On Czesław Miłosz: Visions from the Oth­er Europe

  • Review
By – February 19, 2024

Nobel lau­re­ate Czesław Miłosz wrote dozens of books and hun­dreds of essays in his life­time, most of which were at least in part auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. In his verse and prose alike, he explored such themes as the World Wars (both of which he lived through, hav­ing been born in 1911), the effects of total­i­tar­i­an­ism on the individual’s psy­che, and the Holo­caust. Giv­en the laud­ed poet’s prodi­gious out­put, as well as the mul­ti­ple biogra­phies that’ve been pub­lished in the twen­ty years since his death, one may won­der what is left to be writ­ten about his life and work.

Eva Hoff­man answers this ques­tion with her lat­est book, On Czesław Miłosz. Her most com­pelling insights come when she uncov­ers par­al­lels between the tan­gled post­war ironies” that shaped her own life and those that shaped Miłosz’s. Both writ­ers were exiles from total­i­tar­i­an Poland — the oth­er Europe” — and their encoun­ters with West­ern atti­tudes and ide­olo­gies con­tain lessons that remain rel­e­vant today.

Miłosz had lofty goals for poet­ry. To be a poet, he believed, was to trust one’s inner com­mand, to risk every­thing to express truth. What is poet­ry which does not save/​Nations or people?/A con­nivance with offi­cial lies,” he wrote soon after World War II, when the Com­mu­nists came into pow­er in Poland. The young Miłosz had left­ist sym­pa­thies and stood with the Com­mu­nists against the racism and anti­semitism that had plagued his home­land for gen­er­a­tions. How­ev­er, his com­mit­ment to his inner com­mand” would make writ­ing in a total­i­tar­i­an state impos­si­ble. He sim­ply could not bend to the demands of the regime, which silenced any voice of which it did not explic­it­ly approve. To pre­serve his integri­ty, he fled to France in the ear­ly 1950s and was grant­ed asylum. 

Miłosz set­tled in mid-cen­tu­ry Paris, whose vibrant intel­lec­tu­al milieu was presided over by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir. One would expect that Miłosz, a free thinker, would quick­ly find his place among the famed exis­ten­tial­ists; but in fact this meet­ing among intel­lec­tu­als was nei­ther hap­py nor fruit­ful. Sartre and his cir­cle prid­ed them­selves on their Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies, and the pres­ence of a defec­tor from Utopia was not some­thing they were pre­pared to for­give. Miłosz found him­self in Paris a pari­ah among intel­li­gentsia.” The poet was espe­cial­ly angered by his ostra­ciza­tion because he had spent years fight­ing fas­cism, both with words and active resis­tance. (For his courage in sav­ing Jews dur­ing the war, Miłosz would be hon­ored by Yad Vashem as Right­eous Among the Nations). Ana­lyz­ing the Parisian intel­lec­tu­als’ rejec­tion of Miłosz, Hoff­man writes, For Sartre and his faith­ful fol­low­ers, their pro Sovi­et- sym­pa­thies and fas­ci­na­tion with Chi­nese com­mu­nist were a form of ide­o­log­i­cal pos­tur­ing with­out costs or con­se­quences. For Miłosz, his impos­si­ble choic­es were pro­pelled by head-on col­li­sions with hard, con­se­quence-bear­ing realities.” 

Hoff­man, who emi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca with her Holo­caust sur­vivor par­ents in the 1950s, goes on to recount her own col­li­sion with ide­o­log­i­cal puri­ty in the West. As a stu­dent at Har­vard in the 1960s, she felt her immi­grant rage” rise at fel­low stu­dents’ pro-Sovi­et sym­pa­thies. Worse than her peers’ naiveté about Sovi­et-imposed Com­mu­nism was the patron­iz­ing scorn direct­ed at her when she offered up her own per­spec­tive, which was informed by actu­al lived expe­ri­ence. In this brief anec­dote from Hoffman’s life, we again note the con­trast between the ide­o­log­i­cal pos­tur­ing” of rad­i­cal­ized West­ern­ers liv­ing far from the line of bat­tle, and the hard, con­se­quence-bear­ing real­i­ties” of those whose lives have been upturned by history. 

The human being,” Miłosz writes, is a mam­mal that pro­duces moral­i­ty and law just as beets pro­duce sug­ar.” Today’s read­ers might find this faith in one’s intrin­sic moral sense to be quaint, or even delu­sion­al. But Miłosz’s earnest and uncom­pro­mis­ing ded­i­ca­tion to his per­son­al code of ethics is pre­cise­ly what makes his sto­ry so fas­ci­nat­ing today. In his most famous book, The Cap­tive Mind, he depicts Pol­ish intel­lec­tu­als play­ing dan­ger­ous games with their own minds, mas­sag­ing their think­ing to fit the needs of a regime. For any­one con­cerned about pro­tect­ing them­selves from the pow­er­ful allure of group­think and ide­o­log­i­cal pos­tur­ing today, Miłosz’s com­mit­ment to per­son­al integri­ty pro­vides a com­pelling les­son. His life and work, as revealed by Eva Hoff­man in this sen­si­tive study, warns us of the strange pow­er of ide­ol­o­gy to influ­ence our per­cep­tions of real­i­ty,” and asks us whether it might be pos­si­ble to devel­op an inner moral com­pass to guide us through these dif­fi­cult times. 

Basia Wino­grad, a New York City – based writer and film­mak­er, teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Hunter College.

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