Saturday, May 28, 2011

A World Where Culture Matters


I'm reading An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, which is a collection of essays about the Nobel-prize-winning poet that was edited by Cynthia Haven.

I've come to know Cynthia Haven because she has written articles about the St. Ann Choir, and I also consider her one of the "Friends of the St. Ann Choir," which is a casually intersecting set of individuals who attend the Masses where the choir sings at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, go to the sung Sunday Vespers at the St. Ann Chapel where the choir started, and perhaps occasionally share in the good wines and good eating at the choir dinners.

Cynthia and I have had a couple of pleasant lunches together at an English tea room in San Carlos, and we see each other sometimes at choir-related events.


Cynthia's black hair appears red in the bright sunlight that streams through the tea room window

Cynthia currently writes for the Stanford News, and as a freelance journalist she has had her writings published in an impressive list of publications. In our encounters, I heard from time to time from her about how hard she was working on her job, her blog, and especially on compiling the book of essays, in what she has referred to in print as a "not always a kind process of herding contributors against a deadline gun."

A much-appreciated result of my contact with Cynthia in general and of my reading of these essays in particular is that a little window has been re-opened for me, a window into a world where culture matters.

In the other world I inhabit while working for computer companies in Silicon Valley, the type of intellectual achievement most of the people around me value is of the technological and wealth-making kind. I have greatly missed that other world, the world where cultural intelligence is important. I missed it so much that at one point, after I had spent 10 years writing system administration manuals at Sun Microsystems, I remember getting a crush on a young engineer in my group only because he had actually read a book. A work of literature. On his own. Without anyone making him do it.

"Oooh, Dave, you actually read John Updike!" she squealed, smitten.

But back to the main topic. Although Milosz was born in Lithuania, he is known and honored as a Polish poet. He grew up speaking Polish in a milieu where poets were perceived as prophets.

I had previously become impressed with the importance the Poles give to literature when I had read that Pope John Paul II opposed the Nazis as a young man by writing plays and performing them clandestinely with a theatre company. Can you imagine people of any other nationality doing such a thing and thinking that way? Can you imagine an American thinking that playwriting and performing could be seriously considered to be a form of resistance if an evil empire occupied our country?

Only a Pole ....

I was impressed.

In one of Haven's Stanford blogs, I found this quote from Canadian poet, Peter Dale Scott, who confirmed my sense of the difference between the Polish and American view of culture when he said, "... intimacy with Milosz reinforced a contrast I had already felt in Warsaw: of the contrast between Poland — a powerful culture with only a perilously established state – and America – a powerful state with only an incipient and perilously established culture."

My use of the words "Only a Pole..." " is a reference to the use of these same words (albeit in a denigrating sense) in the title of one of the essays from Haven's book. That essay tells about how after Milosz defected to Paris in 1951, a member of the U.S. State Department commented that only a Pole would have been so careless as to defect to France, rather than to the U.S., where he would have had a much better and safer life.

Milosz did end up in the U.S. eventually, then spent 30 years teaching at U Cal Berkeley, until the fall of the Iron Curtain enabled him to go back to Poland and to his native language.

From Haven's collection of essays, I learned that Milosz too has what now I think of as a typically Polish belief in the salvic power of poetry. In one of his poems he wrote, "What is poetry which does not save?"

I'm glad to have gained that glimpse back into that other world where the life of the intellect is valued so highly that the identity of the nation and of its citizens is perceived as dependent on what its poets and playwrights and other writers write.

That the inhabitants of that world are not deluded in their belief about the power of ideas is vividly illustrated by how much the intellectual support of Pope John Paul II and Czeslaw Milosz meant to the workers in the Solidarity movement who struggled for freedom in the shipyard in Gdansk. On the monument to the workers who lost their lives in that struggle, according to one writer, are "icons" of Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Czeslaw Milosz. And on the monument is a stanza from Milosz's poem "You Who Wronged": "Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date."

Postscript:
Let's remember there was also something, no not something, but Someone, Someone else at work in that victory over godless communism. I believe that if there truly is salvation in poetry, it must derive from the true source of salvation, Jesus Christ. Milosz wrote of the spirit that speaks through a poet. I submit that if that spirit is good, it is the spirit of God, the spirit of Truth. And I just know that the prayers by the Pope were as important as any other factor in the victory over the Communist state by the steelworkers.

Monument to the Fallen Workers in the Gdansk Shipyards, not to my taste but I understand and sympathize with the sentiment (What do you call that school of architecture, which seems to be the same school that shaped the also-ugly but inspiring Nowa Huta church?)
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