Czeslaw Milosz’s Invincible Reason

“What occurred in Poland was an encounter of a European poet with the hell of the twentieth century, not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one,” the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz declared in his 1983 collection of lectures, The Witness of Poetry. “This situation is something of a laboratory, in other words: It allows us to examine what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions.” What Milosz meant by “historical conditions” was the complete disintegration of European culture—“the sudden crumbling of all current notions and criteria”—between 1939 and 1945. Like other Polish poets, Milosz felt the need to respond in a radical way to the disgrace of Europe—its sinking into inhumanity, its complicity in genocide—by trying to remake poetry from the ground up. It was starting over again after what seemed like the end of the world.

The poet in Poland, Milosz argued, experienced history on his pulse. By writing his own experiences he was also writing the experiences of others, speaking the unspeakable. “What can poetry be in the twentieth century?” he wondered. “It seems to me there is a search for the line beyond which only a zone of silence exists, and that on the borderline we encounter Polish poetry. In it a peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means the events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.” Part of Milosz’s lifelong project was to write as if poetry “is no longer a foreigner in society,” to make a poetic model out of shared trauma.

Times of upheaval also enable us to examine what happens to certain poets. The conditions Milosz experienced and eventually fled were for him a source of contradictions that would play out in the rest of his life and work. As he lived through periods of war, totalitarianism, and exile, he became a political thinker who didn’t like politics, a memoirist who distrusted confessional literature, a poet of witness who believed that the task of poetry surpassed being a witness. His 1953 exposé of totalitarianism, The Captive Mind, has often been compared to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984, which is probably why its sales once again spiked after Trump won the election in November. Yet Milosz shrank from didacticism in literature. He believed that history held many lessons for us, but also viewed it as a backdrop of eternity.

We can now trace these tensions through his extraordinary life in Milosz, the excellent full-length biography by the Polish critic Andrzej Franaszek. Capably edited and translated by Alexsandra and Michael Parker from the significantly longer Polish edition, Franaszek’s work moves gracefully between the events in Milosz’s life and his obsessive writing about it. Along with historical maps, its chronology enables us to pinpoint the fateful intersection between Milosz’s experience and historic events, showing a poet who was determined both to embody and to transcend his own historical circumstances, who longed to liberate himself from the times that entangled him.

Milosz was born on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania, on the impoverished estate of his mother’s family, who were minor Polish gentry. His family spoke Polish, which is how he became a Polish poet, but he always felt the pull of the “red soil” of Lithuania, which he called “a country of myths and poetry.”

His first memories came with war. His father, a civil engineer, was mobilized to build roads and bridges for the Russian army, and his mother followed, dragging her son along, traveling behind the battle zone, living nomadically, never staying anywhere more than a few months. It gave him a lifelong feeling that nothing is stable, everything is temporary, even governments and political systems. When he returned to Lithuania in 1918, the European hell was replaced by a calm idyll in the countryside, a respite from history, childhood regained. But the mark of war was lasting: He would become a writer of dislocation and exile.

Milosz spent his high school and university years in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania, a baroque city of Roman Catholic churches and many synagogues, the Jerusalem of the North. He learned the Latin liturgy, Catholic dogmatics, Roman law, the history of old Poland. It was there that he began writing poetry. He co-founded Zagary, a group of pessimistic young poets who later would be deemed catastrophists due to their apocalyptic view of history. There would always be in his work an element of catastrophism, a doomed sense of the horrors to come. With the rise of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia, he felt special kinship with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which he translated, and its vision of ruined cities and a collapsing European civilization.

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