Archive for February, 2012

Wisława Szymborska’s funeral on a snowy day in Kraków

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

One of Poland's most famous cemeteries

I missed the news of Wisława Szymborska‘s funeral earlier this month, and only just found this youtube clip of the quiet, secular ceremony that nevertheless attracted more than a thousand people in a Polish winter.  According to the Associated Press:

Freezing temperatures and falling snow at the Rakowicki Cemetery in the southern city of Kraków, where Szymborska lived, did not discourage the mourners, including Prime Minister Donald Tusk, writers and actors, from attending the ceremony.

An urn with Szymborska’s ashes was placed in the family tomb, where her parents and sister are buried, to a recording of Ella Fitzgerald, Szymborska’s favorite singer, singing “Black Coffee.” The poet was a heavy smoker and a lover of black coffee.

“In her poems, she left us her ability to notice the ordinary, the tiniest particles of beauty and of the joy of the world,” President Bronisław Komorowski said.

“She was a Krakowian by choice,” said Kraków mayor Jacek Majchrowski in the clip below. “The climate agreed with her, so did the people.”

Krakowian by choice

Adam Zagajewski, a good friend of hers, tried repeatedly to introduce me to the reclusive poet – with no success; her circle in her final years was pretty much kept to the closest friends. She wanted to save her energy for her poems.  I’m glad I caught the reading last year, perhaps it was her last.

In the clip, Adam Z. notes that “she survived a horrible war, and lived through two totalitarian regimes, but she didn’t choose to keep silent – she chose a way of expressing herself that never led to pointless chatter – but on the contrary, to intelligent expression.”  I don’t trust the voiceover translation.  It doesn’t sound like the man who has been shortlisted for a Nobel himself.

Rakowicki Cemetery is a huge place – truly an empire of the dead.  I can’t remember how I came to see it, but I remember it seemed out of the way, on the edge of town; it must have been during my first visit in 2008, since the  Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where I lived last year, is relatively close. Whatever.  John Paul II‘s parents are there; heaps of flowers are still placed on their graves, and candles, too.

And soon we join them.  How fast it all goes!  It is banal to say so. But one hits at some point in middle age the Great Reversal, where we sees clearly that the way ahead is shorter than the way behind, and that it is only luck or chance that we are still eating, talking, taking out the trash and doing the laundry as if nothing particular were happening.  This realization creates a revolution in the brain. One sees that life really is an incessant conversation between the living and the dead – and what one writer called “the tyranny of the living,” “the small, arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around” is a shortsighted view. Nothing we touch, think, feel, or love is other than a gift from those who came before us, passing on literature, painting, domesticated cats, architecture, silver spoons, flush toilets, witty sayings, lullabies, chocolate éclairs, systems of government, habits of kindness before they, too, close the door of their room and, one by one, check out of this giant, raucous hotel.

Nabokov on Lolita: “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.”

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I had never heard Vladimir Nabokov speak, until I ran across this video while reading up my post a few days ago. In this late-1950s video, Nabokov discusses his novel Lolita – or appears to – with an unnamed moderator and the critic and author Lionel Trilling. I suspect much of what he’s saying is a leg-pull. If these comments and questions are typical of the kinds of interviews he faced, it’s no wonder he skived off to Switzerland with the cash he made on the appalling film version of Lolita with Sue Lyon.  (And the comments on the youtube video are a good indication of why he stayed.)

I learned a few things from these videos: According to Mr. Nabokov, I am a philistine.  I confess that I am, on occasion, “a user of cozies” – tea cozies, anyway.  Who knew it was so easy? On those who think his book is about sex? “But maybe they think in clichés. For them sex is so well-defined there’s a gap between it and love. They don’t know what love is, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is, either.” What does it all mean? “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. [Albert] Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.” He doesn’t miss a chance to get in a dig at Boris Pasternak.

Postscript on 3/8:  The Book Haven attracts a very broad readership, but never before have we attracted a fan from the tea cozy world.  This from a reader who identifies himself/herself only as FlockofTeaCosy: “This video is from Close Up, a CBC programme from the 1950s, and Nabokov is being interviewed by Trilling and Canadian author Pierre Berton.” There you have it. The name of the third man in the clips.  (And check out the avant-garde tea cozies here.) And from one of our more usual readers, Elena Danielson, “I think Nabokov would approve of your tea cozies – but not of Pasternak.” See their comments below.

The word has a life of its own – “it lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind.”

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

The author

When I visited Ann Pasternak Slater last fall, I asked if her husband, the writer Craig Raine, might have a copy of the famously blistering review he wrote of Joseph Brodsky‘s poetry. I say “famous,” but my efforts had failed to uncover any copy of the review in any library. He hadn’t, but some weeks later she wrote that he had suggested I look up the review in his 500+ page book of essays, In Defense of T.S. Eliot.  Feeling a little rebuffed, I nevertheless found a copy of the book in Stanford’s Green Library, and I must say that he’s rather won me over, on every subject except Brodsky.

This paragraph, in particular, from the essay “A Book that Changed My Life,” about finding Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita as a 14-year-old boarding school student in 1959:

“I settled to read this dirty book – undeceived by the international tributes to Nabokov’s art which were anthologized at the back – and was at once bouleversé by the first paragraph, which had, as it turned out, a particular personal message from Nabokov to me. It was this: the word has a life of its own, a sound of its own and a shape of its own. It isn’t simply a harmless drudge, it is also a monarch with a retinue of associations. It lives in the kingdom of the mouth and the mind. If it is to obey you, you must cherish it as an individual and respect its unique powers and properties. Every word is irreplaceable, as Roget paradoxically but invariably demonstrates.”

Coincidentally, today’s Washington Post announced the death of 77-year-old Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son, whose position as heir inevitably meant much of his life was spent protecting his father’s literary legacy and translating and editing his father’s plays, poems, stories, including the novella The Enchanter and the Selected Letters.

“My father is gradually marching — with his two favorite writers, Pushkin and Joyce — arm in arm into the pantheon to join the greatest of all, Shakespeare, who is waiting for them,” Nabokov told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview. “I like to think that I did my bit to keep things on track.”


Roberto Benigni: “They never produced such a scandal of beauty. Never, never, nobody.”

Friday, February 24th, 2012
But where is he now?

Missing man?

Yesterday I wrote about Mario Biagini‘s exquisite reading of Dante. But he also praised someone else during that morning session – the Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni, of It’s a Beautiful Life fame.

A few years ago, Benigni held  televised Dante readings in front of live audiences.  They transfixed all Italy – “millions, for hours,” said Mario, “even non-Tuscans.” And he did it for years.

“It was amazing,” said Mario. “It means that people are not stupid.”  The show toured America in 2009 as “TuttoDante.”  The New York Times described it this way:

Roberto Benigni leapt up with a riff on the 26th Canto of Dante’s “Inferno,” in which fraudulent advisers are engulfed by flames that scorch them. “It’s like landing in Los Angeles or Manhattan, full of little lights like a skyscraper,” he exclaimed in his frenetically choppy English. “Dante describes the lights like fireflies, like a farmer who sees billions of fireflies. And every single firefly is hiding a fraud — people like Madoff. Very cunning, very shrewd. These people are hiding inside the flame because they are hiding in life. The Florentines, you know, they invented finances.”

Later, Benigni said in his Manhattan hotel, “We need to have the nerve to understand why a man with a big nose 700 years ago had the heroic shamelessness to write. Really this is the most daring, bold poetry ever. In 2,000 years of Christian poetry they never surpassed this. They never produced such a scandal of beauty. Never, never, nobody.”

Why do I remember Benigni now?  We’re heading into Oscar week, and I happened to see that Benigni is the lead item in a Yahoo News column that asks “Where are they Now?”

I could have told them. He’s here, reading the same Inferno Canto V that Mario read earlier this week. (Frankly, though, I like Mario’s reading better.)

Dante, Grotowski, and the eloquent body

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Mario Biagini remembers visiting Florence’s cathedral as a child, and seeing, on the left side of the cathedral as he entered, the famous fresco of Dante, standing beside Mount Purgatory.  It made an impression, but it wasn’t an isolated one.  Beginning as a teenager in school, he remembers reading the Divine Comedy “beginning to end, so many times.”  Well, he was a Florentine, like Dante.

“I read it often for myself,” he said.  And yesterday, I became a beneficiary of all these years of exposure.

I spent a blissful hour in the morning listening to Mario – who is the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski – as he read the Inferno, Cantos V and XXII, to a Stanford humanities class. Being a Florentine helps, he admitted – Dante’s 14th-century Tuscan dialect is “what I grew up with – what I talked. This language didn’t change much.”

He doesn’t approve of the way so many people today read the lines, emphasizing the stresses – “as if it’s a quite stupid children’s game,” he said, noting instead that the verse “is rooted in living speech.”

Biagini is currently editing Grotowski’s collected works, which are planned for publication beginning this fall in Polish, Italian, French, and (we hope) eventually in English.  Biagini trained with Grotowski every day for more than a dozen years – Grotowski, who died in 1999, was the greatest adventure of Mario’s life.

At a drama class the day before, he had recalled working with Grotowski, a man with “an absolute rigor towards himself” and a “strong natural authority” – so much so that the action at a café or bistro would halt when he entered it, just like in the movies.

National prophet

The theater legend was a member of Poland’s communist party, and dressed the part, like an apparatchik – part of a “precise strategy,” said Biagini, because “his work was exactly the opposite.” He created not his own texts as much as bringing to life the great works from Poland’s Romantic period – the works of  Adam Mickiewicz, for example, who is almost Poland’s national prophet (though he, like Czeslaw Milosz, was Lithuanian-born).

At some point, the aging maestro concluded, “Theater is an abandoned house. There’s no life in it.” He  began to ask “what theater can exist without,” stripping theater down to its barest essentials.  He also focused on direct, one-on-one connections and interactions.

I’m grateful for a few things Mario said:  One of my pet peeves when I go to the theater is having some production that wants to “do” the audience.  I don’t want to “participate” – that’s why I’m in a theater rather than an encounter group.  And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated. Grotowski, he said, was suspicious of the performers putting themselves in positions of power that way.

I also resent theatrical experiments that do a lot more for the performers than they do for an audience. Mario recalled sitting through a deadly, mind-numbing three-hour performance. Afterwards, the performers told him they had never had so much fun making a production. He urged directors and actors to have compassion on audiences – it’s supposed to mean something for them.

Preparing for death?

“It’s not about how the actor feels,” he told a student.  Actors should avoid being sidetracked by their own emotions.  “Just do the job – like someone at a bank,” he said.  He impersonated a bank clerk weeping as he doles out the cash – distracting and unnecessary, he said.  Just count the cash.

“It’s not that subjectivity is not important,” he said. “But I can’t start from there. I’d just make something extremely self-indulgent.”

And here’s good advice for just about anything, though he was referring to acting: “Nothing ‘a little bit’ works. You have to pay for it. It’s very hard. 95 percent of the time what you try will not work out. 95 percent of the time you will not accept that it does not work.”

What do I remember the most?  The melodies that still come back to me today, after three hours of watching his workshops Tuesday evening.  The tunes are the result of Grotowski’s exhaustive investigation into the ritual songs from Haitian voodoo and the African diaspora; he sought relatively simple techniques that would be “objective,” having a predictable impact on the performers, regardless of their beliefs or culture of origin.

As I wrote almost a year ago when Mario visited with members of his Workcenter troupe:

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it’s as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer’s soul in a single line. …

“One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve,” Chakrabarti said. “Mario replied, ‘We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!’

“I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me.”

This time, however, Mario was more active – leading the cycles of song, prodding and coaching the students, stripping to the waist and joining the slow, ritual dance, his body a keen actor’s tool, and one as eloquent as any of the Rodin bronzes on the Stanford campus.

Mario headed today for Paris, and then … Shanghai? Italy?  His story is amazing: “When I met Grotowski, I was a shepherd looking more for adventure, not a career. I got my adventures – and later a career.”

Too good to miss: How Americans sound to the British

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Yet another use for those unwanted books

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Have some time on your hands?  If you are determined to thin your library, contrary to our advice, here’s another way to use those unwanted books.

Guy Laramee has created two series of carved book landscapes and structures entitled Biblios and The Great Wall, where, as the website says, “the dense pages of old books are excavated to reveal serene mountains, plateaus, and ancient structures.”

Says the artist:  “So I carve landscapes out of books and I paint Romantic landscapes. Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains. They erode a bit more and they become hills. Then they flatten and become fields where apparently nothing is happening. Piles of obsolete encyclopedias return to that which does not need to say anything, that which simply is. Fogs and clouds erase everything we know, everything we think we are.”

See more here.

Laramee’s next show will be in April at Montreal’s Galerie d’Art d’Outremont.

Closer to home, the San Jose Public Library (of all places) has another idea, via one of its volunteers, “Debbie” at the Willow Glen neighborhood branch of the library:

“One day, Debbie came across donations no one wanted to buy: Readers’ Digest Condensed books, with beautifully decorated hard covers. She’d heard there was a way to make a purse from a book, so she did what any librarian would:  research!  She downloaded patterns from the Internet and created prototypes to show the Friends. Now, besides selling books, the Friends handcraft one-of-a-kind purses; each takes about 12 hours to create. Book Purses were introduced to the public at the Friends’ April, 2011, book sale. Later, a line of E-book Reader Covers was added.”

To date, “Friends of the Willow Glen Library” has sold 72 purses and e-reader covers. Frankly, we can’t think of a better use for the Readers’ Digest.

More about it here.

Salinger fan

Postscript 2/25 – Fashion Note:  It’s Oscar week, and someone else has picked up the book purse theme:  see here for the Michelle Williams‘s J.D. Salinger/Catcher in the Rye purse, which accessorized her Louis Vuitton suit for the Independent Spirits awards. The Oscar-nominated actress usually sports Le-Tan clutches. “The reasons for choosing Salinger’s novel are not quite as obvious, but the bag complimented the actress’s unusual attire at today’s awards,” according to the article. Be patient with the video. The book-purse comes at the end.

“Fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will…”

Monday, February 20th, 2012

A shocking moment in a recent conversation:  A professor of my acquaintance said that he’d gotten rid of almost all his books.  Why books, he said, when there’s Kindle?


Randall Jarrell voiced his misgivings this way: “Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see – otherwise I’d die – a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.”

I can’t help but feel, still, that Kindle is only one step away from a computer screen, which is one step away from a television screen. In fact, perhaps Kindle may be  closer to the television screen to begin with, since both reading a book and watching TV are essentially passive activities.  So … why does the tactile quality of the book, which at least offers the interactivity of turning the pages, seem so much less deadening than staring at a screen, any screen?  Why does it seem so quietly redeeming?

And why does book addiction seem the most forgivable of compulsions?  Gabe Habash describes his own habit in Publishers Weekly‘s “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books“:

If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, these being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.

My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.

Well, we’ve written about bookshelf porn before, and featured book furniture here and here. The craving for more books links inevitably  to the need for a space to put them in.  So Habash raises a bigger, more philosophical issue, apart from needing more understanding friends than Matt & co.:

But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

Sevres stayed in cupboard

I couldn’t agree more.  Why would you want to have in your library only books you have read?  Isn’t the whole point of a library to provide objects for contemplation in your solitary hours, the thrill of new discoveries on an otherwise humdrum rainy day?  And for the writer, a book collection is a research library on Sundays, holidays, and at 3 a.m., and more comprehensive than what scattershot google searches can ever offer. How many sleepless hours have been devoted to thoughtful book browsing!

And should the Big One strike, and the earth shake my shelves around my ears … I die happy.  Until the last battery dies within my flashlight while I hunker in the cave of books, I would contentedly read all those volumes I bought and never got round to finishing – William Anderson‘s Dante: The Maker comes immediately to mind, or Aleksander Wat‘s My Century. But so do many other books that I never even started.  Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote, for example.


As Winston Churchill said: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”

Perhaps I could even finish his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1.

Kind of cool: Andrew Sullivan, Czesław Miłosz, the Book Haven and moi

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

"That's me."

Andrew Sullivan‘s “The Dish”  picked up one of our posts over at the Daily Beast.  Not that we noticed.  We were in Paris at the time – but a friend tipped us off today.

It’s not the first time we’ve rubbed elbows.  He kindly picked up our “Orwell Watch” gripe on the much-abused phrase, “I take responsibility for…”  And we wrote about one of his posts about the ideas of René Girard over here.

In the February 5 post, he quotes Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “At a Certain Age.”  Here’s the unfortunate part, though:  He left off the punchline(s).

Oh well.  As he pointed out, you can read the whole poem here.

And read the post he mentions, “The Final Dwarf of You,” where (as he puts it), I “examine” old age.  As well as Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.  It’s here.

(Doesn’t really need to be “examined” … rather it something to be endured.  If one is lucky.)


“Anything might happen”: Kultura in Maisons-Laffitte and the politics of exile

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Kultura’s former digs.

“Absolutely secret, absolutely necessary,” said Andrzej Bernhardt at the steering wheel, driving me from one side of Maisons-Laffitte to the other.  “It was very dangerous. Anything might happen.”

Compared to the hustle-and-bustle of Paris, this little burg, about half-an-hour away from the Paris Étoile station, is sleepy and comfortably suburban.  It was not always so.

When Polish poet Czesław Miłosz defected in 1951, he was immediately whisked to the Kultura headquarters here, in Maisons-Laffitte, for protection. Kultura, founded in 1946 in Rome by Jerzy Giedroyć with associates Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, had become the intellectual and cultural bastion of the substantial Polish émigré community, a circle that included (and published) Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Witold Gombrowicz, Marek Hłasko, Jan Kott, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Józef Czapski, Konstanty Jeleński, and Bogdan Czaykowski.

“Kultura was observed by Polish agents. It was quite delicate to keep him inside.  Very difficult for everybody,” said Andrzej, a member of the board for managing Kultura.  “He tried to stay involved – but not even the postman could be allowed to see him inside.” Hence, he couldn’t go into the garden, or be seen at a window. He had survived the destruction of Warsaw, and Nazi and Soviet occupation, only to find himself imprisoned outside Paris, albeit in an elegant mansion.

During Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Communist government, the writer and painter Józef Czapski, another critical figure in Kultura, had approached him.  If Miłosz should ever change his mind and decide to jump ship, Kultura would protect him, he told the poet.  So here he was, without his family or any means of making a living.

“It’s exciting but difficult to explain today,” said Andrzej. “How can you explain the reality of the 1950s?” How indeed?  It was a time when, for half of Europe, the written word could be its own kind of atom bomb, and its writers were dangerous cultural ninja.

We arrive at our destination, across from the small town’s park. This was the site of the original Kultura, which ran a publishing house and monthly literary journal of the same title, and operated as a sort of Polish kibbutz.

Giedroyc at Kultura, 1997 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

“He was in a difficult position in France, where nothing like Free Europe existed – in fact, the French Foreign Office was cultivating their prewar friendship with Poland as a means of discouraging a revivial of an aggressive Germany,” wrote former diplomat John Foster Leich in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Commenting on Miłosz’s defection in Paris, I remember Burke Elbrick, the head of the Polish desk at the U.S. State Department, saying that ‘only a Pole would be so careless to defect in France rather than the United States, where he would have had a much better and safer life.'”

The influential Kultura may have provided an island of calm for the poet, who was denounced by the Parisian intelligentsia who were universally left-wing and pro-communist – but Kultura was no idyll. Zofia Hertz recalled that, in the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle was approached by the Polish authorities and asked to “liquidate us, arrest us, yet he didn’t, De Gaulle came to us and did not listen to them.”

What was Giedroyć like? Wojiech Sikora, Kultura’s president, hands me a brochure for the Giedroyć centenary in 2006.  “He was rather solitary. He hated crowds. He used to work a lot, he was lonely. But he took care of ordinary people – in Poland and France as well.  Everywhere where he knew someone.

Kultura today

“He hated all the manifestations of Parisian life, the high life,” Wojiech continued. “He lived and worked in the same place. He used to work till late at night. So many letters to answer, so many books to read.” He typed all his own letters, on a manual typewriter.

Andrzej added, “He was very simple, in a way. Not very sophisticated.  Someone very easy to communicate with.”  Needless to say, he was a Polish patriot.

Kultura moved to its new digs on Avenue de Poissy in 1954. The new house is capacious but still homey, wooden, stuffed with offices and walls of books – an intimate space, as well as a public one.  A small wooden cross is above the front door, Polish style.

Although the building is empty today, except for my two hosts, they tell me that scholars and students regularly visit and work – sometimes staying a day, sometimes for weeks.  In the final issue of Kultura in autumn 2000, Zofia Hertz and Henryk Giedroyć wrote, “We would like to preserve our house, which is always open for everyone, not as a museum but as a center teeming with life and work.”

Kultura moved here in 1954

And so they have. The Cold War is over, and now Kultura serves as an archive. The empty stables adjoining the house include 150,000 letters to and from Giedroyć. “Every day people come from Poland and ask what one should do, what he thinks,” Hertz recalled – and the evidence is here.  Over a thousand of the letters are exchanges with Miłosz. The Warsaw publishing house Zeszyty Literackie has issued two volumes of the letters, but they otherwise remain unpublished … and many of them are not yet inventoried, or chemically treated for preservation, and so on.  Eventually, they will be digitized as well.

Moreover, Giedroyć and Kultura collected all kinds of documents about Eastern Europe – 180 meters of them. “Letters but not only,” according to Andrzej. That’s in addition to 100,000 books.

“Taking care of our archives – that’s become our basic vocation. Now we are trying to organize it in a professional way,” he said.

They also gave me a xerox of Miłosz’s 11-page essay “Nie” [No] from the May 1951 Kultura (it has never, to my knowledge, been translated into English).  Although Miłosz had asked for political asylum in February, 60 years before my winter appearance on the Kultura doorstep, he did not hold a press conference until May 15, perhaps to coincide with the article’s appearance.

According to the account in the Manchester Guardian the next day, the press conference was a précis of his 1953 landmark book, Captive Mind:

Mr. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who for the last four years has been Cultural First Secretary of the Embassy in Washington, and had recently ben appointed to the Embassy in Paris, explained at a press conference today why he has broken with the Communist regime in Poland.

His statement was the more interesting because he obviously had for a long time a lively sympathy for the regime and has not much admiration for the West. He summed up his reason for leaving by saying that “Socialist realism is systematic lying.” The writer, under what he called “the New Faith,” communism, was a highly valued member of the community …

“I am here because I have conquered in myself historical fatalism, which is a serpent. An intellectual who lets himself look perpetually at historical fatalism behaves like a fascinated rabbit. Do not believe that historical necessity can be a standard of individual action for a man. Even if this necessity exists I know that my duty is to act against it for I know that the New Faith brings a great misfortune to humanity.

“I do not know any greater misfortune for man. The principal interest of the New Faith is not the economic organisationof society but the creation of a new human type by killing in man what, for lack of a better term, one may call metaphysical being.

“The New Faith is the most perfect incarnation of demoniacal thought history has seen. In front of it there is a bad world divided by eternal contradictions, but a world which is nearly human. I belong to that world and I am going to serve its cause. It is not true that the West is an ichthyosaurus with a small brain, as has been described in Communist propaganda. But it is true that its intellectual potential is at present asleep. The spirit of America is still asleep. The victory of man over this human demoniacal force is possible but not before the West has given man a social system which assures him bread and the excitement of collective effort without all the lies of the new faith.

There were other published letters from Miłosz in the Kultura files – open letters to Polish friends, still explaining his decision, and explaining and explaining and explaining again.

But it’s only a handful among thousands and thousands of letters, manuscripts, documents.  Over the years, Kultura published more than 500 books and more than 600 issues of Kultura.  That, too, is only a fraction of its legacy, and that of its founder.  According to Miłosz, “It was even said sometimes that  Giedroyć had overthrown communism in Poland.”