The scholar Jacques Barzun provides our initial definition of decadence, taken from his brilliant survey of intellectual history, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (2000): “All that is meant by decadence is ‘falling off.’” His discussion ranges over Western art, music, religion, and literature, documenting and critiquing the many figures, changes, and evolutions up to the reigning vision of our time, which he succinctly epitomizes while defending the term of his assessment: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.” Barzun goes on to explain how one can identify when a culture declines into decadence:
“How does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths…. To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts….”
From this perspective, modern Western culture has been in free-fall for over a hundred years, arguably even longer. Whether high or low, such is the story of Western civilization, and, to the extent that it became modern civilization, its decadence has long been passed around the world, into the vitals of every regional civilization on the face of the earth. Together, we have all sunk into the dark pit of cynicism, frivolity, and despair, “fallen off” into nihilism….
Now available in
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.
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.
Author of Don Quixote, Cervantes wrote Journey to Parnassus in 1614, about four years before he died. I’ve wanted to read this book for the last year or more. I had searched antiquarian bookstores online but discovered the only translation of it was in 1883, and they wanted, if memory serves, about $200 for it. Beyond what I could afford. But I kept thinking about it and searching for it once in a while. To my surprise, about a month ago, I stumbled on it on Google Books. They had scanned it in from the graduate library at the University of Michigan, where I was a student, long, long ago. What a thrill finding it. I’ve had to process the copy a little to get it to load on the 4×6 inch screen of my Sony Reader, but better than my laptop. And worth the effort. It allowed me really to be drawn much deeper into his imaginative world…
Cervantes uses the journey motif in a fascinating, humorous way to survey and lambast or applaud Spanish poets of his day and earlier. Somewhat similar to Czeslaw Milosz’s A Treatise on Poetry and other such works. Ultimately, though, it’s a self-serving work, as the genre is, and therefore of a lesser order. Nevertheless, it’s a fine work that ought to be better known in the English reading world.
The text is bilingual, allowing me to dip into the Spanish a little, which I enjoyed.
ANN ARBOR—On September 22, 29, and October 6, the theatre company, Apollo’s Troupe, will stage the theater adaptation of the poem, The Parliament of Poets, written by Michigan poet Frederick Glaysher and published in 2012 by Earthrise Press. Continue reading →