Posts Tagged ‘Jerzy Giedroyć’

Czesław Miłosz: the moment his world turned upside down

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Author, author!

My review of Andrzej Franaszek’s Miłosz: A biography (Harvard University Press) is in the current issue of the Times Literary SupplementI also discuss the publication of the Nobel poet’s fragmentary science fiction novel, Mountains of Parnassus (Yale University Press). Kudos to translators Aleksandra and Michael Parker for the former, Stanley Bill for the latter.

My piece, “Writing Not Fighting,” is behind a paywall, alas. But you can read the first few paragraphs here.  An excerpt:

It may be a cliché that the great poet gives everything to his art, but in [Czesław] Miłosz’s case the platitude appears to have been agonizingly true. Miłosz: A biography  by Andrzej Franaszek, abbreviated and translated from the 960-page Polish edition published in 2011 (TLS, November 25, 2011), describes Miłosz’s unsparing choices. Literary ambition drove him to abandon the woman he called his “true and tragic love” in his native Lithuania in the 1930s (she may have been pregnant as well). After the Warsaw Uprising, he told friends that he would not take arms, because he must survive the war. His death would be meaningless: he must write, not fight.

milosz-biographyAt one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951, Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine-year-old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura, an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career”. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded Paris embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

parnassusMiłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth”. For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacks from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and even other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and two sons again for more than two years.

At Maisons-Laffitte, he spent his days shouting, pacing, chain-smoking and drinking as he skirted a nervous breakdown. He could not “shake off his attraction towards Stalinism, like a rabbit toward a snake”, wrote Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor-in-chief at the publishing house Instytut Literacki as well as its journal Kultura. The émigrés who gathered round Kultura seemed to be history’s has-beens, fighting a rearguard action for a cause that had long ago been lost. But the “future of history” may not go where we imagine, and the cause that looks lost may, in fact, have time on its side. Today, Giedroyc is a legend, along with Józef Czapski, Zygmunt Hertz and his wife Zofia, who shared the villa in Maisons-Laffitte.

Well, we’ve told some of that story in the Book Haven after our own visit to the villa in Maisons-Laffitte. Again, the full article is here

Postscript: Oh, and we got a line on the cover of the issue. How cool is that?



Gustaw Herling: “I never stopped thinking about the evil I had seen.”

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

herlingPolish writer Gustaw Herling is too little known in the West, although Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz (a longtime Berkeley resident) called him “one of the most important witnesses of the twentieth century, a heroic man and truly worthy writer.”

It was a generous appraisal. Although Herling always recognized Milosz as a great poet, the younger writer took issue with Captive Mind, Milosz’s landmark analysis of what happens to the creative mind under totalitarianism, through four case studies. “Our friendly relations were not affected by his negative opinion of my book, The Captive Mind, though I was never able to grasp his argument,” Milosz wrote. “He seemed to reproach me for ascribing ideological motives to intellectuals who had collaborated with communism. According to him they acted mostly out of fear or a desire for a career.

“Herling had valid reasons to judge severely the intellectuals of the twentieth century. Those in the West closed their ears to his report on Soviet Gulags. In Italy, where he lived for many years, the intellectual establishment, which was controlled by Communists, changed him into a nonperson only to discover him suddenly after the fall of the Soviet empire. My Captive Mind had hardly fared better with leftist readers than his World Apart.

He experienced some of the worst the last century had to offer, beginning with World War II in Poland. He established Poland’s first anti-Nazi resistance cell, fled east to join the Free Polish Army, was arrested by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) in Soviet-occupied Poland, and was imprisoned in a labor camp on the White Sea. After his release in 1942, he was wounded in the Battle of Monte Cassino. He co-founded the influential literary journal Kultura in Maisons Laffitte with Jerzy Giedroyc (well, we told that story here). His books include A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor, Volcano and Miracle, The Island, and others.

A few excerpts from Kelly Zinkowski’s excellent Paris Review Q&A from 2000 – first, on Captive Mind:, a book that was very influential for Humble Moi, describing not only life under Communism, but anywhere the mind is “bent”:

captive-mindHerlingThe behavior of the intellectuals before the war, during the war and after the war with respect to fascism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism of various descriptions was not very respectable. So they were happy to have Milosz’s book, to have their behavior absolved, if not validated. Because to have something like Ketman or the New Faith is certainly preferable to listening to me telling them that they had betrayed themselves for career and family. Not that the Poles were alone in this. The behavior of writers and intellectuals in Italy during the Fascist reign was the same thing. They should be ashamed of what they wrote, especially because they weren’t writing out of any genuine conviction of fascism’s merits. They were merely trying to advance their respective careers. To some extent it was the same with German writers under the Nazis. Thomas Mann wasn’t sure about what choice to make.

InterviewerUnlike Robert Musil, who in his exile liked to say that he was merely following his readers.

HerlingYes. Mann was in a way negotiating with the Nazis. He wanted to know if the Nazis would publish his books, if they would guarantee the safety of his great library in Munich, and so on. We have to be extremely conscious of this problem. I remember the great Italian writer, my friend Ignazio Silone; his intransigence against Italian Fascism was very badly looked upon by his colleagues. They called him a fanatic, which is a terrible word—

Interviewer: Implying that he’d lost his reason.

HerlingAnd so on. I don’t mean to reopen this discussion with Milosz. He’s a great writer. I recognize his greatness, in his poetry especially, his beautiful novel The Issa Valley, and in other things. I was very pleased by, and contributed to his getting—because they’re not so easy to get!—the Nobel Prize. But I remain adamant where our dispute is concerned.


world-apartInterviewerCould you talk a bit more about your position vis-à-vis those who compromised, either with communism or fascism?

Herling Let us divide these intellectuals, as far as Poland is concerned, into two categories, the first being single-minded Communist careerists who didn’t want to allow any anti-Communist voices. I remember a very well-known writer who visited me during the time of Poland’s Communist regime. I told him, You’re writing trash, absolute trash. He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a photograph of his wife and family and said, This is my answer. So just stop with all your anti-Communist moralizing.

InterviewerA difficult point to argue, under the circumstances.

HerlingBut we are marked by what we do. This is the first category. The second category is much more dignified, that of writers and intellectuals in totalitarian regimes, like fascism or Nazism, good writers with Nazi sympathies . . . If you could interrogate Heidegger, for example, you would get all of his explanations for why he did what he did, why he accepted the position of university rector, why he wrote all that trash. There was always a reason—he wasn’t stupid. So the second category is this: those who tried to invent good and intelligent reasons. When Milosz says they are using the technique of —claiming to believe everything they were supposed to believe, just to live, to work—it was a kind of lie.

InterviewerAlbeit a historically sanctioned lie—a flamboyantly erudite example of Emerson’s maxim that once a particular point of view is taken, all of history can be made to prove it.




On Alexander Solzhenitsyn: 

Take the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Although it goes under his name, he is not the only one who wrote it. It was compiled from the memoirs of some two hundred Gulag veterans to whom he had written and asked to recount their experiences. So it’s not really his book; it’s a kind of encyclopedia of the camps. It is true, it is good, it is interesting, it made a profound impression in the West. In my opinion it utterly transformed the position of the French intelligentsia vis-à-vis the Soviet Union; it eradicated communism as a viable position among the intellectual classes there. But it is not Solzhenitsyn’s book in the same way that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is. I didn’t plan to write the story of my two years in Kargopol near the White Sea. But, as I’ve said, it was there that I was awakened as a writer, so I approached my subject as a writer, not as a rapporteur. In some respects it is a book of fiction, but not as conventionally understood.


On evil:

HerlingDuring my two years in the concentration camp, I saw an accumulation of evil that left a very deep trace. Even after I was released and reacquired some sense of normality, I never stopped thinking about the evil I had seen. Then, observing the world, reading the papers, listening to stories, it became absolutely apparent that evil exists and is spreading every day. This became my obsession, and it is a constant theme in my stories. My idea of evil differs from the one shared by the church, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas, which maintains that evil is merely the absence of goodness. This is the official theory, and I don’t believe it. I think evil is utterly autonomous. What I see every day, in this terrible procession of events, disgusts me and confirms me in my belief; I am almost desperate. And the germ of this notion was formed in the camps. I saw a lot of things there, some of which I wrote about, some of which I didn’t. For a man of my age then, it was a terrible experience to see how the world really is. And this is the reason I decided to abandon my plans for a university career and to become a writer.

Read the whole thing here

“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.”