In his timely essay on Czelaw Milosz’ autobiography The Land of Ulro, Bill Tremblay writes with a critical elan that’s part homily part hermeneutical analysis of Milosz’s poetic theology which embraces the sanctity of immense particulars as transcendent cynosures that inhere poetry with salvific originality within a spiritual commerce that acknowledges “the other” as sublime. Heralding Milosz’s prophetic call for upholding the poet’s moral imagination over against the dehumanizing “concept of a moral law equal in rigor to the strictness of Newtonian physics,” Tremblay celebrates Milosz’s heroic subjectivising over objectifying, which bears aesthetical as well as moral hazards that presage not only social degradation but apocalypse. What keeps us human as opposed to mere empirical beings set on objectifying the world and each other is the question that Tremblay reprises as a contemporary poet in an age that has evolved more scientifically than morally. The moral arc that Tremblay draws between Blake and Milosz highlights the diachronic legacy of the bond between an aesthetic of particulars and the moral imagination, between originality and “redemptive language.”
THE LAND OF ULRO: Czeslaw Milosz on William Blake
by Bill Tremblay
This summer I finally read Czeslaw Milosz’s The Land of Ulro, an autobiography of his artistic and intellectual development. Milosz reflects on the influences and historical events that shaped him into a poet and essayist whose purview is a kind of “museum” for European ideas and culture. Having survived the devastation of his native Poland by Nazi Germany and having witnessed Poland (and his beloved Vilno, Lithuania) be absorbed by a post-World War II Stalinist Soviet Union, he positions himself between public history and a highly personal sense of moral survival. Commenting on Milosz’s oeuvre, Terrence Des Pres (The Nation) notes that “political catastrophe has defined the nature of our age” and as a result Milosz has “sought for a way to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world,” a ruin (I might add) which has reached American shores, making Milosz’s meditations all the more relevant to our place and time. To the terrible legacies of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, we have another name vying for a statue in the Hall of Monsters.
Early on in the book, Milosz informs us that “the name Ulro is from Blake. It denotes that realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man. Blake himself was not one of its inhabitants, unlike the scientists, those proponents of Newtonian physics, the philosophers, and most other poets and artists of his day. And that goes for their descendants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to and including the present.” (32). Milosz’s “conversion to Blake,” he writes, was “an emotional one, for my understanding failed me the moment I began to ponder the meaning of individual poems and lines; and yet that obscurity, so unlike that cultivated in the poetry of my contemporaries, was part of the magic.” (31) Of particular concern to Milosz was Blake’s negative reaction to popularizations of Sir Issac Newton’s Principia (1687) with its mathematical proofs of the laws of gravity which guarantee the planets move in fixed elliptical orbits and thus do not crash into each other. Order, writ large, and relatively eternal.
Some followers of Newton such as Francis Bacon went so far as to analogize planetary orbits to fixed social class and morality. Milosz notes that “Blake, in his England at the turn of the last (19th) century, was appalled by the concept of a moral law equal in rigor to the strictness of Newtonian physics.” (43) The ancient customs of primogeniture and hereditary aristocratic social succession were deemed “proven” by Science and thus the warrant for a fixed social order began to be “Nature and Nature’s God.” Agitation for more privileges and opportunities by commoners was not only disastrous for civil order but also profoundly immoral. Further, “The problem that engaged Blake would loom increasingly larger, in both range and magnitude, up to the present: the fact that the Particular has been consumed by the Universal. If man is but a fleeting fleck of foam on a wave, then he can be easily absolved, since what matters is the wave and not the foam. All of Blake’s work is a violent assault on the Universal in defense of ‘Minute Particulars.’” (One of Blake’s marginal notes on Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses declares: “To generalize is to be an Idiot.”) The magical transformation that took place just before and during the Industrial Revolution was the reduction of an individual worker’s humanity to a statistic. (More on this soon.)
Such popularizers derived a new image of God as “the Clockmaker” and a new religious idea called “Deism.” Many framers of the U.S. Constitution were Deists—including Franklin and Jefferson. Milosz describes this Deity as the one who “set the infernal, inhuman machine in motion.” He is, in Blakean terms, “Urizen, the Prince of this World.” And, what he produces is Ulro, “the Wheel of Death … (where) man reduces other men to vacant shadows, to creatures of chance quickly consigned to oblivion; unable to believe in their reality, he becomes a captive of ego, of the ‘Spectre’.” (p. 178) To base public policy on a statistical “average” is to address a fictional person objectified and stripped of subjectivity. The chances that any individual fulfills the definition of “average Man” i.e. “the mean average,” are slim to none. But this is what Blake means by “Mental Fight:” to oppose these reductive ideas in favor of another idea—psychic integration. Urizen is a monstrous tyrant (the original idea of a totalitarian dictator in an almost Platonic sense) because he refuses the validity of the other parts of the human totality, that which he calls “faculties.”
To John Milton’s treatment of “the Fall” in Paradise Lost in which sexuality plays a large role, Blake adds his own “mythic personifications” whom Milosz enumerates as follows: “Tharmas, or the body … Urthona, or the individual creative Imagination … Luvah, or the emotions … Urizen, or Reason (the lawgiver).” In The Book of Urizen, Blake enacts the original sin—the destruction of a primal “four-fold” unity within humanity—which leads to Blake’s sense of the Fall:
1. Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
in Eternity! Unknown, unprolific!
Self-closd, all-repelling: what Demon
Hath form’d this abominable Void
this soul-shudd’ring vocuum? Some said
“It is Urizen” , But unknown, abstracted
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.
In effect, the “first sin” of Urizen was to traumatize himself by an obsession with non-existence (“Non-Ens”) which eventuates in a separation of his mind from a relationship with anything which perishes or comes into being and passes away. In his own words, Urizen speaks (in Plate 4, stanza 4):
I have sought for a joy without pain,
or a solid without fluctuation
Why will you die O Eternals?
Why live in unquenchable burnings?
In order to freeze reality so that change never occurs, Urizen must re-create the earth and the life upon it in the image of his own solidification:
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law.
In effect, what Urizen does in his immense painful isolation is to split the universe into perceiving subject and perceived object. The perceiving subject (what Blake calls “Selfhood”) arrogates to itself all subjectivity. Everything and everyone else he objectifies. Adam and Eve are “fallen” into a “state” or condition where they objectify one another. Salvation, redemption from Ulro, therefore may be achieved by re-subjectivizing the formerly objectified so that e.g. there will no longer be “sex objects.” Compassion requires the imaginative identification with the other. This does not occur as John Locke theorizes in Essay On Human Understanding (1690) as a series of perceptions which sort themselves into categories which lead to general ideas. Rather, as Milosz notes, “Blake’s thought is rooted in the Fall … in the sense that the Imagination (is) for him the animating and redemptive power of the Human Form Divine, an emanation of the Holy Spirit” (162) which is an a priori divine endowment, i.e. he proclaims that as to morality human beings could not deduce moral principles from nature. What happens when we do such a thing is that we get “social Darwinism.” The view from Ulro is reminiscent of the refrain from Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is”:
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball …
The year is 1757. The British Army is fighting the French and their allies among the Iroquois Confederacy in the New World and at roughly the same time the rebellious Scottish clans at the Battle of Culloden. Dense white smoke from British batteries of cannon cannot obscure the bleeding bodies of perhaps 10,000 men whose idea of courage and honor is to stand in their ranks and be ripped apart by cannon ball and grape-shot. When the smoke clears, there will be precious few Scotsmen alive; this is not “decimation,” it’s genocide. After the battle, British soldiers will roam the highland hills killing women and children so as to exterminate the independent-minded clans who are sick and tired of being taxed at such a high level by an imperialistic British government such that they cannot actually enjoy “the fruits of their labor.”
The year is 1757. The English House of Lords is in process of passing a series of laws called “The Enclosures Acts.” These laws are based on mathematical studies with regard to the transformation of the English countryside from a culture of independent farmers and sheepherders who own their own looms and who weave worsted goods for clothing into depopulated stretches of sheep meadows that have been projected to produce the highest yields of wool. The British army will soon march through central England and evict the local inhabitants, sending them to industrial cities like Manchester where they will make fabrics in factories during fourteen-hour workdays. Woe betide them should they suffer an industrial accident; a man may be forced to put his wife and daughters on the streets as prostitutes. Meanwhile, a new form of alcohol called “gin” is on sale with enough kick to make a man forget his missing fingers.
The year is 1757. William Blake in London is born into a family of middle-class merchants of hose for men and women of fashion. And all of this is happening as background in the pages of a book called The Land of Ulro. Included in The Land of Ulro is a verbal diorama devoted to one of Blake’s influences, Immanuel Swedenborg, who prophesied that the Last Judgment would occur in 1757. Blake recognizes that the last five hundred years particularly have been a period when many versions of “the Apocalypse” keep peering at humanity through the dark glass of various millenarians. Speaking again of his early days, Milosz says: “… as one who sensed the general drift of things, as a ‘catastrophist’ who sometimes pined for an age of ‘faith and fortitude’—there were few in whom to confide my hopes and fears.” When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 with the assistance of Stalinist Russia, those catastrophist intuitions became hellishly real. Nowadays, that intuitive sense of impending catastrophe involves both economic and environmental collapse.
There is a Fall and there is an Apocalypse. But in Blake’s terms it is not “the end of the world” such as we see in “end-of-days” movies today. In popular understanding the Apocalypse is the same as Armageddon, the war of all against all, followed by the arrival of Jesus with hosts of angels to raise the dead and to cast evil-doers into Hell while the good are rewarded with eternal bliss. Blake’s idea of apocalypse is more like the vision at the end of The Gospel According to Thomas in which Jesus is confronted by one of his apostles with the question, “What is this Heaven you speak of so often? Where is it to be found?” And Jesus replies, “It is not something about which one asks ‘Is it here? Is it there.’ Rather, it is all around us and we do not see it.” The Apocalypse is for Blake that moment when individuals open “the doors of perception” and instead of seeing the constructed reality of a commercial culture she sees “the Infinite in a grain of sand.” If it were up to the imagination alone unaided by the Divine it could only construct Halloween horror movies with a hockey-masked maniac with chainsaw in Texas because it would operate only within the “state” of Ulro.
Ulro is Blake’s version of Hell with a difference in that he describes it in psychological terms as a place of crippling depression and despair (utter powerlessness because power is money which is hoarded by the already-wealthy). What Milosz sees in Blake is that once a totalitarian state is reached everything and everyone in it functions as its agent: Tharmus, the body, serves Urizen in “the dark Satanic Mills;” Luvah, the emotions, are limited to love/hate in power relations; Urthona, the Imagination, is limited to measuring the cubic dimensions of its prison cell. In the “state” of Ulro everything, even religion, becomes a medium to express and perpetuate itself. Christianity finds itself editing Jesus’ message by a strange conflation of religiosity and materialism, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” preached in something called a “mega-church.”
I found another example from nineteenth century America of how Urizenic or Ulroic thinking can dominate an era of history in another part of my summer reading, i.e. a quotation from Lilian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) in Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters, by Frye Gaillard. Ms. Smith attempts to understand the basis of pro-slavery thinking before, during, and after the Civil War:
The South grew more sensitive to criticism, more defensive and dishonest
in its thinking. For deep down in their hearts, southerners knew they were
wrong. They knew it in slavery just as they … know today that segregation
is wrong. It was not only the North’s criticism that made them defensive,
it was their own conscience. Our grandparents called themselves Christians
and sometimes believed they were. Believing it, they were compelled to
believe it was morally right for them to hold slaves. They could not say,
‘We shall keep our slaves because they are profitable, regardless of right and
wrong.’ A few tough old realists who didn’t claim to be in the Fold probably
did say it. But to most, such words would have seemed as fantastic as a
confession of their mixed reasons for opposing slavery would have seemed
to the Yankees. Our grandfathers’ conscience compelled them to justify
slavery and they did: by making the black man ‘different,’ setting him outside
God’s law, reducing him to less than human. In a way that would have seemed
blasphemous, had they stopped to think, they took God’s place and ‘decided’
which of His creatures have souls and which have not. And once doing it,
and their sons continued doing it, and their grandsons, telling themselves and
their children more and more and more lies about white superiority until
they no longer knew the truth and were lost in a mix of fantasy and falsehood
that had little resemblance to the actual world they lived in.
It’s a strange thing how a man’s own conscience can trap his soul.
Slavery is often called America’s “Original Sin,” and it was not only that it was based on self-told lies but also that in order to tell the lie there had to be falsification of the Christian religion to justify greed by the claim that it wasn’t as if the slaves were actually human. I cite this quotation as an illustration of what Milosz understands William Blake to mean by “states.” A state “conditions” everything. For instance, in the 20th Century in America as indeed in many countries it isn’t science per se but the way in which it is financed and perverted by the God Money and the men and women who play God when they “monetize” and “weaponize” science. Blake understood that artists living in a Urizenic age create art that is Ulroic; it portrays a world with “brutal honesty” (Milosz cites the example of Goya) without a glimpse of an alternative. It seems all anyone can do is describe and lament “by the waters of Babylon.” Such bemoaning only reinforces the walls of the Ulroic prison. Yet Milosz says, “the writing of a poem is an act of faith in the passionate pursuit of the Real.” In comparison, Coleridge’s conception of the imagination has two parts: one is Fancy (more like today’s fantasy) and one is the primary act of an imaginative grasp of reality.
All of this seems eminently applicable to our own “interesting times.” There’s a lot of fantasizing these days. It’s a flight from realities so awful as to produce a form of mass social depression often expressed as a darkness, an overshadowing. Many poets, writers, visual artists, performative artists, film-makers have spoken of this condition—a sense of living under a menacing cloud of anxiety and confusion, a “dark cloud” which has become physically embodied from west coast forest fires that have filled the atmosphere with smoke and mixed with breathable vapors laden with COVID. Some have bemoaned an “epistemological crisis,” i.e. the blizzard of lies and charges of “fake news” that render citizens unable to determine the nature of local, state and national problems. The old “Emperor Wears No Clothes” allegory comes to mind over and over, i.e. the defeat of empirical evidence by an ideological “confirmation bias.”
A logically-trained mind is in a constant state of outrage circulating around the same questions: How can the richest, most powerful people in the country go on denying the empirical evidence of climate change? How can so many people blindly believe the lies of a man who doesn’t even attempt to rationalize his destructive acts except by conspiracy theories? What have we come to? And how can we possibly escape the ruination of what not that long ago was a functioning if flawed democracy? Translated to our current “state,” we can see that dynamic expressed daily in the perception of our oldest allies. “What has gone wrong with America?” is a question often posed in the capitals of western Europe these days. Some, in reacting to the political chaos, spend their time describing the symptoms of a sick society and complaining of how rapidly dishonesty, a culture of lies (called “creative exaggerations”), and a condition called “the Divide” is destroying the vague consensus that was once called “Democracy.”
A significant minority of the citizenry of America seems to feel that to acknowledge that the political economy of the United States has been taken over by oligarchs is tantamount to violating some Pledge of Allegiance to the God Money. There’s a conflation of “business” with the United States, which is something much bigger and more important. whose interests are inimical to the people who are considered at best as “human resources” to be exploited in a fashion parallel to exploiting natural resources because the word “livelihood” carries the connotation of life itself. There is a human crisis as well as a climate crisis. We need immediate relief from a “bought” government and a population which is looking in the rear-view mirror at yesterday’s solutions. We are in the jaws of a dilemma: Re-industrialization will only hasten environmental collapse unless the new industries produce a “green” outcome.
Urizen is a Monopolist. Urizen creates Ulro as a state of manufactured scarcity, of precarity, of anxiety, of life-threatening sorrow which results from institutionalized injustice. It is a product of Urizen’s “fall,” i.e. his “disintegration” from physical sensations, from emotions, and from the divine imagination. Psychic reintegration is a goal that incorporates more than single-minded focus; rather it embraces. Imagination is more needed than ever in order to oppose this exploitation made possible by an artificially-created social division. At the heart of social division the imagination at the very least can see the possibility of a regained unity involving reconciliation. The intellect, reason, integrated with a care for the welfare of human beings, for their emotional health, for the release of their imagination from bondage to materialism. How do human beings create a personal apocalypse?
From the beginning Tharmas, Luvah, and Urthona have put a limit to how far Urizen can fall into his Spectre, his “Selfhood,” his ego which is his “will-to-power.” The obverse is to give up Selfhood in acts of unselfish sacrifice, to cast off Selfhood’s “Covering Cherub,” so that reconciliation and reintegration of the whole psyche becomes possible. Blake says that the greatest teaching of Jesus is that of “forgiveness.” Because the process can be summarized in a couple of sentences, it might seem like it’s easy. It isn’t. Blake has to take us through The Four Zoas and Jerusalem including “the Harrowing of Nations” before the Daughters of Beulah and the Sons of Los can overcome their bitter revenge plots. Giving up the ego is well-neigh impossible: ask John Ashbery as you reread Self-Protrait in a Convex Mirror. But Blake’s poetry is there to encourage his readers and to enact a vast and continuous epic of the soul’s rediscovery.
One of the best-known quotations from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is “Opposition is true friendship.” Milosz gives an example of how oppositional thinking works. “The artist,” he writes, “uses art to triumph over others, to dominate, to command obedience and surrender, while the artist’s other half, through distance, militates against his selfish instincts. (33) Blake’s prayer is: “May God us keep/From single vision & Newton’s sleep.” What does it mean to be “woke”? Perhaps a few lines of Milosz’s poem “Dedication” can serve as an answer:
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 …
Milosz’s “salvation” it is fair to say lies along similar lines as Blake’s “Apocalypse.”