2 posts

Indifference–a Most Unexpected Angle


In my last post, I shared a Czeslaw Milosz poem that seems to have echoes in many other works by many other poets. Anyone who has studied or simply read deeply of literature and mythology knows that writers’ fascination with life and death leads to thoughts of the world’s curious indifference to us.

Yes, we are subjective animals, especially when it comes to our favorite topic–ourselves. The world, however, is an objective entity. It rolls on. Whether we are sick or healthy, sad or happy, dead or alive, means nothing to it.

How, the subjective and reflective human asks, can something so beautiful (the world) remain so indifferent (uncaring), especially to someone as sensitive and thoughtful as me, myself, and I?

The theme of indifference not only preoccupied a set of poems I wrote, it also led me to unexpected places, one being a man I knew little (OK, nothing) about–a 16th-century Spanish soldier fascinated with courtly love and tales of brave knights (Don Quixote, anyone?). This Don became famous for other reasons. He became a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, a man called St. Ignatius of Loyola, now famous for founding the Jesuits.

The quixotic Ignatius turned the word “indifference” on its uncaring head. He saw it as a noble trait, one we all should seek.

What, you ask? Why be uncaring sorts when we’ve been taught otherwise since childhood? Because Ignatius meant that we should be “indifferent to all created things.” Good and bad, lovely and horrid, admirable and reprehensible.” Steel yourself and accept, in other words. This is your objective world in all its horror and glory.

This new interpretation of the word fascinates because it goes to our human weak point. Our subjectivity. Our love of self. Its precept is simple: We shouldn’t care if we are healthy or sick, enjoying ourselves or suffering, because whatever occurs is God’s will.

If you distrust matters religious, you can simply see it as fate or a case of Doris Day-like que sera sera. In which case, indifference looks almost like the Stoic’s shield. You are admired because you are indifferent to what life brings to you. You do not for a minute consider yourself special or deserving or the exception to everyone else’s rules.

In that case, being labeled “indifferent” becomes a red badge of courage. It is the defeat of selfishness and ego. And you thought word denotations were simple and well-behaved!

Have an indifferent day. If you dare.



Czeslaw Milosz on the Indifferent World


Many words–even simple ones–hold multiple meanings. Add connotative undertones to their pedigree and they grow even more fascinating. The word “indifferent” is such a word. Seemingly simple, there’s more to it than meets the eye. That’s one reason why I chose to name my first book The Indifferent World and placed the word itself in many of the collection’s poems.

First, a more conventional look at the word’s meaning, as seen through a beautiful poem written and translated (with the help of Robert Haas) by Czeslaw Milosz. This poem appeared in my copy of All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver. It gains momentum and strength as you read it–a trait I admire in poems.


Return to Kraków in 1880
Czeslaw Milosz

So I returned here from the big capitals,
To a town in a narrow valley under the cathedral hill
With royal tombs. To a square under the tower
And the shrill trumpet sounding noon, breaking
Its note in half because of the Tartar arrow
Has once again struck the trumpeter.
And pigeons. And the garish kerchiefs of women selling flowers.
And groups chattering under the Gothic portico of the church.
My trunk of books arrived, this time for good.
What I know of my laborious life: it was lived.
Faces are paler in memory than on daguerreotypes.
I don’t need to write memos and letters every morning.
Others will take over, always with the same hope,
The one we know is senseless and devote our lives to.
My country will remain what it is, the backyard of empires,
Nursing its humiliation with provincial daydreams.
I leave for a morning walk tapping with my cane:
The places of old people are taken by new old people
And where the girls once strolled in their rustling skirts,
New ones are strolling, proud of their beauty.
And children trundle hoops for more than half a century.
In a basement a cobbler looks up from his bench,
A hunchback passes by with his inner lament,
Then a fashionable lady, a fat image of the deadly sins.
So the Earth endures, in every petty matter
And in the lives of men, irreversible.
And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?
What for, if the world will forget us anyway.