It is the late 1970s. From his study on Grizzly Peak, California, a 66-year-old man gazes out on the Pacific Ocean, and asks himself: “Who was I? Who am I now?”
This man is Czesław Miłosz. Born into a Lithuanian-Polish family in 1911, he studied law in Vilnius before making his name as a young poet, “a catastrophist”, in the 1930s. As a newly translated biography by Andrzej Franaszek recounts, Miłosz spent much of World War II in Warsaw, witnessing the “meat-grinder of history” as it went into overdrive. Later he would be awarded the medal of Righteous among the Nations for his efforts to help Jewish families escape capture.
After the war, he embarked on a doomed career as a diplomat, before eventually defecting to France and later America, where he would become Professor of Slavic Studies at Berkeley (and occupant of that study on Grizzly Peak). His prose work The Captive Mind is a famous indictment of the awful humiliation of conscience and intellect inflicted by communism. In 1980, Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2004 at the age of 93 and is buried in Kraków.
Miłosz’s was quite a life: “I reach 80, I fly from San Francisco to Frankfurt and Rome, a passenger who once travelled three days by horse carriage from Szetejnie to Wilno.” In asking himself those questions as he looked out across the Pacific, Miłosz was providing “the impetus for the long-deferred telling of ‘certain spiritual adventures’ ’’, resulting in The Land of Ulro, first published (in Polish) 40 years ago. It is a brooding, complex, occasionally baffling book.
The name Ulro comes from William Blake. It denotes for Miłosz the realm of spiritual pain “borne by the crippled man”; crippled, that is, by the victory of the scientific worldview, where blind determinism holds sway; where there is, at bottom, a Natura devorans and a Natura devorata (devouring nature and devoured nature) and nothing else; where personhood and communion between persons, and with their God, are illusions.
Blake, Swedenborg, Dostoevsky and a host of Polish literary giants loom over page after page. Beckett, meanwhile, is lauded as the most honest of the moderns, the one who made things clear: so you killed God and think you can get away with it? The Land of Ulro is also highly revelatory of the influence of Catholicism on Miłosz as poet, thinker and man. It is laced with references to an “ecstatically religious childhood” of carols, Month of Mary devotions, Vespers, Nativity plays and litanies sung in the circle of family and servants.
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