What is the nature of happiness? This enduring human question invokes a range of theological, philosophical, political, social, and economic responses. While answers are not always agreed upon, “the pursuit of happiness” in our society is presumed a natural right…which makes it all the more intriguing to hear voices from outside the parameters of the American experience. The late writer, poet, and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz once wrote a moving essay titled “Happiness” that was occasioned by a visit at the age of 80 to the Lithuanian place of his early childhood. Milosz’s essay contemplated how the experience of happiness in childhood maintains “a strong curative power.” But a sense of happiness wasn’t easy to preserve given the darker experiences of his young adulthood, as Milosz witnessed the sinister machinations and violent forays of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union into central and eastern Europe.
Milosz later left his homeland and eventually settled in the United States before returning to Poland late in life. “Happiness” returns Milosz to the Lithuanian landscape of his early youth, where the Soviet-imposed collectivization of agriculture wiped out villages and peasant lots before replacing them with mass, mechanized agricultural practices. He stands on the ground once occupied by his grandparents’ farmhouse, a place now abandoned, unkempt, and devoid of the lush orchards of his youth. Milosz reflects, “I did not feel any regret, or anger, or even sadness. I was confronted not by the history of my century but by time itself. All the human beings who once walked here were dead, as were most of those anywhere on earth born the same year as I.”
Pondering the historical changes that drove him away and now have brought him back, marveling at the power of memory to recall the outlines and idiosyncrasies of the natural setting, Milosz tries to make sense of what is stirring inside of him:
“Much was going on inside of me, and I was stunned by the strength of that current for which no name seemed adequate. It was like waking up from a long dream and becoming again the person whom I have never ceased to be. Long life, narrow escapes, my two marriages, children, my failures and triumphs, all flickered as if telescoped into a film running at a great speed. No, this is not a proper description, for all that existed in a big lump separated from me, placed in its own dimension of the past, while I was recovering my continuity from myself as a child to myself as an old man.”
This passage beautifully illustrates not only William Faulkner’s oft-quoted dictum from Requiem for a Nun (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) but also how a sense of place holds together these continuities of past and present to powerfully shape our identities. It also leads Milosz to consider the notion of homeland as a nostalgia-wrapped notion that is vindicated in ancient literature with Odysseus’ journey to Ithaca but remains seemingly at odds with “a world dominated by technology and mass mobility.” Milosz’ riveting conclusion is as follows:
“Then something happened–and I must recognize that the myth of Ithaca stems from profound layers of human sensibility. I was looking at a meadow. Suddenly the realization came that during my years of wandering I had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here and that I have always been yearning to return. Or, to be precise, I understood this after a huge wave of emotion had overwhelmed me, and the only name I can give it now would be–bliss.”
Milosz’ poignant epiphany came toward the end of a life of displacement, characterized by a complicated sense of national identity (Polish? Lithuanian?) and exile abroad. His late return to the place that so profoundly shaped his youth reveals an understanding of happiness miles removed from modern utilitarian or prosperity gospel notions. The experience of “bliss” results not just from an encounter with natural beauty but because he recognizes a longing for a home that encompasses his life from childhood to old age. The echoes of familial intimacy, rooted in a particular place where community and nature intertwine, lead Milosz to realize what he has been longing for his whole life. Come to think of it, this longing doesn’t feel too far removed from a search in the suburbs or conversations in a tobacco barn.
Read more from Dr. Connelly: http://patrickconnellyblog.com