Review of "Visions from San Francisco Bay" by Czeslaw Milosz (1982 translation)
"I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said - you begin with those words and you return to them." What a great way to start off this work of art.
Published in English in 1982, and originally published in Polish in 1969, Milosz’s ideas and his language are incredibly fresh. He gives the words of Socrates a poet's touch: "If I am not wise, why must I pretend to be?... And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?"
Milosz is profoundly seeped in a sense of place. It is his belief that all our ideas have their origin in our idea of place. A psychology, therefore, that is “not based on our conceptions of the physical universe, must be subjective and erroneous.” It may come as no surprise, then, the Milosz has a few qualms with religion. God, to Milosz, is a linguistic phantom, a name given to nothingness. God has no essence, therefore the language of religion is “hollow” and full of “mere figures of speech.” Since God has no essence, and humankind must be grounded in a sense of place, religious symbols become of the utmost important to religious people. Churches, flags, cross necklaces, communion cups, robes, etc., are tangible things people can hold onto, objects they can attribute to god, who does not exist in any physical sense. For Milosz, we cannot think or imagine anything without place as a reference. We are nothing if not interacting with our environment. We situate ourselves according to place: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal place is demonstrated by narrative, the forward motion of people and things along a straight line of time. The story of evolution, of Jesus' life, of creating a work of art, is just progressive action, a horizontal movement from Point A to Point B. We also place ourselves in "vertical space." Earth is one level, with Heaven above and Hell below. And everyone moves up or down. The culmination of a life is nothing more than a shift one step up or one step down. And only in compartmentalizing these levels that we can see ourselves in the course of history. Of course, the actual place of Heaven and Hell don't matter (and Milosz, like me, doesn't believe in them), they are simply mental constructs. But they root us in place.
While Milosz is precise in his philosophical qualms with god, he also has an emotional and moral aversion to religion, which he views as a divisive and antisocial institution. “The division of people into believers and non-believers has always made me somewhat uneasy, because it assumes a qualitative leap…” There is no way to divide up the world into the damned and the saved without a qualitative assessment. If one man is doomed and the other will take his stand next to god, which man is more valuable? This qualitative difference means true believers have, at the center of their religious worldview, a desire to convert the heathen, to bring them into the fold, to save them. Milosz doesn’t temper his stinging critique of Catholicism, the religion of his Polish homeland. “Catholicism is the most anthropocentric of religions…” And Catholic doctrine enforces a sin-guilt complex in which sin is “universalized, changing into a sense of undifferentiated guilt.”
He is so enthralled with nature and with man’s place in that process, that he cannot understand fundamentalists who ignore reality in favor of irrational doctrine. Why do people deny evolution? “We reacted with anger and offended dignity when it was learned that man, too, belongs to the chain of universal transformation… a justified reaction to painful knowledge.”
On America: "America was not slowly and gradually put into words over the centuries... the changes were so great, twenty years much the equal of two hundred elsewhere, that the slate was always being wiped clean." "this continent possesses something like a spirit which malevolently undoes any attempts to subdue it." He writes beautifully of his migration from the tumults of Eastern Europe to the relative calm of the Bay Area. “Anything which allays life’s inherent savagery seems fragile to me, constantly threatened by the chaos that I suspect is the normal state of things. Yet another day, well oiled, working well, what a marvel.” In "On Virtue," Milosz writes: "American virtue, primarily that of rural America, is nourished by naivete, ignorance and ordinary dullness." This is true today, evidenced by the rise of reactionary anti-immigrant groups and politicians, racist anger at America's first black president, and a sharp right wing economic turn. America, he argues in the closing chapter, is the Bible played out in history. The Bible is full of hatred, bigotry, slavery and opression. America has gone through these things. The Bible is filled with beauty, purity, hope and charity. America is filled with these too. Wars. Achievements. Just as the Bile has good and bad in it, so does America. But, for all his critiques, Milosz still loves America as a place. "I am certain only of my amazement. Amazement that something like America exists, and that humanity still exists, though it should have exterminated itself long ago or perished from starvation, from epidemics, or from the poisons it excretes."
While the essays in the first half of the book focus on the natural aesthetic, humanity’s relation to its environment, and how specific people and places interact, he broadens his scope in the latter part of the book. Censorship, the relation between the person and the automobile, Catholic dogma and economics, the latter being a noticeable strong point.
The economic individual does not relate to the economy based on his own philosophical generalizations, but seeks only the satisfaction of his needs. (pg. 109) Individuals, while differing in their “needs,” seek out food, water, sex, drugs and recreation through the economy. And the reason the Western economy is hierarchical rather than participatory, is the corporate creation of false needs and the adoption of these falsehoods by the vast majority of the working population. Since economics is based on meeting need, economic expansion necessitates the creation of more needs. Once that process begins, the entire idea of a "need" vaporizes. They are no longer real “needs,” but illusions of need. And it is possible for an entire global economy to be based on an illusion of need. I know he’s a “socialist,” by name, but Milosz’s analysis of economic systems is very reminiscent of Adam Smith, and I mean the true Adam Smith, not the Adam Smith as adopted by those Chicago economists. This is not to say Milosz’s a capitalist, but I would argue that there is a bit of a free marketeer in him. Smith’s classical ideas of the market are so far removed from what is commonly referred to as capitalism today. Reading Milosz is eye-opening because we've moved so far rightward since Milosz's day. 21st Century America is run by vampiric corporatocracy even more so than it was when Milosz wrote this forty years ago.
The market, he writes, is, "an extension of the struggle for existence and nature's cruelty in human society." But he's wary of accepting oversimplified Marxist rhetoric as good social policy. He detests the power-hungry left-wing zealots who proclaim they have the answer to all of society's ills and could cure us all if only we would all think exactly as they do. "American capitalism is the only answer." "Marxism is the only way." Milosz would reject both assertions. An economy is a complex thing, and cannot be nailed down by ideology. It's this practicalism in Milosz that makes him so attractive as a thinker. "I am fed up with dividing people into those few who know and the dull masses who don't realize what is useful for them." This is a multi-front attack on religion, right-wing capitalism and socialist powergrabbers. "I have no desire to be one of the elect dragging the masses by force to Utopia." This is exactly how I feel, and Milosz has, of course, said it so much better than I could have.
Milosz blasts the US economy as being based on the development of false need: "The myths of advertising are in themselves contradictory. They create needs in order to stimulate ceaseless competition, which requires self-repression." And Milosz believes in self-expression. This is how he arrives at his rejection of "capitalism," the word he uses to denote a vague sense of unease he has about the American economy. He doesn't define "capitalism" and certainly doesn't lay out an economic plan, let alone one that might work. So, while I agree with his aversion to a hyper-market economy, I also question if Milosz isn't holding onto economic dreams that could never possibly be realized. But Milosz is an idealist, not an idealogue. There's a huge difference. Milosz is a practical philosopher, he has no vested interest in any rigid school of thought. "All the frameworks that permit the daily practice of virtue are very fragile, it is easy to destroy them, as I saw for myself while obsering ideologically planned regimes at close range." Milosz desires a participatory economy where individuals can work together and share the fruits of their labor. It's beautiful, but even Milosz knows it was not possible then, and it is even less possible now. Revolutionary movements in America are quickly co-opted by the stronger system of big business. Milosz calls this the "profotability of protest." And it "does not preclude the sincerity of certain hostile feelings, but still, it does turn intellectual fashions into theatre..." Milosz, like many of his time and place, grew disillusioned with the protest movement.
So how does a socialist survive in a hyper-capitalized market economy? This is where Milosz gets really interesting. He thinks of himself as living two lives. One is "time sold," meaning work, labor, throw in your Marxist term. This life is "unreal, boring, burdensome." The other is "real time." This life is "real, interesting and rich."
And "if you want to be free, the first step must be the realization that any of your reflections on daily life, on man, are not independent, since the material at your disposal, the material of your perceptions and ideas, is not your own as you believe." For Milosz, there is a communal language, and art is always a social activity. Art does not exist in and of itself, only when thinking beings experience it. "The true reolutionaries," therefore, "were the poets and the artists even the most etheral and least bloodthirsty of them, because they cleared the way; that is, they acted as the organizers of the collective imagination in a new dimension..." He sounds a bit hippie-inspired here, and Milosz maintains an almost Leninist view of the vanguard. But there is some truth to the assertion that art is revolutionary. It stirs people to action, it opens their minds to different ways living. And Milosz is just talented and bright enough to ride that line between respect for the virtue of art and it's excess, the deification of man. His neo-Marxism is kept in check by a love for the freedom of the individual and a revulsion to oppression in all its forms.
The closest he gets to preaching is here: "If we can leave our humanity aside for a moment and put our human sense of values out of mind, we must admit that the world is neither good nor evil, that such categories do not apply to the life of a butterfly or crab."
Milosz even weighs in on the legalization of marijuana. While tobacco and alcohol kill millions, marijuana is "a rather innocent substance." The state wages war against marijuana, in some sense, because those who smoke it tend to "question the established order." The use of this medicinal drug is widespread among all ethnic groups, ages and class. And Milosz says that the war against marijuana has had a reverse effect: since "everyone smokes marijuana," and smoking marijuana is a crime, many people are learning what it means to be a criminal. And being a criminal brings awareness: "to be a criminal means to look at society from the bottom, from underground..." In this sense, criminalizing harmless activities stokes rebellion in otherwise law-abiding citizens. And criminals reject authority. So, Milosz argues, turning citizens into criminals is a sure-fired way to destroy a society. It is not in the state's interest to make its subjects all criminals. Because criminals break laws and governments.
Milosz doesn't end the book without talking about some literature. He takes on Henry Miller, no gloves. Miller "rejected literature as a collection of inherited patterns, in order to stand unique, to say a Mass to himself, to present the image of himself as a perfect male..." Wow. As a Henry Miller fan, I have to say I know where Milosz is coming from, and I respect that opinion. Miller's "violent gestures, vulgarities, and floods of invective were clearly directed against some enemy, though his yammerings made it impossible to decide who or what that enemy was. The twentieth century? America? New York?" Basically, Miller is a poseur extraordinaire. He's that guy at the bar with tribal tatto on his bicep knocking jager-bombs and telling lewd jokes. And Milosz is right, Miller is that guy. But that guy can be kind of hilarious. And that's why Miller's extremes will always at least be a fun trip, at least for me.
But, still, Milosz's categorization of Miller is just spot on: "Miller was one of the first prophets of withdrawal into the purely personal dimension, what we could call the sexual-mystical dimension, and as well one of the first in daily practice to withdraw from the round of 'getting and spending' to a primitively furnished cabin in Big Sur." That is a beautifully executed verbal attack done with wit and sharp skill. Milosz is indeed a writer among writers.
His detest for Miller stems from his idea of a "humanistic tradition" in art, and specifically fiction. Writing must aim to bring people together, to find understanding, to mend broken people, but Miller's writing is an attack on all tradition. Milosz argues that "there is something known as the humanistic tradition" and that art created outside of that tradition can never be fully-realized. It's a bold statement, and it shows Milosz as a linguistic and literary traditionalist. There are rules, and Milosz believes they are there for a good reason. When someone like Henry Miller defies all rules, and does so with a spiteful grin, the result can never be as good. I hear him.
I don't know if I totally believe him, but I hear him loud and clear. Milosz is perhaps one of the greatest literary theorists in history.