Born in 1911 in Lithuania, at that time a Grand Duchy incorporated into Russia, Czesław Miłosz began life as a subject of the Tsar. Minor nobility, the family was Catholic in faith, Polish in nationality. Szetejnie, their manor in Lithuania, was built in the eighteenth century and expanded later. The adult Czesław claimed to have been bored by unvaried neighbors whose conversation was restricted to coats of arms, estates, and family trees, but a number of his poems have a lingering nostalgia for Szetejnie and the forests and river of its rural setting.
Miłosz: A Biography shows how an individual in such a place at such a time has had to march in step with history. At the outbreak of World War I, Czesław’s father, a squire by inclination and an engineer by profession, was conscripted into the Russian army. One consequence of the chaotic transformation of Tsarist Russia into the Soviet Union was that Lithuania gained its independence. The family moved into the beautiful and historic city of Vilnius (Wilno in Polish) with its university and its Jesuits, Jewish scholars, and Radziwiłł Princes in their palace. According to someone who grew up with him, Czesław had an extraordinary sense of destiny. Hardly more than twenty years old, and still a student, he sent his poems to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, a famous poet in a Poland that has always taken poetry seriously. Early in the lifelong correspondence that followed between them, Czesław gives himself away with the confession that he feels “stuck up to my neck in the atmosphere of dead Wilno,” and went on to plead “the need for my poor little deadened soul to be fired up.”
Returning to Poland, he unknowingly chose to be a victim rather than an exile.
In October 1934, an impatient Czesław duly left for Paris. An uncle, Oscar Miłosz, had made a successful life for himself there. Aesthete, poet, and playwright, he wrote in French and knew luminaries like Oscar Wilde and Maurice Maeterlinck. He also had a premonition of the caterpillar treads of tanks crossing the Mazovian plain, and he died just as this became reality. Copying his example, Czesław came close to reinventing himself as a French intellectual, a Catholic humanist and philosopher on the lines of Jacques Maritain. From December 1935 until the outbreak of war, he settled instead in Warsaw. There he met Janka, described as beautiful, intelligent, domineering, and terrified of Czesław’s volcanic energy, moreover married to some other man. The couple were to spend nearly half a century together, in this biography’s rather strained phrasing for their relationship. Returning to Poland, he was not to know that he was choosing to be a victim rather than an exile.
Andrzej Franaszek is a professor of Polish literature in Kraków. He admires Miłosz without reserve. At the beginning and the ending of his new biography, he repeats with unconditional approval the opinion of Joseph Brodsky, himself a fine poet, that Miłosz was in their day the greatest living poet. In this view, Miłosz’s poetry goes beyond the material to the spiritual, the universal. An enormous number of pages in this biography carry verses or whole poems, and Franaszek is at his academic best relating these lines to whatever Miłosz was doing or thinking while composing them. In addition to using secondary sources, he has also quarried unpublished material from relevant archives, mostly Polish. It has to be said that he refers to scores of Polish intellectuals as though everything about them is common knowledge when their work, and usually even their names, are familiar only to specialists like himself. Now and again, his admiration of Miłosz as a poet generates prose of purple mistiness. For instance, another regular correspondent was Stanisław Vincenz, an extreme highbrow, whose influence is said to have made Miłosz “experience the world by touching it with foot and hand, tasting things, humbly taking in its limitless forms, and so prised him away from human madness and Satan’s murmured whispers.” Franaszek concedes that much of the time Miłosz spoke of himself as disappointed and depressed, but whether this was Werther-like Weltschmerz, frustrated ambition, or plain affectation remains an open question. Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? But all in all, and nevertheless, this is a formidable book.
In the years before the war, Miłosz was a Communist fellow traveler like many another, known by anti-Communists as a poputchik, an insulting term for someone doing Soviet bidding unasked, whatever it might be. In another strained euphemism, Miłosz “found himself swayed at times by the collective emotion of the moment.” According to Marxist ideology, history, and therefore progress, is determined by something known as dialectical materialism; and again like many another fellow traveler, Miłosz seems to have tried hard to extract intelligible meaning from this abstraction. Enlightened dictatorship was meanwhile supposed to lead people, even against their will, to a wonderful tomorrow. Holding this ideal at bay was Polish nationalism, Vilnius’s regular anti-Semitic rioting and unwanted class distinctions, altogether a lot of “nonsense,” Miłosz’s favorite word of dismissal.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Miłosz later admitted, “freed us from the self-reassuring lies, illusions, subterfuges.” As a result of the German blitzkrieg, though, he was forced into the first of several mortally dangerous escapes. Flight from Warsaw on the one available road took him away into Romania and the Soviet Union. Crossing a border on one occasion, he had to eat his Lithuanian passport because its dates did not match those on other documents; on another occasion a Gestapo officer slapped his face. In Native Realm, his autobiography, he describes the dramatic moment in June 1940 when he was sitting in a café in Vilnius and heard the sudden heavy scrape of metal on the pavement. He then “watched large dusty tanks with their little turrets from which Soviet officers waved amicably.” The Germans were in Warsaw, the Soviets in Vilnius; the trap had closed and there was no way out.
Positions had to be taken in the face of evident and continuous Nazi atrocities. Polish intellectuals, almost to a man, resisted the Germans, and many paid for it with their lives. Miłosz drew the line at participating in sabotage and propaganda, partly because he felt that such activities were playing irresponsibly with other people’s lives, and partly because his sense of destiny was so strong. A Catholic priest who knew Miłosz in the war has recorded him arguing with great conviction that his duty was to write, not to fight: “The possible loss of his life would be of no use, but his writing was very important to the country.” Afterwards, among critics who accused him of pacifism and lack of nationalism, was Zbigniew Herbert, a one-time volunteer in the Polish Home Army and at least his equal as a poet.
One day, Miłosz happened to see a couple with a pram walking near his house when the Gestapo arrived, arrested the man, and shot dead the accompanying Jewish woman as she ran down the street crying “No! No! No!” Or again, it was a beautiful quiet night in 1943 when the Warsaw ghetto rose in revolt, and standing on the balcony of their house he and Janka had goosebumps hearing the screams of thousands of Jews being murdered. In August the following year, the two of them were walking to a tram stop just as machine gun fire suddenly marked the start of the Warsaw Uprising, one of the bravest but most costly epics of the war. Unable to return home as the fighting became more and more intense, they hid in various buildings as best they could. The Germans then caught and interned them in a collecting center from which they were certain to be deported. Czesław smuggled out an appeal for help and recalls in Native Realm that “a majestic nun” rescued them by pretending to be an aunt. “I had never met her before and I never met her again. Nor did I ever know her name.”
The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices.
The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. As early as January 1945, Miłosz joined the Writers’ Union, the instrument of the Communist Party designed to direct and control public opinion. Franaszek makes the classic apologia that “it was crucial for Miłosz to maintain an active position in the literary field.” He further applied for a job in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, already committed to spreading Party ideology. Franaszek apologizes for that too, on the grounds that this was the gateway to defection: “It seems highly likely that Miłosz’s eagerness to obtain a diplomatic post was prompted by a desire to have the opportunity of staying in the West.” Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.” To another Polish writer, Melchior Wankowicz, who questioned motives and morality, he was candid: “You ask whether I believed or not. Not in Stalinism. But, of course, I believed. . . . I am definitely and irrevocably against this new faith. It is a great threat to humanity, because dialectical materialism is a lie.”
Serving from 1946 to 1949 in the Polish Consulate in New York and then the Embassy in Washington, Miłosz was able to associate with notable Americans such as Dwight Macdonald and other contributors to Partisan Review, James Burnham, Robert Lowell, and Thornton Wilder, all of whom would have wanted to discuss his freedom and his constraints as an official from a Communist country. The onset of the Cold War put an end to prevarication. The Nomenklatura in Warsaw suspected that he would defect, confiscated his passport, and then transferred him to the Paris Embassy. Janka was frightened that France was not safe, the Soviets might do anything to them, and she refused to leave the United States. Outraged that a man of his standing would collaborate with the Communists, Polish émigrés in the United States made sure to denounce Mił osz. Picking up on that, the American authorities refused him re-entry into the country. Bureaucrats had effectively separated Miłosz and Janka. Another trap had caught him.
Years later, one of his friends, Natalia Modzelewska, published a reminiscence of Miłosz by himself in Paris at this time: “He became mentally unstable, and suffered from bouts of depression, which gradually got worse. I met him every day, because he telephoned me every day and from his voice it was easy to discern that he was close to a nervous breakdown.” His learned friend Stanisław Vincenz had an even more extreme memory of meeting in a café in the Latin Quarter where Miłosz used to come thinking he would commit suicide that very day.
Miłosz defected to the West in 1951, the same year that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to Moscow. In the opinion of the general public, a more or less unknown Polish poet and two pillars of the British establishment embodied the overriding question of that early Cold War period: in the light of Communism as practiced by the commissars and the Red Army, why did some people refuse to have anything to do with it, while others believed in it, no matter what the evidence? The encounter between totalitarianism and human nature had to be explored. The cia thought fit to finance the Congress of Cultural Freedom, in effect a government agency whose vital purpose was to invite politicians, historians, and commentators to discuss at conferences or in the media what exactly was the appeal of Communism, and how democracy could get the better of it.
Usually writing out of personal experience of the totalitarian phenomenon, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Victor Serge, Gustav Herling, Primo Levi, and Arthur Koestler have left a literature special to the twentieth century. Czesław Miłosz is also of that elite company. Published in 1954, The Captive Mind is partly a memoir and partly an inquiry into behavior conditioned by Communism. The Party has the power to do as it likes, and every individual must make of that whatever he can. To protect identity, Miłosz gives lightly fictionalized sketches of friends and colleagues who have accommodated all the whys and wherefores of Communism. Rationalization of morality becomes a matter of course. Communist ideology found the way to present bad character traits such as ambition, greed, lust for power, as positive, and hypocrisy was therefore a virtue.
Of course, this brilliant book destroyed the perception among émigrés that Miłosz was a Red who should be kept out and down at all costs; he obtained his visa for the United States at last and accepted a job teaching Polish literature at Berkeley. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, but there was still no happy ending to a difficult life: Janka was to die of motor neurone disease. By the time I met him at a conference in Budapest in 1989 as the Soviet bloc was falling apart, he had become a Grand Old Man, handsome, upright, and well dressed, just as he might have looked if he’d spent his life in Szetejnie when the Tsar was on the throne. The egregious Susan Sontag and a gaggle of British lefties did not like it that I spoke against socialism. One of them said in true poputchik style that the Soviet Union may have had Stalin, but Britain had Mrs. Thatcher. Miłosz crossed the room and said to me loudly enough for others to hear, “I have nothing but contempt for these people.”
The last thing Miłosz wrote was a request to Pope John Paul II: “In the last few years I wrote poems in which I consciously adhered to Catholic orthodoxy, but I am not sure whether I was successful in achieving that. I therefore ask for your words confirming my pursuit of our common goal.” The Pope replied, “I am happy to confirm your words about our ‘pursuing a common goal.’ ” It may serve as Miłosz’s message to posterity. Having returned to Kraków, he died there in 2004, by then an American citizen.
1Miłosz: A Biography, by Andrzej Franaszek; Harvard University Press, 526 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 1, on page 61
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