Even a bitter poem is a small act of affirmation, and I wonder if we can’t say the same thing about a meaningless poem (if such a thing exists). But Miłosz, who would most certainly disagree, is, to his immortal credit, a knight of faith, and I am but a knight of resignation. Like Kierkegaard: “As far as I am concerned, I am able to describe most excellently the movements of faith; but I cannot make them myself.” The Danish philosopher’s famous essay Fear and Trembling is a rumination on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, Abraham’s long-awaited and cherished son, and in the essay Kierkegaard grapples with how an act of murder can become a pleasing, good, and holy act in the eyes of God. It takes faith, a faith Kierkegaard minutely examines and describes, but one that he cannot in the end claim for himself, as devout as he is. He remains what he dubs a knight of resignation, a state that, for all it is worth, is still a state of sin. To be sure, I am “using” Miłosz here for my own purposes. He knows perfectly well he is not a saint. In an interview he has stated—and proved—that he is a man of contradiction. In other words, an ordinary man. But I admire his insistence on an objective reality, his faith in a world and an order that does not exist exclusively in the mind. And he is quite provocative at the end of his essay “The Sand in the Hourglass”:
If in our moments of happiness, mastery, ecstasy, we say Yes to heaven and to earth, and all we need is misfortune, sickness, the decline of physical powers to start screaming No, this means that all our judgments can be refuted tomorrow and that it is easy to mistake our life for the world. It is not obvious, however, why weakness—whether of a particular person or of an entire historical era—should be privileged and why the old nihilist from Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape should be closer to the truth than he himself was when he was twenty years old.
Miłosz closes his essay with an astonishing and succinct remark of Simone Weil’s: “‘I am suffering.’ It is better to say this than to say, ‘This landscape is ugly.’”
–Mary Ruefle, “On Fear” in Madness, Rack, and Honey