The Catholic Imagination of Czeslaw Milosz
Rosman, Artur Sebastian
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation will argue, using a unique hermeneutic model, for interpreting the poetic work of Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz as thoroughly permeated by a Catholic imagination. The introduction will outline a general theory of the imagination and how it has swerved from analogy (classically Catholic) into several types of analogy (Protestant, scientific, and literary) because of historical epistemological failures. The body of the argument consists of three chapters that argue, following arguments made by the poet in his works, for the continuity of a religious poetic voice throughout his career. It does so by demonstrating the continuity of theological interest in the poems of Milosz's early, middle, and late period. Besides being a contribution to Milosz studies, the foregoing argument will also show how much contemporary literary theory is permeated by historically conditioned theological assumptions that are neither clearly acknowledged nor well understood. The elaboration of an expanded conception of imagination in the introduction hinges on the recognition that "imagination" is not sufficiently apprehended as a psychological power or function nor an epistemological premise, since it is inculcated through many elements and practices to constitute a worldview. Central to this conception is a parallel expansion of the idea of the liturgical, not restricted to elements of commonly identified as religious, but including them as indexical and accessible, playing multiple roles in axiological contexts, circumstances of reflection or judgment, and the inhabitation of a world as communally constituted and continued. The historical dimension is treated, albeit schematically, to illustrate that there is no contradiction in there being multiple imaginations, with the primary focus for the subject of concern here the Catholic imagination. The focus on the example and the work Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz is crucial. My central claim is that Milosz, an unmistakably powerful and influential poetic voice in the modern world, is very commonly read and critically commented upon without sufficient attention either to his life-long concern with religious, frequently theological issues, but to an encompassing Catholic imagination that is a major shaping element throughout his career. The chapters in this dissertation take on multiple critical purposes, to frame the issues so as to make clear both how a specifically Catholic imagination can be discerned and understood, and to provide critical commentary and analysis of selected major poems, from his earliest to his latest. In the concluding chapter, the subject is Milosz's long poem, late in his career, "A Treatise on Theology", itself possibly unique in recent literature. My concern will be to show that this is not as the title appears, a mixing of genres, but an explicit and eloquent address to the union of poetry and religious life, neither doctrinaire nor defensive in embracing the historical community and communion of Catholicism. It exemplifies poetry not as merely craft, but as a profound way of thinking. Chapter One, "Visibility and the Catholic Imagination," starts with an extended account of the visual culture of the dialectical-Protestant imagination. Such an account helps to flesh out the analogous structures involved in forming both Catholic and Protestant imaginations and proves that the latter has a rich historical imagination. This then leads into an explanation of how and why the Catholic imagination differs from dialectical imaginations (Protestant, scientific, and literary) in the emphasis it puts upon man and the world as immanent analogues of the transcendent. This unique accent upon the visible world as an analogue for God is explored in the following early Milosz poems: "Encounter," "The Sun," "Faith," "Hope," "Love," "The Spirit of History," and "Esse." Chapter 2, "Breakdowns of Analogy and Cafeteria Manicheanism," discusses poems of Milosz's middle period and their interpretation of breakdowns in the analogical imagination caused by developments in the sciences, literature, and theology. It pays special attention to the poet's development of the category of Manicheanism. It argues that Milosz is not a Manichean himself, even though his writing, especially in this period, is colored by Manichean categories. The analysis of the poems "Veni Creator," "To Robinson Jeffers," "To Raja Rao," and "The Accuser" (a section from the poem "From the Rising of the Sun") demonstrates how the poet picks and chooses Manichean categories in order to highlight the areas where analogical thinking is breaking down. His selectively descriptive, rather than prescriptive, use of Manicheanism is the reason why this chapter resorts to calling him a "Cafeteria Manichean." Special attention is paid to Milosz's use of Eucharistic images that counter what he calls "Neo-Manichean" historical trends. Chapter 3, "Analogy and the Problem of the Good," discusses Milosz's late poems with an emphasis upon the problem of the good. These poems tend to thematize the goodness of the world and man much more frequently than the poems from the poet's early and middle periods. The poems "Bypassing Rue Descartes," "Realism," "Unde Malum," and "Presence" are analyzed from this angle with special emphasis put upon the theological concept of the communion of saints. The Conclusion, "Yet I Sing With Them," is an analysis of the last two sections of the late poem "Treatise on Theology." This work is singled out because it is Milosz's final poetic treatise. As such, it gathers up all the theological themes we have discussed in poems from his middle, early, and late periods and thereby confirms the poet's thesis that there is a specifically religious thematic continuity to all of his poetry. The "Treatise on Theology" also advances the importance of participating in a historical religious community and the power of beauty to foster an analogical imagination. These last two themes were only present rarely or implicitly in the earlier poems.