoration (Second Space, p. 52).

In a conversation with Renata Gorczyńska, Miłosz confesses:

Yes, for me the Fall and original sin are the key mysteries. … The problem of nakedness did not exist before. Now Adam is conscious that he is not Eve, and Eve is conscious that she is not Adam. Eyes that look and see. There’s no question here of any primitive interpretation of this as a punishment for sex. … What matters here is the consciousness, the realization of duality (Conversations, p. 296).

It is in the relationship between a man and a woman that the Fall occurs, not only in the case of the first parents but continuously. Its external manifestation is the attitude to the body, to nudity. This relationship reveals an aspect of the Fall, defined by Miłosz as the body surrendering to the power of the mass. A similar thought appears in the essay “Sex Provided:” “Beaches, swimming pools, concentration camps—that is, places where people voluntarily or by force surrender to the mass” (“Sex Provided,” in: Visions, p. 100).

Subjecting the human body to the power of the mass means depriving it of the dimension of human individuality. The objectified body quickly becomes, as Miłosz notes, an object of enslavement, as evidenced by the practice of totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, announced by the literary anti-utopias of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell:

It is a credit to the intuition of the authors of those books that they depict Eros acting as a subversive force, which is no secret to the authorities: sex is anti-erotic and not only poses no threat but effectively prevents the appearance of the passions, which draw persons, not bodies, together and engage them both as flesh and as spirit (“Sex Provided,” in: Visions, pp. 101–102).

“Anti-erotic” sex is possible in the relationship of bodies that are interchangeable objects, as they are one of many. Participation in anti-erotic sex convinces people of its objectivity and becomes a convenient tool in the hands of power, since it is connected with satisfying the second most basic instinct after hunger. ←37 | 38→Eros is a force that must appear to rulers as subversive. It awakens spirituality in people and, consequently, a sense of subjectivity, also opposition to the captivating power of the mass, thus a longing for freedom.

The motif of human bodies exposed to public view at a swimming pool and on a beach appears in the poem “They Will Place There Telescreens.” Here, too, these places provoke the thought of enslaving a human being, and even of one’s annihilation. When asked about the meaning of this poem, Miłosz explains: “Hell’s technology used to be that of cauldrons and tongs. But why couldn’t telescreens be used as a punishment?” (Conversations, p. 213).

It is because the poem is about Armageddon of men and women and about the fire that swallows clownish looking people:

And what if they march out, tinkling bells

at their ankles, if slowly they enter the flame

which has taken them as well as me (NCP, p. 199)?

This question is posed by someone looking at his life presented on eschatological screens. He clearly contrasts two attitudes. The first one appears in the confession:

I liked beaches, swimming pools, and clinics

for there they were the bone of my bone, the flesh of my flesh.

I pitied them and myself, but this will not protect me (NCP, p. 199).

The second attitude refers to the enumeration of certain life situations:

The word and the thought are over, a shifting of a glass,

an averting of one’s eyes, fingers unbuttoning a blouse, foolishness,

a cheating gesture, contemplation of clouds,

a convenient dispatch: only that (NCP, p. 199).

The ending of the enumeration – “only that” – refers to the previous “this will not protect me.” Belonging to the mass of bodies means little, mercy for the misery of humanity has no saving power. Only what determines one’s individuality can defend his or her subjectivity. This does not simply negate the value of the corporeal, but it opposes the power of the dehumanizing mass.

Speaking of the dehumanizing surrender to the mass, Miłosz indirectly refers to William Blake, about whom he writes: “Man can be a computer—to adopt our modern vocabulary – and atomize the world only at the expense of his own humanity” (Ulro, p. 174).

Whoever perceives the world in such a disintegrating way for Blake remains in Urizen’s power. He is “the god of reduction who reduces everything to quantitative terms” (Ulro, p. 171). In Oscar Milosz’s work, too, the number is an expression of a desire to break unity, an expression of nothingness: “The true ←38 | 39→name of the mathematic number should be Mea Culpa. For it beats its chest like penitents: I am the number, a great sign of that which is Nothing” (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 495).

In Oscar Milosz’s work, thought nihilism subject to the number results from submission to the idea of infinity, dangerous for its detachment from materiality. It is suggestively presented by the image of the number chained to a chariot of infinity with a billion wheels, rushing in search of a Place: an immobilization, a liberation from this tremendous rush. Infinity is an unvarying abstraction, a specter that makes one afraid of its indefiniteness, a terrifying nothingness. In existential experience, the fear of the annihilation of memory about people may echo the fear of infinity’s emptiness. It is so in Czesław Miłosz’s “Dithyramb:” “No memory is preserved about anything that would be ours for certain” (NCP, p. 209).

The enumeration of various situations, things, and phenomena lost in the abyss of oblivion ends with a note: “And love’s dominion, a live gold in blood, annihilates forever our empty name” (NCP, p. 209).Once again, the echo of Oscar Milosz’s thoughts resounds in Miłosz’s poetry: “This blood, this cosmos, the perpetrator of your body, its only perfect cause, it is the sum of manifesting energies. Still shining and smoking with the color of its sun, carrying a medicinal herb, it offers us an undoubtably clear image of the primal Unity” (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 491).

In texts of both Oscar Milosz and Czesław Miłosz appears the motif of gold in blood. Both in the former’s Ars Magna and the latter’s “Dithyramb,” blood is a medium of strength that seeks unity. Unlike in Ars Magna, this is not explicit in “Dithyramb”. Nevertheless, does not the love power, annihilating an empty name, prepare the space for a return to unity, primarily when it is understood as the attitude of the world full of affirmation. Miłosz himself speaks to Gorczyńska about the ending of “Dithyramb” that the world is great and remain such even when we cease to be (Podróżny świata, p. 183).

The recognition of the world’s magnificence, Dionysian in intensity, as the title indicates, is the path to the original unity. The destruction of this unity consists precisely in the rejection of the work of creation, in denying its value:

There is no graver flaw in this oeuvre of the hands of the God who said “Yes”

than this “No,” this death, a shadow cast by the will toward separate existence.

That rebellion is a manifestation of one’s proper “I” and is called desire,

concupiscentia, and was repeated by our first parents (Second Space, p. 55).

However, the “separate existence” – desired by the will of a fallen man – is not the same as the singularity of existence opposed to the power of the mass. The ←39 | 40→act of rebellion against reality also negates the shape of humanity: separate, but established on the relationship of unity with God and with another human being. Instead of this model of being a person, the fallen man designs an existence that is a caricature of God. He gives up singularity and usurps the right to unity. In the relationship between a man and a woman, it means replacing love with desire, which is the conquering of the other person. In Miłosz’s work, there are quite extreme situations in which desire becomes perverse hatred, as in the poem “Na ścięcie damy dworu” (On the Decapitation of a Lady-in-Waiting). The element of Eros gives way to the survival of the fittest. And it is fulfilled in the purely sexual sphere, devoid of Eros’s subtlety and ambiguity.

In the poem “One and Many,” the juxtaposition “number – singularity” gains a theological justification:

The Prince of This World governs number.

The singular is the hidden God’s dominion (NCP, p. 733).

These are important oppositions in Miłosz’s poetry: number – singularity, separation – unity. However, singularity must be understood in the context of the affirmation of existence, the recognition of creation’s value in its every manifestation, a submission to the action of a loving power – as in “Dithyramb” – which leads to the affirmation of existence. One God, “Particular, free from the general,” justifies the attitude of focusing on the singular and the attitude expressed in words:

Don’t be afraid of the empty millennia,

Of the snake pits rank with death,

Flesh teeming in the thicknesses of decay,

Nor the mist of distant galaxies (NCP, p. 733).

God’s “particularity” is a point of reference in defense against the abstraction of infinite numbers, against the fear that easily leads to nihilism, grounded in the conviction that the single always ultimately perishes absorbed by the infinite.

The problem of singularity concerns primarily the relationship between a man and a woman. In the above conversation with Gorczyńska, Miłosz speaks about the Fall, which results in the appearance of a sense of duality understood as human awareness of the fact that the unity between a man and a woman had been broken.

Miłosz’s inclusion of the relationship between a man and a woman in the oppositions: unity – separation, singularity – number; oppositions that also embrace God. This is a process that additionally, religiously, semanticizes this relationship. It is the Fall that marks the end of the unity of individuals and ←40 | 41→establishes the relationship of anonymous bodies alienation, subjected to the law of number, deprived of identity, competing for control over the other, seen only as an interchangeable part of the mass.

Here, too, Czesław Miłosz follows Oscar Milosz, who views the “elementary arcanum” in marriage (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 472). In The Land of Ulro, Miłosz reconstructs his views in this area in the following way:

The erotic nature of the relationship between a man and a woman allows man to grasp the meaning of the Fall and its function that shapes reality. The unity that establishes the marital relationship, metaphorically captured in the Book of Genesis as the creation of Eve’s body from Adam’s, is broken down in the act of the Fall. It is precisely the sense of the Fall – anti-erotic, connected to the rupture of the unity that is the domain of Eros – which consists of breaking down the primordial unity between Creator and creation, between God and man, and also between people.

Czesław Miłosz encountered the issue of Song of Songs while working on its translation into Polish. While reporting on it, he was very critical of the interpretation of this biblical book, which was directed toward the denial of its religious meaning, and so he states his struggle with its meaning: “It is about God’s love for Israel” (Podróżny świata, p. 281). In the introduction to the translation, Miłosz develops this thought:

I believe that Song of Songs touches upon the greatest mystery, which is the analogy between the erotic relationship of a man and a woman and one’s relationship with God. … Song of Songs bound these two loves into a single knot earlier than the Greek philosophy did, when applied to Eros the role of the initiating guide (Księgi biblijne, p. 386).

Therefore, the views of both Oscar Milosz and Czesław Miłosz about the meaning of Song of Songs are analogous. The latter’s above remark sounds very similar to what the former writes in “The Epistle to Storge” about the relationship between a man and a woman as the elementary arcanum.

In Czesław Miłosz’s work, Eros is a force whose activity crosses the boundaries of the relationship between a man and a woman. In one part of the long ←41 | 42→poem From the Rising of the Sun – the “Diary of a Naturalist” – this element is identified with admiration:

It was Eros who plaited garlands of fruit and flowers,

Who poured dense gold from a pitcher into sunrises and sunsets. …

Yes, only delight, Eros (NCP, pp. 282–283).

Although the explicitness of these words is questioned by the reflection that “That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?” in the finale of the poem, its last part “Bells in Winter” offers words that confirm the meaning of reality must be sought through admiration: “Perhaps only my reverence will save me” (NCP, p. 330).

The attitude of admiration, mentioned in the piece, is connected with Eros in two ways. First, it is an unconditional, full, emotionally engaged, even amorous affirmation of the world. Second, in Miłosz’s poetry, it is an integral part of the relationship between a man and a woman, a natural admiration of the two people in love, extending to all reality.

In Miłosz’s poem “After Paradise,” God speaks to the man and woman fleeing from paradise:

Don’t run anymore. Quiet. How softly it rains

On the roofs of the city. How perfect

All things are. Now, for the two of you

Waking up in a royal bed by a garret window.

For a man and a woman. For one plant divided

Into masculine and feminine which longed for each other.

Yes, this is my gift to you. Above ashes

On a bitter, bitter earth. Above the subterranean

Echo of clamorings and vows. So that now at dawn

You must be attentive: the tilt of a head,

A hand with a comb, two faces in a mirror

Are only forever once, even if unremembered,

So that you watch what is, though it fades away,

And are grateful every moment for your being.

Let that little park with greenish marble busts

In the pearl-gray light, under a summer drizzle,

Remain as it was when you opened the gate.

And the street of tall peeling porticoes

Which this love of yours suddenly transformed (NCP, p. 407).

Love “after paradise” makes sense by its incorporation into the affirmation of reality. An extension of Eros’s influence, from interpersonal relations to one’s relation to the world, turns out to be a gift from God. Thanks to this gift, the ←42 | 43→duality that results from the Fall becomes the space in which Eros can act: the power of unifying affirmation. In an introduction to the poetry book Kroniki (Chronicles), Miłosz describes Eros expressis verbis as the “opposite of detachment” (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 169), indicating how its expansion proceeds: “Love elixir imbues with prettiness and charm not only the face of the loved person, as its magic fills trees, clouds, houses, and street perspectives with fuller existence. … Eros … plays the role of a guide introducing into pure beaut” (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 169).

The above sound almost like a commentary to this fragment of “After Paradise,” which talks about love transforming the ugly street of tall peeling porticoes. It is not about a trivial statement that love blinds people and disallows to see the ugly, that whoever loves tends to see brighter sides of reality; instead, this fragment means that the power of Eros opens one’s eyes to the beauty of existence.

In the introduction to Kroniki, Miłosz repeats what he also indicates in The Land of Ulro and in the introduction to the translation of Song of Songs: Eros is a guide.2 In the biblical book, Eros introduces, above all, to the mystery of God’s love, and here – above all, to beauty. However, there is no sharp line between the two spheres of Eros’s activity in Miłosz’s poetry. It is notably not apparent in the poetic capture of the experience of the relationship between a man and a woman: in the poem “After Paradise,” people who love each other discover the beauty of the world’s existence, accept God’s gift, and by using the ability offered to them, they come closer to the mystery of unity, which is also His mystery. The problem of the division into masculinity and femininity is clearly highlighted in the poem: “masculine and feminine which longed for each other.” God responds to the longing for unity and creates the framework within which it can be realized with a “gift:” a world that is awe-inspiring but also marked by division. If human love introduces the love of God – according to the wisdom of the Song of Songs – then it means that unity is something that also characterizes God.

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In the element of Eros, Miłosz observes the primordial force that allows people to oppose number: a dark, equally primordial force that invalidates one’s value and all aspirations. The inclusion of a person in an anonymous mass makes a one lose meaning. Whoever succumbs to such a perspective becomes incapable of establishing a relationship with another person. One neither perceives oneself nor others in personal terms but only in numerical terms. Number is the element of separation, the enemy of unity. On the contrary, Eros awakens in people what is individual in them, sensitizing them to the uniqueness of an individual, to one’s beauty. Therefore, Eros is a force that creates a situation in which one wants unity with the one who awakens admiration.

Both elements are part of a reality tainted by the Fall. However, the power of number causes the division – resulting from original sin – to deepen, and one becomes increasingly alienated from the world. The power of Eros interacts with the desire for unity, individualizing human existence, rooting it in an attitude of the affirmation of reality. In Miłosz’s work, the number is the shadow of Eros, its reverse side, a reflection in a distorted mirror. In the relationship between a man and a woman, this means above all the victory of sex, about which Miłosz says that is anti-erotic, replacing love with sex, the advantage of desirin another as an object over an affirming desire.

By appreciating the individual element of humanity, without forgetting the weakness of its egotistical dimension, Miłosz turns out to be a religious thinker in dialog with the Christian tradition. It is characteristic for the Christian tradition to see in original sin an act destructive for the community. This act happens when the following are overaccentuated: individuality, singularity, uniqueness, and individualism. For example, Henri de Lubac evokes the opinion of Maximus the Confessor, who considered “original sin as a separation, a breaking up, an individualization it might be called, in the depreciatory sense of the word.” From the writings of Cyril of Alexandria, de Lubac extracts the explanation of the essence of the Fall which is: “Satan has broken us up.”3 Emphasis on the communal dimension of sin is not a Christian specialty, but something characteristic for the reflection on this act born within the community. In any case, the Jewish tradition just as strongly stresses that the unity of a man and a woman is realized only in their service to God. A man and a woman in reality are to be one body, as they were at the beginning of Creation, but this may happen only when they also become one mind, one heart, and they direct all their strength and striving ←44 | 45→toward serving God.4 Service to God clearly is directly connected here – in a universal sense, concerning every human being – with belonging to a religious community that adheres to specific principles of this service.

Robert Spaemann makes an interesting comment on this tendency to view the Fall from the perspective of the community, by saying that original sin is not a positive trait that every man inherits from his ancestors but a lack of a certain trait. This missing trait is to be belonging to the community of salvation.5 To position the moment of deprication of an important element of humanity in light of the Fall is a perspective close to that of Miłosz’s. At the same time, Miłosz is not so radical in the assessment of human individualism, namely because he acknowledges its indispensability in the creative process. These are not only artistic considerations that determine this but, above all, sensitivity to the phenomenon of existence and attachment to the concept of the renewal of everything, which saves, after all, what is unique, singular, and individual; even if this process is accompanied by a purification of what in individuality means an egotism that neglects reality.

According to Spaemann, the understanding of original sin as a deprivation of a vital characteristic allows us to defend the whole concept of this act against individualistic objections. Burdened with consequences of original sin is not the inheritance of something that excludes free decision, but it is a lack of participation in the community.6 Sin makes people an anonymous mass devoid of an important feature: the ability to establish a relationship that has salvific power. Using Miłosz’s poetic images, one could say about this situation of sin that it is a subjection to the power of number. On the other hand, the condition of salvation – according to Spaemann, achieved through participation in the community of salvation – would be for Miłosz to respect the fundamental right of Eros in a relationship between people: you and I are persons, not anonymous numbers.


Miłosz does not merely repeat the findings of Christian tradition. Focused on the individual, he refers to the community with moderate confidence, also as a witness of the twentieth-century history, which on several occasions formidably caricatured the sense of communal connections. The limits of this distrust are ←45 | 46→determined negatively by number – as an element gathering individuals in an anonymous mass – and positively by Eros as the force that shapes relationships of individuals.

Beautiful Lady

In the essay “On Catholicism,” Miłosz writes:

the eternal mother, forever grieving over her child’s suffering, the protectress, the intercessor; and thus, in the imagination, the dogma of the Trinity imperceptibly flows into another, unformulated dogma, the Trinity of the Father, Mother, and Son (“On Catholicism” in: Visions, p. 82).

The Trinity is discussed here as the affinity of three persons connected by a bond of love. The parental character of this love brings to mind Oscar Milosz’s idea of storge. The word storge means “love, tenderness, attachment, especially of parents to their offspring” (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 462).

In Ars Magna, Oscar Milosz confesses:

I will not deal … with the heavenly trinity, the great arcanum of space-time-matter captured no longer in movement but in immobility; these objects, just like Unity that encompasses them, are not accessible to our understanding. Only the omnipotence of Our Father and Hail Mary can span the power of our mediumic eye up to the flowerbeds of the joyous Garden (Przekłady poetyckie, pp. 493–494).

The whole work ends with a sentence thatreturns to these two prayers. It discusses gold, “over which no synthetic venture will rule without the help of Ave and Pater” (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 509). Alchemical terminology appears in Oscar Milosz’s poem (synthesis, retorts), with which the poetic image of gold is also associated. At the level of universal meanings, the work is about matter to which Ars Magna returns many times (see Przekłady poetyckie, p. 491): about the ability to grasp the unifying principle, in the act of affirmation of the whole reality. This is why Ave and Pater, Hail Mary and Our Father, are such critical help for someone looking for a quality defined in the poem as gold. For these two prayers open the prospect of the truth about God’s love for man and its correlation to what Oscar Milosz describes as the elementary arcanum: marital love; they open the prospect as far as they concern Father and Mother in their most fundamental understanding.

The thought of a trinity formed by Father, Mother, and Son, which appears in the Czesław Miłosz’s essay “On Catholicism,” clearly has much in common with the ideas of Oscar Milosz. Czesław Miłosz emphasizes the importance of the relationship between father and mother, man and woman, the parental bond that ←46 | 47→links them both and is directed at their son. After all, Miłosz knows Ars Magna well as its translator into both English and Polish. Even if he does not refer to it directly, he finds in Catholicism an intuition close to the mystical convictions of Oscar Milosz.

In a conversation with Ireneusz Kania about the legacy of Emanuel Swedenborg’s thought, Miłosz remarks that, “some things, completely troublesome to the mind, are very dangerous; this is what happened to the dogma of the Trinity. Because it is ungraspable [by the mind], the Trinity changed into three deities.”7

The understanding of the Trinity proposed in the essay ”On Catholicism – referred to as a reconstruction of folk Catholicism’s intuition – may be considered an attempt to illuminate the illegible dogma; although chronologically, the essay is prior to Miłosz’s discussion with Kania about Swedenborg. The essay introduces the mystery of the Trinity, the relationship of the unity of God present in three persons, based on a love similar to that of a man and a woman, of Father, Mother, and Son.8

The person who gains a particularly high rank in such a Trinity model is Mother. Miłosz’s poetry confirms that he appreciates the folk’s intuition about Mary’s uniqueness. A clear sign of this is the conclusion of Treatise on Theology, whose last part bears the title “Beautiful Lady,” in which the poet turns to Mary, defining her by this exact name: “Beautiful Lady, you who appeared to the children at Lourdes and Fatima” (Second Space, p. 64).

Reviewers of Treatise on Theology immediately drew attention to this somewhat surprising Marian characteristic of the poem. Some treat it as an expression ←47 | 48→of a desire to return to the zeal of childish and simple faith. Ireneusz Kania remarks shortly after the publication of the volume Second Space:

Indeed, it seems that the meaning of this prayer to Mary at the end of the Treatise on Theology should be sought in traditional Marian devotion. Miłosz respectfully reminds us of the revelations in Lourdes and Fatima that shape the religious imagination, from which this devotion arises. However, apart from treating the revelations seriously, does the prayer addressed to the Beautiful Lady have something else in common with this piety? After all, Miłosz is full of doubts here. He asks for a miracle, but at the same time, he feels inner resistance to treating the Virgin Mary as a pagan goddess, to whom the requests for the prosperity of the nation are addressed:

Lady, I asked you for a miracle, though at the same time I was acutely aware

That I come from a country where Your sanctuaries

to strengthen a national illusion and provide the refuge

of Your—a pagan goddess’s—protection against the invasion

of enemies.

My presence in such a place was disturbed

By my duty as a poet who should not flatter popular imaginings (Second Space, p. 64).

In an earlier poem than Treatise on Theology, “Do zespołu „Tygodnika Powszechnego” (To the Editorial Team of Universal Weekly), the same problem of the national character of the Polish Marian cult appears:

In your position, I would not overexaggerate its Catholicism

I do not deny it, [Plato’s Great Animal] loves the miraculous painting of the Queen of Heavens

But it changes her into a goddess, without brothers and sisters on earth,

Of unknown lineage, country, language (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 217).

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The confusion regarding Mary’s person raises Miłosz’s doubts, not least because it is, in his opinion, caused by the desire to keep her Jewish descent secret. Mary’s manifestation in Lourdes and Fatima has a less abstract essence for Miłosz, as evidenced by her naming as the Beautiful Lady. This title was given to her by the children participating in the revelations in both sites. However, this term is also connected with the message of the revelations, interpreted by the poet as referring to beauty:

What astonished these children was Your loveliness, unsayable.

As if you wished to remind them that beauty is one of the components

of the world (Second Space, p. 64).

The fact that Mary reveals herself in a material form is linked to her reminding us of the importance of beauty:

You had the body, not of an apparition, but of some immaterial matter

so that one could see the buttons of your dress (Second Space, p. 64).

In Treatise on Theology, whose beauty – Mary reminds us – is rooted in materiality. In this simplest manner we should understand the beauty that amazes children. It is also significant that from the authentic testimony of the Fatima revelations, which refers to various moral and even political issues, intentionally not mentioned by Miłosz, the poet chooses as particularly important the information that in the dress of the Beautiful Lady one could distinguish buttons.

Miłosz does not follow folk piety in his poetic approach to Marian revelations, but rather reinterprets them, emphasizing in them the problem of beauty. The image of Mary reminding about beauty is directly connected with the name, which Miłosz gives her in his Treatise on Theology: Beautiful Lady. It is not only a term derived from the accounts of children participating in Marian revelations. It appears in Miłosz’s work at least once again, in the commentary to Oscar Milosz’s poem “H,” to the passage in which Lemuel – the biblical King Solomon – says:

And I will walk straight to the tree, where the eternal spouse

Awaits in the fumes of fatherland (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 16).

Czesław Miłosz explains:

The term Beautiful Lady, which comes from the poetry of the troubadours from Provence referring to the Mother of God,10 and which Miłosz incorporated into a multi-element mental chain, combines Treatise on Theology with Sergei Bulgakov’s sophiological concept, which coincides with Oscar Milosz’s ideas. This Orthodox theologian writes that in Virgin Mary came to fruition the idea of the Wisdom of God in the creation of the world, as she is to be Wisdom itself, in which finds justification the Wisdom of God, hence the cult of Virgin Mary merges with the cult of the Wisdom of God. Virgin Mary joins heavenly and created Wisdom, the Holy Spirit lives in Her with the created human hypostasis. The goal of the creation of the world finds its end in Her, as She is the justification of the world, its goal and meaning, hence the glory of the world. Although, Bulgakov remarks that the nuances which characterize the cult of the Virgin in the West (the “belle dame”) are completely unknown to the spirit of Orthodoxy.11

The sophiological viewpoint, which makes God’s wisdom the center of understanding Mary’s figure, is familiar to Miłosz, and the term “Beautiful Lady” in Treatise on Theology appears not by accident.

In his foreword to the translation and in his numerous comments on the biblical Book of Wisdom (see Księgi biblijne, pp. 499–590), Miłosz testifies to his knowledge of the rich tradition of seeing Mary in the context of reflection on God’s Wisdom. In Bulgakov’s view, God’s Wisdom finds justification in Mary, because her person and life explain the idea of creating man free from the consequences of the Fall; that is, in the Christian tradition, from original sin. In Czesław Miłosz’s work, the poetic thought of Mariology runs close to Bulgakov’s ←50 | 51→approach to this problem. Finally, in the poem, Miłosz declares his faith in the Fall, and he finds the confirmation of “the hope of Restoration” in the person of the Beautiful Lady. The words of a fragment of Treatise on Theology can be referred to her:

We complain that the earth is hell’s antechamber: it might have been

hell complete, without beauty, without goodness, not a ray (Second Space, p. 54).

Beautiful Lady justifies the idea of creating the world by her own existence: she confirms that in reality marked by the consequences of the Fall there can be a ray of beauty and goodness, and by appearing to children in Lourdes and Fatima, in a dress in which buttons can be distinguished, she allows us to maintain hope that earthly beauty can be “restored,” capable of surviving the test of death.

In translator’s foreword to the Book of Wisdom, Miłosz quotes Simone Weil “The perfectly pure being (the Mother of God) is Creation as the sheer creative will of God” (Księgi biblijne, p. 518). This remark corresponds with the idea from Treatise on Theology that Mary is remarkably beautiful. Miłosz is more restrained in formulating theological judgments. However, he likewise refers to the tradition of seeing Mary as someone giving important witness to creation, which is not too distant from the old tradition of calling the Mother of Jesus the crown of creation. In Treatise on Theology, the basis of this subtle analogy between Mary and reality is beauty: Beautiful Lady reminds us that beauty is one of the components of the world.

The sophiological tradition of perceiving Mary is also present in Treatise on Theology through the evocation of Jakob Böhme’s concept. It speaks about the Mother in reality, “a zone without before or after” (Second Space, p. 56), about the eternal mother, in the sense that she is perceived by the sight of God seeing archetypes. Ideologically, it is not far from here to the poetic images appearing in works of both Oscar Milosz and Czesław Miłosz: the former writing about epouse eternelle and the latter mentioning “the eternal mother” in the above essay ”On Catholicism.”

Böhme appears in Treatise on Theology in relation to Mickiewicz’s “Hymn na dzień Zwiastowania N. P. Maryi” (Hymn for the Day of the Annunciation of the Holy Lady Mary):12

An astonishing “Hymn for the Annunciation of the Holy Lady Mary,”

was written by the young anti-clerical Mickiewicz a short time before

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his Freemasonic hymn known as “Ode to Youth.” He glorified Mary

in the words of the prophet, i.e., Jakob Boehme.

Miłosz evokes the title of the poem from memory, although inaccurately, which can be treated as a sign of attachment to Mickiewicz’s text. In Treatise on Theology, Miłosz gives it more attention than, for example, Kleiner13 and Borowy,14 who consider the poem more as a veiled praise of the unhappily loved Maryla than a theologically important and exceptional poem. Miłosz notes a worthwhile Mariological thought in Mickiewicz’s poem. By interpreting the prophet from “Hymn” as Jakob Böhme, Miłosz raises the theological significance of this text by the young Mickiewicz.

For Mickiewicz, Mary is the form of God’s glory: “Your temples above the heavens, / Your wreath burns with stars / At Jehova’s right hand.” Moreover, Mary appears to be here a “Heavenly Lady” to whom God proclaims the birth of the Son of God: “– And who is rising there? – this rises a virgin on Zion. / Like morning from a sea bath / And matins – are Mary’s cheeks … / Jehovah looked at her and find liking in her; / Heaven’s mirrors broke, / A white dove fell / And over Zion equally holds both her wings, / And with a rainbow of silver plumage / She will crown the temples of the Heavenly Lady / Thunder, lightning! / Happen, it happened: / A virgin mother, / A god body!” Mickiewicz writes about this mystery in his essay on Böhme’s thought in the following way:

the position of the fallen man triggered a new creative act, a new manifestation of divine mercy; the ray, which had never come into contact with the material world, came out of the light center, pierced the dark shells keeping man locked, and penetrated his soul; the ray brought in the new warmth, embryos of a new power, the hope of forgiveness, of returning to God. The ray did not cease to enlighten the souls of mankind’s first chosen people; it created a long-lasting clean atmosphere in the souls; it brought to life in them what Böhme calls the one and only element, the ether, the tincture, the paradise element, paradise. When this element reached the content intended by God, it formed the substance from which God created a new woman, the woman of paradise, the only true woman, destined to become the mother of the Being of Light and of the God’s Word: Mary, the Mother of God. Her unique creation placed her body above the attacks of evil; however, as a spirit, she had to make efforts to keep herself at the height of her destiny; she could have fallen, but she remained faithful to her law and thus became a unique being, the hub of the Word of God. After the time intended by God, when the people of Israel, led exceptionally by the spirit of the earth under commands of God ←52 | 53→the Father, had reached through their gifts the highest degree of spirituality on earth, the pious woman served as the environment where the woman of God could be born.15

The term “Heavenly Lady” in “Hymn” for the description of Virgin Mary is very similar to the way this character is described in Mickiewicz’s essay on Böhme. “Heavenly Lady,” “spiritual” Mary accepts the body of a woman to become the Mother of the Son of God at the time appointed by God. Is this not a poetic description of what could be described as the birth of heavenly Mary for earth? Is the metaphor of the morning and matins, evoking the situation of birth, only a stylistic device from the repertoire of Marian poetry or a stylistic device from a serious, profound poetic Mariology, similar to the thought of the “prophet”?

Understandably, Miłosz describes “Hymn” as “astonishing.” If one interprets it, as Miłosz does, in the context of Böhme’s thoughts, it deserves such a term. It is justified by the originality of the Mariological idea that appears in it. In the context of the findings of Mickiewiczology,16 Miłosz’s interpretation of “Hymn” appears to be bold.17 Without deciding whether Miłosz is right in his interpretation of the figure of the prophet from “Hymn,” we should note that his proposal to understand Mickiewicz’s vision of Mary is consistent with his own poetic interpretation of this figure. For Böhme and Mickiewicz, Virgin Mary is an “exceptional being,” a ray of God’s light that assumed a bodily form. It is not far from here to the sophiological concept of God’s Wisdom “incarnated” in Virgin Mary.

The recollection of Mickiewicz’s approach to the figure of the Virgin Mary is also confirmed in Miłosz’s poem “Do zespołu „Tygodnika Powszechnego.” ←53 | 54→Miłosz invokes in it “Słowa Najświętszej Panny” (Words of the Most Holy Lady) by Adam Mickiewicz:

1. The memory o my people fastened my heart with twelve flaming tapes, and I felt the twelve knots always present in my heart for the memory of my people.

2. I lived Israel and in Israel whole, as spouse with her spouse (Wiersze, Vol. 4 pp. 217–218).

Miłosz’s emphasis, following Mickiewicz, on the Jewish ancestry of Mary is in line with the emphasis in Treatise on Theology that the Beautiful Lady has “the body not of an apparition, but of some immaterial matter” (Second Space, p. 64). In both poems, there is a clear aspiration to define Mary’s figure, to make her more concrete. This poetic gesture contributes to the image of Virgin Mary the protector and the advocate, as Miłosz describes her in his essay ”On Catholicism,” a person interested in the precise nature of human life, whether it is the fate of the Jewish people or the beauty of creation.

Miłosz speaks about Mary’s protectiveness, and in Mickiewicz’s context, in a very personal way in his poem From the Rising of the Sun. An event from the poet’s childhood repeats Mickiewicz’s experiences. This poetic memory is also a reference to the famous motif from Pan Tadeusz:

And she, who offered me to Our Lady of Ostrabrama,

How and why was she granted what she asked for in her prayer? (NCP, p. 312).

In the conversation with Gorczyńska, Miłosz explains:

I came down with diphtheria when I was a little boy, and it was then that my mother offered me to Our Lady of Ostrabrama – Our Lady of Wilno. Exactly as in Pan Tadeusz. It really happened. I didn’t invent it to add an interesting detail to my life story (Conversations, p. 243).

The motif of a miraculous healing appears in the sixth sequence of the fourth part of the poem From the Rising of the Sun: “Over Cities.” Its central theme is the sense of loss of uniqueness. “O what happened and when to principium individuationis?” (NCP, p. 312) – asks the person who speaks in the poem, someone experiencing a mild existential unfulfillment. “Have I fulfilled anything, have I been of use to anyone?” (NCP, p. 312).

The understanding of Mary’s protectiveness in the context of her compassionate relationship with man, with creation, in the context of her status as a person in which human failures, hopes and desires are fulfilled is repeated in Miłosz’s poetry. In the poem “Old Women,” someone moved by the fate and existential situation of elderly women says:

←54 |

He who has been suffering for ages rescues

Ephemeral moths, tired-winged butterflies in the cold,

Genetrixes with the closed scars of their wombs,

And carries them up to His human Theotokos,

So that the ridicule and pain change into majesty

And thus it is fulfilled, late, without charms and colors,

Our imperfect, earthly love (NCP, p. 464).

Theotokos, Mother of the Lord, is discussed here as one who participates in the completion of human life, marked by suffering and feeling of harm. Her participation in the experience of women – as they are discussed here, their ridiculousness and pain are to be turned into dignity – has an obvious connection with her femininity and motherhood. Perhaps in the person of Mary, Miłosz finds an answer to a woman’s tragedy that particularly moves him: “This is the drama of women’s relationship with time and earth, women who last as long as their beauty. I feel that very keenly” (Conversations, p. 197).

Imperfect earthly love, marked by a mortal ephemeral character such as that characteristic of a one-day’s mayfly, some fundamental unfulfillment manifested in the experience of infidelity on the part of beloved children (“Our Mothers to whom we have never repaid,” NCP, p. 464), is complemented in Mary, regaining its value in the eschatological perspective. She is evoked by verses that refer to the suffering of her Son, who, for centuries, has been entrusting to his Theotokos everything that suffers.18

Moreover, the reflection on human unfulfillment and existential poverty finds important place in Treatise on Theology:

Under their ugliness, which is the stigma of their practical preoccupations,

they are pure and when they sing, a vein of ecstasy pulsates in their throats.

Most intensely before a statue of Holy Mary (Second Space, p. 63).

The note on ugliness is closely linked to the emphasis on the beauty of Mary in the last part of Treatise on Theology. Prayer in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary becomes a foreshadowing of the message of Marian revelations (“beauty is / one of the components of the world”), but also a promise of the manifestation of pure beauty hidden in man.

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In the poem “Rozmowy na Wielkanoc 1620 roku” (Conversations on Easter 1620), a Lithuanian nobleman with Calvinist past prays on his deathbed:

I am unworthy and the humble part

Of Small, the poor, I couldn’t respect

I protect myself under the virgin majesty,

Because I wanted more than I understood.

My lip calls Mother Mary.

Let Her cover me with Her stars (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 285).

Virgin Mary’s help is summoned here by someone referring to the image of the “escape of sinners” rooted in traditional Polish Catholicism. Miłosz himself speaks about it in conversation with Gorczyńska: “In this poem, a nobleman … is converted and later escapes to the Virgin Mary. Very characteristic of a Pole” (Podróżny świata, p. 168).

However, at the same time, this way of perceiving Virgin Mary makes this poem similar to Treatise on Theology and to “Old Women:” in both works she is invoked as a counterpoint to human unfulfillment. The nobleman confesses that he wanted more than he understood, and immediately afterward, he turns to Mary as if she was the one who could remedy his concern. His helpless uncertainty relates to eternal life: “Neither do I believe in an immortal soul, / nor do I wait for a reward for merit” (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 283). Escape under Mary’s protectiveness is also associated with eschatology, and is accompanied by a belief supported by faith:

According to his will I will receive my dress,

Not the ugly, long forgotten body (Wiersze, Vol., 2, p. 286).

Miłosz explains to Gorczyńska that the image of the rising from the grave not in one’s own body is “a very Old Testament eschatological vision” (Podróżny świata, p. 168). One can guess that the poet refers here to such biblical images as the one from the prophet Ezekiel: a valley of dried bones, which under the breath of the Spirit of God cling to the body.19 Biblical scholars interpret them as a sign of an eschatological renewal.20 In the poem itself, the situation of renewal is evoked. The nobleman speaks of himself:

I will run like as a child to the garden in light

In the morning, after a night of heavy rains (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 286).

←56 | 57→

A child running into the garden at the dawn of a new day is a clear picture of eschatological renewal. The relationship between the Old Testament vision, as Miłosz himself describes it, and the idea of apokatastasis,21 restoration, which appears in his poetry, is clear. In Oscar Milosz’s poem “Nihumim,” such a picture of the Holy Mother appears:

Oh Mother, Mother! With beautiful slender shoulder of a spring water carrier

And a servant face woken before the dusk.

What wisdom and knowledge in your hands!

Let the dove fly up from them, whenever I look at the flame sparkling from them (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 512).

What draws attention here is the emphasis on the co-existence in the person of the Mother of wisdom and beauty. Both of these features are also present in the image of the Beautiful Lady from the Treatise on Theology. Not only because the revelations in Lourdes and Fatima show her as coming to announce to people the will, and one could say wisdom, of God, but also because Mary herself appears to the poet as someone who realizes a mysterious, “unacknowledged” idea. Many years before the publication of the Treatise on Theology, in a fragment from Unattainable Earth, Miłosz evoked this mysterious motivation of Marian revelations: “A miracle according to Simone Weil: not a violation of laws, but compliance with laws that are unknown to us. With the same line of thought, I believe that Our Lady appeared in Lourdes and Fatima (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 115).” Therefore, the inability to indicate the intentions of Mary’s appearance to people would be a matter of order not only of faith but also of reason, ignorance of the laws (of nature, or perhaps of spirit), according to which miracles are performed.

The unattainability22 to show Beautiful Lady’s intentions for appearing to people is a sign of her wisdom in Treatise on Theology. A similar lyrical situation ←57 | 58→is created by Miłosz in the second part of the poem From the Rising of the Sun, in the “Diary of a Naturalist.” The pilgrim, who wanders to the Marian sanctuary of Roc Amadour, is confronted with the goal of his journey:

a wooden Madonna with a child in a crown,

Surrounded by a throng of impassive art lovers.

As I did. Not a step further. Mountains and valleys

Crossed. Through flames. Wide waters. And unfaithful memory.

The same passion but I hear no call.

And the holy had its abode only in denial (NCP, p. 290).

The sanctity of the place and the mystery symbolized by the wooden figure escapes simple interpretation and does not confirm the pilgrim’s calculation. It is not only because the end of the “Diary of a Naturalist” concerns “the poet’s existential situation,”23 not only because of the weakness of the one who seeks, but also because of the nature of the mystery. For the Virgin Mary reveals wisdom that does not confirm the poet’s calculation. A confession precedes the description of the pilgrimage to Roc Amadour:

I try to describe concisely what I experienced when instead of choosing the

profession of a traveler-naturalist I turned toward other goals (NCP, p. 289).

The wisdom of Roc Amadour conflicts with the attitude of distance to reality. Hence the one who makes the pilgrimage, speaks of himself:

Neither the view will stop us, nor the kingfisher

Stitching together the two banks with the bright thread of its

flight (NCP, p. 290).

The protagonist is a wanderer, who assumes that the wisdom of the place he is heading to does not match the affirmation of the world, and is surprised at the end of his pilgrimage.

For the wisdom of the Mother is the wisdom of returning to the beginning. In “Diary of a Naturalist,” it is a return to the first fascination with reality, after experiences purifying the admiration from naivety. The fact that the pilgrim’s ←58 | 59→surprise is lined with an intuitive premonition that he is making a mistake by radically rejecting his original passion is confirmed by the conjecture formulated in the last part of the poem: “Perhaps only my reverence will save me” (NCP, p. 330).

In the twelfth part of Treatise on Theology, entitled “And So Eve,” Miłosz contrasts the biblical Eve with “Eve the second,” the Mother of God. The first is “the delegate of Nature.” It was Eve’s relationship with Nature that made the promise of love “no different from the promise of death” (Second Space, p. 56). In turn, Eve the second “received and assented to an appeal to become / the Mother of God.” Treatise on Theology does not complete this motif, but the juxtaposition of the two characters suggests that another Eve frees love from the law of death, from being subordinated to Nature. Liberation from Nature, from the law of death that governs it, is connected here with the Mother of God. A similar thought is contained in the “Diary of a Naturalist:” the rejection of Nature’s cruelty leads there, after all, to Roc Amadour, a place connected with the Mother of God. Apparently, the pilgrim does not find the expected solace in the sanctuary, but he also does not suffer from defeat, some truth is revealed to him, some counterbalance for Nature: “And the holy had its abode only in denial” (NCP, p. 290). The holy turns out to be connected with mystery, with the wisdom of unacknowledged intentions, contrary to expectations.

In “Nihumim,” Mother has the beautiful face of a servant awakened before matins. This poetic depiction connected to matins, which evokes a beginning and defines the spiritual attitude of the Mother’s humility and simplicity, is not accidental. Its consequence is the observation: “To speak to you and to be understood, Mother, one has to become a child again” (Przekłady poetyckie, p. 513). The nobleman from “Rozmowy na Wielkanoc 1620 roku,” seeking wisdom from Mary, discovers that his destiny is to return to the garden, the return of a child running in the light of “early morning after a stormy night.” In the poem “Old Women,” the child’s deformed love for his Mother is complemented by that of the son and Theotokos. In Treatise on Theology, the affirmation of reality turns out to be the attitude of a child.

In the poem “A Hall,” these poetic images evoke a feeling of safety characteristic for childhood. In this poetic account of a dream, a pilgrim arriving at the Notre Dame Cathedral is taken to its side nave, a vast hall:

The statues and the Marian dedication of Notre Dame are signs that women patronize the place where the pilgrim was. When he is in a place filled with warm light and having its rhythm determined by the figures of women, the pilgrim feels like being inside a giant flower. The comparison of the cathedral to the flower also suggests a connection between the atmosphere of this place and femininity. The poetic image of the inside of the flower evokes a sense of safety and inner peace. It speaks directly of a sense of freedom from worries, remorse, and fear. It is not difficult to associate this sense of inner peace, with which the dreaming man awakens, with the feeling of safety experienced by a child in the presence of his mother.24 The inner release means a new beginning in the dream. The negative values of life balance are invalidated. The meaning of floral symbolism also includes the potential for fruitfulness, novelty of life.

The pilgrim’s state of mind is seen by the person who reports the dream – heterogeneous, syncretic in terms of the cultural traditions from which the oneiric images that make up the dream come – as an anticipation of what awaits man when he crosses the last threshold. The reconstruction of this state is in harmony with the eschatological intuitions from other poems by Miłosz. Freedom from anxiety, freedom under the patronage of the Lady and other ladies from the cathedral, is similar to the childish freedom that the nobleman expects in the poem “Rozmowy na Wielkanoc 1620 roku,” linking his hope for future liberation from anxiety with the person of Mary.

In the poem “Our Lady of Recovery” from the cycle From the Chronicles of the Town of Pornic, it is the Mother of God who is the addressee of a prayer for the gift of a new beginning. The granite shrine with Our Lady of Recovery in Breton Pornic is a sign of hope for the inhabitants of the town, for fishermen and their ←60 | 61→loved ones, struggling with the element of the ocean. The poem quotes the words of the prayer:

O Holy Mother, save me, my life is so sinful.

Return me to the dear earth, allow me another day.

O Holy Mother, I am not deserving but I will begin anew,

You didn’t live far away because You are near me (NCP, p. 174).

It is an attempt at a poetic reconstruction of the prayer of someone in a life-threatening condition, perhaps someone fighting for life with the element of the ocean. However, these words also have a more universal meaning. It is primarily because of the meaning attributed to the ocean:

Indeed, the ocean shows us what we really are:

Children who for a moment feign the wisdom of captains (NCP, p. 174).

The “we” appearing here has quite a wide range of meanings, certainly including whoever speaks in the poem. This assumption is all the more justified because in the last poem of the cycle, “Pornic,” the person speaking in it participates in the prayer brought to the Madonna during the mass in the town:

At a mass a girl like Sibyl

Flips the pages of a book at the lectern,

Letters are as big as two hands.

It’s a hymn to Madone de Recouvrance

(Qu’ell protége ce doux coin de la France).

I asked God, to do with me what He wishes,

I told Him I’m grateful,

Even for sleepless nights, when waters

And my conscience roar (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 308).

In the church, a song to the Madonna of Recovery is sung, which contains a request to take care of this sweet corner of France. It is an extension of that prayer uttered in proximity of death. It repeats the request to preserve the beauty of the land.

The motif of the ocean also links both poems. The participant of the mass, like the man from the poem “Our Lady of Recovery,” defines his existential situation in relation to the sea element. The immensity of the ocean allows him to see himself in the accurate proportions, to appreciate the beauty of the world offered to him. In the first poem, the admiration for the beauty of the world is explicit. In the second, it appears in the French quotation from a Marian song and indirectly at the end of the poem, in the confession of gratitude. To Gorczyńska’s remark that in the poetic image of contemporary Pornic, the town appears to be dwarfish, devoid of size, Miłosz answers:

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It’s not negative for me, I’m not using putting any value on anything, it is just a realistic description, just as I felt. This town looked like this, and that’s what I thought, very real. Thoughts to God to do whatever he wants with me (Podróżny świata, p. 170).

The echo of Miłosz’s confession can be heard in the poem. The point is that even if the town is dwarfish, if “the port smells of cloaca,” there is still something in this small world of the fragment of Brittany that deserves gratitude and admiration. After all, it is so easy to lose it all. We are all children exposed to the waves of the ocean.

It is specifically the Mother of God who teaches that the beauty of the world deserves to be saved. It is how her wisdom is expressed. It is not a coincidence that the poem “Pornic” features an image of a girl compared to Sibyl, who symbolizes wisdom. A little girl in a very ordinary town, devoid of splendor, sings a song about this sweet corner of France with deep conviction and passionate commitment. One could say, paraphrasing the end of “A Song on the End of the World,” that the girl knows: there will be no other beauty of the world.

The context of Miłosz’s already mentioned poems, in which the figure of Virgin Mary appears, makes it possible to add that if Mary is the patron of recovery in an earthly perspective, then she is also the patron of the ultimate salvation, the hope of such salvation. The attitude of relying on God, of allowing him to do with human life whatever he wants, about which Miłosz speaks in conversation with Gorczyńska, is, in fact, identical to the sincere gratitude for the whole world and his own life expressed at the end of the poem “Pornic.” Madonna smiles with acceptance for ordinary life (“they drank, grew boisterous, their women conceived. / Her smile meant that it was all according to her will,” NCP, p. 174) and confirms the legitimacy of an attitude of gratitude, trust, and their natural consequence: a hope for salvation.

However, there is no simple optimism in the attitude mentioned in “Our Lady of Recovery” and in “Pornic.” Concerning these poems, the observation from the cycle The World remains valid: hope is not something constant, but only “happens.” Such is the character of the state of mind of a participant of a mass in Pornic, not permanent, singular, connected with the moment. The sight of the girl, her faith, her singing devoted to the Madonna of Recovery: all of it creates an atmosphere favorable for the appearance of a flash of gratitude and trust.

The significance of the figure of the Madonna of Recovery goes beyond the framework of the lyrical situation of the poetic cycle From the Chronicles of the Town of Pornic. It is defined both spatially and geographically, giving “recovery” a sense that allows itself to be reconstructed quite precisely. The poem is, first of all, about salvation from the oceanic element, whose whims the inhabitants ←62 | 63→of Pornic are regularly exposed to. However, at the same time the juxtaposition of “Madonna – the ocean” has also a more universal meaning, complementary to other oppositions significant for Miłosz: singularity – number, separation – unity. For in the poem the ocean is the element that invalidates man. The danger lurking in the sea’s depths could be compared to the horror of Miłosz’s number. In the poem “Our Lady of Recovery,” there appears a reflection on a sinking ship seen from bird’s eye perspective: “A rust-colored sail dragged in the furrow of a wave / Looks like algae, the faces of the drowning / Are not those of husbands and lovers” (NCP, p. 174). A face becoming an alga – a particular person brought down to a part of an inconceivable mass. It is not difficult to see the coincidence of this poetic image with Miłosz’s reflections on the dehumanizing power of number.

Therefore, Madonna saves not only from physical death in the turmoils of the element. She is also the salvation from the nothingness of the perspective depersonalizing human existence, from living in the shadow of death and nothingness, the world bitter from despondence. Is it not why the request for salvation is connected with seeing a brighter side of life: “Return me to the dear earth” (NCP, p. 174)? In a sudden flash, the dying man sees the extent of his loss.

At the same time, in salvation, there is also a particular aspect of the objection to separation, which means alienation. Not without the irony of the exaggeration in claiming “And humanity is then a beloved family” (NCP, p. 174). Miłosz reconstructs the need for this objection, growing enormous in a life-threatening situation. At this liminal point, intuition suggests that human life is worth saving also because of what is communal in it, that salvation is the purpose of life: whoever asks to be saved thinks not only about himself but also about the community to which he belongs.

The intuition that salvation is a return guides a survivor begging for help. He wants to be saved, that is, to return to land; then, he is genuinely convinced that the world is beautiful and people worthy of the highest respect. Is this assessment of the world and people only temporary and relative, motivated by instinctive objection toward death? Not necessarily. The experience of the salvation of a directly threatened life transforms a person, reevaluates his view of reality, purifies it, restoring its original clarity, freedom from the power of number. Therefore, salvation with the help of Madonna is a return, which is accompanied by a transformation, above all, of the perception of the world and people. In this sense, wisdom is the direct effect of salvation.


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The function of Marian motives in Miłosz’s poetry explains their presence: to broaden the boundaries of imagination dominated by the world affected by the Fall.


In the poem “In Szetejnie,” the poetic idea of a return to the state of childhood, a return which is at the same time the completion of one’s whole life, is extrapolated from the memory of one’s family home and one’s mother. The geographical specification of the places of childhood allows us to presume the identity of the person speaking in the poem with Miłosz himself, in whose biography Szetejnie occupies a vital place. The memory evokes specific events related to the mother: learning to write letters in an arbor, a ride in one-horse carriage, a conversation between the mother and women “about the colors of the warp and the woof.”

At the end of the poem, the memories lead to a more universal poetic reflection. This transition from the concrete of memories to the universe of reflection is marked here. The border between them is marked by the last memory of the concrete:

Garlands of oak leaves, the ave-bell calling for the May service, I wanted

to be good and not to walk among the sinners.

But now when I try to remember how it was, there is only a pit, and

it’s so dark, I cannot understand a thing.

All we know is that sin exists and punishment exists, whatever

philosophers would like us to believe.

If only my work were of use to people and of more weight than is my


You alone, wise and just, would know how to calm me, explaining that

I did as much as I could.

That the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is finished

is finished (NCP, p. 642).

The memory evokes the last image of childhood: the ave-bell hidden in the furcation of a linden tree calling for the May service. The relationship of this image with the Virgin Mary is an excellent manifestation of the nature of the final reflections in the poem. They relate to the matters which in Miłosz’s mind appear in the mental context of the figure of Virgin Mary: sin, punishment, the meaning of life, its fullness.

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The subtle, but definite change in the character of the poem, following the memory of the May services in Szetejnie, makes us hear in the last address to his mother “You alone, wise and just” the voice of someone who sees a clear connection and resemblance between his own mother and the Mother worshiped during May services. The addressee of the words from the end of the poem can be attributed extraordinary competences precisely because of this similarity. The poetic imagination stimulated by the obliterated memory creates a new, unusual image of the mother. It was created by someone thinking about the end of one’s life.

In the poem, there is no simple statement about the consolation given by the mother, but there is a definite turn to her with hope. In the darkness of oblivion and misunderstanding of one’s life, in fear of sin and its consequences, in the darkness of feeling that one has not fulfilled one’s duties, there is light: mother could bring peace and serenity.

The whole third and final part of the poem “In Szetejnie” begins with a remark:

I ran out in a summer dawn into the voices of the birds, and I returned,

but between the two moments I created my work (NCP, p. 641).

At the end of life, there is a return to its beginnings. It is not about some psychological mechanism of experiencing old age, about regret for lost childhood. It is a return in search of consolation. Memory and thought turn to the mother, who is a sign of hope. Her wisdom and justice are manifested in the ability to maintain the right proportions in the evaluation of life, so as not to expect too much from a person, what would exceed his abilities. Following the poem “Old Women,” one can add that the framework of these possibilities is determined by women’s experience of their own powerlessness or failure to fulfill in love with their children. It is about the wisdom and justice of someone who recognizes the consequences of the Fall, but also their nonfinal character. The boundary of the consequences of the Fall in a human being is determined by the refusal to completely blight one’s own life,25 to allow the possibility that “I did as much as I could” (NCP, p. 642).

Miłosz contrasted childish desire to be a good person not with his moral imperfection, but with the darkness of oblivion, which prevents him from ←65 | 66→understanding himself. This darkness enlaces moral choices, unworthy of child’s promises, inevitably provoking a conclusion about the relativity of guilt. The fact that it is also a question of the moral evaluation of deeds is demonstrated by the sequence of the poem, which emphasizes the certainty of the legitimacy of sin and punishment. Criticizing the view which he reconstructs in one of his interviews – noting that “at least since the Enlightenment our whole civilization has been an enemy to the notions of original sin and corruption”26 – Miłosz defends himself against the darkness that relativizes the value of human actions. It is precisely this fear of darkness that is the basic reference point for the formulated declaration. It is not self-accusation. Miłosz reminds us of the elementary truth about sin and punishment in order to find a certain point in the dark past of the chaos of incomprehensible events. Sin and punishment are undeniable, but it is not the recognition of the truth about them that is the source of concern. The speaker in the poem does not appear to be very sensitive to his sinfulness, striving for moral perfection.

Above all, the desire of the poet, who returns to his homeland after many years and tries to synthesize his whole life, is to achieve inner peace. It is not the impossible moral perfection that is at stake here, or strict fidelity to a child’s vow, but rather the wise acceptance of the world and oneself, the forgiveness of oneself, and the world of imperfections. A dangerous alternative to such an attitude is the torment of a bitter feeling of one’s worthlessness, extending to the whole reality, intellectual and mental plunge into the consequences of the Fall.

There is a distinct heroic trait in the mother figure in this poem. She is struggling with the important adversity of life: with its stigma of the fatality of unfulfillment, fiasco, an ultimate Fall. A similar trait can be found in the figure of the mother from the cycle The World. It is the most clearly presented in the poem “The Stairs:”

Mother carries down a flickering light.

She walks slowly, tall, her robe tied at the waist,

Her shadow climbs up to the shadow of the boar.

And so she struggles, alone, with the cruel beast (NCP, p. 40).

All of this is seen by her children, looking at their mother going down the stairs, over which a hunting trophy hangs. However, her struggles with the dangerous animal are apparently more than just a product of childish imagination.

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The whole cycle is a record of the process of initiation into the world.27 The characters of children are used to build this initiation. Thanks to them, it becomes clear that the relationship child – parents introduces into the mystery of the world, that there is a fundamental universality of human life in it. It gains additional clarity in the context of such works as “In Szetejnie,” “Old Women,” or “Rozmowy na Wielkanoc 1620 roku.”

Both contexts, of the cycle The world and the poems mentioned above, allow us to see in mother’s struggle with the dangerous animal in the poem “The Stairs,” another Miłosz’s vision of mother’s heroism. It is a heroism similar to that of memories from Szetejnie. Here, after all, the mother herself brings light, which allows us to look at the way down the stairs in a different way. The dangerous animal finds an equal enemy in her. Cannot this terrifying shadow be compared to the darkness of the poem “In Szetejnie?” After all, in both cases it is the darkness that prevents us from taking the next step, and in both cases it is the mother who disperses the darkness. And cannot the way down the stairs be an image of the way through life? Extremely narrow stairs are mentioned, which are not easy to climb: “The curved steps are narrow. Near the wall / You can place your shoe crosswise / But near the bannister they hardly hold your foot” (NCP, p. 40).

Such an interpretation of “The Stairs” would also be confirmed by the immediate vicinity in the cycle of the poem “Pictures.” In the illustrations, probably from the Iliad, children see images of death, on which is superimposed the real death of a moth falling on a page of the book: “The book is open. A moth with its shaky flight / Flits over a chariot that speeds through the dust. / Touched, it falls down pouring a golden spray / On a Greek army storming a city” (NCP, p. 41). It is hard not to notice, at the level of meanings connected with the initiative character of the cycle, the connection between a dangerous shadow and death.

The role of mother is unique in The World. Her character appears only in a few works of the cycle, but if one treats the poem “By the Peonies” as an introduction to the following poems about faith, hope, and love, her role appears to be greater than it would appear from a simple calculus of the frequency of this motif.

The last stanza of the poem “By the Peonies” sounds like an announcement of mother’s teachings addressed to children:

Then lets the flower go. And what she thinks

She repeats aloud to the children and herself.

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The wind sways the green leaves gently

And speckles of light flick across their faces (NCP, p. 47).

The following poems – “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love” – can be treated as a record of the words of a mother28 who first “stands by the peony bed, / Reaches for one bloom, opens its petals,” and then turns to the children. The gesture that accompanies her words of opening the flower petals fits well with her reflections. Faith, hope and love are realized, according to mother’s words, in an attitude of affirmation of the world, in recognition of its soundness and purposefulness, not only in a universal dimension, but also personal.

The one who believes, according to the mother, is the one who perceives the things around him as necessary, even when they cause pain and suffering. The apophthegmatic ending “What has no shadow has no strength to live” refers precisely to this fundamental truth about the soundness of the world. The children have also learned that even the mother casts a shadow. Moreover, if she were deprived of it, she could not face the threatening shadow of the boar on the stairs. The dark side of human existence is an important part of existence. Although it is the dark side that makes faith most difficult, at the same time without it man would remain powerless, probably also in a sense resulting from the poem “The Stairs:” equipping man with a shadow protects him from powerlessness in the face of evil.

Hope is, in turn, faith in the existence of the world:

Hope is with you when you believe

The earth is not a dream but living flesh (NCP, p. 49).

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Hope and faith are very approximate. However, Mother emphasizes that hope is not something constant, but only happens. By the mentioning of the shadow and the instability of hope, the mother appears to be far from making simplifications, from hiding from children the truth about what is not easy.

Love, on the other hand, is the ability to perceive that one’s existence is one of many, the freedom from focusing on oneself. Who loves

wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness (NCP, p. 50).

Love is a desire for fulfillment, a readiness to sacrifice oneself for it to happen. The vague idea of fulfillment itself becomes more understandable in the context of the works about faith and hope. Both speak indirectly of a certain quality of human life, which could be described as a kind of unfulfillment, a failure. Both the “shadows” of existence and the instability of hope are manifestations of it. In this sense, love is the completion of faith and hope, their justification. The Mother attests the credibility of the argument of love. The end of the poem “Love” – “Who serves best doesn’t always understand” (NCP, p. 50) – sounds truthful in her mouth. The uncertainty and incomprehensibility of the experience of motherhood, also in the sense referred to in the poem “Old Women,” entitles her to say such words. The Mother from The World appears to be someone similar to the Mother from Oscar Milosz’s poem “Nihumim” – a handmaid. Both characters are also linked by wisdom, of which misunderstanding speaks the poem “Love,” also corresponding with her attitude. It is the attitude of service that determines wisdom. However, it is impossible without the thoughtful arrangement of one’s relations with the world. The meaning of objection concerning reason is not anti-rationalistic. It is not so much a matter of neglecting the role of reason as of pointing out its inadequacy and helplessness in certain situations. After all, in this poem by Miłosz, love means looking at oneself from a distance. It is only such a distanced understanding of oneself that makes one more disposed to the attitude of service. It can be performed instinctively, without rational justification for choosing what to serve: “It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves” (NCP, p. 50).

Zdzisław Łapiński is right in his observation: “It is not an escape from knowledge, but a conscious leap, from the depths of this knowledge, of an ideal object, set in a certain psychological truth, truth of a child.”29 This remark concerns the attitude of epistemological realism revealed in the poem, of a firm recognition of ←69 | 70→the reality of existence. However, it can also be applied to Miłosz’s approach to love, which in the poem is precisely the service of existence: full (“in the glow of ripeness”), irrefutable. From the knowledge of the truth of existence, accepted as inevitable, one can draw justification for efforts to fulfil what is incomplete. The sense of specific situations in which this attitude is realized is not fully understood then; not everything seems to be equally sure. This uncertainty is caused by the existential situation of man, subjected to a strong temptation to consider the world as an illusion and nothingness. It is difficult to oppose this temptation with the arguments of reason: it is not easy in the concrete of life, but a profound knowledge of the truth of existence helps to oppose this temptation. In the poem “Hope,” which belongs to the cycle, Miłosz speaks of this ambivalent situation: of man convinced of the reality of existence against temptations to consider the ←70 | 71→world a delusion. He describes it using a poetic image of a garden which one cannot enter, although one is confident of its existence (NCP, p. 49).

In words about the service (“It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves: / Who serves best doesn’t always understand,” NCP, p. 50) it is not difficult to find the meaning of motherhood. However, at the same time they have, just like the whole poem, a metaphysical meaning. This ambiguity poses motherhood axiological context. It appears to be a privileged state predisposing to penetrate the mystery of human existence and the whole reality. The attitude of service of wisdom that accepts its limitations, which is proper to motherhood, appears to be the best response to the general existential situation of man: the discouragement of the fervour of efforts and the overwhelming suffering that marks the whole reality. In being a mother, Miłosz sees a model of wisdom, whose the essence is an affirmative attitude to the world, a deep conviction of its sense, against everything that would contradict it. The model character of this natural state is revealed in an uncertain but faithful expectation of maturity. Miłosz confirms in his work the right intuition that “creation moans and sighs in pains of birth” and seems to see in this expectation a possible way of defence against total hopelessness of final matters.

Whoever becomes a servant, believes, trusts, and loves: this is the wisdom of the mother. Service is the way to “fulfilment,” including the final, eschatological one. Disobedience, on the other hand, is the result of the opposite attitude: disbelief in the soundness of the world, the hopelessness of considering it a delusion, as well as self-admiration, the denial of love expressed in the recognition that one is “only one thing among many” (NCP, p. 50).

The Mother introduces the children to the sense of the three most important virtues with a gesture of affectionate gaze into the petals of a peony. This gesture appears to be significant: the flower in the Mother’s hand becomes an image of possible ripeness. If one sees in it an illustration of words about service despite the lack of understanding, its sense would be well explained by the reference to ripeness. To serve is to recognize that everything will someday maturate and be fulfilled. Everything, that is, a man, a child, and the whole world. To experience the ripeness is similar to the affirmation of beauty recognized in Marian images. If the Beautiful Lady reminds us that beauty is one of the components of the world that appears to be an unbearable reality, then she also confirms the incompleteness of this dark image. By reminding us of the missing component, she confirms the ripeness, which in turn cannot be imagined without beauty. The word “component” itself also leads to the order of thinking about the components of a larger whole.

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In the poem “Grób matki” (Mother’s Grave), dated 1949, the figure of Mother appears in a similar context. In the third part of the poem, there is a dramatic question:

Why is it so, mother,

That nor morning, nor flower, nor

Apple on a coarse branch of an apple tree

Will not last any longer than one blink? (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 63).

It was to some extent triggered by the death of Miłosz’s mother, as shown by the further sequence of this part of the poem: “And why, oh mother, you yourself cease to be / The beautiful girl with whom I fell in love?” (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 63), and also suggested by its date and title. Nevertheless, at the same time, it presents a dilemma, which appears in Miłosz’s poetry, even in his last poems: the problem of existence and its salvation.

Mother is the confidante of the longing for final salvation:

Let me create an everlasting love

Out of my persistent discord with the world,

Inspirations and action’s only link

Unknown to creations of thoughtless nature.

An exclusively human thing, indifferent

To a swarm of electrone’s bullets,

The work of a being living in a big house

Lives alone with the mold of its flaw.

A fixed point that goes against the ages

Dividing the fluid into good and bad –

Help me mother strengthen in man,

You, who knows my child’s promisses.

Make me not give up my weigh.

Let the Vistula wind run through ocean.

Because you wanted to give me the gift of life,

Be greeted in the name of God. Amen (Wiersze, Vol. 2, pp. 65–66).

Eternally full love means an affirmation of existence through love, built from “persistent discord with the world,” seeking ripeness despite the death that annihilates everything. The mother is the confidante of the desire for such love as a person giving life. The invocation of the name of God at the end of the poem is more than just a rhetorical punch. It is an act that recognizes the sanctity of motherhood, participation in the transmission of the gift of life: not only in a biological but also in a more profound, metaphysical sense. For in this poem, the gift of life is contrasted with contempt for man: “Oh, you cursed dogs, butchers of man, / Who ask with laughter: what is man?” (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 64). This ←72 | 73→contempt has a cosmic dimension: both on a micro-scale evoked by poetic images of the atom, electrons indifferent to what is human (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 66), and on the macro-scale present in the poem in the image of planets (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 62). Recalling the name of God corresponds to the seriousness of the phenomenon of motherhood. In a situation where life is threatened by the powers that are indifferent to it, being a mother appears to be a mission with consequences that far exceed family privacy.

Accepting the gift of life means an agreement to fight not only the indifference of nature and the cosmos but also struggling with one’s own weakness. This is how the motif of taint can be interpreted. It is referred to in the poem as a property of human life in opposition to eternally full love. This love is supposed to be the work of man whose inner weakness marks the whole environment, which suggestively reflects the image of mold: “The work of a being that in a great house / Lives alone with mold of its flaw” (Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 66). There is regret after the death of the mother in the poem. Not merely the sorrow of loss, but a more serious reflection on the inability to repay in kind the love of one’s mother. In the essay ”Elegia” (Elegy), Miłosz talks about this bitter self-consciousness, in which the sense of loneliness and own guilt intertwine: “Her concern and her prayers will no longer separate me from dangers as they have done during the long years of the occupation. There will no longer be this presence that bonds across time and across realms of the earth. There only is the bitter feeling that children can never love their parents as they should.”30 The taint, revealed in the inability to love one’s mother, is the dark side of the human condition. This darkness is subject to gradation: from imperfection to fall, whose image is in the poem presented as a scoffer deriding human dignity (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 64). It is not difficult to see a clear connection between this taint and the dark side of the human condition, a temptation to deny the soundness of the world and the value of human life.

In “Elegia,” which is a gloss for the poem “Grób matki,” Miłosz describes his mother’s death as a result of indifference, which is a vice of Poles. One could easily recognize31 that he means the circumstances of her death, which could have been avoided if the repatriated Weronika Miłosz had been warned in time that she was coming to the area covered by the typhus epidemic. This particular death is, in his opinion, yet another testimony of the impenitent heart of Poles, who during the Second World War gave evidence of disregarding the suffering ←73 | 74→of ordinary people.32 Miłosz poignantly mourns the suffering of his compatriots, whom he calls “one of the unhappiest of peoples.”33 The poem, dated 1949, which is four years after the death of Miłosz’s mother, universalizes the problem formulated in the essay. The indifference of a Pole becomes a taint of men in general. The loneliness of an orphaned son is represented in the poem by poetic images confronting a single man with the indifference of the universe. However, the statement from “Elegia” remains valid concerning “Grób matki:” a man “can be saved … only by pity.”34 For mercy is the adequate answer to the misery of the human situation in the universe, to his submission to the ruthless laws of history and nature, and to the effects of the taint that marks human condition.

Poetic reflection focuses here on the question of how to live in order to respond to mother’s love, to be able to match the greatness of the gift of life, reach the ripeness of human maturity. However, the sphere of reflections includes situations in which it is mercy that determines humanity. It is realized in compassion for the suffering of ordinary people, and the image of it is a glance through the window of the house where there is a happy family that does not feel the disaster awaiting it (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 64). It is precisely mercy that must be contrasted with cowardly indifference of muteness about a crime (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 65), a peculiar aura of historical laws toward which man remains helpless. In essence, it would be mercy born out of a powerless disagreement with the misery of human fate, burdened with the fatum of inevitable adversity and suffering.

In Miłosz’s poetry, mercy appears to be the binding material of the human community. It is the case in ”Elegia,” where the attitude of mercy becomes the emotional and mental fundament, from which the confession of a sense of belonging to the Polish nation and participation in its sufferings is born. The measure of this feeling, which is not apparent to Miłosz, is the confession concerning the death of Miłosz’s mother: “I include this fact in my nation’s overall loss. Whatever my personal grief may be, I cannot separate it from grief over the fate of one of the most unhappy of peoples.”35 In the poem “Grób matki,” a community bound together by mercy embraces people brought together by fate of beings subjected to the laws of nature and history, people condemned to ←74 | 75→solitude, but fighting for everlasting love despite the threat of eternal solitude (see Wiersze, Vol. 2, p. 63).

Therefore, Miłosz’s mercy is not a quality identical to a common understanding of the term: grief for someone hurt expressed as if from outside of the situation, with a feeling of relief that one does not share the fate of a man worthy of pity, which sometimes becomes only compassion shown to the other in the position of someone in a luckier position.

Concerning Miłosz’s approach to pity, Błoński’s remark that he sees the expression of the attitude of pietas36 in a poetic gesture of arranging reality is credible. It is realized, notes Błoński, in focus, care and gratitude. It is piety, but also something more. Błoński refers to an ancient understanding of the term pietas. Octavio Paz accurately and synthetically captures its various meanings as the feeling of adoration for Roman gods that simultaneously means pity, which for Christians was to be one of the aspects of mercy.37 Błoński chooses pietas, not only piety, because the latter would be associated with devotion, limiting the sense of the quality of Miłosz’s poetry solely to the relationship between man and God.

For Miłosz, the attitude of pietas, which is realized in focus, care, and gratitude, creates mercy. For it is authentic compassion for the disadvantaged, expressed with full awareness of one’s belonging to a community of people who share the experience of a fate subjected to the laws of a heartless world. It is established through a mature affirmation of reality, on an unobvious and complicated love that must be created despite the indifference of nature and history. The vertical dimension of mercy that creates the pietas is visible in the conclusion of the poem, by raising the tone of reflection with the invocation of God’s name. Here, gratitude to the mother for the gift of life is not separated from the more general ability of thanksgiving for existence, which defends itself from nothingness, for living despite death.

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In Miłosz’s poetry, motherhood is the context that models a peculiar sense of mercy. In the above essay ”On Catholicism,” he notes that the dogma of the Trinity, not in the orthodox theological sense but the folk one, refers to an intuitive understanding of the role of the mother: “the eternal mother, forever grieving over her child’s suffering, the protectress, the intercessor” (Visions, p. 82). The spiritual attributes of motherhood distinguished here can easily be found in The World, in “Grób matki” or ”Elegia.” Motherhood is for Miłosz a model of an attitude that combines suffering and expectation, pain and desire for happiness, recognition of the horror of the truth about the world and objection toward its finality. Mother is merciful; that is ultimately capable of reconciling in herself two contradictory truths about the world: about its horror and its magnificence. For Miłosz, mercy is both the grief that arises in the abyss of darkness over a cruel human fate and the gaze toward the light that awaits the final fulfilment of reality, a piety that manifests itself in acknowledging the hierarchy of things. Not to agree to the definitive truth of nature and history, but to save the perspective of ripeness, to give different dimensions of reality an appropriate significance – this is Miłosz’s pietas.

Piety, which is also mercy, is realized in thanksgiving. For Miłosz, there is no motherhood without gratitude for the gift of life; it is impossible to think of a mother without it. This imperative of being thankful is all the more reliable, the more compassionate mercy is. In the darkness of the fallen world, even the slightest flashes arise a feeling of admiration and gratitude. To realize the attitude of pietas is to maintain the ability of thanksgiving in a world of fear and repugnance. Therefore, it is not so much a moral challenge and more a matter of imagination, as Błoński puts it.38

The imagination capable of constructing an image of the world that awakens thanksgiving is shaped according to the pattern of experiencing reality by a mother. The point of reference for this “maternal” model of imagination is Miłosz’s own mother. There are two important facts in her biography that make the memory of her easily idealised, becoming a figure of perfect motherhood. The first is the miraculous salvage of her son’s life. The second is death in circumstances that testify to the heroism of Weronika Miłosz. Both cases have already been mentioned. The mother saving her son by offering him to Our Lady of Ostrabrama, and dying of typhus, which she got infected from a nurtured German woman becomes a model of wisdom expressed in the emotional and ←76 | 77→intellectual balance between pain and joy, thanksgiving and bitterness, admiration for the world and distance to it.

A higher register of the same tone of pietas is in Miłosz’s work the already recalled echo of the reception of the “sophiological” thought, referring to the Wisdom of God and to its embodiment: Virgin Mary. In the figure of the Virgin Mother, mercy is an attribute of her and Divine Wisdom. Wisdom rooted in God himself is expressed in thinking of the world as a fallen reality, although impeccable in its essence. It is not so much a question of faith or disbelief in Our Lady as of the type of imagination, of the way of thinking about the world and about human life, which takes into account not only a purely external, but also a symbolic sense of reality.

Miłosz thinks symbolically by recognizing in the person of his mother a rescue from the anguish of anxiety that life could appear to be doomed to plunge into nothingness. The experience of the “son – mother” relationship has been given here an additional function: to introduce the principle of the world. When growing up, one discovers that life is an aspiration for unattainable perfection, that man is continuously moving away from the ideal, plunging into the darkness of misunderstanding and fear. Nevertheless, at the same time, the memory of one’s mother does not allow one to contest the meaning of one’s own life. Miłosz builds a symbolic sense of reality on the primeval intuition that a mother will always retain faith in her child, which starts from the mutual relationship between the mother and her son in his reflections. It is not far from Simone Weil’s diagnosis, which was mentioned in the introduction to the translation of the Book of Wisdom.39 Let us recall that in Mary she finds a sign of truth that reality remains impeccable in its essence, even though it is marked by the evil of suffering (see Księgi biblijne, p. 517). Such a vision of the world, not devoid of ambivalence, but importantly affirmative, is also revealed in Miłosz’s poetic memories of mother. Her patient forbearance for her son’s imperfections is rooted in a wisdom that is not only pertaining to her child but the whole reality.

The ending of the poem “In Szetejnie” is significant in this context: “the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is finished is finished” (NCP, p. 642). Only a mother would be able to utter such words, which wisely mute anxiety. The old poet knows it, assailed by doubts arising from a sense of artistic and moral imperfection. The world and life in it is a garden. Black, immersed in the darkness of human oblivion, powerlessness and suffering, but still a garden. The consent to close the gate is not only a bitter acceptance of the finitude of everything. ←77 | 78→Mother’s wisdom modelling this poetic vision allows to experience peace in the situation of the end. What is its justification? It is wisdom, as appearances should not deceive one, the essence of things is different from their external shape. Ripeness is possible; the hierarchy of things does not lose its legitimacy, even if the external shape of reality does not confirm it.

In Miłosz’s poetry, the status of the order of things present in this work is accurately described by Błoński: “Hierarchy does not have to win, Miłosz does not write poems for children. Suffice for the hierarchy to be visible so that the poet and the reader begin to miss it … and accept its existence.”40 Wisdom manifests itself in mercy rather than hope. Mercy, which means immersing oneself in the dark reality of the fallen world, although experienced as an order that is not final, but deformed, a chaos that does not appear as an element ultimately completed, appears to be in Miłosz’s work an adequate response to the found and expected shape of the world than an unwavering belief in the victory of hierarchy over chaos. For in mercy is a possibility for grief and compassion, and also for admiration, care and gratitude. Mercy focuses on the present, cares for people and things immersed in it, patiently awaits for the whole imaged of reality to be revealed, for its complementation.

This multidimensionality of mercy also makes it possible to understand why Miłosz awards her the power of poetry, noting in ”Elegia” that “only the works of human hands that result from mercy are permanent. It also applies to poetry.”41 It is precisely mercy as a mental and emotional attitude that constitutes the model of imagination which reconciles the bright and dark images of reality. Such imagination corresponds to the formula of ecstatic pessimism, which Miłosz refers to himself and whose validity concerning his work is confirmed.42

Of course, multidimensionality is always, to some extent, also heterogeneity. The same is right about mercy and the imagination it creates. Miłosz sees their connection with the experience of the Fall. The break of the primordial unity that takes place in it causes the image of reality to be unstable and the sense of ←78 | 79→identity to be lost. This state of breakdown, experienced as a factor of division, is created by sex. However, at the same time, in differentiating humanity into masculinity and femininity, Miłosz finds a chance to escape from an unequivocally dark vision of the world, while in motherhood he sees a universal model of existential attitude.

In The Garden of Earthly Delights, a poem devoted to the triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, it is impossible to overlook Miłosz’s fascination with the phenomenon of femininity, whose fulfilment he seeks in motherhood. The first part, “Summer,” introduces the situation of a poetic description of Bosch’s triptych. One can see this painting in the Prado Museum. The guides of a man who speaks about himself “I was old” (NCP, p. 401), several times in the piece suggesting his identity as Miłosz, are female. Miłosz sees them as mystagogues, people who initiate into the mystery: “I received a share in the earth / Of those who led me, our sisters and lovers” (NCP, p. 401). It is not only the sensual fascination with their beauty that is emphasized in the lofty verses, which glorify them. The high poetic tone signals above all a symbolic way of thinking about them – as priestesses of the mystery of life. They are light, free, and above all “renewed by the moon, Luna, / In a chorus that keeps praising Lady Venus” (NCP, p. 401). The comparison in the ending of the first part of the poem, “As if in the early morning at the outset of the world” (NCP, p. 401) introduces the genesis theme from the Bosch’s work, but also confirms the metaphysical sense of the praise of femininity formulated in the poem. The admiration for their phenomenon is here an act of taking the side of life. The ability to renew oneself has been subtly contrasted in the whole poem with the state of permanence that reigns in hell. A sign of the effects of this reign is the deprivation of women of their charm: “Women in kerchiefs / Cheap, you can have them for a pound of meat” (NCP, p. 605). The sublime eroticism of Venus, who is at the same time the goddess of love and the revival of life in spring, Miłosz contrasts with vulgar sex, reduced to drives, equated with the price “a pound of meat,” with a hunger for food. The infernal constancy in a hopeless state, a life overwhelmed with dirt, ugliness, pain and hopelessness is contrasted with the reality of “them,” of women, of the female earth, fascinating sensually with its lightness, airiness, smell and novelty that arouses the most profound admiration, and moves string of metaphysical longings.

Miłosz perceives a woman portrayed in “Paradise,” corresponding to one of the parts of the triptych, as free from the state of permanence:

The question “Who is she, and who will she be” is an admiration for women’s ability to renew themselves, understood not only biologically but also more profoundly, as part of a reflection on the mystery of life threatened by nothingness. Renewal in the latter case would concern the sphere of the symbolic sense of femininity.

At the same time, in the question about Eve, one can hear a discord with the state of permanence, an uncertainty that excludes the certainty of hopelessness. The ambiguity of the role of a woman results not only from doubts in interpreting the triptych by Bosch but also from attributing to a woman the ability to renew herself. Wisdom-Sophia, the Seducer, the Mother, and Ecclesia: in this catalog of possible roles of Eve there is no accident, and especially the role of the Seducer does not conflict with the others. The fascination with always impeccable, ever-new, seductive beauty sustains the fundamental human aspiration for truth, goodness and beauty, defending man from the sluggishness of resignation, from the infernal state of an existence deprived of aspirations and desires. The insatiability with the world here is for Miłosz an evidence of life. Those who have not gone to hell remain: “Always in pursuit and always with hope” (NCP, p. 605). However, it is a hope limited to the conviction that one will avoid a state of permanence. For it continually threatens man. The mystery of Paradise is connected with this threat. The same problem Miłosz puts in a slightly different way when meditating on the work by Bosch: “And [Christ] establish[ed] a Paradise, though incomplete” (NCP, p. 403). The incompleteness of Paradise contains both the spectre of the Fall and the promise of fulfilment. It is no coincidence that Eve, the figure of such a model of humanity, which is realized in the process of renewal, in its indefiniteness, is the confidante of the mystery of Paradise’s incompleteness. Eve symbolizes the whole reality: its seductive beauty, its threat of a state of permanence, and above all, its fundamental purity, which Simone Weil so emphatically established in the statement quoted by Miłosz in the introduction to the Book of Wisdom.

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The duality referred to in the conclusion of “Paradise” has its origin in the duality of Eve: on the one hand, the delegate of Nature, subject to the law of death, and on the other hand, the mother of God (see Treatise on Theology, “12. And So Eve,” Second Space, p. 56). By observing this duality as a condition to which he himself is subject, Miłosz points to an important feature of humanity: its unreadiness, its incompleteness, its internal fracture, which demands unity. The need to seek a “true place,” the imperative of seeking unity with the woman, a model for relations with the whole reality, is at the same time a gift, as it is expressed in the poem “After Paradise” (see NCP, p. 407), a kind of poetic conclusion to the reflections on the triptych of Bosch. The universally understood separation that follows Eve’s plan to complete Paradise appears to be part of a larger plan. In earthly reality, it constitutes the very nucleus of its structure, which is a process of waiting for final fulfilment.

In a reality designed in such a way, mercy is an adequate answer to its structure. If Miłosz says in his Treatise on Theology that “Religion comes from our pity for humans” (Second Space, p. 58), this comment should not be understood as a criticism of religion. The Beautiful Lady from the last part of the Treatise on Theology can be described as merciful. In a world plunged into darkness, she saves the belief that such a shape is not final, she maintains the problematic belief that beauty belongs to the necessary arrangement of reality. Addressing Mary of Lourdes in the ending of poetic theological deliberations is not so much an act of child’s simplicity, and trust, a simple faith, shaped on the model of Polish folk religiousness, but rather a consequence of understanding religion as a domain of mercy raised to the rank of pietas.

Religion, as presented in this way, is not some artificial intellectual construct. Belief and practice of religion stem from the experience of the horror of the world, and the overwhelming sense of guilt. In The Garden of Earthly Delights, this experiential source of religion is spoken of through poetic images signalling the identity of the person speaking in the poem to be Miłosz himself. In the first verse of “Paradise,” “Under my sign, Cancer, a pink fountain” (NCP, p. 403), in one of the scenes of Bosch’s triptych, Miłosz finds his zodiac sign. The poetic reflection stimulated by this image follows the personal experience of the person speaking in the poem: “As I verified myself, / That sign is not lucky” (NCP, p. 403). In the poem “Earth Again,” colors from Bosch’s work are associated with the Green Lakes near Vilnius (NCP, p. 406). In the first lines of the poem, the old poet who reveals his identity remains discreet but consistent in pursuing his poetic strategy of composing “songs of experience.” This process creates an attitude that consists in finding meaning in one’s experience, although ←81 | 82→burdened with a sense of overwhelming guilt and senselessness: yet a meaning possible to be found.

“They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth. / The lure of waters. The lure of fruits. / Lure of the two breasts and long hair of a maiden” (NCP, p. 406) – this attempt to understand the whole sphere of sensual desires, needs and longings is unusual. The strategy of understanding experience is revealed in this poetic statement. The element of religion, in the sense referred to in Treatise on Theology, is realized in Miłosz’s poetry through it: “Who among us would accept a universe in which was raised not one voice // Of compassion, pity, understanding?” (Second Space, p. 58). In this juxtaposition, understanding is not only a complementation of compassion, an ability to reflect on human misery, but also a meaning that is needed in a religious sense. Likewise, pity, embraced in the spirit of pietas, is not only concern but also focus, a form of thinking about human misery that would not exclude the possibility of gratitude. The religious instinct establishes the need for pity and understanding: “religion comes from” the need of the world, in which the voice of compassion, pity and understanding could be heard.

The model of intellectual and existential attitude for the strategy of understanding experience is being a mother. It is confirmed in the order of individual fate: the mother, or the memory of her wisdom itself, allows one to be convinced of the value of life, makes the fate meaningful, understood thanks to her and treated with mercy, in a way that is free of unequivocally negative assessment. The mother also remains an important point of reference for religious questions and attitudes. Miłosz talks about unfulfilled and limited religiosity, shaped by the experience of failure and guilt in Treatise on Theology: “Why not concede that I have not progressed, in my religion, past the Book of Job?” (Second Space, p. 59). Beautiful Lady reveals the perspective of religiousness exceeding the relationship between man and God based on the sense of guilt and fear of punishment. The unfortunate life lived as punishment for the very existence appears to be substantially pure when one thinks about it, taking the figure of Mary as a point of reference: “Under their ugliness, which is the stigma of their practical preoccupations, they are pure, and when they sing, a vein of ecstasy pulsates in their throats. // Most intensely before a statue of Holy Mary, as she appeared to the young girl in Lourdes.” To understand the experience of a mother is, in the religious sphere, to accept that beauty creates the world, that there is a profound level of purity in man, on which not a complaint of a desperate wretch is born, but a song of mercy impossible without gratitude.

A mother from the poem “Yokimura,” a woman seen in a television image from a Japanese cemetery of “unborn” children, cannot cross the limits of misery ←82 | 83→(Road-side Dog, p. 109). In Miłosz’s opinion, her decision not to give birth to a child is motivated by the conviction that nonexistence is better than a miserable life: “So then I felt relief, saying to myself that at least you were safe. / In nonbeing as in a cradle or a cocoon of silk down” (NCP, p. 653). This conviction of the portrayed woman is not undeniable, but strong enough to make a decision. Miłosz’s understanding of motherhood is expressed in “Yokimura.” Characteristically, Miłosz speaks in an entirely original way about the drama of a woman seen on TV, “leaning over to put down a spray of chrysanthemums” on one of the graves of the cemetery, far from the rhetoric of both defenders of women’s right to abortion and their opponents. The mother is here – as it is repeated in Miłosz’s works – someone who cares about her child, not about herself. However, she lacks mercy, fear of misfortune prevails in her. Instead of mercy, understood as problematic, caring gratitude, an overpowering melancholy appears here, disillusionment with a life of bitterness from misfortune. The decision to “not give birth” to one’s child makes a symbolic sense. It is an act of despair, questioning the sense of the world, disbelief in the fact that the life of a born child could ever be fulfilled.

A peculiar sense of innocence harmonizes with desperate melancholy: “I made a decision, and I know that was how it had to be, and I did not blame anyone” (NCP, p. 654). The power of the world’s inertia, to which a woman is subject to, is so great that it is difficult for her to take responsibility for a decision made under the influence of a moment, in the darkness of despair. It is also possible to think of this declaration of non-guilt in the context of Miłosz’s reflection that with misfortune, which is a punishment, one pays for existence (see Wiersze, Vol. 5, p. 237). In “Yokimura,” the feeling of guiltlessness is born in a state of suspended existence, heading toward non-existence, which is perceived as an asylum from the horror of the world.43

Nonexistence is a permanent state, devoid of any tensions, and thus also experiences that cannot be grasped without comparing them with extremely ←83 | 84→different situations: guilt can be grasped by comparison with innocence, and misfortune by reference to the state of happiness. On the contrary, existence in The Garden of Earthly Delights is realized “always in pursuit.” The dynamism of existence, the pursuit of its forever escaping ripeness, marks human life with both misery and guilt. Nevertheless, one who lives in pursuit also escapes from nonexistence. The reassurance, expected from the mother that this is the way it is supposed to be, that the sense of guilt and bitterness of misfortune does not reclaim the meaning of life is an ultimate defense against the temptation to seek salvation in nonbeing. Also, the justification of the world through reminding us of its beauty, as seen by Miłosz in the Marian revelations of Lourdes and Fatima, maintains the conviction of the soundness of life as a pursuit and justifies the choice of existence against nonbeing.

Is the conclusion of Treatise on Theology with a prayer to the Beautiful Lady not also the voice of Miłosz on the approach of practicing theology, and a declaration concerning reflection on the relationship between man and God? It is not only theology as a discipline, but also the search for the meaning of reality in the manner declared in the first part of the Treatise on Theology: “Why theology? Because the first must be first. / And first is a notion of truth. … / Let reality return to our speech. / That is, meaning. Impossible without an absolute point of reference” (Second Space, p. 47). Miłosz thinks of theology as an important context for the struggle with reality, for attempts, also poetic ones, to reach its meaning. His auto-characteristic formulated in the conclusion of the Treatise on Theology “who desires to remain faithful to your unfathomable intention / When you appeared to children at Fatima and Lourdes” (Second Space, p. 64) is an echo of the conviction that life “in pursuit” of reality defends itself against the infernal state of permanence. Traditional, systemic theology raises the poet’s doubts, it is too hieratic, frozen in the shape of the system. The intuition of a poet makes him look for a slightly different way of reaching the meaning, perceiving reality as a space subject to the law of motion, rather than an unchangeable steadiness. What is significant is Miłosz’s critical opinion of Paweł Lisicki’s book Doskonałość i nędza (Perfection and Mediocrity): “I am skeptical of Lisicki’s, I admit, longing for the system, so that everything is in harmony and adheres to one another. Or maybe it does not adhere at all? Maybe the contradiction and some basic ataxia or movement belong to the very essence of being?” (O podróżach w czasie, p. 80). Miłosz seeks language, both theological and also poetic, accepting the existence of an absolute point of reference, capable of expressing this movement of the world, of evoking reality (“Let reality return to our speech”).

The model of thinking expressed in such a language is the attitude of the mother. It would make a human being “in pursuit” of reality, and thus, as it is ←84 | 85→expressed in the last part of The Garden of Earthly Delights, entitled “Hell” (NCP, p. 605), avoiding the state of permanence. This avoidance is, at the same time, an escape from the experience of suffering, which could be described as “infernal” in its consistency and irremovability. In Part 9 of the Treatise on Theology, Miłosz points to this experience as an inspiration for his religious search: born “out of the pain in my heart when I looked out at the atrocity of the world” (Second Space, p. 53). The attitude of the mother gives direction to these searches in so far as their opposition to the statement of pain is the conviction formulated at the end of Part 9 of the Treatise on Theology: “We complain that the earth is hell’s antechamber: it might have been hell complete, without beauty, without goodness, not a ray” (Second Space, p. 53). The thought that takes into account the assessment of the world its brighter side, clearly similar to the poetic appreciation of beauty recognized in Marian revelations, does not allow us to consider it a complete picture of a horrible world.44

“Let us think” is the perspective that gives the problematic experience of suffering its proper place in the hierarchy of things and phenomena. Although it is irremovable and cannot be neutralized by other positive experiences, the experience of “the pain in my heart” can, as Miłosz suggests, be placed in the frame of thoughts about beauty. The conclusion of the Treatise on Theology is also entrusted to this method. The last part is a prayer formulated in the mental frame of memory of human dignity, constructed in the previous part of the work: “I remember that they were made to be not much inferior to angels. // Under their ugliness, which is the stigma of their practical preoccupations, they are pure and when they sing, a vein of ecstasy pulsates in their throats” (Second Space, p. 63). The poetic image of the ethical and aesthetic “purity” of the faithful does not reflect the state of religious ecstasy of the speaker, but rather poetically materializes the thought of choosing man, of his dignity. This thought allows us to transcend the limitations resulting from the imposing image of human minority and human skepticism that restrain words of prayer: “Naturally, I am a skeptic. Yet I sing with them” (Second Space, p. 53).

The mental choice made both here and in all of Miłosz’s poetry, could be described as a bet made because of his mother. If the earth is a reality without a ←85 | 86→single ray of beauty and goodness, the movement of life must stop, and the world must plunge into an infernal state of permanence. Nevertheless, if beauty is a component of the world, if one thinks calmly, like a wise and just mother (NCP, p. 642), about one’s life and the whole reality, it appears to be in a movement, whose end may be the final unveiling of the hierarchy of things. The order of such thinking about the world does not exclude that meaning will prevail over nonsense, good over evil, and beauty over ugliness.

The question about the justification of meaning is inevitable in art, in its strictly artistic, technical aspect: “When I consider myself a Christian, I make a choice and have to choose, as I am pushed against the wall. Perhaps I would not be if I did not serve poetry and art, a field in which faith or lack of faith appears clearly as techne itself” (O podróżach w czasie, p. 35). The manner of poetic speech reveals a more general aspiration: of “self-admiration” (see O podróżach w czasie, p. 38) of art or art as an imitation of reality. Miłosz contrasts both artistic attitudes, considering the former a testimony to a thought, which raises his doubts: “the worship of the work of human hands and mind as the highest and only value is only possible in a world devoid of any principle and value due to the dethroning of God” (O podróżach w czasie, p. 38). This approach to the attitude of artistic self-admiration is consistent with the diagnosis of Zygmunt Mycielski in the interpretation of Herbert’s poem: “the lowest circle of hell, in which [art] has already freed itself from all meaning, and has become a puzzle, a toy, a ranking of elements; because one has to deal with something in order to have peace, good food and absolute isolation from infernal life.”45 This hell resembles the infernum from The Garden of Earthly Delights. In both cases, in hell, the principle is an aversion to reality, and professionalization brought to the extreme. After all, The Garden of Earthly Delights speaks of henchmen as “[d];eft, well trained in their trade” (NCP, p. 605). In a state of permanence – boredom and indifference to reality, lasting indefinitely, without the prospect of any change, in the darkness of the world, which one does not even try to understand – adroitness and good practice in one’s profession is a natural consequence of the permanent performance of the same activity.

In the poem “In Szetejnie,” the infernal situation of living in the darkness of “the randomness and absurdity of everything, so that the world disintegrates” (O podróżach w czasie, p. 36) corresponds with the image of a dark well of misunderstanding: “when I try to remember how it was, there is only a pit, and it is so ←86 | 87→dark, I cannot understand a thing” (NCP, p. 642). Confronted with this darkness of nonsense, the desire for the work to benefit people has its origin in recognition of the “principle of being,” a meaning of reality that wants to understand itself and be useful to others in this regard.

The mother is the figure of choice of meaning.46 Poetically, it reflects her relationship with the garden. In the poem “In Szetejnie,” she appears to be the only person able to appease “[t];hat the gate of the Black Garden closes, peace, peace, what is finished is finished” (NCP, p. 642). It is not a new image in this poetry. In The World, after all, a mother leaning over the peony flower speaks of hope, using a similar image of the garden: “That all things you have ever seen here / Are like a garden looked at from a gate. / You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there” (NCP, p. 49). Both poems are about the garden of the world and its meaning, always attractive and always elusive, while the mother is a person who knows the secrets of the garden.

In Miłosz’s work, the mother, as a figure of existential attitude, chooses life in the conviction that there is a principle of being. This choice is made individually and personally, but it also has social consequences. The concern expressed in the poem “In Szetejnie” for the work to turn out to be useful, testifies to a commonsense intuition that the world of perfectionists, immersed in familiarized despair, must differ from the community of people who seek the meaning of reality with concern, but also in good faith. The infernal state of permanence can be experienced by man already during his lifetime. In Miłosz’s work, the choice of meaning is an expression of the pietas attitude, which always means taking mercifully into account the “benefit” of others.

Concern for others, consent to the feeling of belonging to a community, readiness to ask questions as to where the fate of other people and the world is heading: all these are skills born in man who thinks of time as a relative element, and not as it is perceived in hell: “Time in Hell does not want to stop” (NCP, p. 605). The important ability to distance oneself from one’s immersion in time, subjecting oneself to its laws, the imagination allowing to formulate questions about the end of time, about the principle of reality independent of the laws of time and space creates an intellectual fundament on which the choice of meaning ←87 | 88→is made. In Miłosz’s work, intellectually and emotionally, it happens within the sphere of his mother’s wisdom.47


Mother is for Miłosz a figure of the choice of meaning, born out of a merciful attitude to the world as opposed to the post-Fall law of the jungle.

The Consoling One

Although extremely sensitive to the phenomenon of women, Miłosz does not radically and evaluatively juxtapose femininity and masculinity. He is far from idealizing women.48

This direction of thinking about women, seeking ultimately signs of unity rather than separation, is interestingly revealed in Miłosz’s translation of Walt Whitman’s poem “We Two” in the volume Unattainable Earth (Wiersze, Vol. 4, p. 98). Konstanty Jeleński drew Miłosz’s attention to the homosexual character of Whitman’s poem: “Notice the identification on the principle of homology … rock and rock; oak and oak” (Correspondence between Miłosz and Jeleński,49 p. 278, letter of June 30, 1984). However, Miłosz did not change his translation,50 ←88 | 89→although he treated Jeleński’s opinions exceptionally seriously. This decision is a testimony of consistency in the search for signs of unity between a man and a woman. It is yet another glance at women, especially arousing fascination, as someone very similar to a man.

The fascination with the physical beauty of a woman repeatedly testified in Miłosz’s work, is by no means comprehensive in this matter, although it is an important psychological and existential background for reflection on the problem. Thinking about his relations with women, the person speaking in Miłosz’s poetry expands the sphere of self-understanding: “So, opaque to myself, I want to guess who I was for others, especially the women to whom I was bound by ties of love or friendship” (“After Travelling,” in: NCP, p. 672).

A woman is a mirror in which a man can look at himself to get a clearer picture of his identity. Thinking about his life from the perspective of time, the person speaking in the poem encounters a wall of absurdity and irrationality, experiences a painful sense of incoherence with the former self, a sense of non-identity, an inner breakdown: “I had intentions, motivations. I made decisions, performed acts. Yet from here that man seems so irrational and absurd” (NCP, p. 672). The way out of this situation is to reflect on one’s relationship with women. It must reveal the traits of a person so fundamental for the psychological and spiritual construction of a person that they are not subject to the passing of time. Reflectively renewing the relationship with women, one should return to oneself, reintegrate one’s split personality? The meaning of the poetic images used here by Miłosz is the intuition that a thought that penetrates the relationship with a woman should capture a broken thread of continuity of roles and achievements that constitute the history of human life. Even the ending of this poem – an image of marionette theatre, “puppets lie in the tangle of their strings and convey no idea of what the spectacle was like” (NCP, p. 672) – would be difficult to interpret as an unequivocal denial of the right direction of the search. This tangle of strings is, after all, something more than an abyss of misunderstanding. A thread can be pulled out of it. Besides, it is difficult to determine the exact nature of this state: “We are like a marionette theater that’s been put to sleep.” ←89 | 90→Even if little can be understood from the chaos of the tangle, it is possible to find some clues to guess who has been assigned which role. For the man searching for his own identity, living in the feeling that all the threads connecting him to himself have been broken, this may be a starting point.

In relation to a woman, a man sees more clearly the truth about himself.51 The credibility of this diagnosis is evidenced by the fact that the content of the discovered truth is guilt. This specificity of self-knowledge taking place in the perspective of a relationship with a woman is well visible in the poem “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Orpheus enters Hades as much to save Eurydice as to save himself: “Only her love warmed him, humanized him. / “When he was with her, he thought differently of himself” (Second Space, p. 99). What means “differently” is well illustrated by the poetic thought: “He felt strongly his life with its guilt” (Second Space, p. 100). Thinking about oneself in a different way does not mean an ability to make oneself comfortable as a person accepted by one’s beloved but to discover a complicated truth about oneself.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (January)
Myth of the Fall Modernism Heritage of Romanticism Poetic Imagination Literature and Religion
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 418 pp.

Biographical notes

Tomasz Garbol (Author)

Tomasz Garbol , literary scholar at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, the Center of Research on Religious Literature, and author of monographs about Zbigniew Herbert, „Chrzest ziemi”, and Czesław Miłosz, Miłosz. Los , editor of the collection on literature and religion, Literatura a religia .


Title: After the Fall