Miłosz: A Biography, by Andrzej Franaszek (ed and transl by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker), Harvard University Press, 544 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0674495043
As his own death approached, Czesław Miłosz wrote in moving tribute to his then long-deceased uncle Oskar:
The biography of this man is, in my opinion, as important
As the lives of saints and prophets are,
For it goes well beyond mere literary interest.
“Czeladnik” (“An Apprentice”)
In the poem, Miłosz is referencing Oskar’s mysticism as something that was both foundational and transcendent to his uncle’s writing. But seen in another light, Miłosz could just as well have been describing his own work, in which art was nearly always the servant of life and a way of cultivating the courage to stare directly into “the face of great subjects”, as Seamus Heaney phrased it. In one of the many paradoxes associated with Czesław Miłosz, this foregrounding of the “great subjects” never diminishes his poetic achievements, but enriches and nourishes them by keeping within the tight orbit of a shared reality.
Miłosz notoriously bore witness to the most cataclysmic events of twentieth century Europe. It isn’t simply that his first-hand experience of these calamities – the Russian Revolution, Great War, Polish-Russian war and Second World War – is more overt in his writing than the work of many other poets and essayists, although that’s true. It’s also the case that Miłosz re-envisioned these monstrous events on a more human scale with the honest immediacy of his own experience and rich moral imagination. And so the relationship between his biography and his art is subtly profound, each affirming the other in a wild reciprocity.
This makes writing a biography of Miłosz quite challenging. He’s already done a masterly job narrating the events of his own life. Any biography of Miłosz runs the risk of being born redundant and becoming an elaborate curation of his own work and words. The only realistic options are to fundamentally disagree with Miłosz or to be able to elaborate more fully on his basic assumptions about his own life. The latter, tastefully embellishing the master, is the more challenging of the two options and the path that Andrzej Franaszek follows. Franaszek, a professor of Polish Literature at Krakow’s Pedagogical University, has the benefit of being a scholar in Miłosz’s (sort of ‑ it’s complicated) native country with access to both language and materials that other authors don’t. He doesn’t waste the opportunity. The biography is impeccably researched. Letters and unpublished materials abound.
But that alone doesn’t account for the striking success of this work. It’s also translated into English by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, who deserve more than the standard “competent” or “workmanlike” praise that translators unfortunately too often receive. What they’ve done is transferred the living flame of two minds, both author and subject, to a new place without loss of light or heat. Translation is always an experiment with the impossible, and in Miłosz the Parkers have achieved exactly that. Franaszek’s elegant commentary and impeccable sense of proportion (he knows exactly when to step back and let Miłosz speak for himself) breathe on the living page. And so it appears that everyone – translators, author, and Miłosz – are accomplices in the collective conservation of our deepest experiences and the exploration of the most profound existential themes.
One of those themes is paradox, and one of the greatest paradoxes of Miłosz’s life was that through all of the horror he experienced he remained relatively safe. He had close calls of course. There were interrogations by the SS and stray bullets during the Warsaw Uprising, but he was never seriously injured and had a knack for escaping from tight spots. In fact, it almost seemed, as Franaszek writes, that “there would be many … moments in Miłosz’s life when it must have seemed that some benign divine protector was indeed watching over him”. He survived an early illness. A grenade tossed under his grandparents’ bed when he was a child failed to detonate. As a very young man he played Russian roulette in a farmhouse attic after being spurned by a much older potential lover. It seemed from very early on that he was fated to survive in order to bear witness to the events unfolding around him.
Though Miłosz remained unharmed, he did witness much loss, of objects, possessions, homes, cities, and people. As he wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist – and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” Throughout his life, Mneme would remain Miłosz’s primary muse, continually drawing on his earliest memories of familial wanderings across countries and borders that dissolved and oscillated with ominous regularity. That they were middle class and descended, however distantly, from aristocracy mattered little to the chthonic energy of war. But these early memories of instability would form the foundation of Miłosz’s art. As Franaszek writes,
When in Native Realm [Miłosz] reflected on what shaped his world-view during childhood, he stressed his early awareness of the impermanence of state and social formations, the fragility of buildings, and of history, which becomes “equated with ceaseless wandering” (NR 41) . But the formula is too bland, too tame, since what must have made the deepest impression on the little boy’s psyche was not so much an emerging consciousness of the changeability of things, but rather an overwhelming dread, an awareness that for the vast majority of human beings the reality of existence is “hard and ruthless” (Szukanie ojczyzny 224).
These early experiences were, in their own way, gifts to the young writer. They provided something like a baseline of reality and a reference point by which he could constantly reorient himself and avoid some of the more common ideological excesses of the age. What was formed in him was a sort of cosmic scepticism that manifested a gnostic revulsion against both the laws of biological nature and the too easy answers of formal religion. “Life dominated by biology,” writes Franaszek,
condemned humankind to ultimate emptiness. If the theological concept of eschatology is set aside, time becomes a trap, its end merely destruction. If God did not exist, then there was no one to blame for this cruel state of affairs, and protestation was out of the question. Post-Darwin, human society seemed largely to have succumbed to spiritual indifference. A life without spiritual ambitions meant nothing better than a bestial existence, and for Miłosz personally could only end in existential and artistic failure.
After studying law, Miłosz spent a relatively short but very formative sojourn in Paris. It was during this time that he not only composed his first book of poetry but was taken under the wing of his mystic writer uncle, Oskar (actually a remote cousin but thought of as an uncle). Oskar Miłosz was a well-respected writer and playwright who had been raised in France yet still maintained deep connections to Lithuanian heritage. After a near-death experience he was transformed from a decadent flâneur into a full-blown mystic. Between the tutelage of Oskar and the neo-Thomist intellectual influence of Parisian thinkers, Miłosz learned to synthesise leftist political sympathies with his deep spiritual instincts. This synthesis became central to his “battle against nothingness”, as Franaszek terms it. Oskar took the anti-modernist position, writes Franaszek, that
hierarchy, mystery and metaphysical sensitivity were fundamental to great art, whose function it was to enrich the human spirit and mind. Art had meaning when it reached back to its roots in religion, and turned its back on a solely materialistic vision of the world … Modernist dogma at this period eschewed religion, but also philosophy, science, politics and what Oskar termed “pure poetry”, with the result that contemporary poets were detached from “the big human family”.
The religious impulse became almost paradoxically a way to tether oneself more securely to reality. He also learned from his uncle that “it was possible to be a Catholic, without succumbing to superficial ritual or to the characteristic Polish national trait – doggedness”.
Uncle Oskar was a true mystic, in that he even proffered the occasional prophetic revelation. He believed that in 1939 a war would begin which would destroy the world. Miłosz writes in Native Realm:
The last time I saw Oskar Miłosz he was standing on the stops of the Opéra Métro station, the day before my departure [to Poland] … Shaking hands in farewell, I asked: “Who will survive this war, if, as you say, it will begin in 1939 and last five years?” “You will survive.” Running down the steps, I turned around once more; then, with the image of his narrow silhouette against the sky imprinted in my memory, I presented my ticket to be punched.
Oskar predicted the end of the world. Then he died. And then the world ended. But, as predicted, Miłosz survived.
On September 1st, 1939, at 4.45am, German battleships attacked the Westerplatte fort in the city that is today known as Gdańsk. Miłosz mentions in Native Realm that he and most of his fellow countrymen instinctively felt that the Nazis would eventually lose the war. Unlike most Poles, however, Franaszek writes,
Miłosz knew all too well the irreversibility of historical processes, and that the fate of eastern Europe would be changed dramatically. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, he experienced, curiously, a sense of liberation from the shackles of office life. Unexpectedly, life suddenly became simpler, limited to obeying orders and answering the most basic needs … In the space of a few days and months, “life on a cerebral, spiritual and moral level ceased to exist, and there was only the life of reflex reactions and impulses to which one succumbed” (Synoradzka 44).
Miłosz’s years in Warsaw during the war might have been burned down to an ascetic simplicity, but the decisions still left to make would have major ramifications. He suffered accusations that he was too friendly with the Soviets and of keeping a Lithuanian passport in order to “avoid sharing the fate of the Poles during the war”. But he and his brother would also earn the title “Righteous among the Nations” from the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute for assisting escaping Jews. Wartime reality was in retrospect perhaps more complex than the firsthand experience of it might have felt. It was full of paradox, which of course Miłosz was comfortable with. “However shocking,” Franaszek writes,
it may sound, the next few years brought personal happiness to Miłosz’s life, despite its unspeakable horrors. He was in the prime of life, and uplifted by the company of [his wife Janka]. In some sense, he experienced a measure of freedom by not having to struggle to keep up a material position. The challenges that faced the couple involved fulfilling the most immediate needs, and the situation gave him the opportunity to concentrate on the most important things to him, poetry, poems and thinking. To the Nazis he was little more than an animal they could crush at will, which made him afraid, though the fear did not paralyse him. He learned a new language, English, and began to translate and to read extensively, and to put together an anthology. He also wrote a play and essays, and enjoyed a breakthrough in his lyric work.
Surprisingly, peace and its aftermath were more difficult than the war. Poland still had the feel of an occupied country, only now it laboured under the lie of having been liberated. Miłosz, taking advantage of his leftist credentials, sought a post in the diplomatic service in order to work abroad. Franaszek explains:
It seems highly unlikely that Miłosz’s eagerness to obtain a diplomatic post was prompted by a desire to have the opportunity of staying in the West. Neither he nor [his wife] had any illusions about the quality of life citizens enjoyed under Soviet rule … he said [to friend Renata Gorzyńska]: “I had no illusions, because what 1945 exposed was horrific. It really was an occupation, and then appointing a marionette to govern … All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next. Anything but being strangled.” (Prodróżny świata 81).
As usual, Miłosz was torn between competing loyalties and apparently irreconcilable motives. He wanted to escape from a country that was descending into totalitarianism without necessarily abandoning it. This desire to find a perfect, morally irreproachable compromise would come back to haunt him. By joining the diplomatic service and accepting a post in New York City, he knew that he was making “a pact with the devil”. But in making sense of Miłosz’s choice to work with the new Polish government, it’s important to remember the “deep aversion to those who had emigrated”, Franaszek explains.
They were the heirs of pre-war Poland, a country full of injustices and which in 1939 had lost the war. It was not just Miłosz who felt like that. It seemed that the chessboard offered no possibility for any other move. Émigrés were waiting for a new war, in which the West, having the upper hand thanks to the atom bomb, would defeat the Soviet Union and restore Poland’s pre-war borders. Those who did not believe in war and could observe from close proximity the strength of the Red Army were deeply convinced about the fatalistic course of history, and that communism was an uncontrollable force of nature … For many the conclusion seemed clear: it was vital to co-operate with the new rulers for the sake of slowing down the process of Sovietisation.
Despite the prevailing logic of the time, Miłosz would later write that “Representing a country that was turned into the province of a totalitarian foreign state was wrong and degrading, which I feel ashamed of today.”
Of course the poet inevitably was faced with the choice of either defecting or becoming a propagandist for the regime. He decided to defect to France during a visit there; he was one of the first major Polish intellectuals to do so. What followed would be one of the most harrowing, soul-rending periods of his life. His wife and two children were stuck in bureaucratic limbo in America while Miłosz was attacked from nearly every political position for his defection. “[I]t was Miłosz’s flight that constituted the first major breaking of ranks within Poland’s literary circles,” Franaszek tells us. “The reaction of those left behind was orchestrated by the government, but also reflected the complex personal feelings of the writers, who displayed such hostility to Miłosz that it deterred any poet from following his example for a long time.” Rancour came from those who had left during the war, as well. “Expressions of hatred poured out on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Curiously, two lampoons criticizing Miłosz were published on the same day, 4 November 1951 … in Warsaw and in London,” writes Franaszek.
Miłosz’s own feelings were dark and dramatically complicated. He knew that Stalinism was evil, but he couldn’t quite shake his attraction to the heavy logic of dialectical materialism. He couldn’t quite give up the “Ghost of History”, as Franaszek terms it. It took the intervention of Stanisław Vincenz, an almost saintly older intellectual ensconced in a French village, years of nervous intellectual labour and poverty, and the eventual return of his family for Miłosz to find his social and spiritual footing again. Unsurprisingly, his personal rehabilitation was bound up with an artistic renaissance. Some of Miłosz’s best work was written during these dark, liminal times in France. Not least among these was The Captive Mind, a book that Miłosz insists “originated in prayer. Had it not been for the piety of a child brought up in the Catholic faith and able to pray in adulthood, I would not have coped, I would have perished.”
The Captive Mind is perhaps the best example of Miłosz’s ability to synthesise spiritual depth with sharp political analysis. Franaszek writes that
The book was written for Western readers, to give them an insight into the intellectual and social changes that had occurred in the “social democratic” countries of Eastern and Central Europe … In promoting an instant world-view, Communist propaganda was as effective as the pills concocted by a Mongolian philosopher, Murti-Bing. Miłosz depicted international intellectual and artistic circles haunted by a void and thus susceptible to a “new faith” which would allow them to find social justification for their existence, but also detach themselves from down-to-earth, “materialistic” people. An intellectual, after all, was a friend of humanity, not as it is but as it “ought to be” … He was convinced that citizens of the Eastern bloc do not miss capitalism and believe that “the means of production ought to belong to the state, which planned economic growth and allocated national income for health, education, science and art.” What distresses them, however, is that the New Faith imposed on them cannot satisfy their spiritual needs.
The Captive Mind was well-received, with accolades coming from voices as diverse as Albert Einstein, Dwight Macdonald and Heinrich Böll. Other work written during this intense period, such as The Seizure of Power, The Issa Valley and Daylight, though less popular, were astonishing achievements in their own right. But only in retrospect does Miłosz’s life appear to have the shape of a slow and steady march towards the Nobel. When he defected from Poland he assumed that his career as a writer was effectively ended, that his reputation was destroyed, and that he would be relegated to a footnote in literary history. For a long time, that appeared to be just the case. “From 1951 until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had a small readership, and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles written about him,” Franaszek writes. “[The realisation that he would be forgotten as a poet and writer] was hardest to bear when in America he was labelled a political scientist, a university lecturer, and, at best, a translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry.”
Agreeing to become a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley was an intimidating prospect for Miłosz. The nearly two decades he spent lecturing on Slavic poetry in the mellow environs of Northern California, though more politically sedate than his earlier life, were challenging in their own way. Unsurprisingly, Miłosz didn’t transplant well to America. He found it difficult, Franaszek explains, to socialise with people, occupied by problems that seemed “here under the Californian sky … almost unreal, belonging to different times, different places, and different modes of thinking”. California in the 60s and 70s was the epicentre of American popular culture, the advanced guard for the cheap consumerist dream world that Miłosz loathed. “[I]n his eyes,” writes Franaszek, “California offered an epiphany of anti-sense, which undermined humanist and cultural faith and values.”
Fundamentally though, the shift wasn’t such a novel one for Miłosz. As always, his life remained a tribute to the artistic, and ultimately spiritual, power of paradox, antiphony, and witness. Simply put, Miłosz was at home in exile. And coming to America, a country rife with shallow material acquisitiveness, allowed him to more explicitly pursue the spiritual concerns he’d been nurturing his entire life. The Land of Ulro, published in 1977, was the crowning achievement of this new focus and in some ways is an elaboration on and deepening of The Captive Mind, almost a Captive Mind for the spiritual denudation particular to the West rather than the East, “an essay about the decline of the artistic and religious imagination and the evisceration of the human world, reducing it to a scientific, one-dimensional picture alien to ‘human ways’ of seeing”.
Paradox means little to the artist without synthesis, a sense of how these conflicting truths co-exist within a unified field. And in the years before his Nobel Prize, Miłosz achieved that synthesis in the range and scope of his poetry.
[H]e gained a confidence using any register of speech and emotions. Writing in a more voluminous form meant moving away from defined genres … Miłosz composed gradually longer and longer poems … as if only a multiplicity of parts, points of view, characters and languages could bear what he wanted to convey. By bringing us into co-presence [with] the quick and the dead, Miłosz sought to annul time, which destroys us.
It should be clear why Miłosz remains important today. He was present at the bloody creation of the modern world, with all of its seductive dreams and empty brutality. We still live in that shallow world, a world which demands service to utopian ideology and a de rigueur denial of the human soul. The power of Miłosz’s poetry and thought lies in its radical insistence that there is a correct answer to the Dostoevskian question of whether the promise of harmony, of heaven on earth, is worth the tears of one tortured child: Emphatically No. Franaszek doesn’t just capture this vigorous negation in his biography, but all the various tools which Miłosz used to write and, in many ways, live his answer as well.
Miłosz will never be beatified, but the man who emerges from these pages can perhaps be colloquially understood as the saint of paradox. He was a man who documented the twentieth century by standing apart from it. A man trained in law who taught literature. A Lithuanian writer defected from Poland who wrote in Polish while living in France and America. A sensualist who embraced the spiritual. A man who reached home by running away.
Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Paris Review, The New Criterion and Bookforum among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.