" . . . THIS TREMENDOUS SCENE —
THIS WHOLE EXPERIMENT OF GREEN — "
~ EMILY DICKINSON ~
~ Czeslaw Milosz ~
I was left behind with the immensity of existing things.
A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself;
a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees
are not clouds and trees.
Due to my usual seemingly (but not so!) distracted fashion of spreading and scattering reading material upon every available visible surface and jumping around (not randomly!) from text to text, the above passage from Czeslaw Milosz's poem, "Esse," is forever linked in my mind with Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Why Write" (Click for full text). My reading method, while usually quite effective, does lead to the occasional "merged book" faux pas. In this particular case, in all good faith, I reassigned the image of the suffering sponge from Milosz to Sartre. I can only trust that Milosz would forgive and that Sartre would be flattered.
I still recall reading the Sartre and talking about it the next day in a critical theory seminar that I was taking at the time (i.e., way back in the Fall of 1983). I was excited for the class discussion and the chance to talk about Sartre's fascinating images and perplexing yet convincing descriptions of reading and writing:
" . . . when we seek to perceive our work, we create it again, we repeat mentally the operations which produced it; each of its aspects appears as a result. Thus, in the perception, the object is given as the essential thing and the subject as the inessential. The latter seeks essentiality in the creation and obtains it, but then it is the object which becomes the inessential. [emphasis added]
"This dialectic is nowhere more apparent than in the art of writing, for the literary object is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper" (Sartre).
My contribution to the discussion was to say that in addition to the image of the book as a spinning top, I particularly liked Sartre's image of the writer as a suffering, unsaturated sponge; a river carrying the reflection of the clouds and tress. But no one else shared my enthusiasm or my memory. In fact, the professor informed me, those images were no where to be found in "Why Write."
Huh? Not in "Why Write." Not Sartre? Okay, what else had I been reading in addition to my big old tome of critical theory? A couple of seventeenth - century dramas, a novel, some magazines, some freshman compositions. Where had I read those words? Well, I felt pretty certain it wasn't those first-year essays. The plays? Possibly. The novel? Didn't sound right. Finally, it came to me: it was in one of the magazines (Atlantic Monthly? New Republic?) I went straight home, thumbed through all the pages until I found it, and have remembered it to this day. Esse: that was the connecting factor:
"I looked at that face, dumbfounded. The lights of métro stations flew by; I didn't notice them. What can be done, if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird? A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin - but why isn't the power of sight absolute? - and in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes, containing a dark, lustrous lava. To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty. To have. It is not even a desire. Like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious. And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!
"She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees."
By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky
"Czeslaw Milosz - Poetry: Esse". Nobelprize.org. 8 Feb 2011
In another poem, "On Prayer," Milosz writes mystically of the bridge leading to the "Shore of Reversal," reminding me somewhat of Harry Potter peering into the "Mirror of Erised" at Hogwarts. For Harry, Desire reversed. For Milosz, "everything opposite." The desire of Harry's heart is communication beyond the grave; Milosz ponders the same phenomenon:
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Less seriously, how about that merged book syndrome? Are you familiar with the Merged Book Contest at Laugh Break? It's silly, I know, but also very literary and very funny. Don't forget that even very serious Emily Dickinson allowed for a bit of nonsense:
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!
(Rewritten by Roald Dahl (1916 - 90) as:
"A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest of men.")
On the one hand, the kings and wise ones are allowed some silliness; yet, how appropriate that Dickinson (1830 - 86) should conclude her poem with a warning against the foolishness of placing ourselves at the center of the universe. To bring this essay full circle, Sartre (1905 - 80) advised similarly in the opening paragraphs of "Why Write":
"But if we know that we are directors of being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. . . .
One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world" (Sartre).
As Milosz (1911 - 2004) says in his poem above, we strive to name the world, the spring landscape, the green experiment: "repeating only: is!"
some vocabulary words
in esse (in es′ē): in being; in actual existence
as opposed to
in posse (in pä′sē): in possibility; only potentially
a posse ad esse: from possibility to reality
and a poem
Esse & Posse
The groan of fallen Hosts; a torrid glare
Of cities; battle-cries of Right and Wrong
Where armies shout to rocking fleets that roar
On thundering oceans to the thundering shore,
And high o'er all-long, long prolonged, along
The moaning caverns of the plaining air,-
The cry of conscious Fate. The firmament
Waves from above me like a tattered flag;
And as a soldier in his lowly tent
Looks up when a shot strikes the helpless rag
From o'er him, and beholds the canopy
Of Heaven, so, sudden to my startled eye,
The Heavens that shall be! The dream fades. I stand
Among the mourners of a mourning land.
Sydney Thompson Dobell (1824 - 74)
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading
and my previous Czeslaw Milosz posts
on The Quotidian Kit:
Czeslaw Milosz February 5, 2011
Bridge of Air February 6, 2011
Haiku For The Family January 24, 2010