Friday, May 12, 2017


Milosz's writing style is engaging, but his subject matter is frequently of little interest to me, so I don't have much to say about the book. To Begin Where I Am is a collection of essays which tend to focus on religion and poetry, two subjects that don't excite me much. While my sensibilities are similar to Milosz's, he seems too genteel and reticent at times, and I get the feeling that I am reading someone who lived centuries rather than decades ago. It also doesn't help that his frame of reference seems to be Poland, a country well beyond my personal experience. I had hoped that more of the book would be about his life in America, and though he does mention it, the context is usually professional and academic.

It is possible that Milosz adopted an attitude, which seems plausible given his background, in which he refrained from biting the hand that fed him. Certainly he was a survivor, and whether it was a deliberate strategy or not, stylistically he comes across as restrained and polite where others, myself included, would be blunter. Nevertheless, he does manage to say what he thinks is important, but perhaps a little less forcefully than I would prefer.

The essay that interested me the most, "Against Incomprehensible Poetry," was written while he was editing A Book of Luminous Things, my favorite book of poems, and concludes as follows:

Average people feel and think a great deal, but they cannot study philosophy, which would not offer them much comfort in any case. In truth, serious problems reach us by means of creative works, which on the surface appear to have only artistry as their aim, even though they are freighted with questions that everyone poses to himself. And it is here, perhaps, that in the wall surrounding poetry for the elect a gate opens up, leading to poetry for all. I will be satisfied if my attempt at defending poetry against narrowing and desiccation will be recognized as one of many attempts that can be made.

Passages like this mean a lot to me, because they express the importance of art beyond its role as a subject for study or as a source of entertainment or prestige. His conception of art remains obscure in American culture.

Milosz also comments on a few poets with whom I'm familiar. He seems to like Robinson Jeffers, whom I also like, though he isn't a favorite. I concur with him that Robert Frost was not "the greatest American poet of the twentieth century." Frost, he says, is "cold." However, I did not feel that Milosz was nearly as expansive as he might have been as a cultural critic, and therefore found the book a little disappointing. In his life he had twice escaped repressive communist regimes, so perhaps it makes sense that by the time he arrived in the U.S. he was as a matter of course not about to rock the boat.

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The Trump presidency has been so much in the news recently that I should say something about that. One positive aspect of it has been the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France: French voters probably feared the prospect of a Trump-like president there. It remains to be seen whether Macron will be a competent leader. In the U.S., it looks as if Trump's administration may implode. The evidence increasingly points to Russian connections and attempted cover-ups. The most plausible explanation is that Trump's business empire depends on hidden Russian financial backing, and that, with or without Trump's direct knowledge, Russia planted several Russian sympathizers high up within his administration. While fellow Republicans have been trying to use Trump to advance their political agendas, his credibility will eventually become so damaged that they will no longer be able to support him without heavy political costs.

In my mind, the absurdity of this situation also applies to Russia. Putin has been playing a dated Cold War game because that is all he knows. The fact is that, since the eighteenth century, world power has been a function of economic dominance. Because Russia's economic prospects are marginal, Putin's disruptive KGB tactics in a sense make him seem as out of touch with reality as Trump. You can give Putin some credit for undermining the U.S. political system, but this will surely have no long-term effect on world history. If anything, the short-term result will be that American politicians in high office will be more closely scrutinized for foreign influences. The disastrous Trump administration may also set back the Republican Party several years, allowing the Democratic Party to make significant gains, which seems to be the opposite of Putin's intention. In any case, I am looking forward to the exit of Trump, whose skills seem limited to unscrupulous self-enrichment, reality TV performances and golf.

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