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Gaither Stewart decorative flourish Czeslaw Milosz: The Unfashionable Poet

During a recent stay at the American Academy in Berlin I was standing idly in the library at a big window looking out over the troubled morning waters of the Wannsee when from the shelves near me a title leapt to my eyes. It seemed like a stroke of providence for me to find in that north European setting the book of my former professor, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, here again at the new center of his old continent, only a two-hour train ride from his native Poland.

I immediately ordered To Begin Where I Am. A month later it arrived at my home in Rome. And again, as had happened four decades earlier, I was sucked into Milosz’s complex world. This collection of his essays has made me aware just how much his world has become my world since Berkeley. Not Poland as such, but his same Europe. Many of the people populating his writings, the places he has frequented, the ideas he has dealt in, also have become mine.

I had the good fortune to have Czeslaw Milosz as my professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley shortly after his appointment there. He was a superb lecturer—humorous, eclectic, and wide-ranging over the centuries of Polish culture. I loved the poetry but was too young and green to grasp the full complexity of the events he described and hardly at all the complexity of the personal evolution that had brought him from Warsaw, via Paris, to the Pacific coast.

The poet was born of landed gentry in Czarist Russia but was educated in Lithuania when it was Polish. He lived in Warsaw during the Nazi and Soviet occupations; became a diplomat of Communist Poland but defected, inspiring suspicion on both sides; wrote in France against totalitarianism when Jean-Paul Sartre was praising it; knew people such as Camus and Einstein; and, after initial revulsion, learned to like America while a professor at Berkeley.

In his Berkeley lectures Milosz would wander afar: geographically, from his Lithuanian village to Warsaw, from Warsaw to Paris, from Paris to Berkeley; artistically and intellectually, from Greece to Rome, from Plato to William Blake, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Lev Shestov, from Albert Camus to Simone Weil, from Marx to Christ, from aesthetics to ethics. When Milosz arrived at Berkeley the Cold War was still on. But it is now obvious to me that the struggle was something vastly different for him than for my generation of Manichaean Americans.

He would not remember me today. I was but one of his enthralled students. That is not to say, however, that he did not take a personal interest in his students. And I believe he did influence the direction my life took afterwards. I recall a day that I and another student strolled with him through Berkeley streets chatting about one thing and another. When I showed interest in the links between literature and cinema, he halted on Telegraph Avenue in that European way of stopping to say important things, took me by my arm, and advised me to switch immediately my major from Russian to Polish and to apply for admission to the famous film school in Lodz in Poland. Though that did not work out, his words prompted me to strike camp and return to Europe.

A reading of Milosz and his antecedents like Dostoevsky and Shestov today, in our increasingly complex technological world of which we see and hear more and more but understand less and less, compels us to ponder and reconsider questions of faith and morality—God and man, good and evil, alienation and the madness at the heart of human existence, the role of culture, and the absurdity surrounding us—and to admit that we do not understand.

In The Captive Mind, 1953, Milosz depicted in a series of profiles how certain Poles and other East Europeans came to accept gradually, step by step, what he called the New Faith of Communism, similar in its growth, he noted, to that of Christianity in the Roman Empire. It is a study of “the stages by which the mind gives way to compulsions from without.”Milosz portrays here the inner world inhabited by intellectuals of the “people’s democracies,” largely through case studies of four writers he calls Alpha, the moralist; Beta, the Disappointed Lover; Gamma, the Slave of History; and Delta, the Troubadour. These archetypes are based, respectively, on Jerzy Andrzejewski (author of Ashes and Diamonds), Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament and Konstanti Galczynski. At the same time, Milosz reflects his own struggle to keep from throwing himself “into the abyss.” He says that “the abyss for me was exile, the worst of all misfortunes, for it meant sterility and inaction.”

I do not remember his mentioning this book in his lectures at Berkeley. Only later I learned that he regretted that he became widely known for this psycho-political study rather than for his poetry and other books, something like Pasternak’s relationship with his otherwise excellent novel, Dr. Zhivago. Above all, Milosz regretted his inevitable defeat and that he had to become an émigré.

Though Milosz is not necessarily conditioned by the world in which he has lived, he is attuned to it in a special way—the joys of creation and of his being Polish, and the disasters his metier and his birth entailed. Despite his attempts to remain outside history—first in his homeland in Poland and secondly as an exile—he has been swept up by the events of his times.

Czeslaw Milosz gained the real recognition he desired for his poetry when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

The themes of his entire oeuvre are reflected in To Begin Where I Am: the meaning of history, evil and suffering, the transience of life, the ascendance of the scientific worldview and the decline of the religious outlook. Though I never have spoken with him again in person, these essays have prompted me to reconstruct here my spiritual contacts with Milosz during the decades since Berkeley.

His essays on Simon Weil, Lev Shestov, William Blake and Oscar Milosz show those voices that are in accord with his: Weil’s unorthodox Christianity, Shestov’s defence of man against reason, Blake’s vision of the future, and Oscar Milosz’s occultism and theosophy.

Like the above thinkers, Milosz believes that peace of mind is suspect. Alberto Moravia, too, the Italian existentialist, repeatedly said that desperation was man’s natural state, just as Camus wrote soon after that despair was a permanent state of existence. Yet Milosz believes in man. Like Shestov he believes that faith is necessary to live. The fundamental ethical instinct is the basis of existence. In the discussed opposition of Jerusalem versus Athens, i.e. faith to reason, revelation to speculation, the particular to the general, Milosz sides with Jerusalem. Though he professes something close to existential philosophy, he nonetheless dares speak of religion. Again and again he returns to religion and faith. “Someone has to,” he says, “even if in our time Heaven and Hell have disappeared, the theory of evolution triumphed, and the notion of absolute truth faded.”

In general Milosz professes a contempt for fashions and social movements and rejection of the absurd and black gallows humor. It is his Catholic upbringing, he says, his need for order. For Milosz as for Blake the separation of art and moral problems is ridiculous: an understanding of the human situation has been his constant object.

I felt rewarded to learn in To Begin Where I Am that Milosz was friends with the now deceased Italian writers Ignazio Silone and Nicola Chiaromonte, who in the long post-war era were editors of the Italian cultural magazine Tempo Presente. Milosz also played a major role at the Paris-based Polish literary journal Kultura of the publishing houseInstytut Literacki (Literary Institute). First founded in Rome, then transferred to Maison-Laffitte on the outskirts of Paris, Kultura published many of Milosz’s works in Polish.

Though he knows other languages well, he has said repeatedly that his native Polish is one of the most important things of his life: he wrote it was fatherland, his home and his glass coffin. He was proud that Joseph Brodsky and other Russian poets of the Soviet era learned Polish just to read western literature that was available to them then only in that language. “The social function of language is,” Milosz says, “both to protect and to reveal.”

Fervent Catholics, Poles have always had close cultural contacts with Italy, especially with Rome. From the start of his papacy, John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) has been accused of instituting a kind of Polish mafia of priests in the Vatican. The Polish Culture Institute, the Polski Dom that houses Polish residents, and a huge Polish immigration are only some of the reminders of that Polish-Italian connection.

Milosz, who confesses that “all my intellectual impulses are religious”, has been invited to several meals with Pope John Paul II. He says he knows the Pope “fairly well”. In 1999, while in Rome for a reading at the Polish Cultural Institute, Milosz participated in a meeting of intellectuals convoked to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. At its conclusion, John Paul thanked Milosz privately for reproving German participants who like many West Europeans still today consider everything east of Germany “outer darkness.”

Milosz has written that he can “smell” a kind of innocence in virtually every single Pole. Like Dostoevsky, the sense of innocence in man limits Milosz’s religious feelings. He feels he shares a language only with those Poles who have “passed through Marxism, atheism, or some other deviations.” “How then,” he says, “can I place John Paul II when his philosophical writings lack the flaw that I find so necessary?”

Though Milosz admires the pure in spirit, the Cathari he names them, he makes no such claim for himself. Perhaps secretly he does however aspire to such a rarefied state. He considers Camus, whom we think of in the God-is-dead tradition, as a Cathar, a pure one, who rejected God because he was unable to justify Him.

But despair and nihilism are not for Milosz as seen in his defence of the Arcadian myth—the dream of the happy life, the Golden Age, for Christians in heaven, for Communists on earth. As a concession to such leniency in himself he hangs onto the belief that poetry can either save or destroy nations. For such extravagance he would of course have to be a Pole.

Czeslaw Milosz (for the reader who does not know Polish, the pronunciation is Ches-swaf Meewosh) is most certainly cosmopolitan and universal. Yet to appreciate fully his art, especially his early works, one must keep in mind the disintegration of Polish and European culture between 1939-1945. Poets in Poland of that period lived in the stench of the putrescence of humanity under successive waves of Nazi and Soviet occupations, the Holocaust and the murder of three million Poles, and the destruction of their cities. Polish poets saw the realization of Dostoevsky’s vision of European culture sinking in stages into inhumanity. It was the end of European culture. Religion, art, philosophy had been only a façade.

The New Faith was on its way.

I remembered and found at home a special Russian-language edition of the Polish Kultura monthly review of 1971 which includes Milosz’s essay on the Antichrist—an understandable subject in the Polish post-war. In the same number of the review there is an article entitled “Berlin Diary” by Milosz’s fellow Pole, Witold Gombrowicz. The novelist relates in this article his sensations of being in the island that was West Berlin—the silence, the absence of people, and, in the park of the Tiergarten, the stench of death drifting from Poland.

On the back cover of the journal, listed among other Russian language editions of Kultura, is a book by Marek Hlasko, a then-young writer Milosz mentions in To Begin Where I Am. Hlasko must have been a source of amazement and consternation for him because of the tumult of alienation from society in the writer’s narrative so in contrast with Milosz’s reflective character. They experienced the same crucial decade of Polish history in diametrically opposite fashions. Hlasko, born in 1934 in Warsaw, was the first of Poland’s “angry young men,” Poland’s James Dean, whose life was action. He wrote like Albert Camus. His book, The Eighth Day of the Week, about life in Communist Poland in the 1950s was an international bestseller in 1958 and became a prize-winning film presented at the Venice Film Festival. As chance would have it, Hlasko and his American girlfriend once lived in my house for a few days in Germany, before his troubled three-year stay in Israel where he lived and worked with Arabs. Drink and despair were his lot. He killed himself with sleeping pills and alcohol in Wiesbaden in 1969.

Today it was a strange feeling finding in my own library a small edition of the Italian translation of Hlasko’s short novel, On The Day of His Death, which takes place in Israel. It was stranger still to read that it was published by an elderly Polish gentleman, Joseph Fryd, a neighbor in Rome whom I met almost daily. It was like closing one of the many circles of life.

Reading Milosz, Gombrowicz, and Hlasko and about the people they knew, one can realize how as a result of the “isms” and destruction, European poetry last century developed differently from American poetry. In post-war Europe, poets wondered what they could possibly write about. After the Holocaust, it was said in Europe, poetry was impossible.

Yet Milosz has maintained a firm faith in the role of poetry. In the fifth of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures delivered at Harvard in 1981-82, “Ruins and Poetry”, and published in 1985 by Harvard Press under the title The Witness of Poetry, Milosz breaks a lance in favor of heretofore scorned “journalistic poetry.” He no longer considers it only “rhymed documentation of reality” or an “elegant document.” He urges poets, critics and readers to step out of the chalk circle of formality.

In “Ruins and Poetry” he cites the case of his friend, Aleksander Wat, a poet who met the challenge of history. A Communist, Wat spent much time in Soviet prisons as a “Trotskyite, Zionist and agent of the Vatican.” In a Job-like cry, Wat relates in his late works the conclusions of a survivor for whom inanimate nature becomes an object of envy: he turns himself into a stone.

Milosz is fascinated by “the contradiction between man’s longing for good and the cold universe absolutely indifferent to any values. If we put aside our humanity,” he writes, “we realize that the world is neither good nor bad—it just is.” In Milosz’s conception the divine resides in man and differentiates him from that nature which is neither good nor evil. The divine in man is in a battle with nature, against meaninglessness, and ever searching for meaning.

Thus, man in Milosz’s universe is an alien creature. He is alien because of the divine in him. Because only he is aware that we have a history and that we must die. In the sense that man cannot communicate with the other creatures of nature, humans are anti-nature. Death is a humiliation because it tears us away from the things we perceive. It is the absurdity of human existence.

Modern civilization, he believes, is accelerating the process of the decay of our humanness. For Milosz, the devil is the creator of the technological civilization in which we live and which oppresses us—technology is supplanting what is not human in us.

I quote from his essay on Simone Weil, who was a major influence on his life: “This does not mean we can dismiss history, seeing it as eternal recurrence, and shrug at its spectacle. Willing or not, we are committed. We should throw our act into the balance by siding with the oppressed and by diminishing as much as possible the oppressive power of those who give orders. Without expecting too much: hubris, lack of measure, is punished by fate, inherent in the laws of iron necessity.”

Milosz’s words in “My Intention,” the opening essay of To Begin Where I Am make also an apt close to the volume:

“I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long-standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at “being here” in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my memory, and all I now assent to, dissent from.”

Afterword

I did not write this essay in anticipation of the poet’s death but as a result of the chance meeting with his new book as I describe in the first sentence. I began it in my mind last winter in Berlin and wrote it shortly afterwards in Rome. The many articles written about Milosz since his death last August 14 in Krakow and the descriptions of the guru-poet with the bushy eyebrows shuffling around the Berkeley campus hardly correspond to my image of the dynamic urbane East European intellectual I have described here.

Although the circle of Milosz’s life began closing when he returned to live part of his time in Poland surrounded by his beloved Polish language, his life was still an open question. I was especially fascinated by the many lives he lived since his birth in Lithuania; he spanned the entire century of the powerful ideologies.

Naturally I now regret not having made the trip to his home in Krakow, Poland as I had wanted to. I would have liked to ask his thoughts about our world today and whether he had revised his reservations about his fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) who in his recent book defines Twentieth century Communism as a “necessary evil”, with the emphasis on “necessary,” as a deterrent to rampant Capitalism. In a way Milosz anticipated the Pope by over half a century in The Captive Mind.

Selected Polish Literature

» To Be Where I Am, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001

» The Land of Ulro, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, from which the first three chapters of the above collection and other essays were taken. The book was originally publisshed as Ziemia Ulro, Paris, Instytut Literacki, 1977.

» Milosz’s ABC, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, includes “Dostoevsky” and other essays from the volume under consideration.

» Visions From San Francisco Bay, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975, includes the essays, “Carmel” and “To Robinson Jeffers”, also from the above.

» The Captive Mind, New York, Random House, 1953, was originally published in Polish as Zniewolony Umysl, Paris, Instytut Literacki, 1953.

» And, by Marek Hlasko: The Eighth Day of the Week, Dutton, 1958, and subsequently translated into many other languages.

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Gaither Stewart grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he settled first in Germany, then in Italy. Following a career in journalism as Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and contributor to the press in several European countries, he began writing fiction full-time. He has authored three novels and two short story collections. He has resided in Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Russia and Mexico. Today he lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome.