CZESLAW MILOSZ: TO BEGIN WHERE I AM. SELECTED ESSAYS
Edited and with an Introduction by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 462 pages
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE
The great contemporary Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz is a Pole who was born in Lithuania in 1911 and who, for the last half century, has lived in America. His earliest memories are of World War I and the collapse of the Old Order in Europe. As a teenage boy and young adult, he experienced the rise of the two great destructive ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and communism. World War II, the violent, tragic uprising of the citizens of Warsaw in 1944, the brutal postwar Soviet takeover of Poland and the imposition of totalitarian government upon that country all occurred before Mr. Milosz turned 40.
These are major events of the past 100 years, so it is not surprising to find this extraordinary poet, whose life was early on engulfed by these happenings, noting in an essay written in 1981, “As a young man I was struck by the magnitude of what was occurring in my century, a magnitude equaling, perhaps even surpassing,” Mr. Milosz claimed, “that of the decline and fall of antiquity.”
Nor is it surprising that these horrific events and their effect on the modern world have been at the center of Mr. Milosz’s poetry (a new edition of which was recently published, “New and Collected Poems 1931-2001”); the subject which haunts his novel, “The Issa Valley”; and a theme of his potent, ruminative essays, among the first of which (at least for English readers) appeared in his 1953, “The Captive Mind,” one of the best books ever written on the destructive influence communism has on the minds of those who practice it.
Now many of Mr. Milosz’s best essays have been collected in “To Begin Where I Am,” edited by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine, who also provide a fine introduction to the master’s work, which unfortunately remains all-too-unknown to Americans, despite his 1980 Nobel Prize and the easy availability of his work in excellent translations. The pieces cover nearly six decades of Mr. Milosz’s (pronounced Mee-losh) writing life. The poet, who has lived more than half his long life in America where he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, now divides his time between California and Krakow, Poland. The essays Mr. Milosz writes in his native Polish have been translated by various writers, including the poet himself.
The essays vary considerably. In a 1998 piece, “Happiness,” Mr. Milosz describes his childhood bliss. “Between the ages of seven and ten I lived in perfect happiness on the farm of my grandparents in Lithuania.” He marvels that as “a child I was primarily a discoverer of the world, not as suffering but as beauty.”
But Mr. Milosz also can write poignantly about the lives of people he has known, or has heard about and whose fates intrigue him, because the writer sees them as representative figures of a horrific century. Gilbert Brognard was a young Frenchman from a small coal mining town who had the misfortune of choosing late August, 1939, as the time he would take a vacation in the east of Poland.
Brognard never returned to France. He got swept up in the German invasion of Poland and ended up a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag where he died in 1951, one of the millions of lives destroyed in 20th century upheavals. Mr. Milosz, who didn’t know the man, got interested in Brognard and writes about him because the young Frenchman reminded him of his own cousin who was 15 when the Nazis shipped him off to a concentration camp to die two years later.
Decades later, that cousin’s death is still painful. “I can’t think about it,” Mr. Milosz writes. Painful too are his thoughts about the deaths of Christopher, “the greatest hope of Polish poetry,” who died in the Warsaw Uprising sniping at SS tanks and of Christopher’s wife, Barbara, who “was wounded and died in a hospital, grasping a manuscript of her husband’s verses in her hand.”
So many people have been lost in this “age of monsters,” when the fundamental fact of life learned by so many is that “the established order … can cease to exist from one day to the next.” In a very recent piece, “Pity,” (1998), Mr. Milosz writes that if he could start anew “every poem of mine would have been a biography or a portrait of a particular person, or, in fact, a lament over his or her destiny,” so they will not be forgotten.
To write well about the fates of such people is not easy. In the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1981 and 1982, Mr. Milosz explained why: It is “the difficulty of finding a [verbal] formula for the experience of elemental cruelty.” Words must be used carefully to describe the evils experienced by men and women in the 20th century, otherwise the true brutishness of that time will not be conveyed. “Next to atrocious facts, the very idea of literature seems indecent,” he claims.
But Mr. Milosz does not despair. Partly, he can’t lose hope because loss of hope renders poetry problematic. “The poetic discipline is impossible without piety and admiration, without faith in the infinite layers of being that are hidden within an apple, or a tree,” he writes.
Ultimately, Mr. Milosz fails to despair over the terrors the 20th century, because of his Christian faith. “To put it quite simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is, ‘Yes.’” He then makes the nature of his deeply questioning faith more specific. “So I believe 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.”
Mr. Milosz argues that the notions of hierarchy and order come naturally to mankind, as naturally as the fact (known to everyone, he would argue) that some things and types of human behavior are better and more desirable than other kinds of behavior, and some are definitely and obviously worse and less desirable. Hierarchy, he writes, “signifies respect for that which is elevated, and disdain … for that which is inferior.”
In our all too egalitarian, leveling, and disorderly age, distinctions of value and hierarchy have been lost, most tragically among those who should know better, the elite, Mr. Milosz argues. “The average man has appeared who knows how to write, read, use a motorcycle or a car,” but “who is also unprepared for spiritual effort and subject to the power of the quasi-intellectuals, who stuff his head with counterfeit values.”
These marvelous essays overflow with vivid apercus grasped during close observation. During a visit to Paris in the summer of 1949, the writer chats with “progressive” intellectuals at receptions. “Their warmed-over Jacobin ideas did not coincide with any reality,” he writes. He deplores that at every mention of “the mythical East [the Soviet Union, they mutter] ‘aah’ with indrawn breath, as before a great mountain.”
Another insight: “The number of twentieth-century Catholic authors is negligible. So-called conversions of intellectuals are usually of a dubious nature, not significantly different from transitory conversions to surrealism, expressionism, or existentialism.”
And another: “Terror [under totalitarianism] is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental. It is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail.”
For Mr. Milosz, politics comes down to this fundamental choice: “Either you see the state as an institution to which individuals delegate a part of their power and then exercise control, or you believe in a messianic state, and then, in the face of the greatness of the cause, tears shed over the destruction of some number of little human machines are truly crocodile tears.”
But the fundamental question of our time, for Mr. Milosz, isn’t so much political as it is spiritual and metaphysical, and that the question is what is human nature? Is man purely animal (a dominant belief among intellectuals in our time) or does he have qualities that aren’t corporeal?. In a brilliant 1958 essay, “Speaking of a Mammal,” Mr. Milosz writes about one of those urgent appeals signed by right-thinking intellectuals during the early Cold War calling for peace between the Communist world and anti-communists, asking the people of the world to consider themselves as “members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.”
The use of the words “a biological species” to describe man stunned Mr. Milosz by its jejuneness, its vapidity. “The nudity of that definition, after thousands of years of creative thought which produced works of art, subtle constructions of dogma and meditations upon the qualities of the soul, is depressing,” he writes.
Depressing, yes, but not his final word on the subject. In the excepts from his “Notebooks” which close this collection of essays Mr. Milosz makes the claim that things are healthy deep down, despite the events of the 20th century. “The concealed structure of reality is reasonable,” he avers, then admits: “To assert this in this terrifying century is a great deal.”
He goes on in this vein: “almost never, with the exception of a few brief moments, did the conviction abandon me that sooner or later the absurd will fail.” This belief, Mr. Milosz writes, is “impossible to name” and is “accessible only to intuition,” but nonetheless “the very fabric of movement [of the world] seemed to me miraculous,” and decidedly away from the “false greatness” of the past century.
Stephen Goode is a senior writer at Insight magazine.