Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)
by Stephen Schwartz
Dubrovnik -- The death at 93 of the Polish-American poet, intellectual historian, and teacher Czeslaw Milosz, on August 14, marks the end of a specific era in modern life: that of the struggle of independent intellectuals to come to grips with the menace of Soviet Communism. What I shall write about him here is, as will be seen, quite personal. He and I both lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had certain things in common.
For many years Milosz, although awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, was best known for his book The Captive Mind, published in 1953, and presenting a panorama of the moral destruction of creative life in Soviet-occupied Poland. From 1945 until his break with the Communist regime in 1951, he had served as a Polish diplomat in the West, where he remained after his defection. But he had previously established himself as a leading younger poet of the Polish generation that underwent Nazi occupation, witnessed the Holocaust of the Jews (Milosz was Catholic), and supported a national resistance.
The ultimate trial of his people and his own peers came with the betrayal of Poland by the West, at Yalta, at the end of the second world war. Britain and France had joined battle with Nazi Germany in 1939 to defend the borders of Poland, but in the aftermath of that war Poland was realigned, within new borders that reflected the triumph of Soviet pressure and Western passivity rather than of principles and promises allegedly defended by the democracies.
Indeed, Milosz himself had personally experienced a rather notable series of grim lessons about global diplomacy. He was born in territory then belonging to Russia, afterward transferred to Poland, but which was eventually handed over to Lithuanian ethnic control by the Soviets. He was educated in Vilnius, a city that was overwhelmingly Jewish and Polish when he lived there, with a Lithuanian population of less than five percent. But after Lithuanization of the city, its demography was forcibly changed.
In an interview I conducted with him in 1999, he recalled the Vilnius of his youth as place where "(w)e had Polish Muslims (descendants of the invading Tatars from the 16th century) who had their own mosque; we had the Karaim, a Jewish sect made up of ethnic Tatars who accepted a form of Judaism based only on the Torah (Old Testament) and who rejected the Talmud. They had their own synagogues," he remembered. Vilnius was known among orthodox Jews as "the Jerusalem of the North."
He had moved to Warsaw in 1937, but with the German invasion of Poland, he left for Romania, and returned to Vilnius under Soviet and Lithuanian control, before going again to Warsaw.
In 1991, Milosz wrote with great emotion in The New York Times about Lithuania, then poised to recover its freedom after 50 years under the Soviet boot. "For me the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, as a result of which Lithuania, a peaceful, neutral country, was incorporated in 1940 into the Soviet Union, is not an abstraction," he wrote. "I was in Vilnius and saw the Soviet tanks roll in. Immeasurable suffering followed: mass terror and deportations of hundreds of thousands to gulags."
But, he continued, "the nation's spirit was not broken during decades of Soviet rule. The Lithuanians were certain the crime of depriving a nation of its independence would not profit the invader." Milosz acknowledged that his birth in a borderland zone had left him somewhat divided in his personality. He declared, "I consider myself loyal to my birthplace in Lithuania... But a division occurred in the society, and it was along linguistic lines. Therefore, I must be considered a Pole."
He was invited to the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, and one of his closest friends in the Bay Area literary community -- and his real champion for many years -- was the poet Kenneth Rexroth, an ex-Communist turned anarchist, who also happened to be among the pioneers in the serious study of Buddhism in America. I knew Rexroth very well, and can attest that the two men, Milosz and Rexroth, shared an enormous largeness of heart and personal generosity in addition to their direct experience with an insights into the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism. Indeed, although few in the San Francisco literary hierarchy would choose to admit it today, both suffered a kind of ostracism in the community for some years, as the majority of local writers, whose talents were much the lesser, swung to the radical left.
As a Polish Christian, Milosz was also known as a Catholic author, a point about which he would offer some rather amused comments. "I may be too much of a sinner and heretic to be considered a real Catholic intellectual, although I would like to be considered a Catholic intellectual," he said. But, he added, "A priest who studied my work decided there is no obstacle to calling me a Catholic intellectual, even though I do not call myself a Catholic poet."
Toward the end of his life, he expressed nostalgia for the older traditions of the Catholic church, such as the Latin Mass. "I recently tried to attend a church with the Latin Mass but such changes are irreversible," he told me. "It doesn't work for me. It is impossible to return to it; something was lost that cannot be regained." Yet he also said that one of his recent students had not given up on the ancient liturgy, and attended a Byzantine-rite Mass because it was more "dignified." Milosz recalled with enthusiasm the words of the traditional Roman rite, "I will come before the altar of God, the God that restores to me the joy of my youth." He expressed sadness that such a message is now largely absent from the Mass, commenting, "The opponents of the change from the Latin to the vernacular liturgy were correct when they said that so profound a change implied a major shift."
He said that such a shift had resulted from the change in the priest's position. Where he once faced East towards God, he now faces the people. "The priest with his face to the community doubtless expresses a collective feeling - but now he's an actor before an audience rather than a man performing for God." Having witnessed so much oppression and disillusion, Milosz nonetheless derived great joy from many aspects of his personal life. One such was his friendship with Pope John Paul II, a Pole like him: "It is wonderful to realize," he said with a smile, "that the best defender of reason in the world today is the Pope."
Yet he also noted, sadly, "In the world we now live in the very notion of truth has been undermined. Look in the philosophy sections of bookstores, you see Nietzsche, the great underminer...one of the great fomentors of suspicion, with Marx and Freud." Nevertheless, his Catholicism possessed a somewhat skeptical character. He opposed agitation among Poles for strict legislation against abortion. He said rather incongruously that abortion was a "great crime," but that the Poles should not legally ban it.
He also felt concern about the tendency of Poles to identify their country with a messianic mission. While he agreed with many of his fellow-Poles, and numerous foreign observers, that Polish soldiers who beat back a Communist invasion of the country in 1920 had "probably" saved Western civilization, he also declared: "It's better not to assume such a mission. Let's not mix up Christ, and the possibility of individual salvation, with national redemption... It's blasphemous to think in those terms," he insisted. "No national community represents salvation; we must not usurp for ourselves the pure image of Christ the savior."
Let me add that I write these words from Croatia, a country that has also experienced a surge of national messianism, following the horrors of the recent Yugoslav wars -- and that Milosz was eloquent in his condemnation of the atrocities committed against the Bosnian Muslims, declaring, "intellectuals are responsible for the horrors of Bosnia, for they initiated the new nationalist tendencies there."
The latter statement was quoted in an obituary in The New York Times on August 15, in which Milosz was unfortunately equated with the former Communist functionary Milovan Djilas, who enjoyed immense success in reinventing himself as a dissident before Western audiences, but who is remembered in ex-Yugoslavia as an extremely bloody commissar with considerable blood on his hands -- something that could never be said of Milosz.
Still, when the definitive end of Communism came, it did so in great part through the leadership of a Polish pope, and thanks to the determination of the Polish nation to throw off the domination of a Russian imperialism that had weighed upon their nation for centuries. The award of the Nobel Prize to Milosz in 1980, in the minds of many, reflected international admiration for the rebirth of the Polish conscience, which he, no less than the Pope, had come to embody.
Milosz was a great poet, although like other Slav authors, his work is difficult to appreciate in translation. In one of his most famous works from the 1940s, "Child of Europe," he wrote, "Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality." The poem may be read in English translation, and in its entirety at www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=6685&poem=281476, and is not without its grim insights.
To paraphrase Rexroth, writing of another, we will not see his like again.