The National Catholic Review
Laura Sheahen

Can great artists be holy? Should they even try to be holy?

This question has troubled many painters, poets and composers for centuries. Tormented by the world’s imperfections, uniquely susceptible to the sensual and necessarily hardened to criticism, artists may be more vulnerable to particular sins. Jacques Maritain wrote: Every human occupation has its own hardships, entanglements or temptations which run against the perfection of human life. The question is: are the moral hardships and entanglements involved in the calling of an artist especially serious in this regard? Yes, they are, in many respects. The problem is compounded for artists who aspire to be not only moral, but also religious.

Czeslaw Milosz is one such artist. A Lithuanian-born Polish Catholic, his entire Nobel-winning poetry career has been concerned with good and evilnot just in the world, but in himself. His Selected Poems 1931-2004 offers a glimpse into his struggle to be both a good artist and a good human being. This 300-page volume is a slimmer alternative to the hefty 700-plus-page tome of Milosz’s New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (Ecco Press, 2003). I advocate buying the latter, however, since several major poems are missing from the newer collection (for example, The Fall and An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven). This volume is heavy on Milosz’s long poems, which are interspersed with prose and historical notes, and leaves out some of the great short lyrics. Selected Poems does, however, include a handful of memorable poems written at the end of Milosz’s life, Orpheus and Eurydice among them.

The poet’s friend and colleague at the University of California Berkeley, Robert Hass, has co-translated (with the author) the lion’s share of Milosz’s poems. In English, the sound of his translations ranges from tin-ear to serviceable to good. Milosz collaborated with many translators over the years. Though some, like Hass and Robert Pinsky, are better known, I prefer the poems Milosz translated with Lillian Vallee, about 10 of which appear here.

What is the moral hurdle that faces a poet? Well, what reasonable man would like to be a city of demons? Milosz asks in Ars Poetica. Being an artist means to be possessed by voices that are controllable, but that nevertheless jockey for expressionand that are utterly indifferent to ethical claims. In many cases, artistsespecially poetsare unequal to the task of maintaining personal integrity while their psyches fragment and reassemble. Looking at the serial (or not-so-serial) monogamy of Byron or Picasso, the prejudice of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound and the self-absorption of Sylvia Plath, one might despair of artists’ souls.

Although by all accounts Milosz’s life was scandal-free, he laments the mundane horror of everyday selfishness in poems with such titles as A Confession, Temptation and The Accuser. Milosz does not wallow in guilt, but he is keenly aware of his own shortcomings, the debts never paidthe base deeds. In some cases, he speaks of heavy sins that may be as simple and irreversible as causing a snake pain.

In addition to moral flaws, the poems document an unstable religious faith. Like Orpheus, who knew he must have faith and [could] not have faith, Milosz admits he has lost convictions, beliefs, opinions and that he does not know how to care about the salvation of [his] soul.

To these charges Milosz adds the emotional and interpersonal failings of the artist. In the Orpheus poem, the mythological Greek poet descends into Hades by elevators and muses that Lyric poets/ usually haveas he knewcold hearts. In the poem Reading the Notebook of Anna Kamienska (missing from this volume) we learn that the title character was not an eminent poet/ A good person will not learn the wiles of art. In Biography of an Artistalso in the Collected Poemsa painter is every day aware/ Of harm he did to others/ he promised his soul to Hell,/ Provided that his work remained clear and pure. Immoral, irreligious, unfeelingthree important strikes against artists.

In one of the most painful poems in the book (though it is unpoetic in its explicitness), Milosz wrestles with the opposing pressures of art and morality. Speaking of a painter he calls only Mieczyslaw, he says:

 

I believe he would have snatched from things a moment of seeing,
had he observed the rules of the artist
who must be indifferent to good and evil,
to joy and pain and the laments of mortals,
a haughty servant, as he is, of only one aim.

 

But he used his workshop to help people
and hid Jews there, for which the penalty was death.

If truly great artists must cast a cold eye on others’ suffering, what hope is there for their salvation? Not much, Milosz seems to say in some poems. In others, though, he turns to prophecy and dreams for solace. At some future time, the base deeds will be forgiven and indeed may unhappen. I belong to those who believe in apokatastasis./ .../ It means: restoration, he says. In part of Bells in Winter, the poem’s speaker dreams of a sinner Paul condemns in 1 Corinthiansand is reassured that even terrible crimes will be wiped clean. The speaker wakes up absolved of care about our paltry life. And in one startling late poem, This World, Milosz looks to a time when the dead will wake up, not comprehending./ Till everything that happened has unhappened./ What a relief! Breathe freely, you who suffered much.

By his own admission, Czeslaw Milosz fails the holiness test. But he, like other great artists (Rembrandt, Emily Dickinson, Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind), managed to live a moral life. And a select fewlike Rumi, St. John of the Cross and George Herbertproduced excellent art while approaching closer to God than most people, artist or not (Herbert is commemorated in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer). Being an artist is a challenge, but not an insurmountable obstacle, to being a good person. After all, even the cold-hearted Orpheus was willing to plumb Hades for his beloved.

Laura Sheahen is senior religion editor at Beliefnet.com.