Other than Michael Young over at Hit & Run, very little blog-reaction so far to the death of Czeslaw Milosz at 93. (One of the century’s great anti-Communists, democrats, defenders of intellectual freedom, and poets seemed like a natural candidate for an outpouring of blog-obits: Oxblog? Crescat? MR? Eugene?)
So instead of reading the pieces I’d expected to be reading right now, I’ll write a bit of my own.
The Captive Mind is certainly Milosz’ most important prose work. Not only is it powerful and compelling; it was also importantly early, a fact that I think has been underappreciated in the past couple of decades. This 1953 book was so long before The Gulag Archipelago or Vaclav Havel’s essays or Solidarity’s demonstrations or John Paul II’s and Ronald Reagans speeches, so long before the fall of Communism itself, that it has been a bit obscured in our retrospective sense of history. But Milosz understood, and explained, the relationship between Communist states and art and ideas just a handful of years after Poland had become one. For this he received considerable scorn from the French intellectual elite who surrounded him after his defection in Paris. And, as a poet with early sympathies for socialism rather than an economist or theologian or politician, he never acquired the kind of natural constituency in the west who would keep the memory of his contribution alive.
For idiosyncratic reasons, I was even more affected by his extraordinary autobiography, Native Realm. It does a remarkable job at evoking the polyglot world of eastern Europe before the age of nation-states, and of the swirling intellectual waters of the interwar years, as nationalism, religion, and ideology competed to provide the organizing disciplines of thought and belief in the region. It excels as a way to help the reader understand the history of the twentieth century as well as being a fascinating autobiography in its own right. Those who liked the movie Sunshine will appreciate Native Realm.
Most important, of course, is poetry. Milosz wrote the following on his 1989 visit to Vilnius.
City of My Youth
It would be more decorous not to live. To live is not decorous,
Says he who after many years
Returned to the city of his youth. There was no one left
Of those who once walked these streets
And now they had nothing, except his eyes.
Stumbling, he walked and looked, instead of them,
On the light they had loved, on the lilacs again in bloom.
His legs were, after all, more perfect
Than nonexistent legs. His lungs breathed in air
As is usual with the living. His heart was beating,
Surprising him with its beating, in his body
Their blood flowed, his arteries fed them with oxygen.
He felt, inside, their livers, spleens, intestines.
Masculinity and femininity, elapsed, met in him
And every shame, every grief, every love.
If ever we accede to enlightenment,
He thought, it is in one compassionate moment
When what separated them from me vanishes
And a shower of drops from a bunch of lilacs
Pours on my face, and hers, and his, at the same time.
I don’t yet see many newspaper obituaries online. The Times’ obituary is really very good, balancing poetry, politics, biography, and a sense of his own voice. Le Monde’s is much less good, which is a surprise since Le Monde is usually much better than the NYT at covering artists and intellectuals. But Le Monde leaves out any mention of why Milosz left Paris for Berkeley, or of his scorn for Communist-sympathizing French intellectuals.
I think of Milosz as embodying the European twentieth century to an almost unparalleled degree, not only because Poland-Lithuania was the crucible for so much of it, and not only because he wrote poems about events form the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto (which he witnessed) to European inaction on Bosnia in the 1990s, but because he wrote first-hand of the world lost in 1914-1918, and yet lived to return from exile after 1989. He was rare in the degree of his ties to and understanding of central Europe, western Europe, and the United States.
Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004. R.I.P.
Will Baude rises to the occasion.
When he consulted on his plan to break with Communism, it was with no less a figure than Albert Einstein, who advised him during a talk at Princeton University that he should go home to Poland, not defect to the West to join the sad fate of exiles.
This may have been entirely heartfelt personal advice: trading the comforts of home for the loneliness of exile is genuinely difficult. But I suspect it was also leavened with that moral-political obtuseness Einstein often showed, and with a failure to grasp what Milosz understood about Communist rule in Poland.