Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 2 | Summer 1986 (Seattle) /// Issue 16 of 24 /// Master# 64 of 73

An Eternal Dialogue With 9 Czeslaw Milosz By Doug Marx Illustration by Stephen Leflar W h e n I learned I would have an opportunity to talk with Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 Nobel laureate in literature, I quickly set out to review the poems and essays I'd found so compelling and provocative. That set off ajourney that led me deep into his writing, for Milosz, despite his contradictions, can t be easily ignored or dismissed. He is afigure in whom history, circumstance and coincidence have embodied the crucial questions of our time, a writerfor whom contradiction is the natural condition of existence. His concerns are unshakably ours. What can we say now of human affairs in this post-7984 world? What sense can be made of the struggle of that intangible thing called the human spirit in its opposition to tyranny? Is it possible to feed and clothe all the people without sacrificing ideals such as freedom? Milosz [pronounced Mi-wush] has lived through many of our century’s most definitive political periods and regimes, which have all left their traces on his soul, and his work. Born in Lithuania in 1911, he worked in the Resistance through World War II. There, in Hitler-occupied Poland, one of the pivotal moments of his life occurred: One afternoon in January 1945 I was standing in the doorway of a peasant's cottage; a few small-caliber shells had just landed in the village street. Then, in the low ground between the snow-covered hills, I saw a file of men slowly advancing. It was the first detachment of the Red Army. It was led by a young woman, felt- booted and carrying a submachine gun. Like all my compatriots, I was thus liberated from the domination of Moscow. . . During the Nazi occupation I, like my colleagues, wrote for clandestine publications. ... My experiences in those years led me to the conclusion that, after the defeat of Hitler, only men true to a socialist program would be capable of abolishing the injustices of the past, and rebuilding the economy of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.... Such then was my state of mind as I watched the Russian girl with her submachine gun advance in my direction. To her, I was one of the millions of Europeans who had to be “liberated and educated.” The Captive Mind Despite his feelings about the Soviet occupation, after the war Milosz served the new Polish government as a cultural attache to its embassy in Washington. Dissatisfaction led him to emigrate to France, in 1951, and then economic difficulties forced him on to the United States in 1961. He became and is still a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. There, no doubt unexpectedly, he found himself in the midst of the Free Speech Movement, revived utopian fantasies, the civil rights movement, and the response to American involvement in Southeast Asia, an action destined to rip the seams of this country’s social fabric. I’d been puzzled by Milosz’ Visions from San Francisco Bay, a collection of essays published in 1969 where, at one point he argues that: “America pushes you to the wall and compels a kind of stoic virtue: to do your best and at the same time to preserve a certain detachment that derives from an awareness of the ignorance, childishness, and incompleteness of all people, oneself included. ‘Of all people.’ I am fed up with dividing people into those few who know and the dull masses who don’t realize what is useful forthem. I have no desire to be one of the elect dragging the masses by force to Utopia. Youth brought up in affluence, masquerading in beggars’ clothing and revolutionary ideas, commands less of my respect than hardworking lumberjacks, miners, bus drivers, bricklayers, whose mentality arouses scorn in the young.” While one can respect these sentiments, at least in terms of their democratic pragmatism, they seem indifferent to the way such figures as S.l. Hayakawa and then Gov. Ronald Reagan used similar “populist” discontent to bolster their right-wing rhetoric. My first glimpse of Milosz was that of a diminutive figure wearing a navy blue Greek seaman’s cap. He was rounding a corner of Linfield College’s Melrose Hall and was flanked elbow to elbow by a contingent of eager students who delivered him into my hands. Milosz was in McMinnville, Oregon, to participate in the college's symposium “Rethinking Our He aspires to a "membership in a human community, of the sort where communion with others comes of a shared set of values and an emotional closeness "—a desire made poignant by his exile and by his refusal to write in English. Human Environment for the 21st Century.” I swung into our conversation by asking him about his views of America, then and now. Why had his writing focussed on that decade’s more superficial aspects of the youth culture while failing to come to grips with the central issues: civil rights and the Vietnam War. Why this quietism? “You see,” Milosz began, “I feel it was wise on my part because this book is still readable today, and it was written in the midst of the whole turmoil. Had I hadn’t such a distance, this book would be just another journalistic account of the period.” “Is that why your essays tend to the theoretical and seldom focus on more immediate, topical concerns such as Central America or South Africa?” I asked. “I feel life is short,” Milosz said, “one cannot cover everything.” “Do you have opinions and concerns about these issues? About Soviet and American foreign policies, for instance?" “Well, I feel that there are some concerns of a citizen which are—I’m an average citizen—and I see no reason to dedicate my energies as a writer to those issues. I have been trying to avoid the label of a political writer. I wrote a book called The Captive Mind. That book has a peculiar story. In 1985 it was a best-seller in Yugoslavia—” “And it was published in 1953—” “Yes, and written in 1951,” Milosz continued. “But after I published that book I was sort of pressed to become a writer in that vein, as a matter of fact to become a teacher of social sciences or something. But I avoided that label. That’s not my line. I’m a poet. One can write one book like that, but not continue.” His desire for normalcy and self-definition, his description of himself as “an average citizen” must be seen in the context of a life that has been one of perpetual exile (from Lithuania and then Poland), of psychological, historical, geographical and political displacement. Significantly, he refuses to write in any language other than Polish, a fact that oftentimes (even in translation) makes his work seem esoteric, restricted, directed toward a specifically East European audience. Other exiled East Europeans, Nabokov, Singer, Solzhenytsin and Kundera, have found themselves cut off from the source of their richest experience, which inevitably has colored, and often diluted their latter writings. Milosz found himself doubly cut off from the old-world milieu of folklore, superstition and provincial paganism. Raised under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, he has since combined these elements to resist what he sees as the onslaught of a technological revolution entirely devoid of anything sacred or spiritually redeeming. Having dissociated himself from Polish Catholicism, Milosz sees in poetry “some remnant of faith in the miraculous.” He has written that he aspires to a “membership in a human community, of the sort where communion with others comes of a shared set of values and an emotional closeness”—a desire made poignant by his exile and by his refusal to write in English. There is a certain resigned humility in the way Milosz deals with all this, a kindly 36 Clinton St. Quarterly