Monday, September 26, 2005


Moravia, Milosz, and their demons

Last night I found myself reading a book I had forgotten I even owned: Life of Moravia. This valedictory series of interviews with Alberto Moravia was conducted by Alain Elkann in late 1989 and early 1990. The translator, William Weaver, alludes in his introduction to some friction with the original publisher--most likely FSG, who had published Moravia for decades in this country--and ultimately it was Steerforth who brought out the book in 2000. Anyway, Moravia is a strange case. For two or three decades after the war, he was probably the most visible Italian novelist outside his own country. Two of his books were made into classic movies: Bertolucci's The Conformist and Godard's Contempt. Yet he fell into relative obscurity during the last twenty years, elbowed out of the way by such international favorites as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Until recently, most of his stuff was out in print in the United States. But now The New York Review and Steerforth have undertaken ambitious reissue programs, so perhaps his star will rise again. Meanwhile, here's what the insanely rational Moravia told his interlocutor about the artistic process:
It doesn't proceed via the head; it occurs through successive illuminations. The artist is always assisted by a demon, and it is this demon that illuminates him... What is illumination? I'll come to a perhaps more interesting point, which is entirely mine, because no one else would say it. Illumination is this: a rational operation of dizzying speed. If you have a fan at home, and you turn it on, at a certain point you won't see the blades anymore, you'll see something like a blur. Now, illumination in reality is a fantastic acceleration of rationality.
Fascinating. Milosz, too, chalked up his inspiration to a daimonion. When I interviewed him in 2000, we had the following exchange. Note the goofy literalism of my final question: the poet must have thought I was ten years old.
Marcus: Let me dwell on this notion of the demon, for whom the author is essentially an instrument. Did writing poetry always strike you as this sort of a process?
Milosz: I use the word daimonion, which means "little demon," not to exaggerate the status of that personality. Yet I cannot imagine writing poetry without the first impulse coming from him--and then, after the first line of a poem is given, my hard work starts. Basically, what is received from a daimonion is incantation, a certain rhythm.
Marcus: Does the same thing apply to prose?
Milosz: Prose has its own rhythm and is probably dictated by a different kind of daimonion.
Marcus: Do you think of the "little demon" as a literal being, or as a metaphor for the creative impulse?
Milosz: No, I do not imagine that the daimonion is a little man or manlike creature. Maybe there are forces flying through the air and inspiring us, but they have no definite material shape.
(P.S. The complete text of the interview will appear in Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in Spring 2006.)

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