Milosz’s Choice; An Investigation of Sentimentality


SEVERAL YEARS AGO I had an argument with a woman about Czeslaw Milosz. I no longer remember the woman’s name but I do remember vividly where we were: L'Isle sur la Sorgue, a city of canals and creaking waterwheels in the south of France. It was sunset, that long moment when the heat of Provençal summer recedes, the tops of buildings and trees seem bathed in golden dust, and spirits quicken with a happy restlessness. I also remember what this women said, that she didn’t like Milosz’s poetry because it was sentimental.
I was shocked, both because I had always seen Milosz as possessed of a clear-eyed recognition of human imperfection that was the very opposite of sentimentality, and because, having just proclaimed my love of his work, I felt personally impugned, not just for my taste, but for my character and vision of the world.
I don’t remember which aspects of Milosz’s writing struck this woman as sentimental. Perhaps she never told me. We were at a café, among friends, sharing a bottle of wine, anticipating the coming night. One way or another that thread of our conversation got lost. But I have thought about her assertion ever since and I have had numerous extended debates with her in my imagination, all of which end with my uttering one or another pronouncement that would seem to settle our argument forever – except, of course, it never does. At odd moments – during a walk, or at some sleepless hour of the early morning – her assertion will come back to me across more than a decade, and we will start arguing all over again.

THE OXFORD ENGLISH Dictionary defines “sentimental” as, “Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion.” In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary “sentimental” is said to constitute, “expressing or stimulating an excessive, affected or unwarranted emotional indulgence.” And a sentimental person is, “unduly, habitually, or promiscuously affected by the softer, pleasanter, more feminine emotions.”
What most strikes me about such definitions is their extremely limited usefulness for determining whether any particular feeling or representation is sentimental. No emotion feels “unwarranted” when you are in its grip. Even when you realize retrospectively that you might have gone a little over the top, these definitions provide no clue as to the point at which appropriate “emotional indulgence” crosses over into “excessive,” nor guidance as to how to distinguish a “superficial” from a profound emotion. Nor do they make it any easier to distinguish the “affected” from the authentic, even when you are not implicated in the emotion or act yourself.
Not long ago I attended a meeting of Orphan Train riders – the seventy, eighty and ninety year old beneficiaries and victims of one of our nation’s early experiments with foster care. One of the “riders” stood up and read a poem that struck me as unbearably sentimental. But when it was finished, people all around me were wiping away tears, and I was in a state of perplexity. Clearly this poem was one long string of clichés, but equally clearly it had evoked the decades of loneliness, humiliation and abuse suffered by so many people in the room. Who was I to say that their tears were “excessive,” or “affected”? The poem could hardly have been less skillful, but that is not at all to say that the feelings it expressed and evoked were unjustified, or shameful.
And what about those “feminine emotions”? Are we to suppose that love, tenderness and compassion are inherently less “warranted” or more “excessive” than ostensibly masculine emotions such as hatred, anger and bloodlust? Even if the sentimentality of supposedly feminine feelings is held to be only a matter of degree, what authority on earth can tell us how much we should love our children? Does it even make sense to confine love within certain limits, regardless of who sets them? Is it possible? Or is the whole notion merely simplistic fantasy?
There is no question that sentimentality is an important concept, keeping us on guard against falseness of character, simple-mindedness and injustices perpetrated in the guise of laudable emotion. But given the term’s manifold ambiguities, I am struck by how swiftly and surely most people speak it: never indifferently, almost always with contempt and uncompromising dismissal. Some people become positively enraged by sentimentality, as James Baldwin seems to be in this passage from his early essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”:
Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

The “protest novel” under discussion in this essay is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin justly condemns for its unconsciously racist portrayal of African Americans. But I wonder about the justice of his implication that the novel’s failures indicate that Harriet Beecher Stowe was possessed of a “secret and violent inhumanity,” that her self-contradictory attempt to portray the evils of slavery was above all else “cruelty.” Does it really make sense to imply that even the most extreme sentimentalists – greeting card poets and romance novelists – have the psychological profiles of serial killers?
I have taught Baldwin’s essay for a number of years, and never once have any of my students balked at his definition of sentimentality. On the contrary, they seem to find it invigorating. I myself find it invigorating. Why is this? Why is it so easy for us to invest passion in a term we can just barely define? Partly, I think, because of the term’s very imprecision. “Sentimentality” is an abstract noun, referring to nothing that can be seen or touched, but to a concept, a belief – or, really, to an ideal in negative. And, for better or worse, the human species has never had difficulty investing emotion in ideals. Arguably, the more difficult it is to translate any given ideal into specific action or a way of living, the greater the passion with which we tend to assert it.

ONE OF MY earliest favorite poems by Czeslaw Milosz was “Dedication,” which contains the following lines:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment...

As a young writer, I felt both inspired and challenged by these lines. A determination rose within me that my writing never be a “connivance with official lies,” and I hoped that someday my words might, in some incremental way, play a role in the salvation of nations and people. This poem made me feel good, and it filled me with worthy ambition. But thinking back on my earliest readings of it, I realize that I was less drawn to Milosz’s assertions by their merits than by my fear that they might not be true.
This was during the early 1970s, when the U.S. was still deep in its bloody, pointless venture in Vietnam, a time when I was being reminded daily by leaflets, rock songs, the evening news, and by my own eyes that all over the world, including in the very city where I lived, people were unnecessarily and unjustly suffering and dying. This was a time during which I was actually awoken one morning by a student proclaiming through a bullhorn on the field outside my dorm, “This your conscience speaking! While you were asleep eighty-seven Vietnamese children were murdered by napalm.”
Now, the truth is that, throughout this era, I was as baffled as any undergraduate by the political inveighments I was constantly subjected to in classrooms and bars, and as willing to indulge in the hormonal and chemical distractions of college life. But even so, I was indeed sincerely troubled by what I saw as a trade-off between writing and social action. It seemed incontrovertible to me that my first obligation, as human being and citizen, was to help reduce the suffering of my fellow human beings – but all I really wanted to do was write, to savor the strange and beautiful results of putting one word after another. Thus, when Milosz implied that I could satisfy my conscience and my passion simultaneously, my relief was close to exhilaration.
But only intermittently. Even at the time I wondered if my response to the poem wasn’t precisely what Baldwin meant by “dishonesty.” The simple fact is that “Dedication” did make it easier for me to turn my back on suffering, at least part of the time. Does this fact, then, signify my, “inability to feel,” my “fear of life,” and my “arid heart” – to say nothing of the superficiality or affectedness of my social compassion? Was my joyful indulgence in word play actually a manifestation of “cruelty” or even “violent inhumanity”?
How is one to answer such questions?
I won’t trouble to defend myself. I will, however, offer some items for consideration in regard to Milosz: “Dedication” was written in Warsaw in 1945 – which is to say after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army. Although Milosz never literally took up arms against the Nazis, he did endure narrow escapes at the start of the occupation, and his home, all of his books, and many of his early manuscripts were destroyed by German shelling. He also participated in Warsaw’s underground theater, and published samizdat-style editions of works by himself and others opposed to the Nazi occupation – activities for which he might have been sent to forced labor camps had he been caught.
It seems to me that, under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help “save nations and people” takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read “Dedication” back in 1973. Or, to put it another way, in wartime Warsaw it was far easier to see how poetry that refused to be a “connivance with official lies” might actually be a legitimate part of the resistance effort. Does this mean, then, that such circumstances are enough to defend the poem against the charge of sentimentality? And if that is so, can a poem that was not sentimental when it was written become so thirty or sixty years later? Where, in fact, does sentimentality lodge: in the poem itself, or in the reader? Would it be “excessive” for me to claim that writing might “save nations and people” but not for Milosz? Or would I have been “affected” had I wept over the Orphan Train rider’s poem, but not those who shared his experience? These questions, too, are ones for which there is no definite answer.

I HAVE OFTEN been puzzled by the fact that I, a congenital atheist, should number among the authors I most admire someone as religious as Milosz. Many of my imaginary debates with the woman from L’Isle sur la Sorgue have been inspired by this incongruity, and thus have focused on the question of Milosz’s attitude toward God.
Faith was, in fact, an extremely complicated, paradox-ridden matter for Milosz. He was not merely an avowed Catholic, but devoted years of his life to translating the Bible into Polish. Yet, at the same time, he was always tentative about his faith, almost apologetic. In his essay, “On the Turmoil of Many Religions,” Milosz speaks for himself and all believers:
Today the “turn to religion” probably is less social conformism than fear: let us react to the collapse of traditional norms as if everything religion, the guardian of mystery, teaches us were truth. You suspend your judgment and sing along with the others in church, precisely because you doubt your ability to unravel all those intricate questions. Only I have difficulties, only my mind remains empty no matter how many times I try to extract something from my imagination. The others here beside me have no such difficulties. Though I will not admit it to myself, each of them is thinking the same about me. And thus collective belief accumulates from the disbelief of individuals.

This is quite a remarkable confession to come from someone so devoted to Christianity. Not only does Milosz reveal his own inability to believe, he asserts that “collective belief” – religion itself – is due to the erroneous and to some extent willfully self-deceptive assumptions of many individuals. Milosz was, perhaps, even more remarkable in his willingness to acknowledge the selfishness and fear that motivates each of these self-deceptions:
I see nothing shameful in admitting that our desire to worship goes hand in hand with our concern for ourselves. That would be shameful only if human life were not what it is—a fundamental deprivation, an impossibility, a burden which cannot be borne but which is borne due to a mixture of blindness and heroism. I desire a God who would gaze upon me, who would increase my sheep and camels, who would love me and help me in misfortune, who would save me from the nothingness of death, to whom I could each day render homage and gratitude.

More remarkable still, is the fact that on numerous occasions Milosz quoted approvingly, paraphrased or referred to Simone Weil’s assertion that, “Religion, insofar as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is purification.” Even at the end of his life, when faith became the chief focus of his work, he could still maintain, in a poem addressed to God: “It seems to me that people who do not believe in you /​ deserve your praise.”
If Milosz admired atheists and saw the devout as selfish and self-deceived, why was the Catholic faith perhaps the single most important element of his world view? This is a question that Milosz was curiously reluctant to answer throughout his writing life, perhaps because, as indicated in his remarks above, the justifications for his faith were really rather conventional. For Milosz no less than for any of his doubt-filled fellow parishioners, faith warded off despair by providing a bond between disparate individuals, answers to “intricate questions” and an apparent defeat to “the nothingness of death”:

If there is no God
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

PERHAPS THE SIMPLEST way to conceive of sentimentality is as the attempt to substitute a saccharin version of reality for the genuine article. While the faith of many people might very well entail just this sort of attempt, it seems to me that Milosz is vindicated of sentimentality by the fact that, however attractive he may have found the sweet vision offered by religion, he never asserted that it was real. One might argue that he was being duplicitous, that he only questioned his faith so that readers would be more likely to trust him and accept his opinions. I would be tempted to agree, were it not for the relentlessness with which Milosz called his consolations into doubt. In “This,” a poem published in 2000, when he was eighty-nine, Milosz confesses, “…my ecstatic praise of being /​ Might just have been exercises in high style.” And later in the same collection, he included a brief lyric that casts a shadow over his entire oeuvre:
In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
Pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question—who can answer it—
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?

Another reason for accepting the sincerity of Milosz’s equivocal presentation of his faith is that almost everything he wrote expressed similar ambivalence. In a sense, the whole of Milosz’s work is an homage to doomed illusion. Again and again in his poetry he explores that instant just before a beautiful idea is extinguished by merciless reality. He celebrates moments of being, of happiness, of innocence, of apprehensions of the wide world, all of which derive their meaning, beauty and poignancy from the fact that they are obsolete or false.
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net…
– from “A Song for the End of the World”

… ungraspable multitudes swarm, come together
In the crinkles of tree bark, in the telescope’s eye,
For an endless wedding…
So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into the abyss.
– from “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

For Milosz, truth, purity, virtue, and the actuality of experience itself are all, to employ one of his favorite words, “unattainable.” However desperately we may want and need to anchor our understandings in reality, all that we can ever grasp is illusion – and it is on that fact, almost alone, that he founds his art: “Out of self-delusion comes poetry and poetry confesses to its flaw.”

I WILL MAKE a confession of my own: I was attracted to that woman in L’Isle sur la Sorgue – not in a big way, but enough that I can still see her in my minds’ eye, even if I can’t summon up her name, and I can still remember the eagerness with which I leaned toward her, and my happiness when I learned that she loved poetry.
So there I was: flirting with the woman on my left, while seated on my right was my wife.
As it happens my wife and I are about to have our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We have had some of the difficulties common to lengthy marriages, but on the whole I believe we have been unusually lucky. Twenty-five years ago I promised before a judge and our two families that I would love this girlfriend-becoming-wife as long as I lived. Although I knew that promise might be beyond my ability to keep, I made it solemnly, my throat thick, my eyes moist with emotion. But in the light of my conversation at L’Isle sur la Sorgue, one might wonder how best to characterize that solemnity and those incipient tears. Were they warranted? Authentic? Profound? Or was I being sentimental?
Certainly the idea of love I had then was superficial, as have been all my ideas in anticipation of the major developments of my life: the birth of my children, the death of my father, my own aging. The love that I have for my wife now is vastly more complex and capacious than anything I imagined twenty-five years ago. If that love was like taking a bite from an apple, this love is like sitting down to a bowl of stew, or to a whole meal. Does the difference between the two emotions necessarily relegate the first to sentimentality? Or do youth and inexperience give one a certain liberty to indulge the superficial?
Or have I got it backwards? Am I being sentimental now when I call the complex emotion I feel for my wife love? Certainly I have heard more than one veteran of mid-life proclaim love – especially married love – just a con job, a euphemism for habit, dependency and boredom, or a way of excusing one’s “fear of life” and “arid heart” – or, conversely, one’s “cruelty” (as in: “I love my wife so much this fling doesn’t matter;” or: “I love this other woman so much I can’t help myself”).
Are these veterans of mid-life right? Am I deluded, hypocritical and lost?
Who knows?
I ask these questions not only to show, once again, how very difficult – if not impossible – they are to answer, but also to make clear how “unattainable” even the defining characteristics of our own lives are.

FOR MILOSZ, EVERYTHING is “as if.” We are to behave “as if” religion – “the guardian of mystery” – can teach us “the truth.” We are to mend our nets and watch that bee circle the clover “as if” we do not face extinction this instant, or the next. We surrender ourselves to reality just as we give ourselves to the wedding dance, and to the delights of this earth “as if” we are not, in fact, plunging into the abyss.
Milosz’s focus on the provisionality of belief and, in particular, on the paradoxical, equivocal and ephemeral persistence of the beautiful and the unreal is the result of a choice. As he indicated so often in his poetry, he believed, in spite of himself (and more than he believed in the existence of God), that in the end “nothingness” would prevail, we would all find ourselves tumbling through oblivion. His despair is palpable though-out his work; it is the counterpoint to every flickering instance of beauty and joy, the undertone that makes his writing poignant and rich. Yet, except in the rarest moments, he chose not to focus our attention (and his own) on the abyss, but, instead, on those flickering instances whose existence, even as delusion, is an affront to the abyss. He celebrated such delusion. He called it “precious.” In the final poem of his final book, he tells how Orpheus, uncertain that he loves enough to rescue Eurydice, nevertheless sings, “Of his having composed his words always against death /​ And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.”
There are various ways to think of Milosz’s choice. In one sense, it is clearly a decision to soften reality, and so might justly be labeled sentimental.
Then there are those woefully indefinite, morally suspect, and/​or obsolete concepts that were so dear to his heart: truth, beauty, good, and God. Merely taking such terms seriously might strike many people as sentimentality – and perhaps those people are correct.
But, at the same time, it is also possible to see Milosz’s choice to find a light in the midst of black despair as a form of courage and strength, as a resolution to persist, even when he was all but certain the cause was lost. And this choice can seem all the more courageous when we remind ourselves that, however much Milosz may have chosen to fix his gaze on the consolatory, he chose never to deny its opposite; the abyss, too, was always in his sight.
And finally, it is possible to see Milosz’s choice as simple realism. A lesser sensibility might have condemned those selfish and self-deceived churchgoers as mere hypocrites. While Milosz never denied their hypocrisy, he also knew that selfishness and self-deception are necessary components of all human belief in God, or in any other metaphysical notion, and that to expect moral, spiritual or intellectual purity, even of a saint, is shameless fantasy. It is the same with the rest of life: It may be barbaric and brief; it may be tawdry, mediocre and messy (when it is not downright execrable), but it is all we can ever have of beauty, joy and meaning. If we are to enjoy being at all, we have no choice but to enjoy it as the scrofulous mongrel it actually is. Milosz had no patience with idealism. “The habit of opposing an ideal woman to real ones,” he says in another of his final poems, is the “fruit of misogyny.” Turning away from life – whether through idealism or despair – is, ultimately, self-destructive. It deprives us of pleasure and circumscribes our hearts and our minds, transforming us into cruder, lesser beings.

WHEN THE WOMAN in L'Isle sur la Sorgue told me, in effect, that I was sentimental, my first response – apart from simple denial – was to feel I needed to reign in my emotions, but not just any emotions, especially those most likely to be labeled “feminine.” This is an impulse that bears examination: How are emotions like love, tenderness and compassion distinguished from such decidedly unsentimental emotions as hatred, anger and bloodlust? The feminine emotions might be gentler, softer and, even, more beautiful, but they are also necessary for forming attachments to other people and things, and even to the world itself. The supposedly more masculine emotions, by contrast, are all related to rejection or destruction, and to the defense of the self against the outside world. A thesis could be written about how, helped by the concept of sentimentality, our culture chose to subordinate the emotions of attachment to the emotions of rejection, but for the time being I want only to ask: Which category of emotion tends to manifest the greater “fear of life” and to encourage the development of an “arid heart,” “cruelty” and a “violent inhumanity”?
There is a way in which the word “sentimental” is itself, secretly, an expression of sentimentality – at least insofar as it asserts that the world is a simple, knowable place, where we can draw lines between the authentic and the inauthentic, the profound and the superficial, and know which side we are on.
There are many things in life that we cannot know: I have feelings for certain people. I believe, but do not know, that these feelings are love and that these people love me in return. This makes me happy. I believe, but do not know, this happiness is legitimate, and worth considerable sacrifice, for my benefit and for the benefit of the people I love. I believe now that writing can in fact play an incremental role in reducing human suffering. I don’t believe writing is the only or best way that I can help other people, but I no longer feel criminal – at least most of the time – for devoting so much of my energy to it.
But – who knows? – I may be wrong.
Indeed, there are bleak four AMs when I question every one of my beliefs, when my whole life seems to become a nightmare version of itself; I feel lonely and crazy, and sweat with shame and fear. But then, eventually, everything returns more or less to normal, and I go on more or less as I always have. Does this mean that I am living a lie? Partly, I guess. Does it mean that I am “addicted to indulgence of superficial emotion”? That I am sentimental? Perhaps. But this is another thing I can’t know for sure.
I do know, however, that were I to try to be absolutely invulnerable to the charge of sentimentality, I could not be myself; I could not lead my life. To deny myself the right to act on beliefs of which I am not certain, would be to confine myself to only the most stark and rudimentary form of existence – a life devoid of intimacy, achievement, beauty or joy. I could never have experienced love such as I know it without first having believed in love. I could never have accomplished many of the most worthwhile things I have done in life without believing – in advance of any justification of my belief – that these things were worthwhile and that I was capable of doing them. And no pleasure can be fully savored without seeming, however briefly, to be all that really matters.
In the end, I think, the concept of sentimentality is like every other ideal: a signpost indicating a path through the real but pointing only toward the imaginary. In “real life,” this existence we must live, the ideal of total freedom from sentimentality is “unattainable.” The best we can manage is Milosz’s choice: to join the wedding dance even as we remember the abyss. The degree to which we deny the abyss marks, I suppose, the degree to which we are sentimental. But only in theory. Because, of course, the ideal balance between participation in the dance and mindfulness of the abyss is also “unattainable,” and any attempt to calibrate it merely another thing we do “as if.”

AND SO, FOR a moment at L'Isle sur la Sorgue, the woman and I looked away from one another, took sips from our wine, and then began to talk trivialities. I remember feeling disappointed, but also relieved. There was, of course, much we could have said to each other about Milosz and the nature of sentimentality – but such discussion would have been difficult, even dangerous, given how little we knew one another and the fact that I was already angry. Eventually we rejoined the general conversation, and helped empty the bottle of wine. Then we all went off to a restaurant where more bottles of wine were consumed.
After dinner, our whole group wandered the town, stopping every now and then to watch an ancient waterwheel turn slowly under a streetlight, or to look at a shimmering reflection in a black canal. Did the woman and I talk during any of this? Did we ever walk side by side, exchanging observations and jokes? Or did we keep to the vicinity of our mates and our mutual friends, observing each other only out of the corners of our eyes? And when we said goodbye, did we merely nod? Or smile? Did we kiss cheeks? None of this survives in my memory. All I know for certain of that night many years ago is that for a while we talked, and then we parted—never to each other again. Everything else is imaginary.

Selected Works

Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
From Various Journals
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed