Why We Need Angels and Demons

In a 1991 essay on being a Christian in the 20th century, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, discussing the decline in religious belief in the West, posited a hypothetical scenario:

One can imagine a state (let this be science fiction for the moment) in which most of the population is educated from childhood in a mundane, materialistic philosophy, only the highest elite has religion, and the citizens of that country are not allowed to concern themselves with religious problems until they are at least forty years old.

These rules are imposed on Milosz’s imaginary state “not to preserve privilege” but because “the simplest religious ideas” were found to be “as difficult to comprehend as the highest mathematics.”

Most readers didn’t know at the time (and most readers of the Nobel laureate still don’t know)  that 20 years earlier, he had worked on a science fiction novel that created a world like that one, if with a twist.

Between 1967 and 1971, Milosz worked intermittently on a novel called The Mountains of Parnassus, which was about a totalitarian planetary state ruled by a secular elite and opposed by a precarious quasi-religious community in the Parnassus Mountains. He gave up on the work in 1971 but sent the five chapters he had completed and an explanatory note to his Polish editor, Jerzy Giedroyc, in 1972. Giedroyc rejected the manuscript, telling Milosz that it was a “not very successful attempt at a novel.”

The author’s own attitude toward the work was ambivalent. He never returned to it, nor did he submit it anywhere else for publication. He didn’t destroy it, either. Instead, it was deposited in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale with the rest of his papers, where it was discovered and subsequently published in Polish (with the support of Milosz’s estate) in 2012 and now translated into English by Stanley Bill thanks to Yale’s Margellos imprint.

The novel—if it can be called that—has almost no plot. Four of the five chapters are character portraits from which can be gleaned elements of the work’s setting and situation. The world is run by the Astronauts Union, a group of women and men selected from the general population based on aptitude and psychological and other data. Unlike the masses, who turn to debauchery for relief from the mundanity of life in a global welfare state, the astronauts devote themselves to thinking and ruling in Stoic quietude. Alcohol is prohibited. So is polygamy. A regimen of drugs gives the rulers exceptionally long lives. The drugs, and various technological advances, allow them to explore faraway planets.

What led to the creation of a global totalitarian state is never explained, but the division of humanity into two groups (as well as the obliteration of crime) was made possible by the discovery that “a single minor divergence in the reception of sense impressions could initiate two different ‘tracks’” in the minds of people, “and that one needed only a certain amount of data to understand the direction of these ‘tracks’.” The creation of a computer algorithm replaces the previously clumsy tools of oppression (propaganda and mass incarceration), allowing the state to recruit the right sort of people to join the hierarchical Astronauts Union and to search out and eliminate “tracks” that “might be harmful to the rational social order” before they become actions.

Or so it seems. One of the astronauts, Lino Martinez, takes part in an expedition to the planet of Sardion that changes him in a way that goes unrecognized by the algorithm. Already disillusioned with the Astronauts Union due to a struggle for power among its members, and weighed down by a desire for something else, “something greater,” he is moved to act by two things. One: he unexpectedly hears the word “journey” (“Against my will, I connected travel with ideas like separation, moving away, and drawing near, while theoretically being prepared for the lack of anything of the kind,” Martinez confesses). Two: he begins to remember his childhood. Memories flood his mind after he returns from Sardion, and he longs to experience again the powerful, if at times chaotic, vicissitudes of human emotion and even death.

Martinez’s tale touches on a number of topics that interested Milosz throughout his life: the inadequacy of philosophical materialism as a theory of man, the dehumanizing effects of technology, the limits of human reason, and the power of language. Even if a communist society like the one Milosz imagines in The Mountains of Parnassus could be created—one in which the populace never rebelled against the established order— it would ultimately consume itself, Milosz seems to suggest. In the novel—at least in the chapters Milosz completed—the only form of escape and protest is suicide, which is made all the easier by the meaninglessness of life in a society where human nature is reduced to cells and data. “I think,” says Martinez, “that if the whole human species had the choice either of losing or winning as we have won, then winning wouldn’t be worth it.”

The novel also offers a blistering critique of liberal Christianity for accommodating fashionable ideas in an effort to gain acceptance. In the penultimate chapter, “The Cardinal’s Testament,” which is set at some point before the totalitarian state has been established, one Cardinal Petro Vallberg explains how the church, embarrassed by its own doctrines, like original sin, “served it up in their catechisms as a kind of biblical legend”:

Angels and demons embarrassed them, so they happily sent this invisible host off into the land of metaphor. After all, they assured people in their sermons, we have always praised the goodness and beauty of creation, so let us love one another, and the Earth will become a paradise.

Yet, in turning “Christianity into action, incarnating it in social morality,” and in “assuring the flock that if Jesus had been crucified, it was because he had been a pacifist, a social worker, and a leader of the oppressed,” the church inadvertently loses its power to do anything.

The chapter only barely sketches the religious community that is formed in opposition to the Astronauts Union after the decline of the liberal congregations. We do know that it is hobbled by shallow theology, piecemeal traditions, and a congregation that no longer understands the word “father.” Still, Milosz writes, in a provocative and beautiful phrase earlier in the book, people continue to possess a “yearning for patriarchal majesty.” God will confound “all human calculations,” the Cardinal tells us.

As a novel, The Mountains of Parnassus is an obvious failure. There’s little connection between its chapters, and reconstructing the relationship between the events and the characters that are presented takes a fair amount of flipping back and forth. Still, the work, like so many of his essays, offers a critique of communism and materialism that is both piercing and elegant in that way that only Milosz can be.