At one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951 Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine year old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura , an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded French embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.
Miłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth.” For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacked from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and ever other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and two sons again for more than two years.
Haven’s summary of “The Mountains of Parnassus” is also worth quoting:
Cardinal Vallberg in the novel describes his contemporaries, our descendants, whose “imagination had been incapacitated and could no longer hold a Heaven, a Purgatory, or a Hell”. This “second space” would haunt Miłosz’s last poems. What is left after its loss is a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement. As one character explains, “time both terrified and offended us, and thus it had to be destroyed and replaced with intensity of experience in every living moment, so that a great deal could happen before the hands of the clock revealed the passing of even a single minute.”
The philosophical strength of The Mountains of Parnassus amplifies as it moves from one story to the next, concluding in an appendix that depicts the dissolution of religion and art and the reformation of ritual. Milosz lingers in this final section; he muses over humanity’s increasing inability to believe in the divine — not for a lack of desire to believe, but for a lack of imagination. Milosz describes the multitudes of artists that proliferate in the postmodern age who print their “100,000 almost identical poems” every day and create a din “like an enormous hall filled with endless rows of pianos. Everybody was playing his own instrument, straining to drown out the others” and unable to hear more than a neighbor, even were he to pause his fingers and try to listen (124). The future Milosz presents is marked by hurried, empty excess. Meaning is ever harder to believe in.
And yet, there remains hope throughout his writing in the option of slowing down and returning to earth, as the Astronaut chooses to do. This choice is one that accepts death as one of the bounds that gives life significance and shape. In his introduction to the text, Milosz accepts the partiality and imperfection of his own production and hopes that “the reader’s imagination will receive no shortage of small stimuli, but also an expansive area in which it can freely glide — which perhaps is better than having everything spelled out and constrained by the twists and turns of the characters’ stories” (11). Indeed, it is a text that presents just enough information to raise questions about this speculative world but answers none of them. Although this sparseness induces confusion, even detachment on first reading the novel, it, like a poem, opens holes to consider upon meandering back through its prose.
The main sections’ hazy tone coupled with minimal world-building threaten to drown the reader in lassitude, but the introductory remarks convey Milosz as playful and personable, a compatriot who derides the “diabolical boredom emanating” from many contemporaries novels ‘tormented by structuralist theories,” which “seems hostile to the very vocation of narrative (6). Although written for its initial (unsuccessful) trip to the publisher in 1972, the introduction’s commentary on the state of the novel remains strikingly accurate. Indeed, perhaps the entire novel proves better suited to the current moment than to the one it was born out of 45 years ago. As life moves ever faster and mysteries are persistently revealed, Milosz’s unusual song amidst the roar of the pianos creates a necessary excuse to pause.