Gloss/Marginalia: Part 1

[Jan Fassbender via wrongdistance]

[I’ve been reading Milosz’s Land of Ulro on and off for some time now. Mostly I’ve felt perplexed by it. However, there was a resolution of sorts today – in conjunction with the interesting questions we’ve been pursuing with students lately. Since my reading of the last 30 or so pages of Ulro is thickly layered with my thoughts on Beckett (cursory), Dostoevsky, theology, dualism, and the salvation of man (quite a grave group), I thought it may be helpful (to me) to systematically go through Milosz’s words and present my thoughts as they occurred to me at the time of reading. All of the writing contained here and in the two posts which will follow (parts 1 - 3) were written in an hour and fueled by an awful lot of caffeine -- they probably require a lot of revision, but I hope something comes out of all this at the end … ]

To start, this all begins at the last section of Milosz’s writing, where, as he says, he attempts to provide the design of his mosaic of thoughts and allusions.

He says:

Beckett, like his literary contemporaries in the West, has proclaimed urbi et orbi what in the nineteenth century was known only to a handful, and which was the message of Nietzsche’s invective directed against the Europeans: So you killed God and think you can get away with it? Now, on a mass scale, was born the realization of man’s new metaphysical condition, summarized by a single word: NO. No voice reaching down from the cosmos, no good and evil, no fulfillment of the promise, no Kingdom. But that was not all. The individual, proudly pointing to himself as “I,” proved just as much an illusion, a bundle of reflexes covered by a uniform epidermis. Love was an illusion, friendship an illusion – because both were premised on the possibility of communication, and how to communicate when language is reduced to a babble bespeaking the solitariness of each? So what is left in the presence of this huge NO? Only time, absolute time, rushing nowhere out of nowhere; time measured by the gradual deterioration of organic cells.

I wondered, initially, if we haven’t in response to this condemnatory NO, reverted to a fuzzy ‘YES’ – the ‘everything is permitted’ that Dostoevsky warns us about. I keep coming across the contemporary problem of too much, too fast, too ubiquitous. It’s a strange dualism – the more one narrows one’s scope, the more fringe or interstitial space one creates. Or perhaps it’s a dualism between constraint and freedom (thinking here of Kant’s morality). So much is becoming grossly individual – simultaneous with ballooning of the community of individuals. And yet we aren’t communicating any better, we aren’t ourselves being clear or precise or even interesting. For the most part, with the increase of voices comes in increase of nonsensical cacophony.

If humanity can only ever hope to assent to its own existence, to humanity as humanity, then what are we striving for? We fill our minds, mouths, and hands with heteronymy – striving for truth or precision or maybe just diversion.


Milosz uses the French divertissement to describe this – we fritter away our time on secular matters, matters of pleasure or opinion or the extension/alleviation of boredom. We bore ourselves indefinitely – with our arguments, or futile discoveries, with our experiences and our flimsy attempts at explanation and elucidation.

He says:

From the preceding discussion, one thing is evident: the burden of disinheritance is a painful one. Secular humanism has become so consumed by its own vacancy that it must prostrate itself before the bearers of revolutionary slogans.

I was thinking back to some of the conversations I’ve had recently. (A little context: the ‘final’ for the class I’m teaching is an ‘oral exam’ which is essentially a three-person conversation on a question or issue of the student’s choice. We had 18 of these conversations this semester and some of them produced some very important and provocative lines of thought). On many occasions, the student would preface the conversation with ‘I was raised in a [insert monotheistic religion] household and never really thought about this before.’ Some of these conversations would then lead to a statement like, ‘How can someone say that they believe such contradictory, irrational, non-sensical things?’

And we would work out Augustine’s treatment of reason and faith, Aquinas’ thoughts on how reason can do the majority of the work and Kant’s elevation of reason to the point where it seems to have ascended somehow to a realm of sacred mystery. But the question would remain – what are these theologians/philosophers talking about? What is the moment where one’s soul somehow reaches a communion with the divine (Augustine in the garden, the transformation of the Apostles, etc)? How are we to understand the glaring contradictions in the Old Testament and between the Old and New Testaments? How are we to make the leap from a rational understanding of a necessary Being or a necessary First Mover to a Christian God commanding love and/or fear and obedience? How can we talk about faith and reason together (as Aquinas does) when faith seems to be necessarily contradictory and reason necessarily flawed?