When I wrote my first of many articles on Czesław Miłosz oh, some sixteen years ago, the editors suggested a headline that had the word “hero” in it. I knew he would have cringed at such a notion, and talked them out of it. He had, after all, served the Stalinist government of Poland, and he always remembered it.
His turnabout came one winter night in 1949 as he was leaving a lavish evening party attended by Poland’s ruling elite. On his way home at abut 4 a.m., he passed some jeeps carrying the newly arrested. “The soldiers guarding them were wearing sheepskin coats, but the prisoners were in suit jackets with the collars turned up, shivering from the cold. It was then I realized what I was part of.”
He compared the process to swallowing frogs: you could perhaps swallow one or two, but at the third the stomach revolts. It was not ideology or philosophy – but a revolt of the stomach. (Read more about what happened afterwards here.)
It’s Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s 105th birthday today, but Robert Zaretsky‘s article in last week’s New York Times wasn’t the best prezzie we could think of for the occasion. A salute to Miłosz all too quickly descends to another ritual denunciation of Donald Trump. Milosz’s vast and nuanced experience is put in service of a crude political end. This complicated poet’s oeuvre is marshaled to support today’s political grievances. Of course he had strong opinions, but the whole point of Miłosz is that he never saw himself apart from what he observed.
He never saw himself as the “good guy,” but rather as fallible and flawed, as cruel and indifferent as anyone else, given the same trials. Somewhere (I’m unable to find the reference) he described himself in wartime Poland averting his eyes from his Jewish neighbor on the staircase. He is the poet of guilt. (I wrote more about that here.) Said fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky of Miłosz’s wartime experiences: “Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor.” Hence, “Campo dei Fiori,” cited in the New York Times piece, is not an indictment of his fellow human beings, but an indictment of himself, also. That keen self-knowledge kept him far away from the soapbox. (He made an exception for his poem, “Sarajevo,” which he thought was sub-par. As he said, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed than silent.”)
He was not always sympathetic to the self-righteous. In my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, California poet Morton Marcus recalls a 1970 reception that Miłosz hosted for the visiting Serbian poet Vasko Popa. The Polish Nobelist encountered several Berkeley students, wearing white armbands, en route to a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After some belligerent inquiries from a slightly drunken Miłosz, the students made the mistake of saying that they were protesting for peace and love.
“Love, love, love!” mocked Miłosz, his voice rising to a shout. “Talk to me about love when they come into your cell one morning, line you all up, and say ‘You and you, step forward. It’s your time to die—unless any of your friends loves you so much he wants to take your place!’”
In The Captive Mind, he writes that whenever he is “drunk with the beauty of being alive amidst living human beings,” one image obstinately returned to him:
“I see before my eyes always the same young Jewish girl. She was probably about twenty years old. Her body was full, splendid, exultant. She was running down the street, her hands raised, her chest thrust forward. She cried piercingly, “No! No! No!” The necessity to die was beyond her comprehension—a necessity that came from outside, having nothing in common with her unprepared body. The bullets of the SS guards’ automatic pistols reached her in her cry.”
“Are Americans really stupid?” writes Zaretsky at the beginning of his piece. I wonder. A review of Captive Mind in Goodreads: “Excellent work about the intellectual deadening of Western Culture. A polemic on living under facist [sic] control and what it does to the mind.” It makes one wonder if people have lost their ability to read altogether. The book is a study of Miłosz’s experiences and observations under Communism, not Fascism. And his experience happened in Poland, not “Western Culture.”
Well, there you have it. Here’s to you, Czesław. Lifting the spiritual essence of a glass of Szarlotka to you, as I did on your centenary way back in 2011, celebrating in your home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley.