09 January 2007

Czeslaw Milosz

[from Czeslaw Milosz's Native Realm, 1968]

It does not matter how we name the basic opposition: heaviness and lightness; life taken as it is and life shaped anew; matter and spirit; walking on all fours and soaring in flight. What was my mutiny as an adolescent and then as a young man if not a refusal of that directionless existence of "hogs"? As a child I safeguarded myself against grownups by my passion for nature, my aquariums, my ornithological books. To grow up and destroy that elan which they, in their sobriety, disdained seemed awful. My almost unhealthy conviction that sexuality is evil may have had its source not only in the teachings of our Father Prefect but also in those moments when, as a child, I observed that it is precisely sexuality that makes fools of adults, weighing them down, depriving them of the capacity for disinterested enthusiasm.

My hero was the brave nineteenth-century naturalist, such an ardent collector of insects that on his wedding day he forgot about his beloved waiting at the church; he was discovered in his tails, high in the branches of a tree where he was just about to lower his top hat over a rare species of beetle; at this sight the bride-to-be fell fainting into her mother's arms and the enthusiast of knowledge remained a bachelor forever.

In choosing poetry later on, I remained loyal to the pledge I made to myself: that I would never be like them and succumb to the force of inertia. Through poetry, in other words, I wanted to save my childhood. But what fiery sword protects the artist? Only his faith in an objective value. For those who live passively, values melt away; they wane in the encounter with what is considered "real." Herein lies the secret of their impotent lives. And hence the traditional alliance between artists and revolutionaries. Because revolutionaries, with or without success, also search for objectively grounded values. They are saved by their violent "yes" or "no," by their upsetting the somnolent routine into which spiritual heaviness imprisons us. Their deed is equivalent to the creative act of an artist; it lifts them above themselves by demanding full surrender: no one puts words on paper or paint on canvas doubting; if one doubts, one does so five minutes later.

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