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Book reviews by Frederick Glaysher

John Milton. Harold Bloom.

John Milton

John Milton

John Milton. Harold Bloom.

Abdiel Agonistes…. October 24, 2000

John Milton’s reputation has unjustly suffered a diminution during the last two centuries. The romantics, repulsed by his religious theme of the earthly pilgrimage of the soul, corrupted his poem by maliciously interpreting Satan as the hero, despite Milton’s unequivocal condemnation of Satan and his equally lucid characterization of the repentant Adam as the true hero. T.S. Eliot and those who ape his opinions also find Milton the man and his religious beliefs repellent. The poets of the modern era deride Milton because, in general, they have abandoned religious belief and turned to vague forms of idealism, as in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, and to the creation of idiosyncratic ersatzes, as in Poe’s Eureka. John Keats’s Endymion and the Hyperion poems fail as much because of their superficial content as their poor structure and execution. In Auden’s analysis, “the modern problem” hamstrings the romantics as much as Yeats or Pound. Milton never suffered from such a malady and hence the envious detestation he has received from minor poets who are unquestionably his inferiors. Milton possesses a serious vision of history and humankind that could only achieve full expression in the most demanding form of poetry–the epic. But most poets of the last few hundred years have not found themselves entrusted with such a vision. Much to the contrary, they excel in every imaginable type of turpitude and triviality that the human mind is capable of producing. Like Yeats they have often thrown together every decadent principle or superstition that has ever happened along. This sorry state of affairs has become so common in postmodern poetry that anyone who would attempt to restore epopee to its glorious heights of noble seriousness and serenity would find ranked against him every academic hack and, as Milton phrased it, every “libidinous and ignorant” poetaster who has “scarce ever heard of that which is the main consistence of a true poem.” Milton knew the “consistence of a true poem,” and both Paradise Lost and many passages scattered throughout his prose attest to it. In The Reason of Church Government he surveys the abilities of such masters as Homer, Virgil, Job, and Sophocles. Along with the modern loss of belief in God has gone his high and serious belief in the office of the poet. Equally banished from the modern conception of poetry is all respect for positive values, morals, and virtues. The story of twentieth-century literature is the abuse and misguided replacement of such healthy standards with the perversions of modernism and postmodernism. In brief, “the modern problem.”

Unlike in the work of Jacques Derrida and his academic flies, the “presence” of God is a reality for Milton. Here in the abstract Milton gives us what throughout Paradise Lost he has been dramatizing–the “principles and presuppositions” to which Adam, representative man, must obediently submit, not merely in Eden, but for the fulfillment of his life during his journey on the earthly plane. In Satan, Milton presents the picture of the rebel, almost a type of the Renaissance hero Benvenuto Cellini, who through pride usurps power and whose fundamental actions and motives have their most appropriate modern analogue, as many have observed, in the archvillains Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Such men fully embody the will to power that the nihilist Nietzsche, as Thomas Mann put it, glorified. Such totalitarian dictators were the inevitable product of the romantic fascination with Satan, as though he were a hero and not an arrogant aspirant after power. Such cultural confusion reveals itself in Goethe’s Faust as well as in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Such errors in judgment, such fundamental confusion of values, mark the modern era and set it off from the spiritually healthier times of Dante, Langland, Spenser, and Milton–healthier only in terms of possessing to a degree a unified spiritual vision that provided universal standards with which to confront the damnable deeds of their day. Far from the banal optimism of the modern era, as in Whitman, they know that the long hard way of man is through suffering and turmoil and that the assurance Michael gives Adam about future generations abides eternally: “Doubt not but that sin / Will reign among them.” Despite Freud’s “freeing” man from sin, the twentieth century proved to be the most sinful in history, precisely because the unique spiritual reality of each soul and its fundamental limitations were denied. The violent, arrogant, insidious deeds of the archvillains of modern political nihilism alone account for the suffering and deaths of hundreds of millions of people, while much of the so-called intelligentsia of the West and East defended or prepared the way for the slaughter. Whereas Virgil denounced war except as the last resort for establishing peace, modern poets have often ignored the inhumanities of our century–save for those like Pound whose totalitarianism abetted the brutalizing of millions of innocents and the early Auden who approved “the necessary murder.” Here at the end of the twentieth century when humankind still stands technologically capable of destroying much of the vast expanse of the globe and much, though not all, of its population, here when a more trustworthy political form has yet to be securely established to channel the will of the citizens of the international community, epopee must again take account of the social domain and man’s earthly journey through these immense atrocities. For by faithfully treading the dark way of horror, by weighing the modern loss of belief, humankind may begin to regain the path in the twenty-first century, and, like Dante’s persona, attain the highest summit of peace and glory.

Frederick Glaysher

 

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Roadside Dog. Czeslaw Milosz.

Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz

A Roadside Dog. Czeslaw Milosz.

Antinomies…. October 24, 2000

In A Year of the Hunter, Czeslaw Milosz unequivocally writes, “Poetry’s separation from religion has always strengthened my conviction that the erosion of the cosmic-religious imagination is not an illusion and that the vast expanses of the planet that are falling away from Christianity are the external correlative of this erosion.” Road-Side Dog exudes this same consciousness, yet, interested only in Christianity, he fails to perceive that vast expanses of the planet have also left behind the Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist religions.

Like his contemporaries, Milosz is a child of dualities and contradictions, as he discloses in Unattainable Earth: “Sometimes believing, sometimes not believing, / With others like myself I unite in worship.” Though “loyal and disloyal,” he performs what is in itself an act of affirmation. One reason for such tensions must be his recognition that we are “In an intermediary phase, after the end of one era and before the beginning of a new one.” In another entry he writes, “There is only one theme: an era is coming to an end which lasted nearly two thousand years, when religion had primacy of place in relation to philosophy, science and art. . . .” Milosz recognizes the validity of his own honest doubts and the abyss of evil and historical calamity that is swallowing everything before it, yet he does so while continuing to “unite in worship.” Similarly, in “Lecture V” of The Collected Poems, the persona affirms “We plod on with hope,” and then allows, “And now let everyone / Confess to himself. eHas he risen?’ eI don’t know.’” It was perhaps these lines that led Pope John Paul II to say to Milosz, as he reports in A Year of the Hunter, “You always take one step forward and one step back.” In an essay in New Perspectives Quarterly, Milosz describes himself as a believer, while in A Year of the Hunter he refers to an experience in church on Palm Sunday as an “intuitive understanding that Christ exists.” These contradictions achieve their fullest expression in “Two Poems” in Provinces: The first poem celebrates earthly life and its values, while the second poem, “A Poem for the End of the Century,” bitterly, ironically recalls the religious past. Of these two contrasting poems, Milosz writes in a headnote that “taken together” they “testify to my contradictions, since the opinions voiced in one and the other are equally mine.” To highlight either side over the other would be a distortion of his psyche. Milosz conveyed his complexity to the Pope when he replied, “Can one write religious poetry in any other way today?” I have often thought of Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, ascending the island rocks, exclaiming, in one of the most poignant settings of modern literature, “There is no God.”

Perhaps because Milosz perceives our age as an intermediary one, he finds it more possible than most poets to hold out hope for the future. His hope, though, as we have seen, is not naive, foolish, or unaware of the incessant disintegration. It is that of one tried by experience, who yet believes there are reasons for such a poem as “Thankfulness.” To give “thanks for good and ill” manifests a trust that transcends our usual human self-centeredness and that submits to the power of the mystery of being, a trust that acknowledges in another poem “They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth.” Such trust is also the prerequisite to finding “Eternal light in everything on earth.” Although from the viewpoint of traditional Catholic belief some might think such lines are suffused with vague gnosticism, accuse him of having fallen off from the faith, of “willing belief,” as he says of himself in The Land of Ulro, one must recognize the honest complexity of his commitment if one wishes to confront, as he has, the undeniable damage that has been visited upon all organized forms of religion and government during the modern era.

In reference to religion, while recognizing the undeniable damage, Milosz has often expressed his skepticism and uneasiness with Catholicism. Although he seems to favor at times reversion to Catholicism, suggests he himself is a heretic, harbors the conceit of possessing the true truth among the great religions, he also writes of going “forward, but on a different track,” of a “new vision,” “a new awareness,” “new perspectives,” as in A Year of the Hunter:

Why should we shut our eyes and pretend, rejecting theobvious, that Ancient Rome is again in decline, and this time it’s not pagan Rome under the blows of Christianity, but the Rome of the monotheists’ God? Since this, and nothing else, is the undeclared theme of contemporary poetry in various languages, obviously this conflict has already crossed the threshold of universal consciousness. . . . Perhaps . . . new perspectives will open up . . . .

Milosz has worked more deeply with the spiritual dislocations of modern life than any other poet of the twentieth century since T. S. Eliot.

In regard to government, Milosz’s experience prepared him to understand where we have been and where we are going in a manner unique among modern poets. All the more eloquently rings his plea in his Nobel Lecture for sanity eventually to prevail among the nations of the earth:

We realize that the unification of our planet is in the making, and we attach importance to the notion of international community. The days when the League of Nations and the United Nations were founded deserve to be remembered.

This realization of the importance of international community can be found throughout his writings. Its source, beyond his own experience, was, by his own testimony, his uncle, Oscar Milosz, poet and seer, who predicted the “triumph of the Roman Catholic Church.” Narrow Catholic hopes aside, history, lower case, moves toward the vindication of both of them, as well as of all those who have stood throughout this century for the further development of international institutions through which the nations may cooperate for the protection of the weak and vulnerable, for the protection of the little ones. If “There are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Milosz,” the fault lies entirely with us and the age of academic criticism that has almost strangled the life out of poetry.

Frederick Glaysher

 

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Poetry of Arechi. Ryuichi Tamura.

Poetry of Arechi. Ryuichi Tamura.

Vanishing…. October 12, 2000

For Japan and its writers, the modern darkness deepens during the period of military fascism and World War II. With the defeat and unconditional surrender, immense shock waves rocked the entire culture calling into question the pseudo-Shinto and Confucian values Japan had based its society on for almost a century. As writers returned from one front or another of the war, they found a Japan devastated by the Allied bombing. Maebashi, for instance, where I lived for a few years, was reduced to rubble along with its bridges. Before long, the entire country was restructured by the Occupation. Japanese writers now understood much more deeply the experience of the Western World War I generation. Better than any other postwar poet, Tamura Ryuichi (1923-1998) registers, since his own hometown in the suburbs of Tokyo no longer existed, the shock and disorientation of the modern Japanese psyche. Briefly a student of Hagiwara Sakutaro, Tamura had little interest in classical Japanese poetry, which emphasized the unity of man and nature, but read widely in Western literature and was especially influenced by T. S. Eliot, Steven Spender, C. Day Lewis, and W. H. Auden, the last of whom Tamura eventually met in New York in 1971. In a literary magazine called Arechi or “wasteland,” Tamura and other postwar poets gave voice to the despair and horror they felt, unequivocally stating, in an early manifesto, “The present is a wasteland.” The first poem in which Tamura finds his true voice and distance from his material is the prose poem “Etching,” published in 1956:

Now he sees a landscape he saw in a German etching it appears to be an aerial view of an ancient city between twilight and darkness or a realistic drawing of a modern-day cliff being taken from midnight toward dawn This man the one I began to describe killed his father when he was young that autumn his mother went beautifully insane (tr. Christopher Drake)

The critic Ikuko Atsumi has said of this poem that it aims at a universal vision of East and West, ancient and modern. The extreme nationalism of the Japanese fascists now defeated, the “he” can view the fullness or “landscape” of Western culture, specifically German, declining into “darkness” or rising as “a modern-day cliff,” ominous, dehumanized, marked by loss and angst. Atsumi suggests the father “possibly refers to the emperor system in Japan, and the mother he made beautifully insane to Japan’s aesthetic consciousness.” Like the West, the East too descended into a wasteland of madness and violence, the ancient now discredited and rendered nugatory. This is the “Etching” come to light, etched into Tamura’s consciousness and all postwar Japanese writers of worth. Blending together the perspective of the subjective “I” and objective “he,” aware of the horror, Tamura introduces into Japanese poetry a voice of detachment, observing life outside his own personal existence with meditative restraint, seeking a deeper understanding of modern human experience.

Having known and read Tamura’s work for more than fifteen years, I have often thought of him as akin somehow to Robert Lowell. He has a memory of Japan’s past that he never idealizes, but works with and probes it, pondering always without sentimentality the modern and by-gone days. Like Lowell and so many postmodern Western poets, Tamura also goes through a time of fairly formalistic writing, but he seems to outgrow it and returns to engaging universal experience outside his own little personal consciousness. Many other Japanese poets, as in the United States, are still stuck in such solipsism. Saigyo and Basho both believed poetry must consider the transcendent and involve conceptual knowledge outside the self, not merely aesthetic formalism. As late as 1982, in what is one of his greatest poems, “Spiral Cliff,” Tamura looks soberly at modern world history. After the speaker reflects on a photograph of a deer “falling off a cliff” and wonders “what’s after it,” he says,

Our century ends without decadence/ after the night and fog of Nazi gas chambers/ after Soviet forced labor camps/ after two U.S. atomic bombs on Japan/ there’s no thrill left in killing,/ no fear of the soul, no crime in adultery. . . .

In “our century,” the values requisite for perceiving and defining “decadence” have disappeared, “crime and evil disconnected,” all restraining sense of the soul lost. As a result, unimaginable horror has been perpetrated in every region of the globe on an appalling scale affecting both the social and individual realms. Like a roller coaster, “our century ends on pure speed.” Recalling the photo of the deer, he thinks,

I’m afraid of high places/ the cliff in me/ am I the hunter/ or the prey?

The “high places” are both those of earlier mentioned “boardrooms / of huge corporations,” East and West, in a manner reminiscent of Kaneko Mitsuharu’s Book of Mud, and the “modern-day cliff” of confusion, now “the cliff in me.” The ambiguity of the question “am I the hunter / or the prey?” acknowledges the complexity of modern life where all are somehow complicitous in human tragedy. Terrified by “blank paper,” by “what dreams will live and die there,” Tamura accepts the writer’s obligation to struggle for values worthy of all human beings, not just Japanese.

Next in dream half nightmare, he sees his own inner cliff protruding “between dreams / spiraling” down. Waking in the dawn, lying horizontally across the bed, he reads the morning newspaper full of massacre and civil war:

Vanishing/ cliff dream/ vertical dream/ elementally/ Gone

All the dreams have vanished as off the edge of a cliff. Vertical dreams have been replaced by the horizontal, exactly the information that fills the newspaper. Like the best of modern writers, W. H. Auden or Robert Lowell, Tamura has the honesty and strength of intellect and spirit to recognize it is all “gone.” I believe his vision of modern life and Japan is true, for it has been my own experience, lived not only in Japan but also in the United States, where “without decadence” the culture sinks to ever more dehumanized levels of violence, depravity, and social fragmentation. The importance of  Ryuichi Tamura’s poetry has not been sufficiently recognized in the West, nor in Japan.

Frederick Glaysher

 

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Silent Cry. Kenzaburo Oe.

Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe

The Silent Cry: A Novel. Kenzaburo Oe.

The Global Cry…. June 24, 2000

Let me discuss “The Silent Cry” and Kenzaburo Oe’s work in general by first sketching in a broader view of Kenzaburo Oe’s literary interests.

No other Japanese writer has seen as deeply into Yukio Mishima’s suicide and the “vacuum” of modern Japanese life as has the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, Kenzaburo Oe:

“His death was a performance for the foreign audience, a very spectacular performance. The relationship between Mishima and the emperor system was rather dubious; the Japanese knew that. But from foreigners’ point of view–say, an American reader’s point of view–the Japanese emperor system is something inexplicable. Therefore, that final act by Mishima, tied in with the emperor system, appeared to be a kind of mystical thing. In actuality, he did it in order to entertain foreign readers.”

As in this excerpt from a 1986 interview, Oe, also influenced early on by Marxism and existentialism, especially Sartre, has had the vision and strength to confront in his writing not only the nostalgia of Mishima but also the past and present implications of the emperor system for Japan. In 1971 his novella “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears,” written just after Mishima’s suicide, courageously explores the nature and meaning of emperor worship. Having known Japanese students and friends who fiercely supported the emperor, loathed him, or were simply indifferent, with most falling into the last category, I believe it may be difficult for Americans to appreciate fully the scope of Oe’s achievement in this novella. Oe tried to convey the challenge of his theme when he wrote in an essay, “A man who criticises Mishima and his works must have the determination to criticise the total culture that orients itself toward the Imperial hierarchy.” Far from falling short of this determination, Oe creatively confronts the Japanese fascist and wartime past in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and thereby truly serves the Japanese people and, I would argue, the emperor as well.

Oe grew up in a small village on the island of Shikoku where the events of “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and many of his stories take place. While in a Tokyo hospital dying of cancer, the persona narrates the densely complicated events of his father’s fervent devotion to the emperor, filtered through his own consciousness as a child and a mentally unbalanced adult recalling his “happy days.” His Japanese mother, who grew up in China, and whose own father was involved in the Daigaku Incident of 1910-11, an attempt to assassinate the emperor, believes her son has never been mentally stable since the age of three. Lying in his hospital bed, he recalls “hate-filled exchanges” between his mother and father about the role of his grandfather. Later in his life, she had always refused to discuss anything with her son about his father, a military official who returned from Manchuria a few years before the end of the war and who died attempting to lead an uprising in support of the emperor after his 1945 announcement of surrender on the radio. Respected by the village people, the father, suffering from cancer, secludes himself in the family storehouse. For the boy observing his father, he becomes a “kind of idol,” obedient to the emperor. After his older brother deserts in Manchuria, the boy shouts in defiance at his mother, “I don’t have no traitor’s blood in my veins”:

“Even now he could recall, with extreme vividness and reality . . . wanting to shout Long live the emperor! so that [his father] would acknowledge that it was his young son who was the true heir to his blood.”

Oe slowly leads the reader to the realization that the young boy has grown up to repeat the obsessions of the father, destroying himself in the process. When the mother, “a simple old country woman,” visits him as a thirty-five year old adult in the hospital, she struggles to no avail to get him to recognize what an absurd, cowardly figure his father actually was, while cancer literally and symbolically continues to eat him up. Near the end she says to the persona’s wife, whose own marriage and life have been ruined, “Sooner or later the Japanese are going to change their attitude about what happened, and I intend to live to see it, yessir! THIS IS THE DREAM. THIS MUST BE THE DREAM!” This is clearly the dream of Oe and many Japanese. He more than any other modern Japanese writer has had the courage to write fiction that might help Japan to accomplish it.

Also set mostly in Shikoku, The Silent Cry (1967), presents two brothers who return to their country village nestled in a valley. Although a dialectical struggle takes place between them, reminiscent of Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, the older brother Mitsusaboro is the central figure of the novel, which is told from his point of view. In the opening paragraph, Mitsusaboro thinks to himself,

“Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being . . . still I find an endless nothing.”

He crawls into a hole dug for a septic tank and claws at the sides with his bare fingers trying to get the walls to cave in on himself. At the end of the summer his best friend, who had been injured in front of the Diet demonstrating against the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty, had painted his head red, stuck a raw cucumber up the anus of his naked body, and hung himself. Mitsusaboro reflects, “And I too have the seeds of that same, incurable madness. . . .” Beginning in the hole, haunted by despair, madness, and nihilism, he gropes and searches throughout the novel for something worth living for. At dawn sticking his head up “two inches above the ground,” he notices,

“the backs of the dogwood leaves were a burning red… a red that reminded me of the flames in the picture of hell that I’d seen in our village temple every year on the Buddha’s Birthday. . . .

Frederick Glaysher

 

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