Would it be possible to live every minute attentively?

Czesław Miłosz by Artur Pawlowski, 1999

Polish poet, novelist, and intellectual Czesław Miłosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and lived through some of the most significant events of the 20th century, including World War II and the Cold War. A giant in the world of poetry and literature, Miłosz garnered numerous awards throughout his illustrious career, the pinnacle of which was the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Seven years after receiving this monumental accolade, he embarked on a year-long diary project from August 1987 to August 1988 that was later published with the title, The Year of the Hunter. The following entry was written in October of 1987.

The Diary Entry

October 9, 1987

I could write a treatise on the provisional…

In Warsaw, at the beginning of the German occupation, a café was established opposite the Main Railway Station; it was called The Temporary. Everyone who passed it smiled. The Germans are here temporarily. It took five years, however. But I want to reach beyond these commonplaces. We accept a particular period of our life, the conditions and people who surround us, as provisional, because we gamble that our true life, for which the present life is but a substitute, does exist somewhere. I examine my conscience and I see one phase after another which in its time I considered temporary but which has acquired a certain consistency in my memory. I should think it would be possible to construct a hierarchy of the ways of experiencing time. At the very bottom would be those almost pathological states when reality appears to be colorless, empty, hollowed out, engendering a feeling akin to nausea. Higher up would be assorted varieties of dissent from what is in the name of some kind of change that will resolve everything. I experienced such states in Wilno when the solution had to be individual; I experienced them in wartime Warsaw, waiting for the end of the war; I experienced them later in France, in America. The present is always rendered powerless, deprived of value; only an imaginary turning point acquires full weight. However, since we live among people, we accumulate temporary friends, temporary women, and we cannot rule out the possibility that those others—not the ones we have received by mere chance-will never exist.

Would it be possible to live every minute attentively? Not running ahead, but at a complete standstill in the present?


Further Reading

Czesław Miłosz’s year-long diary, titled A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Madeline G. Levine. Although the entries span just twelve months, he covers more ground than most would in a lifetime. A fascinating read.

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