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Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) Kris Van Heuckelom (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) Poet; Essayist; Political writer. Active

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004)

Kris Van Heuckelom (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

Poet; Essayist; Political writer. Active 1930-2004 in Poland; United States; France; Lithuania

Perhaps no writer’s trajectory more aptly reflects the dramatic events in 20 th -century East-Central Europe than the literary career of Polish Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz. His biography encompasses almost a whole centenary: as a witness of both World Wars, the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust, Miłosz experienced first hand some of the most tragic calamities of our times and survived the ravages of several totalitarian regimes. Not surprisingly, after Miłosz ended up in exile in the early 1950s, one of the primary concerns of his writings became to diagnose the forces that have shaped post-Enlightenment Europe and its ideological offshoots throughout the 20 th century.

Czesław Milosz was born June 30 1911 at the estate of his Polish family in Szetejnie (currently Šeteniai), located about 60 miles northwest of Vilnius, presently the capital of Lithuania and then a thriving center of Polish and Jewish culture. Founded by his great-grandfather in the 1830s, the family property on the Niewiaża river bank was part of a multilingual and multi-religious region that had fallen under Russian czarist rule at the end of the 18 th century as a result of the partitions of Poland. Both his father Aleksander and his mother Weronika (née Kunat) sprang from local families of lesser nobility that gradually lost their privileged status and turned into intelligentsia. While his ancestors on the maternal side lived north to the provincial town of Kiejdany (Kėdainiai) and maintained good relations with Lithuanian locals, his father originated from the more southern district of Wędziagoła (currently Vandžiogala) and represented a Poland-oriented cultural and political option.

Due to the professional occupations of his father (an engineer in Russian service), Czesław Miłosz spent part of his early childhood years in Central Russia. In 1917, during one of those voyages, Miłosz’s younger brother Andrzej was born (in a provincial town on the Volga bank). Perpetuated by the turmoil of WWI and the Russian Revolution, the family’s peregrinations back and forth between the Baltic region and Russia would leave the future poet with a lifelong awareness of the transience of existence. According to the poet’s personal accounts, this period of military and revolutionary upheaval received a much-needed counterbalance in the early post-war years which he spent at the family estate in Szetejnie, nestled in an idyllic setting of gardens, meadows and forested hills along the Niewiaża river. Home-taught in Polish by his mother, the young Miłosz combined passionate explorations of the local wildlife and nature with an early interest in reading.

From 1921 onwards, Miłosz lived in Wilno (now Vilnius), at the time an urban melting pot of languages, religions and ethnicities (with a particularly large Jewish community). Unlike Miłosz’s native Kiejdany district

– which after WWI found itself within the confines of the newly established Lithuanian state – the city of

Wilno became part of the Second Polish Republic. In 1929, after finishing high school education at the Sigismund August Gymnasium, Miłosz entered law school at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno. An active member of various literary societies, he made his official debut as a poet in the 1930 issue of the university magazine Alma Mater Vilnensis. Less than a year later, he acted as one of the founding editors of the local literary magazine Żagary (Ember, 1931–1934) that was to become the mouthpiece of the so called Catastrophist movement. In their juvenilia, Miłosz and his fellow poets combined a sense of apocalyptic desolation with a harsh critique of social, economic and ethnic policies in interwar Poland. Along with a series of politically inspired columns published on the pages of Żagary, Miłosz’s first book of poems, Poemat o czasie zastygłym (Poem on Time Frozen, 1933), is perhaps most characteristic of these outspoken leftist and anti-nationalist views. The early 1930s also marked Miłosz’s acquaintance with future members of the postwar intellectual and artistic elite (such as Jerzy Putrament, who would become a leading figure in the cultural politics of Soviet-occupied Poland after WWII).

Another city that had a decisive impact on Miłosz’s early artistic and intellectual formation was Paris. After graduating from law school in 1934 and having obtained a one-year scholarship from the National Culture Foundation, Miłosz left Wilno and moved to the capital of France (a city he had already visited during a short trip to Western Europe in 1931). Apart from learning French, Miłosz took classes in philosophy, frequented French art collections and attended literary events. Most crucial, however, in Miłosz’s Parisian period were his regular contacts and discussions with his distant relative, the well-known French poet Oscar Vladislas de Lubicz Milosz. If the poetry of the latter left little or no formal traces in the works of his younger “cousin”, then his influence in terms of ideas and world view would turn out to be much more enduring. The poems Miłosz wrote in Paris constituted the main frame of his second volume of poetry Trzy zimy (Three Winters, 1936). The overt political undertones and the avant-gardist features of Miłosz’s debut now gave way to mysterious, sonorous and at times inflated evocations of a world struck – or destined to be struck – by catastrophe. More than one Polish literary critic hailed the author of Three Winters as one of the most promising poets of his generation.

After his return from Paris, Miłosz was employed as a literary programmer at the Polish Public Radio, first in its Wilno branch, then from 1937 onwards in Warsaw (where he was to meet his future wife Janina Dłuska). At the outset of the war Miłosz was transferred to Romania, along with other employees of the Polish Radio. After spending a couple of months in Bucharest, he managed to return to the city of Wilno. Upon the occupation of Lithuania by Soviet troops in the summer of 1940, Miłosz fled to Nazi-occupied Warsaw where he reunited with his future wife Janina and engaged in the activities of the literary underground. The wartime years which Miłosz spent in the Polish capital had a significant influence on his evolution as a writer. Whereas the younger generation fully embraced the poet’s prewar catastrophism, Miłosz distanced himself from the legacy of (post)symbolism and began to seek a less emotional and more impersonal mode of poetic expression. Anglo-Saxon poetry, which Miłosz discovered while working at the university library in occupied Warsaw, became an important source of inspiration. Its first remarkable traces can be found in two poetic cycles Miłosz wrote in 1943 (at the time of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis): Świat (Poema naiwne) (The World (A Naive Poem)) and Głosy biednych ludzi (The Voices of Poor People). Whereas the first work reads as

a collection of nursery rhymes (inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Pan Tadeusz and William Blake’s Songs

of Innocence) and remains remote from the harsh wartime reality, the latter realizes the author’s pursuit of detachment by lending his voice to “poor” individuals who try to survive (both physically and mentally) the wasteland of Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

After WWII, as a result of which Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence, Miłosz started serving in the diplomatic corps of the Polish People’s Republic, initially in the United States (1945–1950). Upon a short visit to Europe in 1949, however, the poet became terrified at the pace and degree of ideological terror that swept Poland in the heydays of Stalinism. Shortly after his transfer to Paris in 1950 (where he was appointed 1 st

Secretary at the Polish Embassy), Miłosz decided to seek political asylum in France. Ostracized both by the government of “People’s Poland” and by a significant part of the Polish émigré community, Miłosz began to collaborate with the Paris-based Polish publishing house Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute) and its monthly review Kultura (Culture). In opposition to the authoritative Polish circles in London (where the Polish government in exile had its seat), Kultura’s publisher and editor in chief Jerzy Giedroyc relied on a small but committed team of collaborators who critically evaluated both the nouveau and the ancien régime (the Polish People’s Republic on the one hand and the political constellation of interwar Poland on the other).

Apart from regularly contributing to the pages of Kultura (on literary and political issues alike), the exiled Miłosz tried to make a living as a prose writer. Along with financial and private problems (his wife Janina and his two infant sons had stayed behind in the US), Miłosz’s rupture with the Polish People’s Republic marked a period of personal distress and artistic doubts. Some relief was offered when two of his prose books, the novel Zdobycie władzy (The Seizure of Power, 1953) and the essay collection Zniewolony umysł (The Captive Mind, 1953), gained international acclaim. Whereas the first book presents a fictional account of the Communist takeover of power in Poland, The Captive Mind contains an in-depth analysis of various survival strategies practised by Polish intellectuals inside the Communist system (with not-so-subtle references to the ideological trajectories of such authors as Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Andrzejewski, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, and Jerzy Putrament). The international publishing success of this book turned Miłosz – nolens volens – into a well-known public expert on Communism.

In 1959, another nonfiction book written primarily for the Western market appeared at Giedroyc’s Literary Institute in Paris, namely the autobiographical collection of essays Rodzinna Europa (Native Realm). Intended as a manual for Westerners about East Central Europe, the book departs from the author’s turbulent biography in order to present the region’s differentia specifica and to give a sociological and psychological profile of its inhabitants. In the meantime, Miłosz increasingly tried to get rid of the label of being a political author and wished to further his poetic vocation. The 1955 novel Dolina Issy (The Issa Valley) marked Miłosz’s gradual departure from political concerns and a return to his poetic roots. Partly autobiographic (in the sense that it revolves around people and events from Miłosz’s native district in the Niewiaża valley), the novel portrays the coming-of-age of a young hero (Tomasz) against the backdrop of ethical and metaphysical issues, in particular the boy’s disenchantment with the primeval world of nature as a domain of indifferent cruelty.

Two years later, Miłosz published the monumental Traktat poetycki (A Treatise on Poetry, 1957), an ambitious attempt to reintroduce more intellectual forms of poetic discourse into contemporary Polish literature. Combining an impersonal didactic tone with elements from the author’s biography, Treatise on Poetry sets out with a versified overview of 20 th -century Polish poetry against the background of crucial historical events. In the poem’s subsequent sections, Miłosz elaborates further on his profound distrust of history and nature, unmasking both forces as indifferent agents of destruction that operate under a disguise of feigned progress and innocence. Together with the earlier Traktat moralny (A Treatise on Morals, 1948) – an ironic exposure of Marxism and its Polish devotees – A Treatise on Poetry deepened Miłosz’s fascination with Anglo-Saxon Modernism (especially T.S. Eliot) and marked his aspiration “to a more spacious form / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose” (as he would later call it in the prose poem Ars poetica).

In 1960, upon his appointment as a lecturer at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Miłosz and his family left France and settled in Berkeley. While combining his academic duties with a wide variety of literary endeavors, Miłosz increasingly engaged in the promotion of Polish literature in the Anglo-Saxon world, not only as a translator of postwar Polish poetry (especially Zbigniew Herbert), but also as the author of the academic textbook The History of Polish Literature (1969). In the meantime, he continued his collaboration with Giedroyc’s Literary Institute, publishing on a regular basis poetry, essays and translations. Remarkably, instead of breaking out of the narrow confines of Polish language and literature, Miłosz decided to stick to his Polish mother tongue, although both geographical and ideological

distance separated his works from the official literary life of “People’s Poland”. As a result, Miłosz – officially declared “an enemy of the People’s Republic” – conducted much of his postwar creative work in considerable artistic and intellectual isolation. One of the few Polish writers in exile who would turn into Miłosz’s intellectual interlocutors was the novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz (who wrote for Kultura as well).

In 1974, Miłosz released his ninth poetry collection Gdzie wschodzi słońce i kędy zapada (From the Rising of the Sun), including a long eponymous poem which he considered to be his magnum opus. Undoubtedly the most radical realization of the poet’s aspiration to a “more spacious form”, From the Rising of the Sun reads as a fragmented and stylistically diversified collage of original and borrowed texts, including excerpts from old encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as references to various religious, philosophical and literary sources (most notably the works of William Blake). Paradoxically, Miłosz’s poetics of fragmentation (making the speaking subject a part of events far removed from his own living experience) ultimately aims to reveal and restore the wholeness of existence (which is exemplified by the author’s fascination with the theological concept of apokatastasis). Similar thematic issues rise to the surface in Ziemia Ulro (The Land of Ulro, 1977), a volume of essays that can be read as Miłosz’s intellectual autobiography. The author’s main concern is to examine what happened to Western civilization in the aftermath of the Enlightenment (with a particular focus on the gradual disappearance of religious imagination and the coinciding rise of materialistic worldviews). The book is informed by Miłosz’s fascination with the spiritual legacy of his “uncle” Oscar V. de L. Milosz (especially his metaphysical treatises Ars Magna and Les Arcanes) and other visionary spirits such as Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake. Miłosz’s turn to religious themes found additional confirmation in his increasing interest in the Holy Scripture and his decision to make new Polish translations of several Bible books (which inclined him at an advanced age to learn Ancient Greek and Hebrew).

The relatively marginal position of Miłosz as a Polish poet in exile started to changed in the early 1970s, with the release of an American edition of selected poems (partly in Miłosz’s own translation). Formal recognition came when the poet was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978. After his formal retirement in the late 1970s, Miłosz remained settled in Berkeley where he continued some of his Slavic literature classes. In the fall of 1980, to the amazement of many, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, for the “uncompromising clear-sightedness” with which his poetry “voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts”. In the aftermath of the award, Miłosz’s position in his home country drastically changed. The awarding of the Nobel Prize coincided with the rise of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. Milosz visited Poland in 1981, after a break of more than thirty years. From then on, state-supported publishing houses began to accept his postwar poems and essays and released several reprints. Remarkably, amidst the social and political upheaval that shook the People’s Republic in the early 1980s, Miłosz’s Nobel Prize cast him in the role of a moral authority – a role which he did not want to embrace, although he would eventually become a forceful voice in Polish public debates (especially after his return to Poland in the 1990s).

Throughout the 1980s, in spite of the poet’s advanced age and a range of family-related problems, his persistent creative drive resulted in a series of new volumes of poetry and essays. After the death of his first wife in 1986, Miłosz married the American academic Carol Thigpen. When the Communist regime collapsed, his visits to Poland became more frequent. He eventually settled in Kraków (although he retained his house in Berkeley as a winter residence). An ardent opponent of any kind of nationalism, the aged Miłosz now actively engaged in establishing friendly neighbourly relations between Poland and Lithuania. In the spring of 1992, after Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union, Miłosz managed to pay a long-awaited visit to his “native realm” on the Niewiaża bank. After the founding of the Czesław Miłosz’s Birthplace Foundation in Šeteniai in 1997, a modest exhibition and conference center was installed in the renovated White Granary, the only building that remained at the family estate after almost fifty years of Communism.

Although Miłosz remained active in the Polish literary life even after the turn of the millennium, the final years

of his life were marked by grief and tragedy (in particular after the untimely death of his second wife). Increasingly struck by physical dysfunctions and old person’s diseases, Miłosz died in his Kraków apartment on August 14, 2004 and was buried at the nearby Pauline Monastery (in the crypt of St. Stanislaus the Martyr Sanctuary). Significantly, the preparations for the burial ceremony did not proceed without controversy, mainly because of persistent protests related to Miłosz’s past as a Communist diplomat and his allegedly ambiguous relationship to Polishness and Catholicism.

With a literary career that spanned more than seven decades, Miłosz’s literary output is massive and diverse at the same time. Together with fellow poets such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, Miłosz has contributed considerably to the international acclaim of Polish poetry in the postwar period. A recipient of numerous literary prizes, cultural awards and academic distinctions and translated into more than forty languages, Miłosz is considered to have exerted substantial influence on contemporary Polish and American poetry alike. Moreover, along with other collaborators of Kultura, he has become one of the towering figures of the “Polish school of essay” and has significantly contributed to the development of the genre in postwar Polish literature.

Miłosz’s work has often been described, not the least by the poet himself, in terms of unresolvable contradictions and ambiguities. Its best-known example is the oxymoronic concept of “ecstatic pessimism” which Miłosz used to employ when referring to his incessant lingering between the opposite poles of anxiety and hope. Originally destined to become an ecologist, Miłosz soon came to realize that the world of nature is governed by a horrible logic of devouring and being devoured. While his readings of Charles Darwin and Arthur Schopenhauer did nothing but confirm these suspicions, the poet’s work never stopped asking the fundamental question about the origin of evil. It partly explains why the Catholic Miłosz often left the path of orthodox Christianity and ventured into realms of spiritual heterodoxy (such as Manicheism, Gnosis and Kabbalah). Moreover, a child of the 20 th century and its outrageous history, the author of The Captive Mind always remained doubtful about the ultimate goodness of human nature. Yet, instead of wallowing in despair, Miłosz combined his skeptical mind with an unusual sensitivity for fleeting instances of beauty. As such, the “ecstatic” part of his poetry is often set in an epiphanic mode and derives its force from utmost sensual descriptions of delightful experiences of being. Characteristically, these particular moments of enchantment often intertwine with recollections of the idyllic time Miłosz spent at the family estate in Szetejnie in the early interwar years.

Similar ambiguities pervade another field of tension that is central to Miłosz’s poetry, namely the author’s love-hate relationship with confessional writing. Reluctant to reveal his own “I”, Miłosz used to hide behind literary masks and became known for masterly employing a wide variety of costumes and styles. Characteristically, however, whereas his work has often been defined as “post-lyrical” (ironic, polyphonic), Miłosz’s late poetry increasingly tends to treat the author’s personal intellectual and biographic trajectory as an exemplification of human experience in the 20 th century. This close bond between the individual and the collective has gained particular resonance in Miłosz’s prolific output as an essayist, as it engages with the most important critical and ideological discourses of our times and incessantly keeps looking for sense and meaning in a post-utopian and post-secular world that is increasingly becoming deprived of its cultural memory.

Citation: Van Heuckelom, Kris. "Czesław Miłosz". The Literary Encyclopedia. 9 October 2011. [http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=3128, accessed 29 November 2012.]

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