Poland’s Poet

Alan Sheridan

1980 was certainly the year of the Poles. With Solidarity Poland was making history, for once without tragedy, or at least not immediate tragedy. The first-ever Polish pope was riding in triumph through the world’s cities, including his own Cracow. In Stockholm the Swedish jury awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Poland’s greatest living poet, Czeslaw Milosz. He, too, was given a hero’s welcome when he visited his native country, after nearly thirty years’ exile – an event that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

When a Beckett or a Sartre is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature nothing is added thereby. In Milosz’s case the Prize has served him, and us, well. For neither of these books is new: they owe their publication here solely to the Prize. Native Realm, which has been received with varying degrees of acclaim, and which will certainly continue to work upon this reader’s mind for a long time, was first published in the United States in 1968. One wonders how many rejections this book collected, 13 years ago, or even more recently, from British firms. The present publishers are to be congratulated, the Nobel Prize notwithstanding. The Issa Valley, a minor masterpiece, is even older: it first appeared in Paris, in Polish, in 1955. A new volume of poetry, Bells in Winter, appeared from Carcanet New Press last year,[*] supplementing the Selected Poems of 1973.

I know neither Polish nor Russian, but if what Milosz says of the two languages is true he must be a supreme example of Polishness. He tells of a certain exercise in which ‘one had to lake a deep breath and pronounce first in a deep bass voice: “Wyryta zastupom yama globokaya” [Russian for ‘A deep pit dug out with a spade’], then chatter quickly in a tenor: “Wykopana szpadlem jama gleboka” [the same, in Polish]. The arrangement of accents and vowels in the first connotes gloom, darkness and power; in the second, lightness, clarity and weakness. In other words, it was both an exercise in self-ridicule and a warning.’ Everything Milosz says is light and clear; it certainly isn’t weak, but it is unemphatic, unemotional, scrupulous, fastidious, reticent. Milosz returns to this contrast on a number of occasions. ‘Nothing is more deceptive than the apparent similarity between the Polish and Russian languages. A different man looks out from behind each, and their confrontation is like a meeting between a Sicilian and a Chinese’ – a resort to quite uncharacteristic hyperbole. He describes his discovery of Pushkin. Polish was incapable of such power of expression:

Gradually, however, I began to distrust the lyricism, which seemed to unfold of itself as if born from the very sounds themselves. That poetry was like a magical incantation; everything was reduced to sound. It was even free to mean nothing since the creative stuff out of which it was made was not the world but the word ... My own experiments taught me that the influence of Russian musicality is always harmful ... for weakly accented languages like Polish or Czech.

And because rhetoric is desertion of the world by the word, it has dangers for the world too: ‘To me, the “depth” of Russian literature was always suspect. What good is depth if bought at too high a price? Out of the two evils, would we not prefer “shallowness”, provided we had decently built homes, well-fed and industrious people?’ And why are the Russians, ‘so powerful, human, hungry for justice in literature ... so miserable and cruel in worldly affairs’?

This is not the Russophobia of a Polish nationalist. Long before history forced him to ponder the mysteries of Russian Communism – that deadly combination of a Messianic secular religion and a Messianic sense of national destiny – Milosz was acquiring a revulsion for Polish nationalism. Indeed, his lifelong left-wing sympathies have been motivated more than anything else by his detestation of the Polish Right. But then history gave Milosz a peculiar perspective on his own country too. Like most Poles in 1911, Milosz was born a subject of the Czar. His father, an engineer of roads and bridges, took home and office with him on his travels throughout the vast Russian empire, and this mode of life continued until the end of the First World War. But this childhood instability was offset by a strong sense of regional belonging: for generations Milosz’s ancestors – Polish and Lithuanian gentry, with some German admixture – had lived in and around the city of Wilno, the historic capital of the once powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea and reached almost to Moscow. In the 16th century, caught between the rising power of the Muscovites and the incursions of the Teutonic Knights, Poland and Lithuania were united, only to be dismembered and finally absorbed, at the end of the 18th, by the Russian empire. When, in 1919, Poland and Lithuania were again set up as independent states, Wilno was declared to be the new Lithuanian capital. But, as always in that part of the world, there were complications. Wilno was, in every real sense, a Polish city – those who did not speak Polish, a third of the population, spoke Yiddish – and was not actually returned to Lithuania until 1940, when Stalin reabsorbed the Baltic states. Hitler having removed the Jews, Stalin then set about removing Lithuanians, deporting a sizable part of the population to Asiatic Russia and replacing them with Asiatic Russians.

It was in Wilno, between the wars, that Milosz grew up, attending Catholic schools and the University, founded by the Jesuits as a spearhead of the Counter-Reformation in a country that had been leaning strongly towards Protestantism. But Milosz was as resistant to Polish Catholicism as he was to Polish nationalism – which is hardly surprising, given that the two are virtually synonymous. As a schoolboy, he was struck by the anomaly that he was being taught alternately two closed systems of thought, the religious and the scientific, that appeared not to have contaminated one another. He was early drawn to the laboratory, but retained a fascination with theology, with subtlety of argument that has actually precluded belief. But the scepticism goes further: ‘I would say that for all those who have been raised in Catholicism, philosophy, whether they like it or not, will always be ancilla theologiae. And maybe none other exists. If so, one must admit that those who oppose religion are right when they denounce philosophy as suspect.’ Though, at a deeper level, Milosz recognises that science, too – or at least the motivation behind it and the values attached to it – is a ‘Judeo-Christian creation’. Every man whose mind is grounded in a scientific way of thinking is a ‘potential executioner’. The ‘temptation to apply the laws of evolution to society soon becomes irresistible. All men flow together into a “mass” subordinated to the “great lines of evolution”, while he, with his reason, dominates those “great lines”. He is a free man; they are slaves.’ This analysis of a ‘will to truth’ that is also a ‘will to power’ brings Milosz close to Nietzsche – and to Foucault. At the university Milosz began to write and joined a circle of mildly left-wing friends, many of whom were later executed by the Gestapo or killed in the wartime underground; the survivors became cultural potentates in post-war Poland. With a group of fellow students, he sailed by kayak, by river, from Gdansk to Istanbul. He visited Paris for the first time and announced his presence to his famous relation, Oscar Milosz. The old man received him in a bird-filled hotel room in Fontainebleau, having previously sent a cheque with orders to buy a new suit. Oscar Milosz, who wrote entirely in French, had known Wilde and Apollinaire, and acted as Lithuanian cultural attaché. He was given to making prophecies: that the next war would begin in Poland, that ‘America will be destroyed by fire, England by fire and water, and Russia by a falling piece of the moon.’

Czeslaw Milosz came back to Paris for a year, in 1934-35. He then joined Polish Radio in Wilno, until ousted after a campaign of vilification of ‘Communist-sympathisers’ launched by a newspaper run by the Franciscan friars! However, he was reinstated by Polish Radio at its Warsaw headquarters. The outbreak of war found him temporarily back in Wilno. Following the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, Wilno was now in the Soviet sphere of influence. Suddenly people started showing particular deference towards this suspected Communist (in fact, a social democrat). However, when the Russian tanks rolled in, instinct urged him to risk his life trying to get back to German-occupied Warsaw, rather than remain. The Russians posed a more serious, because longer-lasting threat. Nothing as purely evil as Nazism could last: the adulterated evil of Stalinism seemed all too durable. Milosz survived the war in Warsaw, working in the Resistance (run entirely by the Right), writing, doing petty deals on the black market, working on a potato farm, learning English and translating As you like it. In 1945, he accepted the fait accompli of a Communistled government and decided, reluctantly, to work with it. Unlike, say, France, which emerged in 1945 more or less intact, the social and economic life of pre-war Poland had gone for ever. The Russians had only to take over what the Germans had left. Milosz did not regret the passing of the old order: indeed, he had, in a sense, welcomed its collapse in 1939. ‘The nonsense was over at last ... only a village well, the roof of a hut, or a plow were real, not the speeches of statesmen recalled now with ferocious irony.’ In 1946 he took up the post of Polish cultural attaché in Washington: a non-Party poet in such a post lent respectability to the regime; in any case, there were not yet enough Party members to go round. He never recovered from his first glimpse of New York from the Hudson River: ‘The gigantic city itself was an outrage because it stood there as if nothing had happened-it had not received a single notch from a bomb – and the people in the streets of Manhattan were free from what flowed in me like molten lead.’ He cared little for what Americans seemed to prize above all – money. ‘I had walked out of too many burning cities (literally or metaphorically) without looking back; omnia mea mecum porto. Soft carpets, gadgets, neat little houses, I associated with flaming destruction.’ On the other hand, that ‘all’ of his that he carried with him, ‘the sense of history, and, therefore, a sense of the tragic’, was what Americans conspicuously lacked.

He persevered with his life of isolation and pretence for four and a half years – his American acquaintances would not have understood his dilemma, and none of his colleagues could be trusted with it. Desperate for advice, he called on Albert Einstein and St-John Perse. Neither was much help: both, on balance, counselled ‘staying with his country’. A vacation in Poland helped him to make up his mind: ‘The whole country was bursting with suppressed hatred for its rulers and their Russian employers ... Terror is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail.’ Finally, in 1951, he abandoned his post and chose exile and poverty in Paris. There he wrote The Captive Mind, in which, in his inimitable way, deflating, detached, detailed, he tried to describe the effects of Communism on himself and on four acquaintances, pseudonymously lettered Alpha to Delta. There, too, he wrote The Issa Valley. In 1961 he left Paris for America, where he took up a chair of Slavic Literatures at Berkeley.

Native Realm, which ends with the beginning of the Parisian exile, is not exactly an autobiography, nor a personal intellectual history, nor the history of a period. It is a book I by and about one Eastern European, written for the use of Westerners. Suspicious of ‘the penchant for general but unproven notions’ that is so deeply rooted in us, Milosz remains within the confines of personal experience. On the other hand, he eschews much of the material of autobiography – ‘a three-year old’s love for his aunt or jealousy towards his father’ – in the interests of his didactic purpose. Thus he reverses the usual procedure of autobiography, bringing the ‘background’ into the foreground, and using the personal only when it illuminates the historical context. The Issa Valley, though widely reviewed as anovel, is really no more a novel than Native Realm is an autobiography. Indeed, in many ways, despite the third-person narrative, it is closer to our notion of autobiography. The individual consciousness is firmly to the fore. ‘History’, on the other hand, is almost entirely absent: ‘The war had only one effect on Gine: it meant no more shopping trips into town, since there was nothing to buy. The result was a number of new and exciting domestic enterprises. Like the making of soap.’ The Issa Valley is, for Milosz, a kind of northern Eden, from which he has been twice excluded. The book ends with the 14-year-old Thomas leaving his beloved valley for the city and school. In fact, history, politics, had finally intervened, making the presence of Polish nationals increasingly uncomfortable in an independent Lithuania quarrelling with Poland over Wilno. But the valley was also a lost Eden for Milosz at the time of writing, since he would never again, in all probability, revisit the scene of his childhood, now part of the Soviet Union. The Issa Valley has no plot, only the linear movement from one stage in Thomas’s childhood development to another, and the circular movement of the seasons. Events – fishing and shooting expeditions, the killing of adders, religious festivals, a grandmother’s death, the hero’s brush with death when a grenade thrown through his window by a resentful ‘nationalist’ fails to explode – follow one another in chronological order, but without the usual interconnectedness of fiction. There is virtually no dialogue, and the characters – Thomas’s eccentric relations, Aunt Helen the village beekeeper, Balthazar the alcoholic forester, the wizard Masuilis, three very different parish priests – pop up in an anecdotal, unmanipulated manner, more typical of autobiography than of fiction. But we know from Native Realm that Thomas’s life differs in one important respect from Czeslaw’s. While the author came to the valley at the age of nine, at the end of the war, the hero of this book spent his entire childhood there. In this the poet won over the autobiographer.

Czeslaw Milosz’s achievement is undeniable, but almost indefinable. It is a vindication of the ability of words to speak of the world: a vindication of literature. He deplores our century’s abandonment of ‘investigations of the fine tissue of becoming, when no thread should be overlooked’. He looks back approvingly to a time ‘when the description of countries and civilisations had not yet been inhibited by a multitude of taboos arising from the compartmentalised division of knowledge’, when writers told us more about ourselves, our societies and our literature than psychologists, sociologists and literary critics. In The Captive Mind and Native Realm, he has tried to write a new kind of history/autobiography: one that steers between the Scylla of abstraction and the Charybdis of silence; between the occultation of experience by theoretical formulations and dumbness before the complexity of the world. In all things he has pursued the difficult, middle way. As a poet, Milosz’s loyalties are with the century’s attempts to forge new ways of speaking of a changing world. He is too aware of the relative autonomy of word and world to be a naive realist: he has never practised prosaic anecdotage. On the other hand, he has no time for self-generating, self-justifying avant-gardism. His work is, in the words of one of his favourite poets (in 1944 he ran the gauntlet of grenades and machine-gun fire across a potato field, desperately clutching a university library copy of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, ‘in the Faber & Faber edition’), ‘a raid on the inarticulate’.

[*] 78 pp., £2.95, April 1980, 85635 290 X.