Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine
Listening last night to Natalie Long talking about Poland and mentioning Czeslaw Milosz reminded me of reading his ABC’s back in 2001. Around that time I had been reading the Cuban Reinaldo Arenas and the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano. I was searching for a “form” to put together my scattered and varied materials pertaining to life with Mev Puleo. All three of them provided encouragement to synthesize a form of collage/mosaic for the telling of that story.
Turning back now to those ABC’s, here are the alphabetical entries that fill his 313-page book.
Adam and Eve
“What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual goodwill! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity! The America of contradictions can, not must, reveal itself to immigrants who have made it here. Those who have not made it will see only its brutality.” 25
“Of American poets, I will always have the greatest affinity with Walt Whitman.”
“But those who proclaim that God ‘abandoned us in 1941’ are acting like conservators of an anodyne civilization. And what about the history of humankind, with its millennia of mutual murder? To say nothing of natural catastrophes, or of the plague, which depopulated Europe in the fourteenth century. Nor of those aspects of human life which do not need a grand public arena to display their subservience to the laws of earth.” 40
Ballads and Romances
“A situation from amorality tale: an honorable, noble, truth-speaking man and a great writer, spat upon by a couple of so-called intellectuals in the name of political correctness. What doctrinaire blindness, to the point that she had to write an entire novel about it, Les Mandarins, in her effort to slander Camus, linking his opinions with gossip about his private life.” 58
“All biographies are false, not excluding my own, which the reader may be inclined to post from this ABC book. They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how. In fact, the same falseness affects autobiographies because whoever writes about his own life would have to share God’s viewpoint to understand those interconnections.” 60
Bocca di Margra
“Buddhism is charitable, bringing experience of the sacral to many people who are unable to reconcile themselves to the contradictions of the biblical religions, to a personal God. Buddhism, neither theistic not atheistic, simply does not speak about the beginning of the world and a first cause, and therefore it need not wrestle with the question of how the Creator can be at one and at the same time both good and evil.”
Connecticut River Valley
“Curiosity must be a powerful passion if so many people for thousands of years have tried to discover, touch, name, understand an elusive reality of ‘n’ dimensions. How wise was the person who said that we are like flat, two-dimensional figures on a sheet of paper, to whom it would be difficult to explain that something exists one centimeter above that paper in a third dimension, not to mention other dimensions.” 93
“Polyphony makes Dostoyevsky such a modern writer: he hears voices, many voices, in the air, quarreling with each other, proclaiming contradictory ideas – are we not all in the present phase of civilization exposed to this raucous chaos of voices?” 100
“I read books for a thousand different reasons, but the readings which I call edifying I undertook with a distinct goal – to fortify myself.” 108
“The past is inaccurate, because we cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. We must rely on people’s memory, which is treacherous, because memory is constantly juggling and revising the data of experience. Even when people say they were present when something happened, one cannot trust them, but usually they simply repeat as a fact what they heard from other people. In telling about an event, we ourselves cannot avoid revising it, because our narrative simplifies and composes a whole out of selected components, while omitting others. It suffices to compare our knowledge of facts with their depiction in chronicles, journalistic accounts, memoirs, to understand the need for fantasizing that is somehow inscribed in the language itself, and which draws us into the forest of fiction.” 147
Martinique and Guadeloupe
“A disgusting tribe of moneys, making horrible, stupid faces, copulating, screeching, murdering each other. After such an enormous number of deaths administered to people by people in the twentieth century, how can one praise this tribe? Its deeds do not match either the image of innocent children in a classroom, or the ability to achieve the highest knowledge of the soul. But contradiction is no doubt an inseparable part of the human condition, and that suffices as a source of miraculousness.” 200
Slawoniewski and Slyczko
Stupidity of the West
Suzuki, D. T.
Szetejnie, Ginejty, and Peiksva
“We work at knowing the truth about our lifetime even if its images, derived from various people, are not consistent with each other. We exist as separate beings, but at the same time each of us acts as a medium propelled by a power we do not know well, a current of the great river, as it were, through which we resemble each other in our common style or form. The truth about us will remind us of a mosaic composed of little stones of different values and colors.” 290
“The most Whitmanesque among American poets was Allen Ginsberg, not so much because of his open homosexuality as through the courage with which he broke with convention, often against his own will.” 300
And the last chapter, Envoi, has this reflection—
Perhaps my ABC’s are instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir. Each of the individuals remembered here sets into motion a network of mutual allusions and interdependencies linked to the facts of my century. In the final analysis, I do not regret that I have dropped names so cavalierly (or so it must seem), or that I have made a virtue of my casual way.
I’ve been turning over in my mind a class based on Kerouac’s observation, “Something that you feel will find its own form” and I may add Milosz to the reading list alongside Alice Walker, Eduardo Galeano, Joe Brainard, and Svetlana Alexievich.