By any estimate the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz must be reckoned among the most important writers of the 20th century. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, professor of Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley for four decades, freedom fighter for Poland in World War II, he has not just witnessed but taken an active part in his era’s struggles against tyranny, both Nazi and Soviet.
Despite his many years in America, Milosz has remained faithful, as he claims any poet must, to his native tongue, composing only in Polish all but a few minor works. Although most of his poetry and prose has been translated into English, his work has not enjoyed the widespread popularity in this country of his younger contemporary Nobelists Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney.
These elegantly translated essays and character sketches, representing a substantial sampling of Milosz’s prose work, may happily serve to right the balance, for his is a voice we need to hear in our new and already deeply troubled century. That the book also takes the form of autobiography should recommend it to a wider audience.
Between the ages of seven and ten I lived in perfect happiness on the farm of my grandparents in Lithuania. So the story begins in a garden, as it were, but it moves quickly to the city of Vilna where Milosz grew up and went to university. He reveals his affection for that city in a series of short takes on the significant landmarks of his youth. But it soon becomes clear that people more than places shaped his character, as they shape this volume. Milosz has little use for abstractions. Images, stories, anecdotes reveal character far better. And besides, the twin monsters that haunted his adult life, Nazism and Stalinism, grew fat on merciless abstractions.
To counter them he tells stories, pursuing the poet’s primordial vocation. The tragic history of Poland and the Baltic states in the 20th century claims his primary allegiance. Caught between Germany and Russia, Poland became their preferred battlefield and Warsaw its cockpit. To be saved from Hitler only to fall prey to Stalin was no choice at all. After the war Milosz tried various expedients, moving first to Paris and later to Washington as a Polish diplomat. But the deteriorating political situation at home finally drove him to a full break, and he accepted a position at Berkeley, where he still lives and writes in Polish.
Reading through this book one begins to realize how constricted our view of Europe has been. The names of writers from France or Germany, Italy or Spain are familiar to us even if we have not read many of their books. Milosz’s intellectual universe reveals planets hardly known to us at all, writers whose Slavic names we need to check in the book’s extensive and helpful notes. It is a broadening and humbling experience.
As we follow Milosz from his youthful wanderlust into Western Europe in 1931 through the ensuing war years of the following decade, we learn much about this other Europe and even more about his own intellectual and moral development. Milosz’s Catholicism is central to his worldview, and its sense of a community made up of sinners and saints lets him critique the ideologies of the period with a sense of inner confidence. In an essay in the form of a letter to his great friend Jerzy Andrzejewski in 1942, the poet contrasts the humanist’s faith in man’s moral autonomy and perfectibility (from Renaissance through Rousseau to Nietzsche and Marx) with the church’s skepticism, certainly borne out by the calamitous events of the war and its aftermath in eastern Europe: And now, my dear friend, I shall share with you my greatest doubtwithout religious and metaphysical underpinnings, the word man is too ambiguous a term, is it not?
Such unblinking Christian realism marks many of these pages, for despite his more recent unhappiness with the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, Milosz remains a believer and finds among his contemporaries, like Simone Weil and the less well known Lev Shestov, his models of faith. Not surprisingly, each thinker, in different ways, embraces a radically eschatological interpretation of Christian belief, a version of Kierkegaard’s either/or view that refuses to find any consolation in the here and now. To choose Christ is to renounce any other hope of salvation and to stress in the Incarnation the chasm between God and man rather than the closeness. Grace always trumps nature. It should not be surprising that someone who had lived through both Hitler’s and Stalin’s holocausts would be drawn to such a view.
His essay If Only This Could Be Said offers Milosz’s fullest and most personal treatment of religion, an indispensable part of the human in his view. Like his personal saints, Milosz seeks in faith what reason and science have so spectacularly failed to provide, a transcendent dimension for human experience. To put it very simply and brutally, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: Yes.’ So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or no?’ I answer: Yes,’ and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence.
For all of his unease with a less cultic church than that of his youth, he confesses that the coming together of a certain number of people to participate in something that exceeds them and unites them is, for me, one of the greatest of marvels, of significant experiences. We need only recall the overcrowded churches and chapels of Sept. 11 and thereafter to understand what he means.
The third and last section of these essays (apart from a brief afterword) is devoted to literature. Its rightful place, perhapsafter life and religion? Milosz considers a number of authors and trends. He rightly sees the dark undercurrent in Robert Frost’s ostensibly folksy verses and faults T. S. Eliot for his studied intellectuality and the dictatorial power he wielded over English and American poetry for a generation. He readily admits, however, that Eliot wrote marvelous lines of verse.
Not surprisingly, Milosz’s essay Against Incomprehensible Poetry positions him squarely against the turning of poetry or any art into a substitute for philosophy or religionall will suffer in consequence. It was originally written as the introduction to his splendid anthology, A Book of Luminous Things, and underlines again the duality of all things human: mind and body, freedom and necessity, dread and reverence. For Milosz it is precisely our ability to hold these pairs and many others in creative tension simultaneously that makes us human. Reading his notes on Joseph Brodsky near the end, one feels that he found in him a kindred spirit, who shared his eastern european origins, his intoxication with language and his grounding in Christianity. No wonder Seamus Heaney was drawn to both of them as exemplary poets for our anxious yet exhilarating age.