On May 15, 1951, Polish cultural attache in Paris, Czesław Miłosz, asked the French government for political asylum. From the article:
"Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth Having experienced both Nazi and Communist rule, Poland’s great exile poet arrived at a unique blend of skepticism and sincerity.
In July, 1950, Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Jerzy Putrament, the general secretary of the Polish Writers’ Union. The two men had known each other for many years—they had been contributors to the same student magazine in college, in the early nineteen-thirties—but their paths had diverged widely. Now the arch-commissar of Polish literature told the poet, “I heard that you are to be moved to Paris. . . . I am happy that you will be coming here, because I have been worried about you a little: whether the splendor of material goods in America has overshadowed poverty in other aspects of life.”
The language was polite, even confiding, but the message could not have been clearer. Milosz, who had been working as a diplomat in the United States for four years, was no longer considered trustworthy by his superiors. He was being transferred to Paris so that he would be within reach of Warsaw. Sure enough, a few days before Christmas, Milosz was summoned back to Poland, and his passport was confiscated. “He is deeply detached from us,” Putrament observed, after meeting with Milosz in person. There was “no other option” than to keep him in the country, lest he end up defecting to the West.
This scenario had played out countless times in Communist countries. In the Soviet Union, under Stalin, it often ended with the summoned party being sent to prison or shot. And the Communist regime in Poland, which had been installed by Stalin at the end of the Second World War, had reasons to be concerned about Milosz. For one thing, he had left his pregnant wife and their son in the United States, giving him a strong incentive to return. For another, he had never joined the Communist Party. He was allowed to serve the Polish government without a Party card, largely because his reputation—he had been a leading light of Polish poetry since the mid-thirties—was considered valuable to the new regime.
Far more damning evidence of Milosz’s disaffection with the regime lay in notebooks, full of poems that were not published until years later. What would Putrament have thought if he had read “Child of Europe,” written in New York in 1946?
Do not mention force, or you will be accused Of upholding fallen doctrines in secret.
He who has power, has it by historical logic. Respectfully bow to that logic . . .
Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision. Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.
These lines mocked the Communist claim to rule, which was based on the theory of history as formulated by Marx. According to the concept of dialectical materialism—“diamat,” as its adherents often abbreviated it—the triumph of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was not a contingent event but the necessary result of an age-old process of class conflict. Milosz turned this presumption of “historical logic” upside down: if Communism now ruled Eastern Europe, it was not because of the laws of history but because the Russians had burned the house down. “Diamat is a tank,” Milosz confided to a friend in 1951. “I feel like a fly which wants to stand up against that tank.”
Andrzej Franaszek’s “Milosz: A Biography” (Harvard), edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker—a longer version appeared in Polish in 2011—tells the story of what happened next. Stuck in Warsaw, unsure if he would ever be allowed to leave or to see his family again, Milosz was despondent. A friend, Natalia Modzelewska, recalled that he “became mentally unstable [and] suffered from bouts of depression, which gradually got worse. . . . It was easy to discern that he was close to a nervous breakdown.” It wasn’t just his own fate that frightened him. Milosz had mostly been away from Poland since 1946, and had not witnessed the worsening climate of repression in the country. Now he could see. “I came across astronomical changes,” he wrote in a letter to another exile. “Peasants go mad with despair, and in the intellectual world state control is deeply entrenched and it is necessary to be a 100% Stalinist, or not at all. The so-called Marxists are highly depressed.”
It was thanks to Modzelewska that he had the chance to leave Poland and save himself. Her husband was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and she urged him to take up Milosz’s case with the President of Poland, Boleslaw Bierut. “Can you vouch that he will return?” Bierut asked. The minister could not, but replied, “I am deeply convinced that he ought to be allowed to go.” Whether this was a gesture of mercy, or of respect for a great writer, or even of contempt—if Milosz couldn’t serve the state, why should the state keep him?—it meant freedom. On January 15, 1951, Milosz was back in Paris. On February 1st, he slipped out of the Polish Embassy and headed for the offices of Kultura, an émigré publishing house, where he remained in hiding for the next three and a half months. He did not return to Poland until 1981, the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The summons to Warsaw in 1950 was one of many hinges of fate in Milosz’s life—moments when he could have become an entirely different person, or simply disappeared. Franaszek’s richly detailed, dramatic, and melancholy book is full of such close calls. Born in 1911 to an aristocratic Polish family in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time, Milosz was swept up in the maelstrom of the twentieth century from the beginning. When he was three, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled the advancing German Army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik government, and the family spent the war years crisscrossing the region—Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia. In a late poem, Milosz recalled an episode from 1918, when they were trying to get home to Lithuania during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. At one train station, he was separated from his parents:
. . . the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind, Forever. As if I grasped that I would have been somebody else, A poet of another language, of a different fate.
At the last minute, a stranger reunited them. But a sense of the caprice of fate never left Milosz. “The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident,” he wrote in “Native Realm,” a memoir. “If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one’s feet on solid ground without falling.”
After the war, the family settled in Wilno—now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but at the time a majority-Polish city. Even as a boy, Milosz was passionate and ambitious, with an intense seriousness that made it hard for him to accept the conventional routines of church and school. A childhood friend compared him to “a tomcat, constantly tense and grumpy”; later in life he acquired the nickname Gniewosz, which blended his name with the Polish word for “anger.” In his teens, he was capable of gestures of melodramatic despair. On one occasion, edged out in a romantic rivalry, he put a single bullet into a revolver and, Franaszek writes, “spun the barrel, put it against his head and pulled the trigger.” He lost—or maybe won—this game of Russian roulette; but, in Franaszek’s telling, it’s clear that any kind of calm or satisfaction remained elusive to the end of his life.
Such a condition is hardly surprising for anyone of Milosz’s generation, in that part of the world. Millions of his contemporaries lived through, or died in, the First World War; the Lithuanian Wars of Independence; the Polish-Soviet War; the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., in 1939; the Holocaust; the Eastern Front of the Second World War, which passed back and forth across the country from 1941 to 1945; and the postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. Milosz’s course was complicated by the fact that his class and national allegiances were anything but straightforward. He grew up speaking at least four languages, and, although his family belonged to the Polish gentry—and still owned a country estate in Lithuania, where he spent the happiest days of his childhood—they were, like most of their class at the time, quite poor. “My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries,” Milosz reflected later.
As an aristocrat without money, and a Pole whose homeland was Lithuania, Milosz could not wholeheartedly embrace any of the political identities swirling around him. Postwar Poland, newly independent after more than a century of tsarist rule, experienced a sudden surge of chauvinist pride and annexed much of Lithuania, including Wilno. Milosz was repelled by the Poles’ religiosity and nationalism—their growing hostility to Lithuanian, Jewish, and Belarusan minorities. In 1931, Wilno University, where he was a student, was convulsed by anti-Jewish riots. Milosz, Franaszek writes, was “among the few defending the Jewish students.” (Jerzy Putrament, not yet a Communist, took part in the riots, beating Jews with a heavy cane.)
Milosz was at the university from 1929 to 1934, and he published his first collection of poems in 1933. He drew close to several left-wing student groups, but, although his anti-nationalism made the left a natural home for him, he could never bring himself to become a full-fledged Marxist, much less a member of the Communist Party. His sense of truth was too individual, too much a matter of poetic perception, to submit to the dictates of a party, even one that claimed to be acting according to the laws of history. “Reading articles by young Polish Marxists, one suspects that they really wish for this period to herald a future which sees the total demise of art and artistry,” Milosz observed in a 1936 essay. “They are preoccupied solely with sniffing out betrayal and class desertion.”
In 1937, Milosz moved to Warsaw to work for Polish Radio. There he fell in love with a colleague, Janina Cekalska. Janka, as she was known, was unhappily married to another man, a film director. She aspired to become a director herself, and had founded an organization to promote leftist filmmaking. But she soon put her ambitions aside, seeing her mission as the development of Milosz’s talent, and she became a crucial reader of his work. Milosz, who had already been through several stormy and bruising love affairs, worried that committing himself to Janka might compromise his artistic calling, but they soon started living together, and they married some years later. It proved to be a difficult marriage. “She was a rational person, but made a mistake choosing me,” he said late in life. He was, he realized, “not at all material to be a husband and father.”
By the end of the thirties, Milosz’s intellectual position was becoming intolerable. He was opposed to everything the Communists opposed, yet he suspected that a Communist takeover would be disastrous. At the same time, anyone could see that Poland’s future held war or revolution, or both. Contemplating the fate of his country, he wrote, years later, “I had a kind of horror, some basic dread.”
It is only against this background that one can make sense of the decisions Milosz made after Germany’s invasion of Poland, in September, 1939. In the initial chaos, he fled Warsaw and took a circuitous route back to Wilno, which was momentarily free, because Lithuania was still independent. But, in 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, leaving Milosz with two equally dire choices: remain, and live under Stalinism; or return to Warsaw, and live under Nazism. Either path would be extremely dangerous. The Soviets were purging and deporting Polish intellectuals; the Nazis were indiscriminately killing Poles, and herding Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. In July, 1940, Milosz decided that Warsaw was the better choice, and he managed to smuggle himself across the border and into the General Government, as Nazi-occupied Poland was called.
Recounting this episode, Franaszek emphasizes Milosz’s desire to return to Janka, who had remained in Warsaw. But Milosz, in “Native Realm,” dwells less on love and more on his political and intellectual motives. “I had run from Stalin’s state to be able to think things over for myself instead of succumbing to a world view imposed from without,” he explains. “There was complete freedom here, precisely because National Socialism was an intellectual zero.” Communism, by contrast, exerted a terrible moral pressure, because it claimed to embody historical truth and justice, so that dissenting from it turned one into a sinner or a heretic. Nazism threatened the body, whereas Communism demanded the surrender of the soul. For a poet like Milosz, the latter seemed like the greater sacrifice.
Ironically, as Franaszek writes, the war years were a time of flourishing for Milosz. Although, like all Poles under Nazi rule, he faced grave risks—on several occasions, he narrowly escaped German patrols and roundups—the arrival of the apocalypse he had long dreaded also set something free within him. He was active in the underground literary scene, compiling an anthology of wartime poetry and translating Shakespeare into Polish. His poetry acquired a new simplicity, directness, and pathos—several of his masterworks date from these years—and his stature among Polish readers grew.
Still, the horrors that he witnessed and experienced permanently shaped his view of humanity and history. Living in proximity to the Warsaw Ghetto, he wrote two of the earliest poems about the Holocaust, “Campo dei Fiori” and “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” After the war, Milosz tried to describe the effect of disaster on his world view:
When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures, When the letter falls out of the book of laws, Then consciousness is naked as an eye.
When the pages of books fall in fiery scraps Onto smashed leaves and twisted metal, The tree of good and evil is stripped bare.
These lines capture one of the central characteristics of Milosz’s art: the instinct to strip away the inessential, to zero in on the heart of the matter. He could see “the skull beneath the skin,” in the words of T. S. Eliot, whose work he knew well. But, where Eliot often used this kind of moral X-ray vision to express contempt and disgust for the world, Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound. Instead, he sought a poetry that was truthful and perceptive enough to be trustworthy even when annihilation seemed imminent. In “The Captive Mind,” a prose work written in 1953, just after his defection, in which he tried to make sense of his experience of Communism, Milosz recalled a moment from Nazi-occupied Warsaw that became a touchstone:
A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers.
Milosz wanted to write poems that could survive such a judgment. Even before 1939, Franaszek shows, he was obsessed with the idea of the poet’s responsibility—his duty to write in a way that not only was beautiful and true but also offered sustenance. “Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with himself and the world,” he wrote in a 1938 essay. Nothing disgusted him more than aestheticism, which he associated with the Polish poets popular in his youth, who produced wan imitations of French fin-de-siècle poetry. Their “transformed choir did not much resemble / The disorderly choir of ordinary things,” Milosz complains in “A Treatise on Poetry,” his 1957 sequence, which combines personal memoir with ethical reflection to create an ars poetica. “At least poetry, philosophy, action were not, / For us, separated,” he writes of his own generation. “We needed to be of use.”
The need to be of use guided Milosz’s choices after the war, when he agreed to take up a diplomatic post under the new Communist government of Poland. In “The Captive Mind,” the book that first made Milosz’s name known to Western readers, he emphasizes that he and most other Polish intellectuals thought that the Communists were right about many things: the injustice of feudal and capitalist Poland, the rottenness of Polish nationalism, the need to modernize society and politics. All of this made it very easy to conclude that Communism was, as it claimed to be, the philosophy—even the religion—of the future, to which everyone had to bow down.
Milosz offers four case studies of writers he knew, showing how each had reasoned himself into submission. One of these was Putrament, whom Milosz writes about in the chapter titled “Gamma, the Slave of History.” Gamma rose to become one of the rulers of Poland because of his fanatical devotion to Communist doctrine: “This was the reward for those who knew how to think correctly, who understood the logic of History, who did not surrender to senseless sentimentality!”
But Gamma could make this submission, Milosz suggests, only because he was not truly a poet. To be a poet involves hearing the voice of conscience, which precludes lying, even in the service of a good cause. “The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invisible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone. . . . The creative man has no choice but to trust his inner command and place everything at stake in order to express what seems to him to be true,” Milosz writes. The people around him in the twentieth century worshipped history, which is to say, power; but the artist worships truth, which is what allows him to save his soul.
This statement has a lofty sound, and it would be easy to be scornful of it if Milosz’s life and work didn’t so clearly demonstrate the utter sincerity of his belief. Few intellectuals today speak of “the truth” without a certain embarrassment. Isn’t the truth merely an ideological construction, always determined by the power relations prevailing in a given time and place? When truth is invoked, we always have to ask, Whose truth? Milosz knew the reasons for skepticism as well as anyone. One of his poems begins:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible. No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
But the title of the poem is “Incantation.” In other words, these humane formulas are a spell, a chant we utter to give ourselves the illusion of potency. The belief in reason, the title implies, is unreasonable, and Milosz’s experiences gave ample support for this idea.
Certainly, there is no ground for believing that truth or reason will ultimately prevail in human life. As Franaszek shows, they never quite did for Milosz. Though his biography seems, in retrospect, to follow a redemptive arc, his life from year to year was bitter. After escaping from Poland, in 1951, he was a penniless, friendless exile, and faced the arduous task of rebuilding his world. There was a prolonged conflict with Janka over whether she and their sons should join him in France, as Milosz wanted, or remain in the United States, where she felt safer. In the end, he persuaded her, but their marriage continued to be marked by numerous separations and trials, including chronic infidelities on his part.
For the rest of the nineteen-fifties, Milosz supported his family by working as a journalist; among other things, he wrote scripts for the Polish service of the BBC. By 1960, his reputation had spread widely enough that he was offered a position teaching Polish literature at Berkeley, and he remained there until he retired, in 1978. The university was a needed refuge, and Milosz wrote some of his most important work in these years. But, in Franaszek’s telling, he mostly hated life in California; the pleasure he found in the natural setting was offset by his feelings of alienation and disdain for the culture. “The only entertainment of the locals is to stare at passing cars for hours on end, drinking or shooting from their cars at road signs they pass by,” he observed in a 1964 letter.
The fundamental source of his anger was the feeling of being cut off from his language and his readers, without which his life as a poet made no sense. Poland’s Communist government banned his works after his defection, and, though Kultura faithfully published his books in Polish, some of which circulated secretly in Poland, the editions were small: of his 1953 volume “Daylight,” Franaszek writes, “a thousand copies were printed, but four years later . . . 320 remained unsold.” It wasn’t until 1973 that the first volume of his poems in English translation appeared. Until shortly before he won the Nobel Prize, he had barely any readers in the United States, where, if he was known at all, it was as the translator of the poet Zbigniew Herbert. Having enjoyed early fame as a poet, he spent his best years in near-total eclipse.
Even when recognition finally came, personal sorrows made it impossible for Milosz to enjoy it. In the mid-seventies, Janka became bedridden with what was eventually diagnosed as A.L.S., and Milosz became her caretaker until her death, in 1986. In a poem written after she died, “On Parting with My Wife, Janina,” he wrote:
I loved her, without knowing who she really was. I inflicted pain on her, chasing my illusion.
During the same period, his younger son, Piotr, developed severe manic depression and paranoia, and spent time in prison after firing a gun out of a motel window at an imaginary persecutor. Milosz blamed himself for not having been a better parent and described feeling “a terrible guilt about my existence, partly justified, partly pathological.” When it was clear that he was in contention to win the Nobel Prize, he told a close friend, a Catholic priest, that he was praying for the restoration of Piotr’s sanity instead. This section of Franaszek’s biography is titled “Job.” “I only bow and smile like a puppet, maintain a mask, while inside me there is suffering and great distress,” Milosz wrote in 1978. “I can’t say whether there are any people who would know what I feel and realize how much it costs to press this button, to shut away the pain, when I begin a lecture or a talk.”
The last phase of Milosz’s life brought new sources of happiness. Poland’s ban on his work began to lift, and his triumphal visit, in 1981, made him realize that, to many Poles, he had become a national hero, a symbol of cultural resistance. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, told Milosz that the poet had inspired his own work: “I think I went to prison twice for what you wrote!” In 1993, Milosz moved back, settling in Kraków, with his second wife, Carol Thigpen, an American; it was a homecoming that, for half his life, had seemed like an impossibility. He kept writing right up to his death, in 2004, at the age of ninety-three.
Yet it was his lifelong, intimate knowledge of suffering, both private and public, that did the most to shape Milosz’s work. Unlike many great twentieth-century writers, who saw truth in despair, Milosz’s experiences convinced him that poetry must not darken the world but illuminate it: “Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.” That decision for goodness is what makes Milosz a figure of such rare literary and moral authority. As we enter what looks like our own time of troubles, his poetry and his life offer a reminder of what it meant, and what it took, to survive the twentieth century. ♦"