Some years ago I became familiar with the 1980 Nobel prizewinning poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). I began to collect his books of essays and poems. Recently I read his biography by Andrzej Franaszek edited and translated from the Polish by Aleksandra and Michael Parker.
Milosz lived through the tumults of the twentieth century in one of the most dangerous parts of Europe. He began his life during the First World War when his family were part of Czarist Russian Lithuania and retreated east to escape the German Army. Before World War Two he was educated in Catholic schools and graduated from university in 1934 with a law degree. He worked for Polish Radio and fled Warsaw for Rumania in 1939 when the Germans invaded. Working his way back to Warsaw he managed to survive in order to write despite the atrocities and dangers of the Warsaw Uprising and the Ghetto genocide. In 1945 he managed to obtain a position with the Polish Diplomatic Service and was posted to New York and then Washington as a cultural attache despite not being a Communist. In 1950 he was made First Secretary at the Polish Embassy in Paris and in 1951 sought political asylum. Many Polish emigres denounced him as a communist stooge and he had to prove his credentials through his writing. He published The Captive Mind which described the seduction of Stalinism for the intellectual class in Poland through a series of literary portraits. For the rest of the fifties he eked out a meagre existence through his writing for various publications and the BBC in Paris. In 1960 he moved to San Francisco to become Professor of Slavic Languages at the University of California at Berkeley. He experienced cultural shock and depression by his new environment far different from Europe. It was not until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 at age 69 that his work became universally recognized. Hitherto his writing in Polish was proscribed in Poland. He was able to return home to visit and was feted for expressing the angst of his generation and nation. In 2000 he moved to Krakow where he died and was buried in Skalka, a crypt belonging to the monastery of the Pauline Fathers in close proximity to many of Poland’s major artists.
In contrast to many intellectuals he was pessimistic in appraising life because he had experienced the power of Evil. He believed passionately in the Devil because he had seen his face in the Nazis and in the Soviets. He was discouraged by his students at Berkeley who were indifferent toward Christianity. In teaching Dostoevsky he came into serious conflict with them when he openly acknowledged the existence of good and evil, which they dismissed as reactionary. “They took it as given that human behavior was governed by certain social and psychological ‘determinants,’, that, in other words, all values were relative. Just so, Russian intellectuals of the last century shifted moral responsibility onto the ‘environment’: change the society and you change the man. And it was precisely this denial of individual responsibility that Dostoevsky took as depressing proof of Christianity’s decline among educated Russians.”
Milosz wrote about the meaning of history, the existence of evil and suffering, the transience of all life, the ascendance of a scientific worldview and the decline of the religious imagination. He denounced, not only the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism, but also Western liberalism because of its complacence and spiritual vacuity when confronted with totalitarian evil. He offered constant prayer to God because he realized that he was lost without Divine help. He was aware of his sinfulness and the fallenness of the world and maintained that the most important thing in life was Redemption. He discussed all these matters in a correspondence with Thomas Merton.
In his Nobel acceptance speech he offered a perspective on the twentieth century from one whose destiny was “to descend into the ‘heart of darkness’”, to experience life at first-hand under totalitarian movements whose victims ran into millions. When he gave a series of lectures at Harvard in 1981 he described how a writer’s survival depended on his or her ability to cope with “every kind of pessimism, sarcasm, bitterness, doubt for globally people were being continually confronted with a reductive, materialist interpretation of the world. What was necessary was a spiritual awakening and a radical turning-away from the world-view marked principally by biology.”
Since this Sunday is Pentecost celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, here is his poem Veni Creator.
Come Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lift its hands only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me – after all I have some decency –
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.
Also his poem Powers.
Though of weak faith, I believe in forces and powers
Who crowd every inch of the air.
They observe us – is it possible that no one sees us?
Just think: a cosmic spectacle and absolutely no one?
There is proof, my consciousness. It separates itself,
Soars above me, above other people, above earth,
Obviously kindred to those powers,
Able, as they are, to see with detachment,
Whether they help us, harm us, under what conditions,
Or whether they are allowed only to see, who knows.
They laugh or feel pity. In that they are quite human
But also superhuman, for neither a day nor a year
Nor a century will encompass them……