Interview with Czeslaw Milosz
by Stephen Schwartz
In his 88th year, poet, essayist and teacher Czeslaw Milosz is slowed down by age and health problems, but he still has much to celebrate. Milosz is best known as the 1980 Nobel laureate in literature.
Much less known is his reputation as a Catholic intellectual. In a recent interview with Milosz at his home atop the Berkeley hills, he reluctantly accepted that label, commenting, "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 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."
Milosz has lived to see the world change in a direction only he and few others had anticipated. In 1951, he exiled himself from Poland, where he had lived and come to maturity as an author. In the West, he became famous for his book The Captive Mind, in which he discussed the corruption of writers under Polish Communism. He had served as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled regime beginning in 1945 and could have remained a member of the elite. But Milosz rejected the false privileges and worldly power held out by the Marxist commissars, a decision implicitly explained in The Captive Mind.
As he wrote in that book, "I had been through the rather strict education of a Catholic school, had read law in one of the Polish universities, and had continued my studies in Paris. Literature was the real interest of my life. I had published two volumes of avant-garde verse, and some translations from French poetry."
When The Captive Mind was written, the Soviet party-state represented a vast colossus stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific; the Moscow and Beijing dictatorships together held sway over so many millions that Communists claimed the majority of the world's inhabitants for their creed.
Even in the U.S., most observers believed that Soviet Communism was a permanent phenomenon of modern history, virtually a new stage in human development.
But Milosz, like many other Poles, understood that Communism, a philosophy without God or the human redemption offered by religion, could not survive. He lived to see the fall of that regime, and its replacement by a democracy with Christian overtones.
Milosz, as a Polish author and anti-Communist, has become a friend of Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. "It is wonderful to realize," he commented with a broad smile, "that the best defender of reason in the world today is the Pope."
He described Holy Father as "extraordinary," pointing out that "nobody understands why half a million young people flocked to hear him in France...a very de-Christianized country."
He continued, "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."
He looked back to his youth and to the influence on him of Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher of the first half of this century. Not that Milosz is a Thomist. As he admits, his Catholicism possesses a rather skeptical character.
He worries, for example, about the tendency among some Poles to press for strict abortion legislation. He says rather incongruously that abortion is a "great crime," but that the Poles should not legally ban it.
He worries about the Polish tendency to identify Poland with a messianic mission. He agreed that the Polish soldiers who beat back a Communist invasion of the country in 1920 had "probably" saved Western civilization, but then 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 insists. "No national community represents salvation; we must not usurp for ourselves the pure image of Christ the savior."
Because of his suspicion about such trends, he greatly misses his friend Jerzy Turowicz, editor of the Polish Catholic journal Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), who died recently.
"Tygodnik Powszechny followed the line of liberal Catholicism headed by the Pope," he said. He strongly criticized "crazy people who would desecrate the crucifix by insisting on erecting crosses at Auschwitz" -- a reference to nationalist demonstrations held by alleged Jew-baiters at the site of the former Nazi camp.
Like many other Polish Catholics, Milosz is sympathetic to Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He recalled that his friend Turowicz, although not Jewish, requested that a Jewish folk song be performed at his funeral.
Milosz also looks back with considerable nostalgia to his childhood in Wilno, a city today in Lithuania, that once boasted a truly organic "multicultural" population.
"We 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.
Wilno was known among orthodox Jews as "the Jerusalem of the North." Milosz's origins in this borderland region have led to a certain split in his own identity. While considered a Polish poet, he was actually born in Lithuania, also a profoundly Catholic country.
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.
'Yet, 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."
"I consider myself loyal to my birthplace in Lithuania," he said. "But a division occurred in the society, and it was along linguistic lines. Therefore, I must be considered a Pole."
Educated in fiercely Catholic Poland, it is not suprising that Milosz, despite his liberal Catholic sympathies, would allow criticisms of the post-Vatican II Church. At the time of Vatican II, he wrote to the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton that the abandonment of the Latin Mass would cost the Church dearly.
Today, he seems to take a rather fatalistic attitude towards liturgical changes in the Church. With the abandonment of the Tridentine Mass, he said, Catholic ritual has lost essential elements, which cannot be restored even by a return to the Latin idiom.
"'I recently tried to attend a church with the Latin Mass but such changes are irreversible," he lamented. "It doesn't work for me. It is impossible to return to it; something was lost that cannot be regained." In the same breath, he says that one of his recent students hasn't given up on ancient liturgy and now attends a Byzantine-rite Mass because it is more "dignified" than the Novus Ordo.
Milosz recalled with some enthusiasm the words of the ancient Roman rite, "I will come before the altar of God, the God that restores to me the joy of my youth." He expressed some sadness that such a message is now largely absent from the Mass. "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 commented.
Milosz conceded the massive shift that 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," he said.
Milosz today is professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. He was invited to Berkeley in 1960, nine years after his break with the Warsaw regime's service. He became a faculty member the next year, appointed professor of Slavic languages and literatures. A profound devotion to Russian, as well as Polish literature, is obvious from even the most superficial discussion with Milosz.
His genius as a teacher finds expression in his love for the Russian novelist and mystic Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose work he taught for years. Questioned about the deep anti-Catholic and extreme nationalist tendencies in Dostoyevsky, he says wryly, "Perhaps it is an irony that I, a Pole and Catholic, taught his work; but I, as an outsider to it, was able to see things others did not."
Milosz on Catholicism:
Correspondence to Thomas Merton in 1967
Milosz: The "Mass in English [is] a mistake. Think of millions who feel deprived of something, like myself: immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italians in Germany and France, Spaniards--workers all over Europe, Mexicans in this country. And the chasm between Latin America and the U.S. will be deeper. Why to 'protestantise' the Church in those aspects which are the least valid? Why not leave the Mass in Latin in those countries which are used to it.... If the Mass should be in the vernacular now, when in Europe and Northern America literacy is a rule, then Latin in the epochs when the majority was illiterate was a monstrosity."
Merton's response: "As for the new liturgy: these are people around I suppose who would be ready to assassinate, morally, anyone who admitted that he did not like English in the liturgy. I am not saying I like it or don't like it. We have some of the readings in English in the High Mass, and that is ok except the translations are terribly trite. But when I find monks wanting to throw out Latin altogether I hesitate. After all, our Latin liturgy is pretty good and holds up year after year, and the chant is, as far as I am concerned, inexhaustibly good. I defy them to replace that with anything one tenth as good."
Milosz: "Maybe I am wrong but it seems to me the Roman Church aspires now to the situation of Protestantism, which cannot be worse. My prediction--and I wish I were wrong--is that the number of homeless religious minds will be rapidly increasing."
Merton: "Anything you may be tempted to think about the Church, I think myself, and much more so as I am in constant contact with all of it. The boy scout atmosphere, the puerile optimism about the 'secular city,' and all the pathetic maneuvers to be accepted by the 'world,'--I see all this and much more."
On Pope John Paul II
The papacy is a rock on which the pure can take shelter. But sinful people press in upon it from all sides, morally suspect, crazed, grinding their hips to rock music, open to delirium, crime, and television. From the point of view of the Church, there are entire armies of them, embraced by a universal licentiousness: homosexuals, lesbians, women who have had one or more abortions, men who are responsible for those abortions one way or another; women and men whose means of livelihood are their genitalia; everyone who sleeps with someone outside a Church-licensed matrimonial union; divorced men and divorced women. Isn't that enough? But there are also the uncounted millions of men and women who don't adhere to the ban on contraceptive devices. I compare the papacy, not the Church, to a rock. For where, on which side, are we--we who are not baptized in the Roman rite? Don't we recognize ourselves in those enumerated categories? And don't we look upon the teachings of the Vatican with respect and humble envy as something that is too elevated for us ordinary mortals?
The Pope in white, powerful, attractive image of man above the earth, above our monkey-like masses mired in lusts. Were he a dried-out old man, the image would not exert such power; but he is a strapping man, he belongs to the crowd of the passerby, while, at the same time, he does not belong. He returns in dreams. Would it be worthwhile, as an American writer has suggested half jokingly, to shoot him, so that a modern Pope would take the place of this conservative, a Pope who would permit contraceptives, would rescind the celibacy of priests, introduce divorce, grant equality to women by giving them the right to become priests? John Paul II as a "sign of refusal." They have already wanted to get rid of him; and we know who. (A Year of the Hunter, 1994)
On the Pope's visit to America
The newspapers were generally more favorable than the television commentators, whose progressive glibness in defense of dissent ought to shame dissenting Catholics...That same day, when the Pope flew from San Francisco to Detroit, one of the participants in a television discussion, a Jesuit professor of theology from Berkeley, spoke out in clear opposition to the papal teachings. According to him, there is no right to deny participation in the Eucharist to people who have obtained divorces and entered into non-Catholic marriages. I am curious about what the bishop whose diocese includes Berkeley will do. In compliance with the papal admonition administered to the three hundred bishops in Los Angeles, he ought to apply sanctions. But that would mean publicity, notoriety. So most likely he will do nothing. (A Year of the Hunter, 1994)