Posts Tagged ‘Irena Grudzińska Gross’

Shaman and poet Stanisław Barańczak (1946-2014) – “a fantastic genius, indeed.”

Sunday, October 25th, 2015
Share
baranczak4

Barańczak and friends.

“There is a Polish poet, Stanisław Barańczak, a professor at Harvard. He was a virtuoso of translation – he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson also, and so on. But his own poetry, also, is … equalibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.”

So Czesław Miłosz told me fifteen years ago, at his home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, as he was musing about his colleague’s “shaman” qualities.

The twentieth century brought untold literary genius to the West. When I say “untold,” I mean it. How many Americans have heard the name Stanisław Barańczak, despite the wealth of poems, translations, and essays he left behind on this side of the Atlantic?

baranczak

Farewell to a shaman.

After a decades-long fight with Parkinson’s Disease – writing as much as he could, for as long as he could – the Polish genius finally died last year on December 26. He was 68.

A few weeks ago, I received a special edition of the preeminent Polish literary journal, Zeszyty Literackie in my email inbox from its co-founder Barbara Toruńczyk (Barańczak was the other co-founder). The issue is devoted to Barańczak, and includes the eulogies at his January 3, 2015, funeral in Cambridge, along with some of his poems in Polish and English. It is something of a primer for those who don’t know his name. It’s available online here.

Polish journalist, essayist, historian, and former dissident Adam Michnik recounted Barańczak’s history with Solidarity, and his struggle to free his country from the Communist yoke: “He was also a wonderful, brave, and irreverent spirit of his time; he was among the first to get involved in Poland’s democratic opposition movement. He paid for it by getting a publishing ban issued against him, by getting thrown out of the university, and suffering all kinds of repressions. But even his open enemies dared not question his brilliance.” The peril was not from his overlords, but from within: “It was but a narrow escape,” Barańczak said years later. “I could have simply raised my hand as other people did, and simply let it down, as other people did.”

michnik2

Adam Michnik

Michnik recalled, “He related to people with understanding, but he was steadfast when it came to principles. He had no tolerance for cowardice in the face of dictatorship. This is clear in his poems and essays—any one of them could have landed him in prison.”

“The game is bad because we stand, from the beginning, at a disadvantage; but it would be even worse, if we were to admit that—as a result of the certainty of failure—the game is not only bad, but completely senseless. Acting with dignity in this stupid situation, putting on a brave face, depends on finding some sense within it. We will not defeat our opponent in this way; but we will, at least, throw a stumbling block in his path. Nothingness is keenly interested in propagating the feeling of meaninglessness, which paves the way for its progress and eases its task. Until the very end, Staszek kept erecting stumbling blocks before nothingness.”

“In an essay about Auden, Staszek wrote that poetry ‘is not able to eradicate evil from us. But it allows us, at least, to bring this evil to consciousness. Precisely because we are condemned to the presence of evil within ourselves, we need, all the more, to become conscious of it.’”

zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski

So how did he wind up in Cambridge, Massachusetts? Barańczak spent years applying, unsuccessfully, for a visa, before he finally got one: he accepted the chair in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department at Harvard.

Irena Grudzińska Gross remembers visiting him there: “Although Staszek’s talents, intelligence and industry were somewhat intimidating, those who were lucky enough to know him more intimately were enchanted by his pronouncements on literature, his wit, his modesty and kindness, which he would abandon only when (and these moments were terrible) he encountered a bad translation or a very stupid book. He was a great companion (when one was able to drag him away from his work) on the excursions, organized by [his wife] Ania, to the Massachusetts beaches, historical landmarks, and great open air restaurants. Indoors, it was a great pleasure to listen to the music he loved, to watch over and over the cult movies he and Ania knew by heart: The Godfather, White Sheik or Some Like it Hot.

From Adam Zagajewski:

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Death deprived us not of a theoretician, nor even of an author—but, above all, of an exceptional human being. Yes, a human being and a poet. On that day, when Stanisław’s funeral was being held in the American Cambridge, the Kraków Opera reopened its production of Winter Journey by Schubert and Barańczak (I like to look at the juxtaposition of these two names). Those, who could not fly to Boston, gathered together in the red chamber hall of the opera and listened to the songs of Franz Schubert, to which Stanisław had written poems—poems that were exquisite, simultaneously mystical and cabaret-esque, tragic and funny. The baritone Andrzej Biegun sang beautifully. It seems to me that I was not the only one for whom this was an extraordinary experience, and not only because I knew, we knew, that in the same moment, at the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, a crowd of Stanisław’s friends had gathered to farewell him.

It was as if two completely different generations, one hundred and fifty years apart, embedded in different countries, in different eon and languages, condemned never to meet—Franz Schubert, an artist of the era of tailcoats and candles, of cannons and diplomatic lies, a witness to the Congress of Vienna, and Stanisław, living in the shadow of Yalta and Potsdam, in the shadow of lies even more monstrous, systematic and triumphant, in the shadow of an incurable illness—united themselves that afternoon in an ideal artistic form. They met in the great, sweet melancholy of art, in a sadness made mild by perfection of form and expression, by the bitter joy granted to us by wonder, however brief. A tragic wonder, which for a moment allows us, almost, to accept joyfully something which cannot be accepted—the fact that everything perishes in the cold fire of time, the most patient of killers.

President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski said at the memorial that “choosing to remain abroad, he ceased to be a refugee from Poland, emerging instead as the country’s untiring ambassador.”

miloszYou still think genius is overstating the case? Here’s what Nobelist Joseph Brodsky said to fellow Nobelist Miłosz on the subject, in the interview between the two included in Czesław Miłosz: Conversations:

Brodsky: The boy is a genius, Stasiek, ya?

Miłosz: Fantastic.

Brodsky: A fantastic genius, indeed.

 Can’t quarrel with that. Read the whole thing here.

The “politics of the sinless” and the “superficiality of the everyday”: Michnik, Havel, and the post-communist world

Saturday, February 21st, 2015
Share
havel-michnik

Long friendship: Michnik and Havel in 2011

Marci Shore, acclaimed author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, has written an important article – indispensable writing, really – over at the Weekly Standard. It’s one that merits not only reading, but reading – so I’m printing out a version for slow reading when I get some more work done this weekend. The focus of her essay is a Adam Michnik‘s The Trouble with History, edited by Irena Grudzińska Gross and published last year by Yale University Press. The Book Haven has written about Polish journalist and Solidarity leader Michnik here and here, and about Marci here and here and here and about Irena here and here. Read Marci’s article in its entirety here.  Fellow dissident Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and president of the post-communist Czech Republic, also plays a role in the piece – we’ve written about him here and here and here. A few excerpts from Marci’s article below:

The story of “living in truth” involves urban intellectuals hiking up a mountain. In August 1978, four Charter 77 signatories (including Havel, who was not ordinarily much of a hiker) met with their Polish counterparts (including Michnik) on Sněžka Mountain on the Czechoslovak-Polish border. Havel pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack. A lifelong friendship was not all that resulted from that first encounter between the two men.

On Sněžka, they spoke about the political resonance of seemingly insignificant moral acts. Michnik asked Havel to write down his thoughts. Three months later, an underground courier appeared at Michnik’s Warsaw apartment with a manuscript entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s essay introduced an ordinary green-grocer who, every morning, displays in the shop window a sign stating: “Workers of the world unite!” Neither he nor his customers believe in the Communist slogan. Even the members of the regime no longer believe in it. All know it to be a lie.

troublewithhistoryYet what else can the greengrocer do? If he were to refuse to display the sign, he could be questioned, detained, arrested—which suggests that displaying a slogan in which no one believes is of great importance. If, one day, all the greengrocers were to take down their signs, that would be the beginning of a revolution. And so the seemingly powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. He bears responsibility; by failing to “live in truth,” people like the green-grocer “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

This is a diagnosis of post-1968 communism as a descent into inauthenticity, and it comes not from the comfortable classics of Western liberal (or conservative) thought but, rather, from Martin Heidegger.

***

One lesson for the West was about responsibility in conditions of moral ambiguity. In Havel’s autobiographical one-act play Audience (1975), Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk is a dissident playwright working at a brewery. The secret police have demanded that the brewmaster file weekly reports on Vaněk. The brewmaster becomes nervous: He finds it difficult to compose the reports. Could Vaněk, perhaps, write them? “You could do that much for me, couldn’t you?” he asks Vaněk. “It would be child’s play for you! You’re a writer, damn it, right?”

Vaněk appreciates the brew-master’s kind treatment of him; nonetheless, he refuses to write the reports about himself. For Vaněk, this is “a matter of principle.” The brewmaster breaks down:

And what about me? You’re just gonna let me sink, right? You’re just gonna say, fuck you! It’s okay if I end up being an asshole! Me, I can wallow in this shit, because I don’t count, I ain’t nothin’ but a regular brewery hick—but the VIP here can’t have any part of this! It’s okay if I get smeared with shit, so long the VIP here stays clean! .  .  . All I’m good for is to be the manure that your damn principles gonna grow out of .  .  .

michnik2

Decries “official memory politics”

In Audience, everyone is implicated: the regime, the brewmaster, Vaněk himself. The brewmaster is a variation of the greengrocer; he is both victim and oppressor.

For Michnik, among the disappointments of post-communism has been the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, accompanied by an official memory politics known as “historical policy.” The essence of historical policy is a denial of moral ambiguity and a failure to take responsibility. It is an attempt to enforce a national historical narrative that presents “the thesis that all Polish disasters were the result of Polish benevolence, trust, and gentleness, and of the malice and cruelty of foreigners.”

For Michnik, historical policy is absurd: Communism had not simply been a Soviet occupation; everyone had taken part. In order to do something good, one had to participate in a system that was evil. Between heroes and villains there were many shades of gray. This was among the reasons why “lustration”—the purging from government and public life of those who had collaborated with the secret police—was not a straightforward matter. Many were put on secret police lists of potential informers without their knowledge. Others found themselves on those lists because they had once met with an agent at a restaurant or had succumbed to threats to their children.

Moreover, those placed most at risk by lustration were those who had been in the opposition—after all, it was their circles the secret police had tried to infiltrate. Those safest under lustration were the greengrocers. The post-Communist antipathy towards the dissidents, Havel believed, had its roots in the dissidents’ serving as people’s bad consciences. He and Michnik were among those who, under communism, had sat in prison the longest. They were also among those most willing to forgive. For Michnik, historical policy and lustration reflected a Jacobin-like impulse to impose a politics of the sinless. And the problem with revolutionary purity was that it led to the guillotine.

***

marci-shore

Read her article. Please.

The trouble with revolution, Michnik finds, is also its aftermath: the superficiality of the everyday. Once upon a time, East Europeans had stayed up all night copying censored poems by hand. Now, no one had time to read serious literature. The omnipresence of Communist propaganda had been replaced by the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic tabloids. The revolution had brought the end of censorship. Then, the market had taken over—and had proven to be tawdry. “Suddenly all great value systems are collapsing,” Michnik observed.

“[A]long with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values,” Havel said during one of his last conversations with Michnik. For Michnik, this “axiological vacuum” was “a typical phenomenon of periods of restoration as described by Stendhal in The Red and the Black: this is a time of cynicism, intrigues, careerism.” Michnik grew preoccupied with Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s weak plebian hero who seeks authenticity in illicit love affairs: “Let everyone take care of himself in the desert of egoism called life,” Julien says.

In 1989, Michnik’s friend, the philosopher Marcin Król, was among those who had considered liberty to be the great priority. But individualism began to dominate all other values. “We were stupid,” Król said in an interview last year. No longer does anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dramas of characters like Julien Sorel resulted from their awareness of the weight of their actions. The lack of an answer to the question of whether they behaved well or badly was the source of great suffering. “Today,” Król said, “the lack of an answer does not hurt.” And that is the problem: It should hurt.

Bei Dao: “Each language keeps the secret code of a culture”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
Share

Reading at St. Catherine's Church, Kraków (Photo: Droid)

In an early poem, Bei Dao wrote, “freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted.”

All too true, as he soon found out.

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square, and after his exile (he had been in Berlin during the 1989 uprising), he continued to write in Scandinavia, the U.S., and France.  He now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, since the government allowed his return to the PRC a few years ago.

At last month’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków, he participated in a panel called “Place of Birth” with Lithuanian Egidijus Aleksandravičius, English Timothy Garton Ash, and Polish Irena Grudzińska Gross, hosted by Italian Francesco Cataluccio.  Although some of the estrangements from native realms were more voluntary than others, the team discussed their sense of displacement from homeland.

But the most haunting words of the evening belonged to Bei Dao:  “It’s mysterious. Why do we think about birthplace, mother tongue, the origin of life?” he asked.  And then he gave his answer.

“Each language keeps the secret code of a culture,” he said.

“China is unified by a written language,” he said.  “The local accent keeps their secret, keeps their code.”  That’s what he cherishes, and that is what the world is most at risk of losing.

His words returned to me today as I read an unusually eloquent McClatchy Newspapers article, “Silenced Voices,” by Tim Johnson:

Some linguists say that languages are disappearing at the rate of two a month. Half of the world’s remaining 7,000 or so languages may be gone by the end of this century, pushed into disuse by English, Spanish and other dominating languages.The die-off has parallels to the extinction of animals. The death of a language, linguists say, robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world. Languages are repositories of human experience that have evolved over centuries, even millennia.

“Languages are definitely more endangered than species, and are going extinct at a faster rate,” said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of the book When Languages Die. “There are many hundreds of languages that have fewer than 50 speakers.”

Language is an invisible triumph of humanity, and its disappearance brings only silence.”It’s not as flashy as a pyramid, but it represents enormous human achievement in terms of the thought and effort that went into it,” said Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University…

Miłosz knew this:  This is why Miłosz wrote in Polish throughout his 40 years of exile in California, said the Chinese poet.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bei Dao was born in 1949 in Beijing.  “As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a housand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with China ever since,” he wrote in the festival’s 100-page companion book. “I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.  All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry.”

In those harsh circumstances, at the age of 20, the young construction worker began to write at a site in the mountains more than 200 miles from Beijing.

During the conference session, he recalled visiting his dying father in a brief respite from exile, but Beijing was a disappointment:  “It was not my city anymore.”

“The Chinese people do not know how to rebuild,” he said, praising the preservation of Venice and Florence.  The Chinese, by contrast, “build like Las Vegas – very, very ugly buildings.”

Left to right: Francesco Cataluccio, Bei Dao, Timothy Garton Ash, Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Irena Grudzińska Gross (Photo: my Droid)

“We were drawn by the concept of progress from the West and from Marxism.  Progress became the canon for Chinese people. There was more attention on GDP and new buildings.  Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”

At Stanford over a decade ago, he remarked, “I don’t have a motherland now.”

“Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.”

But things change, in our heads as well as in the world.

Detroit, the notorious city of my birth, is now as much a gutted ruin if it had been destroyed by enemy mayhem – which in a sense it had been.  And as some of the speakers mourned their lost homes, I wondered if they were actually mourning the passage of time as much as they were exile and upheaval.

Political exile is poignant, but disguises a more inexorable reality: We are exiles in time as well as in space.  Both are excruciatingly transient.

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
Share

The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?

Rescued from behind a paywall: “No Other Place, No Other Time”

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
Share

"Hurry sickness."

My Kenyon Review piece, “No Other Place, No Other Time” in the spring issue of the Kenyon Review, was selected as  feature-of-the-day in Poetry Daily — it’s here.  And now you can read it for free.

In it, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross’s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).  I wrote about the piece a few weeks ago here.

“No Other Place, No Other Time” — I discuss Miłosz, Brodsky in the Kenyon Review

Sunday, March 13th, 2011
Share

In the spring issue of the illustrious Kenyon Review, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).

That’s the good news.  The bad is that you are only allowed to read the first page online.  It’s here.

So here’s a little more from the piece, for free:  Joseph Brodsky‘s reading style has been much remarked upon, and I open my article with Brodsky’s first engagement outside Russia, at London’s 1972 Poetry International Festival, in the first few dizzying weeks of his exile: “the poet poured out his poems in the hypnotic incantation that was to become his trademark: an archaic sound — a lament from a lost civilization, an ancient prayer, or simply a metronomic wail.”

Daniel Weissbort remembers Brodsky reading this way:

“ . . . his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his attention had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent-mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: ‘syn ili Bog’ [‘son or God’], already on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: ‘Ya tvoi’ [‘I am thine’]. As the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem”.

I continue:

Gross recounts that Brodsky was asked about his declamatory bent during his triumphant tour of Poland, and landed this punch: “Today’s poet is afraid of the sardonic laughter of his reader, and because of it he tries to soften his poems . . . This is a mistake. The poet should charge his public like a tank, so that the reader has no escape. Poetry is an act of metaphysical and linguistic attack, not of a retreat. If a poet wants to be modest and nonaggressive, he should stop writing.”

Not Miłosz’s style, to put it mildly, and so he gently chastised the younger poet. Miłosz also lamented Brodsky’s poetry in English: “The resistance against writing poetry in other languages should be considered a virtue. . . . We are born in a concrete point of the Earth and we have to remain faithful to this point, restrained in our following of foreign fashions.”

This was more than a case of brass meeting polish. Miłosz saw history as a horror he wished to escape, but in a larger sense, he was also at home in the wider story of centuries. He was a son of the Polish-speaking landed gentry in Lithuania and had a law degree from Stefan Batory University. The urbane elder poet had the educational context lacking in Brodsky, the defiant autodidact who dropped out of school as a teenager. When cornered on an error or a prejudice, Brodsky covered himself by firing off a belligerent blast; Miłosz could put his views into a historical framework, whether by referring to pronouncements of the medieval popes or the legal system of the Res publica. History, language, tradition connected with Catholicism because, writes Gross, “Without God there is no history.” But where Miłosz turned to tradition and his Catholicism, Brodsky was in a tailspin and could not find peace.

From Irena’s book, I recount this devastating story:

Few have written about solitude and time with Brodsky’s urgency, before he was finally felled, at fifty-five, by the heart ailments that had dogged him for decades. “Miłosz was very busy, yet he sounded like a person who was not pressed for time. Brodsky ran against time,” writes Gross. “In that fight he was not supported by religion or by history — national or private.” Time was truly his enemy.

Gross recounts this riveting anecdote: “In 1994, when he was forced to visit a cardiologist during his stay in Sweden, he told him that he felt like a wounded animal who simply tried to survive. He expected to die at any time; when leaving his hotel room, he would put his papers in order. ‘Hurry sickness’ was the diagnosis of the psychologist who interviewed him on that occasion”.

The Kenyon Review can be ordered online here.


Walcott to Europe: “What is the meaning of your empires?”

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
Share

Rush Rehm‘s kind comment on yesterday’s post, “From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage,” returned me to another passage from Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.  The passage occurs after an acrimonious confronation between Miłosz, Brodsky, and Susan Sontag on the nature of empire.  Walcott “rejects linear thinking, the straight line linking today to the past. Because the straight line, in the words of Peter Viereck, ‘is the longest distance between two points. And the bloodiest.'”  She continues:

Walcott "rejects linear thinking"

“During the conference in which Miłosz debated Brodsky on the matter of Central Europe, Walcott also spoke.  He had been hesitating, he began, before speaking: ‘I’ve a very great difficulty here between friendship and ideology. And I think that’s a penalty of ideology.’ This conflict causes in him ‘flashes of rage and an alternation between that and nausea. … The imperial voices dominates this conference and its range increases with every representation by European tribe, by European nation. This is not merely a historical posture of ancestry and tradition which goes under the general name of “civilization.” I am talking about tone … about a linear concept of progress and experiment in literature which I find no different from the presumptions of the priest and the conquistador. You writers of Europe continue that tone, that responsibility of carrying the banner and the cross or the book.  I have found no breadth, no expanse of imagination and, even at the risk of sounding corny, no evangelical vision.  What is the meaning of your empires? To hear all this from contemporary writers is only to deepen my conviction that for all its wars, its museums, its literatures, its revolutions, the provinciality of Europe and of Russia increases. Writers are not inheritors of history.'”