from “A Book of Luminous Things,” Czeslaw Milosz, Ed.
One of the religious lessons of secularization is that the distinction of politics and religion can enable us to see the difference of this purer service that must wander in the midst of the political powers and their deserts. In the midst of its wandering it may find no place to lay its head and not because it has not yet gained political power but because it is witness to a hyperbolic dimension of the intimate universal, a dimension that political community at its best may allow, even encourage, but never constitute.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 59.
In the Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry anthology “A Book of Luminous Things,” Milosz says that because it focuses on the singular and not the general, poetry is on the side of “being” not on the side of nothingness. However eloquently put, this argument is misleading. And I’m sure Milosz knew what he was saying.
By its very structure, “Luminous Things” (hereafter LT) encourages the reader to consider the metaxical nature of being as these notes would have it based on William Desmond’s philosophy. The first poem we encounter, D. H. Lawrence’s “Maximus,” follows the lyric narrative into the resonant chiaroscuro of the equivocities of being. The objective sense of clarity seeming promoted by the style of the poem is delightfully perplexed by the interlocking structures of the poem. It is a perfectly pitched opener for Milosz’s anthology.
The title refer to Maximus, the philosopher teacher of the emperor Julian, “called the Apostate because he tried to restore paganism,” as we read in Milosz’s headnote to the poem. But as the passage from Desmond suggests, the poem is not about paganism but about, in Desmond’s phrase, the intimate universality of being. Yes, the “singular,” but only in the metaxological self.
Please bear with me. The language of poetry is deceptively simple. In fact it is densely implicated in general thoughts about being. Only the “magic” of poetic thinking turns the poem into a luminous thing.
The opening stanza is an open declaration of belief. God is first. The senses cannot take hold of him. He is a mystery.
But. There are stories about God that seem to give flesh and bones to the mystery. Maximus cites a legend from the “pre-Christian” world of paganism. Desmond’s text provides the ethos or “pitch” of the story. In the figure of the pagan god Hermès, god of, among other things, communication, we see the difference a purer power makes. A Christian would be forgiven for thinking of the man-god of the Gospel texts.
Polytheism is the rich human culture in which the events of the poem take place. The anonymous householder in the poem recognizes the wanderer as God. He is a luminous thing wandering in out of the surrounding desert. The lyric narrative follows the story to its conclusion: this man is a god, too. In Desmond’s metaxical sense, this man is an intimate universal. As Desmond shows in his book “The Intimate Universal” (2016), by separating the singular individual from the philosophic universal, philosophy has betrayed the truth of being.
It is Milosz’s purpose to reconfigure these themes of thought by reading good lyric poems such as those assembled in “Luminous Things.” Poetry is on the side of being not because of philosophy but because of the nature of poetry. In the essays I argue for this way of reading poetry, specifically short poems or lyric. And I suggest finally that poems such as those gathered and presented with profound tact by Milosz should constitute the central texts of “higher education.” Poetry can save us from modern nihilism but only if we pay close attention.