Czeslaw Milosz: A Berkeley Reading
Monday, February 14 2000, 8:44 PM
Although usually discussed as a Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz taught in the United States for some thirty years and may as easily be read as an American immigrant writer. A few years ago while teaching a class on immigrant literature, I mentioned Milosz as an example of writers who disappear in the United States while achieving international readership. Did anyone know him? The students shook their heads. I wrote his name on the blackboard and asked again. Still no one. "Well, he taught here for a couple decades, had an office in this building until he retired several years ago, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature," I said. A couple students hastily scribbled the name into their notebooks.
Poles shake their heads in disbelief at the story, which seems to confirm their worst suspicions about American barbarism. But on the other hand, why should those students have known? Given negligible American public expectations concerning cross-cultural knowledge --- and particularly on narrative culture, whether in books or film --- those students were already far better educated, open and searching than is the norm. The U.S reads contemporary world literature in translation the way it consumes foreign films, which is to say, hardly at all.
Milosz arrived from a world that was closed to Americans in the '50s and '60s, of brief moments of interest with Solidarity in the '70s and early '80s, and now entirely disregarded except for economic condescension. Ignorance of eastern Europe has a long history, and it is an unusual American education that contributes to shedding such ignorance. The Cold War contributed the only institutional interest in Slavic studies and today, as one Slavicist and department chair told me, "There has been an explosion of brilliant work in the field at the same time as university hiring in Slavic studies has totally collapsed." When Milosz entered university teaching in the United States in 1960, the field had the advantage of still being in its ascendancy.
Milosz began publishing poetry and essays in 1931 with the Zagary review group at the University of Wilno, and was an expressive witness to a century that Isaiah Berlin justifiably characterized as the most brutal in human history. He started as a contemporary of Bruno Schulz, but unlike Schulz lived to tell a story of the century through to its end. When the first chapter of The Captive Mind appeared in Partisan Review in 1951, Western bloc politics of liberal anti-communism found a congenial Polish voice. The intellectual typologies that Milosz created in that book through biographies based on the lives and moral dilemmas of friends served to anatomize both the attractions and deficiencies of the communist system. Yet this understanding remains deeply inadequate, because while Milosz opposed Stalinism passionately, he opposed any government that relied on fear as an operating principle.
As an immigrant scholar in the United States who arrived within the context of the Cold War and its influence on the academy, Milosz outlived that context and grew into a far more profound role of influence on the intellectual breadth of American poetry. If a writer like Witold Gombrowicz was a figure of distant admiration to a past generation of American readers during the '50s, then Milosz has been a far more accessible figure who understood American culture and participated in it through collaborations with poets like Robert Haas.
And yet, outside circles of poets and scholars, Milosz remains one of the best- hidden literary Nobelists in the United States. During the last decade Milosz has divided his time between Cracow and Berkeley, which has taken him even further out off American view. At age eighty-nine his readings are rare, and a reading in Berkeley is something of a homecoming, even if the undergraduates still have never heard of him.
The wood-paneled library hall was packed with a standing-room crowd of 300-400 people. Milosz began with an introductory poem, "To Present Myself," from his recent volume, Roadside Dog. With another poem occasioned by notice of the death of now-old C.R. Milne upon whom the youthful Christopher Robin was based, Milosz opened an examination of his own aging and expectations of death.
Themes of memory and history permeated the reading. In a poem set on the Rue Descartes in Paris, where he lived in the '40s, Milosz associated his presence there with the clustering of anti-colonial and anti-racist intellectuals who gathered in Paris as the French colonial empire lay gasping. That sense of the cosmopolitan as a nurturing and creative force haunts Milosz's poetry. The cosmopolitan, however, invites destruction and suffering at the hands of those whom its vitalizing energies have driven mad. In "A Song on the End of the World", written in 1943 --- "the worst year of destruction" --- a calmness sets in upon contemplation of that destruction that swept through Poland during the war years. In the midst of an illegitimate violence --- for as Albert Memmi writes, "the mania and horror of Nazism comes from what it had renounced of all legitimization" --- Milosz quietly voices an individualistic counter-aesthetic against the apocalypse. The intensity of the poem bears witness to Milosz's sentiments, voiced in "Ars Poetica," that "poems should be written rarely and reluctantly." He raises the image of the Warsaw ghetto, where survival was the only question, as preface to a postwar Paris where the questions of recreating a world could be addressed. His reading of this poem, the only one of the afternoon delivered in Polish, carried a lyricism in its original that the English translation did not even approach.
Milosz has a modesty and humor such that it enables him to transit easily from good-natured observations on his cat into a synoptic exploration of the Augustinian view of nature. A listener comes to feel that this is an achievement, given the gravity of history weighted across the man's lifespan. The solitariness of survival emerges from his reading and comments. He mentions that upon returning to his birthplace in Vilna, Lithuania, after fifty-two years absence, that no one remained of those who he knew: the population had changed entirely, and he had become a foreigner. The reading emerged finally as self-retrospection, a "retrospective of monsters, / finding the same possibilities in myself." He finds himself "embarrassed by the clearness of view" at the end of a century, and concludes with lines that bear an unconscious parallel to a far younger Frederick Douglass watching the future from the shores of the Chesapeake: "straightening up / I saw the blue sea and sails..."
Afterwards, a lengthy line forms for signatures. It's perfectly understandable, but there is something sad about becoming a sought-after signature on a book's title page. A figurehead culture emerges, one where public symbolism defines content rather than the opposite. Czeslaw Milosz deserves far better: he deserves a good American readership.