Milosz did not see himself as a prophet
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 August 2004)

As he made his way through old age, Czeslaw Milosz admitted, "I do not understand my life (who does?)." A good question, but he had more reasons than most to be puzzled.

In 1980, accepting the Nobel Prize, he said that his mere survival should please all those who want life to be unpredictable. After all, he had endured a rich variety of hells before he turned 40: War, poverty, Nazism, communism. But he saw his life as a gift -- and not necessarily one he deserved.

As a self-questioning Roman Catholic who searched endlessly for shards of meaning in the chaos around him, Milosz always wondered whether he was right to know happiness amid the misery afflicting humanity. Robert Hass, his long-time colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, worked with Milosz every Monday morning for 20 years, helping to translate his poetry into English. Last week, after Milosz's death at age 93, Hass said that behind his friend's satisfactions there was always a brutal question: Has someone who has seen so much horror any right to enjoyment?

At the age of 74 Milosz wrote a poem that began: "My Lord, I loved strawberry jam/And the dark sweetness of a woman's body," going on to list such pleasures as well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil, and cinnamon.

He depicted himself as a man who would empty glasses, throw himself on food and "glance greedily at the waitress's neck." How could he be considered a prophet, even a prophet "desiring greatness"? He found no satisfying answer.

National identity was among his early confusions. The reference books call him a "Polish-American," but nothing about him was that simple.

He was born in 1911, to Polish-Lithuanian parents, in rural Lithuania, then a province of czarist Russia. He grew up in the city called Vilnius, Wilna, Vilna, or Wilno, depending on who governed it. Vilnius soon became, like Milosz himself, history's plaything. In his lifetime it was conquered briefly by the Soviet Union, then by Poland, then Germany, then the Soviet Union again in 1945. In 1991 it became the capital of the newly reconstituted Lithuania.

As a young Warsaw poet in the 1930s Milosz was a Catastrophist, a leader of the writers espousing "catastrophism." They believed a terrible disaster was coming, and their gravest predictions were fulfilled. Milosz spent much of the war hiding from the Nazis, publishing underground. After the Red Army arrived he went to work for the new communist government.

Although his leftist sympathies were vague, he thought the alternative was a right wing "whose platform consisted chiefly of anti-Semitism."

So he saw Stalinism from the inside as a Polish diplomat, the cultural attache in New York, Washington and Paris. While in France in 1951 he defected and wrote The Captive Mind, published in 1953. It remains a subtle account of the ways totalitarianism's utopian allure rots the minds and souls of people who mistakenly believe they know how to think for themselves.

Milosz emerged as an early version of that now familiar figure, the intellectual who regards intellectuals with great suspicion. He thought they committed so many crimes in Poland that they resembled orchids, "which nourish themselves on the rotten wood of decaying trees." They were like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, rattling around in a shack poised on the edge of a cliff. No matter what they did, they served a regime with no legitimate foundation.

To this he added a religious element: "I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is ... proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart."

There were too many of those people in France. They resented their country's dependence upon America "and placed their hopes in a new world in the East, ruled by a leader of incomparable wisdom and virtue -- Stalin."

After nine years of Paris, Milosz accepted a job at Berkeley.

He was happier there, but he never became a passionate friend of capitalism. Of the United States he wrote: "What splendour! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!" He found America just as perplexing, in fact, as he found himself. In his life, truth was a series of contradictions that never ceased to engage and provoke him.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page