Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth | The New Yorker
in july 1950, czeslaw milosz, cultural attaché at the polish embassy in washington, d.c., received a letter from jerzy putrament, general secretary of the union of polish writers. the two men had known each other for many years—they had been contributors to the same student magazine in college in the early 1930s—but their paths had parted ways. now the arch-commissioner of polish literature told the poet, “i heard you are going to move to paris. . . . I am happy that you come here, because I have worried a little about you: if the splendor of material goods in America has eclipsed the poverty in other aspects of life.”
The language was courteous, even confident, but the message could not have been clearer. Milosz, who had been working as a diplomat in the United States for four years, was no longer considered trustworthy by his superiors. They were going to transfer him to Paris so that he would be within reach of Warsaw. Indeed, a few days before Christmas, Milosz was summoned back to Poland and his passport was confiscated. “He is deeply separated from us,” putrament observed, after meeting with milosz in person. there was “no other option” than to keep him in the country, lest he end up defecting to the west.
This scenario had played out countless times in communist countries. in the soviet union, under stalin, it often ended with the sending to prison or the firing squad of the summoned party. And the communist regime in Poland, which had been installed by Stalin at the end of World War II, had reason to be concerned about Milosz. For one thing, he had left his pregnant wife and his child in the United States, which gave him a strong incentive to return. on the other, he had never joined the communist party. he was allowed to serve the Polish government without a party card, largely because his reputation (he had been a leading figure in Polish poetry since the mid-1930s) was considered valuable to the new regime.
far more damning evidence of milosz’s discontent with the regime is found in the notebooks, filled with poems that were not published until years later. What would putrament have thought if he had read “child of europe”, written in new york in 1946?
These lines mocked the communist claim to rule, which was based on the theory of history as formulated by marx. According to the concept of dialectical materialism – “diamat”, as its followers often abbreviated it – the triumph of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was not a contingent event but the necessary result of a long-standing process of class conflict. milosz reversed this assumption of “historical logic”: if communism now ruled eastern europe, it was not by the laws of history but because the russians had burned down the house. “Diamat is a tank,” Milosz confided to a friend in 1951. “I feel like a fly wanting to take on that tank.”
“Milosz: A Biography” (Harvard) by Andrzej Franaszek, edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker (a longer version appeared in Polish in 2011) tells the story of what happened next. Stuck in Warsaw, not knowing if he would ever be allowed to leave or see his family again, Milosz was dejected. a friend, Natalia Modzelewska, recalled that he “became mentally unstable [and] suffered bouts of depression, which gradually worsened. . . . it was easy to discern that he was close to a nervous breakdown”. it wasn’t just his own fate that frightened him. milosz had been mostly out of poland since 1946 and had not witnessed the worsening climate of repression in the country. he now he could see. “I was met with astronomical changes,” he wrote in a letter to another exile. “The peasants go mad with despair, and in the intellectual world state control is deeply entrenched and it is necessary to be 100% Stalinist, or not to be. the so-called Marxists are very depressed.”
it was thanks to modzelewska that she had the opportunity to leave poland and save herself. her husband was the minister of foreign affairs and she urged him to take milosz’s case to the president of poland, boleslaw bierut. Can you attest that she will return? bierut asked. the minister could not, but he replied: “I am deeply convinced that he should be allowed to go.” whether it was a gesture of mercy, or respect for a great writer, or even contempt (if milosz couldn’t serve the state, why should the state keep him?), it meant freedom. On January 15, 1951, Milosz was back in Paris. On February 1, he left the Polish embassy and went to the offices of Kultura, an émigré publishing house, where he remained in hiding for the next three and a half months. He didn’t return to Poland until 1981, a year after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The summons to Warsaw in 1950 was one of the many hinges of fate in Milosz’s life: moments when he could have become a completely different person or simply disappeared. Franaszek’s richly detailed, dramatic, and melancholic book is full of close calls. Born in 1911 into an aristocratic Polish family in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, Milosz was swept up in the whirlwind of the 20th century from the start. When he was three years old, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled from the advancing German army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik governments, and the family spent the war years touring the region: Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia. In a late poem, Milosz recalled an episode in 1918, when they were trying to reach their home in Lithuania during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. At a train station, he was separated from his parents:
At the last minute, a stranger brought them together. But a sense of the whim of fate never left Milosz. “The things that surround us in childhood do not need justification, they are evident”, he wrote in “native kingdom”, a memoir. “However, if they spin like particles in a kaleidoscope, constantly changing position, it takes a great deal of energy just to plant your feet on solid ground without falling.”
After the war, the family settled in Wilno, now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but at the time a city with a Polish majority. Even as a child, Milosz was passionate and ambitious, with an intense seriousness that made it difficult for him to accept the conventional routines of church and school. a childhood friend compared him to “a cat, constantly uptight and moody”; later in life he acquired the nickname gniewosz, which combined his name with the Polish word for “anger”. in his teens, he was capable of melodramatic gestures of despair. On one occasion, outmatched in a romantic rivalry, he put a single bullet into a revolver and, writes Franaszek, “swung the barrel around, put it to his head, and pulled the trigger.” he lost, or perhaps won, this game of Russian roulette; But, in Franaszek’s account, it’s clear that any kind of calm or contentment remained elusive until the end of his life.
such a condition does not surprise anyone of milosz’s generation, in that part of the world. millions of his contemporaries lived or died in the first world war; the Lithuanian wars of independence; the Polish-Soviet War; the invasion of poland by nazi germany and the ussr, in 1939; the Holocaust; the eastern front of the Second World War, which crossed the country from 1941 to 1945; and the postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. Milosz’s course was complicated by the fact that his class and national loyalties were anything but straightforward. He grew up speaking at least four languages and, although his family belonged to Polish nobility and still owned an estate in Lithuania, where he spent the happiest days of his childhood, they were, like most of his class at that time. moment. , quite poor. “My material existence was so primitive that it would have scared proletarians in Western countries,” Milosz later reflected.
As a penniless aristocrat and a Pole whose homeland was Lithuania, Milosz could not wholeheartedly embrace any of the political identities revolving around him. Postwar Poland, newly independent after more than a century of Tsarist rule, experienced a surge in chauvinistic pride and annexed much of Lithuania, including Wilno. milosz was repulsed by the religiosity and nationalism of the Poles, his growing hostility towards the Lithuanian, Jewish and Belarusian minorities. In 1931, Wilno University, where he studied, was rocked by anti-Jewish riots. Milosz, Franaszek writes, was “among the few who stood up for Jewish students.” (jerzy putrament, not yet a communist, took part in the riots by beating Jews with a heavy cane.)
Milosz was at university from 1929 to 1934, publishing his first collection of poems in 1933. He became close to various left-wing student groups, but although his anti-nationalism made the left a natural home for him, he never dared to become a full-fledged Marxist, let alone a member of the communist party. his sense of truth was too individual, too much a matter of poetic perception, to submit to the dictates of a party, even one that claimed to be acting in accordance with the laws of history. “Reading articles by young Polish Marxists, one suspects that they really wish this period to herald a future that would see the total disappearance of art and craft,” Milosz observed in a 1936 essay. “They are concerned only with sniffing out treason and defection of class.”