As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with Czesław Miłosz’s poetry. One poem in particular that I keep returning to is “Mary Magdalen and I,” translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass:
The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen
Chased from her by the Teacher with his prayer
Hover in the air in a bat-like flight,
While she, with one leg folded in,
Another bent at the knee, sits staring hard
At her toe and the thong of her sandal
As if she had just noticed such an odd thing.
Her chestnut-brown hair curls in rings
And covers her back, strong, almost virile,
Resting on her shoulder, on a dark blue dress
Under which her nakedness phosphoresces.
The face is heavyish, the neck harboring
A voice that is low, husky, as if hoarse.
But she will say nothing. Forever between
The element of flesh and the element
Of hope, she stays still. At the canvas’s corner
The name of a painter who desired her.
This isn’t an actual painting Miłosz is describing: he mentioned once at a poetry reading that he “invented” the painting and therefore, he said, the painter in the last line is him.
And like a master painter, Miłosz attempts to tell us as much of this woman’s story as he can solely through depictions of physical things. Mary’s pose, for instance—head down and “staring hard / At her toe and the thong of her sandal”—suggests a few things to me. Since Jesus could possibly be standing next to her (assuming her exorcism was recent), it could be a show of reverence for Him, denoting Mary’s piety. The gesture of staring at her own foot and shoe “As if she had just noticed such an odd thing,” for me, also brings to mind the image of a very young child who is mesmerized by commonplace objects. It makes me think of someone who is small and vulnerable and innocent, all of which describes Mary in this instance.
Getting to Mary’s physical features, they too help tell the story that’s been told about her for centuries: her hair, for instance, “curls in rings” because of a Talmudic passage in which the word “Magdalen” is sometimes translated to mean “curling women’s hair”; since artificially curled hair has for so long been associated with prostitutes, this little detail helps reinforce the story that Mary Magdalen was a reformed prostitute. (There’s actually no Scriptural basis for that, but anyhow ….) Her hair rests “on a dark blue dress,” blue being associated with heaven and often used in religious art to clothe saints. And yet even with the blue dress, we can still see how “her nakedness phosphoresces.” Looking at paintings of Mary Magdalen from about the early Renaissance onward, you’ll notice that many of them depict Mary partly undressed, sometimes with her whole torso uncovered. I’m no art historian, but I think I can safely say that these paintings depict Mary in a sort of transitioning state between her old life (that of the sinner and prostitute) and her new life as one of Christ’s disciples.
And, as far as I can tell, that’s partly what the poem is about: being caught in between heaven and earth, “the element of flesh and the element / Of hope.” One thing I’ve always loved about Miłosz is how honest he is about the realities of living in a fallen world. While his poetry often glories in the things of the earth, at the same time, he recognizes these things to be corrupted, lesser versions of what they could be. He can be honest about the sin, death, and pain that plague the world, without giving up his duty to praise the world. I think this poem portrays that sort of duality in an especially elegant way, contrasting the humble, innocent, child-like Mary Magdalen with her surroundings, in which demons “Hover in the air in a bat-like flight.”
However, as we come to the end of the poem, we see that Mary is no longer front and center, but rather, the artist painting her is. Not only are we made aware of the painter’s presence, but we are also told that he is in some way aroused by this image of Mary Magdalen. I wondered about these last lines at first, wondered why it was even necessary to mention the painter, let alone that he “desired her.” Now, I think these lines do a couple of things.
First, they bring the poem full circle. The poem begins with “The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen” and ends with “The name of a painter who desired her.” Each time, we are confronted with a state of spiritual imperfection, which brings to my mind what seems to be the recurrent nature of sin. I hope I don’t sound too bleak: if Christ has freed you from sin, you are free indeed, but that doesn’t mean that the process of being made holier won’t be long and laborious. Salvation is instant; sanctification is not. That won’t be completed until we are actually with Christ in heaven. For many Christians (and Miłosz apparently was one of them), this is a painful reality: the idea that, even as we strive to be the best we can, we still fall short and do what we, justly, hate. (See Romans 7.) But, even while we’re on earth, there’s always hope—more on that in a minute.
The second reason why these lines are important is because they point to the relative unimportance of the artist in relation to the work he creates. As I mentioned earlier, the painting in this poem says something very meaningful about the spiritual realities of the world. However, that last line reveals that the artist’s primary thought is of “desire” for this woman—or for women in general—and not the spiritual or historical weight that Mary’s story carries. Nevertheless, good things are still accomplished through this man and his work, in spite of his less-than-noble ambitions.
For me, that speaks to a sort of Providential action in life, whereby the things we do, even when we do them imperfectly or for the wrong reasons, can still be used to better our fellow men, and even to glorify God. That’s why we shouldn’t despair, even as we look on our own sinfulness and the fallenness of the rest of the world. Of course we should deplore any and all sin and avoid it whenever possible, but recognizing sin for what it is doesn’t have to lead us to despair. Instead, it gives us greater opportunities for rejoicing: it lets us better appreciate the providence of God when we realize that everything works together for Him, even our own imperfections.
That’s all for now. Do let me know in the comments if I’ve completely misinterpreted this poem and what you take away from it.