This year marks the centenary of the great Polish poet, Czeslaw Milowsz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980. To mark the event, Cynthia Haven of Stanford University has put together a collection of essays called An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz. Contributors include Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, W.S. Merwin, and Robert Pinsky.
I’ve only just read Haven’s introduction, “From Devenir to Etre,” and one passage in particular has grabbed and held my attention. Ten years ago, Haven interviewed Milosz at his home in Berkeley, Calif., and asked him about être and devenir. His reply was evasive: “My goodness. A big problem.”
And so it is. It has to do with the Ur-question of Western philosophy, posed and pondered by Parmenides (“what exists is uncreated and imperishable, for it is whole and unchanging and complete”) and Heraclitus (“the only thing permanent is change”): How reconcile the one and the many, being and becoming, essence and existence, être and devenir? Parmenides and Heraclitus do not really disagree. Heraclitus simply insists that the nature of being is dynamic, not static, that it is a process, not a thing, something on the order of what his older contemporary Lao Tzu called the Tao (for Heraclitus it was the Logos).
Milosz eventually does get around to talking about this: “We are in a flux,” he tells Haven. “We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essence is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.
“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is … the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”
For whatever reason, this brought to my mind something Meister Eckhart said, which I recently posted on my blog: “There exists only the present instant … a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”
This in turn brought to mind, by way of contrast, Krishnamurti’s notion that what is happening right now has never happened before and will never happen again, which is why we call it “new.”
For Milosz, obviously, the issue underlying all this is not merely academic, but vital. Failure to engage it undermines values, which is another way saying that it deprives us of our humanity, our essence, that ingredient of being that makes us who we are.
But that essential humanity must be something rather different from our ordinary, everyday humanity. For that humanity is the one enamored of rules and regulations, given to drawing up shopping lists of do’s and don’ts, always on the lookout for the moral equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
So, while I am at one with Milosz in deploring “the undoing of essences,” I can’t quite agree with the sharp distinction he draws between being and becoming. That “present instant” Eckhart speaks of is like the vast and always-moving, ever-changing ocean, wondrously placid one moment, dangerously violent the next, able to take us from continent to continent, equally able to destroy cities.
There are no cut-and-dried rules for living. Most of us know without having to think about it what would be really wrong to do. We need techniques, not rules. A note-perfect reading of a score does not make music. That comes from proper phrasing, just the right tempo, a bit a rubato here, a trill there. These can be taught and learned, but cannot be notated.
I also think that Milosz is right about postmodernism, that it “consists in denying any attempt at truth.” But the undoing of essences is a consequence of this, not its cause. The postmodernist apprehends neither being nor becoming. He apprehends only ideas. He is, as Beckett puts it in Ohio Impromptu, “buried in who knows what thoughts … profounds of mind buried in who knows what profounds of mind, or mindlessness, whither no light can reach, no sound.”