Striving toward Being: the letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz

Claremont McKenna's Robert Faggen makes accidental discovery

Thomas Merton.  Milosz had a correspondence — from 1958 to 1968 — with Merton, primarily about attitudes toward nature
  • Thomas Merton. Milosz had a correspondence — from 1958 to 1968 — with Merton, primarily about attitudes toward nature

Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania.

After World War I, Milosz’s birthplace became part of the new Polish state. In 1931, he published his first collection of poems, Poem of the Frozen Time. From 1935 to 1939, Milosz was a programmer with Polish National Radio. When war broke out in late 1939, and Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland, Milosz became part of the Polish Resistance movement. After the war’s end, from 1946-50, he was cultural attache with the Polish Embassy in Paris. When the Polish government called him back to Poland, he defected.

“I knew,” he would later say, “that my country was becoming the province of an empire.” After his defection, Milosz lived in Paris, where he worked as a translator and freelance writer. Beginning in the ’50s, the Communist Polish government forbade his work to be published there. In 1960 the University of California, Berkeley offered Milosz a lectureship in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and he accepted. He became an American citizen in 1970. He retired from the university in 1978. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He continues to live in Berkeley.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an orphan at 13, was baptized and took his first communion in the Roman Catholic Church in 1938, the same year he graduated from Columbia University. In 1942, Merton left New York for Kentucky. There, at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane, he took novitiate vows in the order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance — the Trappists’ official name. His first book, Thirty Poems, was published in 1944. His autobiographical bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain, was published in 1948 and made Merton’s name known worldwide. In 1949, Merton was ordained a priest. He continued to live at Gethsemane, writing prodigiously — two or three books a year — until his death.

Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz, edited and with an introduction by Robert Faggen Farrar, Straus 8c Giroux, 1997; $21; 178 pages

Striving Towards Being's editor, Robert Faggen, teache; modern poetry and American literature at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. Faggen has a long-standing interest in the fate of literary and religious imagination in a culture dominated by scientific thought. “Which,” he said, “is how I got to Milosz. I had read very little of him and was looking through his Norton lectures, later published as The Witness of Poetry. One lecture, ‘The Lesson of Biology,’ seemed to deal directly with this problem,” a problem, Mr. Faggen added, with which relatively few contemporary poets seem concerned.

This lecture led Mr. Faggen to Milosz’s poetry. “I found that Milosz was deeply concerned with the problem of relying on nature as Scripture, as a system of symbols. As a student of American literature, in which the American wilderness has been made holy, in which nature is read as New Scripture, as source of revelation, Milosz’s recognition that there are both moral and epistemological problems with reading Nature struck me as being at the heart of the problem of modern thought.”

I asked Professor Faggen how he happened to take on the task of editing the Milosz/Merton letters.

“In 1992 or ’93, when I was in beginning conversations with Milosz for a Paris Review interview, we talked a great deal about Milosz’s ideas and attitudes toward nature, his early fascination with natural history and Darwin and his later revolt against nature worship and natural science. And in the course of those conversations he mentioned that he had a long correspondence — from 1958 to 1968 — with Merton, primarily about attitudes toward nature and particularly about attitudes in America toward nature. I didn’t at the time think much about that correspondence. A few years later, I asked Milosz whether or not I could see the letters. And he agreed.”

Milosz’s letters to Merton were stored in the Merton archives in Kentucky. Copies were made and sent to Faggen, who, when he read them, found himself “astounded at the richness and intensity of the correspondence, particularly on the Milosz side of things.”

Milosz visited Claremont several months after Faggen first read the letters. Faggen said to Milosz, “I really think these letters ought to be published,” to which Milosz replied, “Well, maybe.” Faggen said that he didn’t push the idea, but he did eventually ask Milosz if he objected to the letters’ publication. He didn’t.

I asked Professor Faggen what he thought was significant about the letters.

“They give tremendous insight into the intellectual and spiritual turmoil that Milosz was experiencing after not only his self-exile from Poland but also his alienation from the intellectual climate of Paris in the 1950s. And also his experience of the United States in one of its most tumultuous decades — the 1960s when he came to Berkeley to teach.

“In Merton’s case we see through the letters the way Merton’s very strong resistance to the Cold War was developing. One of the letters to Milosz is one of Merton’s Cold War letters, which he had to mimeograph himself and distribute against the edicts of the church. So that in these letters we see Merton, the Trappist monk, who is carrying on his own moral war in spite of the resistance of his church.

“We also see in the correspondence the extent to which Merton’s tremendous interest in Camus came about through this dialogue with Milosz. Merton eventually wrote seven essays on Camus, so this became a very important correspondence in terms of Merton’s intellectual development.”

I said to Professor Faggen that I found it intriguing that it was Milosz’s passionate interest in Simone Weil that led Merton to Weil’s work, rather than the other way around.

“Camus,” Faggen noted, “was a very deep devotee of Weil. Both Milosz and Camus used to go to visit Madame Weil, Simone’s mother.”

I asked Professor Faggen to explain how the correspondence began. “Merton,” he said, “having read Milosz’s The Captive Mind, initiated the correspondence. In these letters, one major issue is left-wing and Marxist intellectuals in America. And Merton obviously is troubled by them. And by the power of communist thought as a new religion. And, of course, Milosz had experienced communism directly.

The Captive Mind is not simply a finger wag against the evils of communism. It’s a rather subtle set of portraits about what makes people susceptible to totalitarian thought in a world in which ideas about man’s religious experience, the possibilities of providence and salvation, have become terribly eroded. I think it becomes clear that is the real issue behind The Captive Mind.

“It also becomes very clear that Milosz, for all that he hated communism, was as deeply suspicious of the Right. This comes out clearly in the letters. He also feared a kind of ‘us/them’ mentality. He felt that the rise of the right wing could be one of the worst products of the condescension and irresponsibility of the Left.

“Also we see in the letters the extent to which Milosz was seeking a defense, a Pascalian defense, of Christianity. One reason Milosz became interested in Merton was the hope that Merton would be the kind of man to provide this. But he didn’t. What happened is that Merton became the listener and the main instrument in these letters becomes Milosz.”

I said that it seemed that Milosz initially hoped for spiritual guidance from Merton and ended by guiding Merton.

Faggen agreed. “That’s the great traumatic reversal in the letters. And this is a reversal that I’ve seen in some of Milosz’s most important poems, in which he approaches figures of tremendous spiritual force. And then, we find the reversal. We see that he does not find in these figures, or in their way of thinking, an adequate resolution to the kinds of contradictions and crises that still haunt him.”

I said that part of my pleasure in reading the letters was seeing Milosz’s comfort with the English language grow during the course of the correspondence.

“At that time,” said Professor Faggen, “English for him was a fourth language. His Polish, his Russian and French were already there. But it’s very clear that he was making an immense effort to communicate with Merton. Milosz, in talking with me about the correspondence, was very concerned about the inadequacies of his English in the letters. He was hoping that some modifications could be made in the interest of clarity, in the absence of articles and other quirks in his English. But ultimately the determination was that things were quite powerful and clear as they were. Also, that Milosz was working so hard to make himself understood is part of the power of the letters.” What we read of Milosz’s half of the correspondence in Striving Towards Being, said Professor Faggen, “is precisely what Merton read.”

Merton and Milosz met face to face twice, once at Merton’s monastery and once over lunch in the Bay Area. I asked Professor Faggen if Milosz had talked to him about the meetings with Merton.

“Yes, he said that Merton was very pleasant, very down-to-earth, somewhat surprisingly unstuffy for a monk. He’d wear denim. Not what you’d expect a monk to be, I suppose, in the sense of faraway and severe.”

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