With the approach of 2012, apocalyptic thoughts are in order, not just because of the passing of the old year but also because the next winter solstice will, according to some, bring the end of the world. Throughout history--at least throughout Western history--there has been no shortage of those who propound eschataological theories, and this matter of the Mayan calendar is simply the latest in a very long line which includes the Anglo-Saxon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Joachim de Fiore, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler, to site some of the more impressive. (One might also name Al Gore, though perhaps he is not quite in Spengler's league.)
I recently came across a very different apocalyptic statement, one which took me quite by surprise because of the the way in which it differs not only from the more sensational predictions found here and there in our culture but also for the way in which its content differs from its title. The title is "A Song on the End of the World," and the whole is a poem by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. It is found in his volume Ocalenie (Rescue--aptly named, since it was published in 1945), and it runs as follows:
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspouts young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy near the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightening and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
This poem struck me as a revelation and that for various reasons. First is the drama of the poem itself. On my first reading, I was pruriently drawn in by the title, hoping to find, if not some certain secret gnosis about the end of the world, then at least some information about the eschatological views of a poet I admire. But as one reads through the poem, hoping to find some portentious significance in the bee circling the clover or the yellow-sailed boat approaching the island, one feels growing disappointment and doubt. Both disappointment and doubt are confirmed at the beginning of the third section, in which the poet confesses that you will find no traditional apocalyptic here: in the poet's view, the end of the world consists only of ordinary things, though it is well to note that these ordinary occurrences are all of them suffused with a joy--explicitly in the case of the porpoises and young sparrows and infants being born, more implictly in the glimmering of the net which is growing better under the careful hand of the fisherman.
But the poet goes further still. The final section of the poem gives us a pointed assertion that the traditional accounts of the end of the world are wrong: the end of the world will not come as one grand, climactic event, though such events as the sack of Rome or WWI do indeed occur in human history. No, the summation of all history, the thing that in the end brings clarity and a sense of order to experience is nothing less than existence itself, which, according to the white-haired prophet at the end of the poem, is the most important thing itself. Those philosophical malcontents who wish to see the end of the present order because for them human history is a series of miserable failures better blotted from all consciousness desire a final accounting, in which they, the virtuous, will be recognized by all as having been right all along, while their foes will finally understand in a stunning epiphany that they have lived in darkness and error. For Miłosz, however, the point of human existence is apparently not a matter of meting out justice to the rest of mankind; human existence is something far more wonderful, something that surpasses the ability of any human intelligence to lay hold of, sum up in a phrase or a system, and thus possess (with self-satisfaction) more than can some rival thinker or actor upon this stage of life.
But the poem is not simply a debunking of an overly-dramatic reading of human history. It is also the most wonderful of affirmations. One might expect that a writer who had lived through the Nazi occupation of his beloved homeland and the subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union, one who had by the time he wrote this song expressed himself in an unforgettable poem on the slaughter of the Jews in Poland, one might expect such a writer to long for a final accounting that would bring to book all those perpetrators of titanic evil that flourished in Europe during the middle third of the twentieth century. Instead, however, he delivers a quiet, joyful affirmation of the most common and, dare one say, banal events.
Such an affirmation might well be a puzzle until one reflects again on the title. Our hunger for sensationalism blinds us to the other meaning of the eponymous phrase: "the end of the world," i.e., the purpose of the world, the reason for the world. Here the poet of Catholic sensibilities, one who perhaps heard less at Mass about the final moments in history when Christ will come back to judge the world than about the coming of Christ every day in the bread and wine, seems to point out that the world is indeed instinct at every moment with divine significance. Every event he describes, every happening is a celebration of something that is, a recognition that the Divine Existence has called all things into being and that they are good. In such a view, the myriad, countless beings now on earth and all their riot of vitality serve as evidence of the sheer goodness of God's creation. The purpose of the world, then, its end, is to hold brimful God's creation in all of its magnificent particularity.
In an introduction he wrote many years later to an anthology of poetry that he edited, Miłosz casts the same ideas in prose: "When W.H. Auden says that the poetry 'must praise all it can for being and happening,' he is expressing a theological belief. Affirmation of life has a long, distinguished past in Western thought. Thomas Aquinas' placing of an equal sign between God and pure being belongs here, as does the constant identification of evil with insufficiency of being, by means of which the Devil acts as the power of nothingness. Also in this history is the song of wonder at Nature conceived as the work of the Creator's hands, work which inspired countless painters and supplied a powerful impetus to scholars, at least in the first phase of victoriously ascendant science. 'The Metaphysical Sense of the Wondrousness of Being' means, above all, that contemplating a tree or a rock or a man, we suddenly comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been." ("Against Incomprehensible Poetry" in To Begin Where I Am.)
That calling attention to what is, says Miłosz, is one of the characteristics of good poetry. Homer, I think, would agree, for he is above all the poet of wonderfully specific physical detail, and so would Shakespeare. Anna Akhmatova, who like Miłosz suffered as a poet under a Communist regime, says in a famous line that poetry arises precisely from a jumble of trash. One man's trash, says the old apothegm, is another man's treasure, and thus what Akhmatova surely must mean is that poetry begins in specific experience. On this even the poets of classical China and Japan agree. This affirmation underwrites Miłosz's very fine "Song on the End of the World."