Revisiting Yalta with Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz: “We are living in the era of propaganda.”


miloszEvery time I pick up Czesław Miłosz: Conversations I run into something terrific I’d swear I hadn’t read before.  I have performed a great service in the world – let me pat myself on the back.  (There, I’m done now).

A week or so ago, I wrote about Yalta, where the major postwar powers divvied up Europe, forking over the east to the tender care of Joseph Stalin. Then I ran across this passage while looking for another for something I was writing.  As so often happens, Miłosz throws a new light on an old matter.  So does Kundera.

From 1986 New Perspectives Quarterly, later excerpted and republished in the New York Review of Books:

Nathan Gardels:  Many Latin American writers argue that there is a great similarity between the U.S. war on Nicaragua and the Soviet war on the people of Afghanistan.  Eastern European writers, Milan Kundera, for example, seem to have a different view.  “When it comes to the misfortunes of nations,” Kundera has written, “we must not forget the dimension of time. In a fascist dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel.  In the empire to the East, the tunnel is without end, at least from the point of view of human life. This is why I don’t like it when people compare Poland with, say, Chile.  Yes, the torture and the suffering are the same, but the tunnels are of very different lengths. And this changes everything.”

Do you agree with Kundera? Is this also your perspective?

lemonCzesław Miłosz: Yes, yet I feel there is more to be said. Correct reasoning and realistic appraisal are very important. Moral issues are, of course, largely the result of sentimental propaganda. We are living in the era of propaganda.  A basic difference between the various social structures shouldn’t be underestimated. You shouldn’t put on the same scale of balance organisms which are completely different.  You cannot compare a lemon and a triangle.  They don’t belong to the same realm.

In Western thinking, parallelism has a very long tradition. I believe that the plan of division of the world between American and the Soviet Union, of which Europe is a victim today because Europe as a unit is destroyed by division, was due to a large extent to this parallel thinking.

triangleThe problem should be put in terms of certain acquisitions of civilization which risk being lost. For instance, I feel that a division of powers into legislative, executive, and judiciary is a basic acquisition of civilization. There is no reason to be ashamed of such an acquisition which some call “bourgeois democracy”; the worst can be withstood if this division is maintained.

So, the onslaught of the totalitarian state is just a kind of illness.  Of course, whether one cooperates and coexists with illness is a practical consideration. But to compare the two systems on a purely moral basis, that is completely wrong!


“When it comes to the misfortunes of nations, we must not forget the dimension of time.”

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One Response to “Revisiting Yalta with Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz: “We are living in the era of propaganda.””

  1. Mark Woth Says:

    I would say Czeslaws theories are somewhat relevant even today, propaganda is just much more subtle and refined than it was back then, not as overt. Sometimes you barely notice it.