The Land of Ulro is one of the most important, if not the most important, and very personal, essay by Czesław Milosz. For the author, it was an attempt at understanding the situation in the world of literature of the second half of the 20th century, and more universally, the spiritual situation of the contemporary man. For the readers, it can also be a kind of a guide allowing for a different, deeper reading of the works Milosz considered important.
The central issue, around which the author’s deliberations are focused, is the question of the consequences of the “romantic crisis” in the culture of 20th-century Europe, the consequences of science – explaining the world and stripping away the mystery – coexisting with the sacrum, and of art attempting to capture human emotions in their irrational entanglement and their spiritual dimension. This dichotomy that cannot be avoided makes the poet define his existential problems in the following way: “And what of those for whom heaven and earth are not enough, who cannot live except in anticipation of another heaven and earth? For those, whose lives, such as they are, remain a dream, a curtain, a blank mirror, and who cannot accept that they will never understand what it really was all about?” This disagreement, rebellion, looking for the “real” is, apart from admiration, the main force behind Milosz’s poetic and essayistic works.
As he wrote, “The name Ulro is from Blake. It denotes the realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man. Blake himself was not one of its inhabitants, unlike the scientists, those proponents of Newtonian physics, the philosophers, and most other poets and artists of his day. And that goes for their descendants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to and including the present.”
The Land of Ulro is therefore an image Milosz uses to show the internal dilemmas and conflicts so common among his contemporaries and described by writers and philosophers. The image is so broad and ambiguous that it invites the attempts to define one’s own Ulro – individual harm, looking for parallels with the lands of writers, composers, directors, painters. The effort to find sense in a world where almost everything is subject to doubt is common for a certain current in the literature and thought of the 20th century.
Alienation, dilemma, vacuity of the spirit: these terms were used to characterise the literature of the second half of the 20th century. Little time has passed since then, but it has passed very intensely. Changes to the world and human mentality, especially in relation to globalisation, post-globalisation, digitalisation, and the ever-present informatisation of life are difficult to describe and diagnose. One thing is certain: people feel even more alone, alienated and away from the spiritual dimension, than fifty or a hundred years ago. Literature, especially poetry, is trying to follow these changes. Perhaps following Czesław Milosz’s struggle with his Ulro could reveal the hidden deposits of the Ulro of the 21st century, allowing for a reflection on the contemporary sources of the alienation, the feeling of being lost and the suffering of the “inhabitants” of this century, allowing to see what the map of this “land of alienation” – inhabited both by individuals and entire communities – looks like.
But this discussion should also concern the sources of potential hope, a hope for a refreshing rain in the barren land of Ulro. Milosz’s work is looking for such sources of hope: in Christianity, Buddhism, historical wisdom, Old Testament wisdom, metaphysical poetry, religious imagination, solid work, living the life directly (also sensually), embracing this life: both the world of nature and the world of art.
These inspirations – confronted with the experiences of the festival’s guests coming from various cultural backgrounds, with different experiences and perspectives, may allow for a new reading of Milosz’s work, which may become a “useful book” for us.