On Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004)
The following essay was written as a review of the Polish edition of Czesław Miłosz’s collection This, published in 2000. The poems in This appear in English translation in New and Collected Poems; 1931-2001, published in Adam Zagajewski’s essay will appear in his A Defense of Ardor, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October.
#1 An Olympic sprinter, cheered on by a vast, admiring stadium full of fans, is tackling the hundred meters. Right off the starting line he leans forward, bent almost to the track itself, staring off into the distant horizon; mid-race he straightens up, erect as Mont Blanc; then as he’s approaching the finish line he curves back, not just from exhaustion but also in tribute to the universe’s hidden symmetry. So it is with the energetic pace of Czesław Miłosz’s poetry. In the early years he lovingly murmurs spells about the mysteries of worlds and fires, about picturesque disasters; in maturity he observes, praises, and criticizes the real world, the world of history and nature; as he enters the late stages of life he grows more and more obedient to the demands of memory, both personal and suprapersonal.
No, of course he’s not a sprinter; he’s a poet reaching the ninety-year mark, a splendid marathon runner rather, and not at all tired—his book This is one of his greatest achievements. And the stadium was often painfully empty, or filled with hostile or mocking spectators; this athlete had his share of loneliness. But of the athletic metaphor those three postures remain, three angles of our necessary proximity to the earth, which truly characterize the evolution of the poet.
Stendhal supposedly said that literature is the art of selection, since it’s charged with laisser de côté, sifting out the superfluous. Wedekind said something similar—and undoubtedly many other authors have as well, especially the modernists. Czesław Miłosz’s work would seem to be founded upon the opposite principle: Leave out nothing! But not in the sense of craftsmanship (obviously poetry can’t survive without selection, abbreviation) so much as in the sense of his “poetic politics,” broadly conceived. You only have to reach for the autobiographical Native Realm (1958), The Captive Mind (1953), or virtually any volume of his poetry. In Native Realm, we find sections that are historical, even economic in nature, as if Miłosz were saying, I’ll show you that poetry can be made from nonpoetry, that the power of the poetic mind is fueled by ingesting as much of the world as possible, not by retreating into the perilous regions of inner intimacy. Not a flight from the world, not the infamous “escapism” that was the favorite charge of Party critics, but a vast osmosis: this is Miłosz’s program. It is not a clinically sterile osmosis, though, nor is it objective or even mimetic. It is personal and in a certain sense ethical, and even therapeutic to some degree, since this poetry’s goal is finally to comprehend the incomprehensible, an operation I’d call humanistic if that word hadn’t been damaged by frivolous overuse in university lecture halls.
Miłosz’s aim more specifically is not to omit antagonisms. Lesser talents develop a snail-like tendency to take refuge in a hut, a shell, to escape contrary winds, contrary ideas, to create miniatures. As both a poet and a thinker, though, Miłosz courageously takes the field to test himself against his foes, as if he’d told himself, I’ll survive this age only by absorbing it. Often, though, these enemies moved against him uninvited. If that student at Wilno University could only have imagined how many obstacles he’d be forced to comprehend, reckon with, overcome, how many times he’d find himself just a step away from death, silence, despair…
He is a poet of great intelligence and great ecstasy; his poetry wouldn’t have survived without both. Without intelligence it would have perished in a duel with one or another of its opponents (since the twentieth century’s monsters didn’t lack for dialectical abilities, they even took pride in them). Without ecstasy, it wouldn’t have reached its distinctive heights, it would simply have remained splendid journalism. He calls himself an ecstatic pessimist, but we also stumble upon those numerous isles of bliss that Bergson said signal the touch of an inner truth.
In the age of Beckett, a great, witty, and very sorrowful writer, Miłosz defended the religious dimension of our experience, defended our right to infinity. The telegram Nietzsche sent to inform Europeans of God’s death reached him, of course, but he refused to sign the receipt and sent the messenger packing.
I’m not convinced that Miłosz is— as he himself has often claimed—a Manichaean. For all that, though, I see in his poetry an exceptional, inspiring closeness between thought and image, polemics and rapture, California nature and twentieth-century ideology, observation and professions of faith.
Miłosz is also a great political poet: what he has written on the annihilation of the Jews will endure, and not just in student anthologies. During the worst years of Stalinism, students read his Treatise on Morals (1948) like a latter-day Boethius. He didn’t remain silent during the anti-Semitic campaigns of 1968, a disgrace for the Polish press and some of the Polish intelligentsia. The presence of Miłosz’s pure words was and remains a boon for the Polish reader, exhausted by Stalinistic crudeness, worn by the long ordeal of communism and the boorish-ness of the People’s democracy. But perhaps the deepest sense of Miłosz’s political impact lies elsewhere; following in the great Simone Weil’s footsteps, he set forth a model of thought linking metaphysical passion with responsiveness to the plight of the simple man. And this in a century that scrupulously and mean-spiritedly insisted that religious thinkers and writers be perceived as right-wingers (Eliot for example) while social activists must be considered atheists. Miłosz’s model has enormous significance and will continue to serve us well in the future.
When I was a student in Kraków in the late Sixties Miłosz’s writings—the works of an émigré poet whom the encyclopedias laconically termed “an enemy of People’s Poland”—were forbidden. However, by employing various ruses, you could gain access to the shelves of books marked with the euphemistic abbreviation “Res,” for “Reserved.” When I read it what struck me in his work was something that defies labeling (even the structuralists, so influential back then, couldn’t come up with anything): its intellectual expanse, the vastness of its atmosphere. Miłosz, like Cavafy or Auden, belongs to that breed of poets whose work exudes the scent not of roses but of reason. But Miłosz understands reason, intellect in a medieval sense, even a “Thomistic” sense (metaphorically speaking, of course). That is to say, he understands it in a way that precedes the great schism that placed the intellect of the rationalists on one side of the divide, while the other was occupied by the imagination and intelligence of the artists, who not infrequently take refuge in irrationality. Healing this divide—is it possible?— was and is one of Miłosz’s great Utopian projects, the ambition of a writer who has himself done battle with so many other Utopias. He has rarely come across as a classic conservative, though, who bewails the decline of culture in our times, lamenting the divorce of the two forms of intelligence. He has been too busy, by and large, struggling to arrange their renewed betrothal. In the little treatise entitled “What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch,” from This, we find the following commandment: “That reason is a gift of God and that we should believe in its ability to comprehend the world.” Obviously this reason shares little with the cautious idea employed by today’s philosophers.
In the same poem Miłosz also says: “That the proper attitude toward being is respect and that we must, therefore, avoid the company of people who debase being with their sarcasm, and praise nothingness.” No one should shun the companionship of Czesław Miłosz’s books.
Translated from the Polish by: Clare Cavanagh
Copyright © 2004 by Adam Zagajewski