Czesław Miłosz Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Czesław Miłosz 1911–

Polish poet, essayist, novelist, and translator.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania and now resides in the United States. An early preoccupation with the history, politics, and landscape of his native country matured into a philosophy of poetry which Miłosz characterizes as the "consciousness of an epoch." Considered one of Poland's greatest poets, Miłosz also attained world-wide attention with his study of the effects of Communism on creativity, The Captive Mind. Miłosz won the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Karl Jaspers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The essays of Czeslaw Milosz, brought together in a volume entitled "The Captive Mind," constitute at the same time a significant historical document and analysis of the highest order. Enslavement of spirit under totalitarian regimes is manifested outwardly in turns of expression, gesture, and daily conduct and inwardly by perceptible transformations in the individual. (p. 13)

Here is true discernment of issues usually regarded under the stark alternatives of falsehood and truth, betrayal or resistance. In astonishing gradations Milosz shows what happens to men subjected simultaneously to constant threat of annihilation and to the promptings of faith in a historical necessity which exerts apparently irresistible force and achieves enormous success. We are presented with a vivid picture of the forms of concealment, of inner transformation, of the sudden bolt to conversion, of the cleavage of man into two. We see through his essays, the monstrous result and the monstrous confusion of the totality of this world; we see the actualization of a thing which seems to Western man impossible and hence difficult to imagine. We obtain an inkling of the alteration of man under totally new conditions, where life is lived in mutual distrust and suspicion, in ruthless conflict among pretenders, in enacting roles, in identification with these roles. (pp. 13, 30)

Insofar as it describes specific experiences, though no names are given, the book is to be classed with those of the "renegades" who have broken with their regime and now offer their revelations. The distastefulness of such unmasking is relieved by the instruction they afford, for only a participant can know the impulses he experienced and be in position to teach us the elements. In the case of Milosz, the...

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Dwight Macdonald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "The Captive Mind" Milosz's] theme is the state of mind that causes intellectuals to submit to and even welcome Communism and, once they have done so, the desperate shifts and twists and turns they use to adapt themselves to an ideology that makes it almost impossible for them to continue to create…. He is writing about just that group of intellectuals one would think the Communists would have the greatest trouble controlling—those in the East European satellite nations. Their counterparts in the Western world can still have illusions because they don't have to live with the reality….

"The Captive Mind" is written with wit and eloquence and … is both original and penetrating…. [However, it] is not a personal narrative, full of growing doubts, heroic defiances, and ultimate redemption. It is not an exposé, for the author is so lacking in journalistic savvy that he uses pseudonyms for the eminent Polish literary converts to Communism whose case histories he gives. Nor is it one of those emphatic, encyclopedic, and neatly organized works that clearly and decisively settle the question once and for all. Milosz's book represents, instead, an unfamiliar and rather antiquated form—the speculative essay. It is too bad the form is not more popular, since it is admirably suited, because of the scope it allows for the tentative, the complicated, and the contradictory, to precisely the use it is here put to, which is analyzing the ambiguity of the intellectual's reaction to Communism in power…. Except for Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism,"… I know of no study of the totalitarian mentality as subtle and imaginative as this one. (p. 173)

Dwight Macdonald, "In the Land of Diamat," in The New Yorker (© 1953 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 38, November 7, 1953, pp. 173-82.

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We can see [men reconciling themselves to Communism] in "The Seizure of Power," but we can also see something that is both more comprehensible and more terrifying—the dreadful erosive effect of misery and despair. In this brief, episodic novel, Milosz carries a group of characters from the summer of 1944, when the Red Army had pushed the Wehrmacht back to the Vistula, to the summer of 1945….

In "The Captive Mind" and now, even more powerfully, in "The Seizure of Power," Milosz appeals to the West to try to understand the people of Eastern Europe. Having lived in the United States, he knows how impossible it is for Americans to imagine the agony of Warsaw. In this unpretentious, unemotional, carefully fashioned little novel, he has managed to suggest not, of course, the actual agony but, somehow, the quality of the experience. It is an amazing and heartbreaking achievement.

Granville Hicks, "Agony and Temptation," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1955, p. 5.

Michael Harrington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Seizure of Power is a difficult book to discuss—and must be approached on several levels. For it lies, I think, somewhere between the two pure types of the art-dominated and the politics-dominated book. It is part journalism, part poetry, and part novel….

The central problem is to explain the relationship of intellectuals and artists to the Communist movement…. In analyzing their relation to Communism, Milosz is subtle and brilliant….

If his novel were simply a political roman a clef one would judge it a complete success.

But The Seizure of Power intends to be more than this. It does not succeed, yet the very attempt, the fact that this is not simply an allegory, increases its value immeasurably….

[The] artist constantly intrudes upon the ideologist. There are the insights, the snatches of humanity, the dimension deeper than politics, yet this quality is not sustained; it is not the informing principle of the book. One feels that the necessities of the ideas still predominate and form the main pattern of motivation. In this sense, The Seizure of Power fails of its full intention….

There is not that greatness which comes from the wedding of theme and act in Milosz's book; but it is still a sensitive, probing work, far better than most political novels, of somewhat imperfect realization but of significant intention and worth.

Michael Harrington, "Humanity and Ideology in the Novel," in Commonweal (copyright © 1955 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 14, July 8, 1955, p. 356.

Lillian Vallee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Miłosz's poetry] is not readily accessible and … requires a great deal of elucidation via other texts, preferably Miłosz's own; his essays or nonfiction prose …, for example, can be extremely illuminating reading. I would like to propose that this essay, a brief analysis of the novel The Valley of Issa (Dolina Issy, 1955), be considered as yet another oblique angle of approach to Miłosz's poetry…. The "deeply pessimistic Manichean vision" which constitutes the metaphysical underpinning of the novel is simultaneously one of the deepest and darkest currents in Miłosz's work as a whole. It is the sobriety of this vision that I would like to throw into relief, not only because it is essential to understanding Miłosz's brand of existential despair, but because cognizance of this darker strain in his writings should act as an antidote to some of the critical ecstasy that has tended to falsify the proportions of Miłosz's work by depriving it of its tensions and estheticizing its content. (pp. 403-04)

The Valley of Issa is a seemingly autobiographical novel depicting the Lithuanian countryside of the author's childhood as seen through the eyes of the child-protagonist Thomas. It is, ostensibly, the story of the boy's initiation into adulthood….

The world which surrounds the boy is an exotic northern landscape of trees, lakes, birds and wild forest creatures. And it is the valley, the valley of the river Issa, which is the real protagonist of the novel: dolina, the concave, the feminine principle of birth and renewal, the glory of paradise and the law of annihilation. It is Thomas's changing attitude toward Nature (and toward himself as part of it) which constitutes the real action of the novel. The Nature we know is not the Paradise of Adam and Eve…. [This] is Nature the second time around, that is, Nature as part of an order in which man's instincts follow the iron rules of survival. It is both a buffer which provides refuge from the infinite space beyond, and a part of the cosmic order which makes no concessions to man's notion of his own worth and importance.

The ambivalent role of Nature as an innocent but nevertheless obedient vehicle of a ruthless order accounts for the duality inherent in the existence of the human individual: man has a body, which is subordinated to certain physiological laws, and an inner self (formed by culture?) which is the source of a separate, ethical identity…. If Nature is our enemy and we are a part of her, then the enemy is within, and whatever weapon we choose will carry the germ of our own destruction….

Miłosz openly admits [in the poem "The Accuser"] to being "a secret taster of Manichean poisons." Manicheanism, after all, offers a more rationalistic (in comparison with Catholic dogma) answer to the question, unde malum? What, or perhaps who, is the source of evil and suffering?… According to the Manicheans (followers of Mani, 217-75 A.D.), the Devil created the universe and man. God the Father is in Heaven, not on earth, and there is no interpenetration of realms through the Holy Spirit, no grace. God is absent from the world and is anti-Nature, for matter cannot be sanctified.

If the world is in the power of the devil, then man and Nature are defenseless executors of his laws. In The Valley of Issa this kind of Manichean doom, the inability to overcome the evil inherent in existence, to avoid being the instrument of Necessity, is represented by the most compelling figure in the novel, Balthazar, a forester who shoots and kills a man whom he encounters on his preserve. He cannot grasp the reason for the murder any more than he can understand the workings of the alien force which has him in thrall. His actions are external to his sense of himself … and opposed to it, and he engages in self-destructive rage against the immutable necessity which has dictated these conditions. But he can change nothing, cannot rid himself of the conviction that he is damned, and his struggle ends in death and complete surrender. (p. 404)

Miłosz pleads an eloquent case for the defenselessness of Nature and man and repeats the point time and time again in The Valley of Issa…. This presentation of man and Nature as helpless and innocent executors of the brute laws of Necessity is certainly heretical by standards of Roman Catholic dogma, because it denies free will and the power of grace (at least as far as man is concerned). But before we tie Miłosz to the stake, we should underline the fact that his concepts of man's duality and Nature's ambivalence are slippery fish and that his Manicheanism is mitigated by an unusual (though not incompatible) admixture of pagan and Christian elements.

One aspect of this...

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Louis Iribarne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading Milosz for the first time, even in translation, is a little like reading a poet who, at one and the same time, would combine something of the early Auden and the Eliot of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, minus the self-allusiveness of the former and the sometimes bookish wisdom of the latter.

The blending of private and public voices, the imaging of lyrical response to historical events, set off by a distinctly modern irony and a classical strictness of form, established the Milosz style—and his reputation as a major poet—as early as in his second volume, published in Poland immediately after the war and now reproduced in [Utwory Poetyckie: Poems]….


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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Political catastrophe has defined the nature of our century, and the result—the collision of personal and public realms—has produced a new kind of writer. Czeslaw Milosz is the perfect example. In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.

Translation of his early work, collected in Selected Poems, is foremost a poetry of loss and aftermath. A more recent collection, Bells in Winter, reaches toward a poetry of recovery. The basis...

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Jonathan Galassi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Milosz's] entire effort is directed toward a confrontation with experience—and not with personal experience alone, but with history in all its paradoxical horror and wonder.

Such an ambition could only be conceived, let alone undertaken, by a writer who has been immersed in history; and Mr. Milosz, far more than most writers of our time, has witnessed some of its cataclysmic events. (p. 14)

The translations in "Bells in Winter," made by Mr. Milosz in collaboration with Lillian Vallee, reveal a voice that is unadorned and discursive, yet capable of powerful (and delicate) poetic effects; it is a voice that works through traditional forms to transform and revivify tradition. The...

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Alfred Corn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in Bells in Winter] give the impression that they have been brought to completion against overwhelming odds. Historical, biographical, and temperamental forces militated against their being written….

No translation ever conveys much of the real poetic power of the original. The poems translated here sound like English, which is in itself a notable achievement. The pity is that they cannot sound like Polish; therefore no decisive conclusions can be reached by the present reviewer about the poems as verbal artifacts. (p. 406)

[It] is suffering and righteous anger that most often inspire Milosz to write. One can infer that he is drawn to a saintly ideal, secular and...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems in Bells in Winter, interspersed with prose, are of several kinds: philosophical, science-oriented, historical, surreal, phantasmagoric, satirical, Western American or Eastern European in their landscapes. Christianity and war hover in the background; not infrequently, the setting is academia, with its own little wars. At times, this is pleasant enough middle-of-the-road poetry…. [One poem, "Ars Poetica?",] has the urbane tone of a civilized man speaking to his equals, but there is not much real poetry in it: sophisticated conversation must, to rise into poetry, become fiercely emblematic, unexpectedly archetypal. (pp. 49-50)

At other times, the tone is more visionary: "We were...

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Clive Wilmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Experience has taught [Milosz] the practical uselessness of poetry, yet he is still prepared to countenance a public role for it as a medium of truth-telling. The accurate use of language: that in itself is a salutary aim if we are not to be doomed to repetitions of our history.

Milosz's earlier poetry had been apocalyptic in tone, earning him the nickname 'catastrophist'. When his countrymen retreated from their capital, his view of things subtly changed.

When we were leaving the burning city,
On the first field path, turning back our eyes,
I said 'Let the grass cover our footprints.
Let the harsh...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading "Native Realm" [Czeslaw Milosz's autobiography] when it first came out in 1968, one recognized that, politics and Europe apart, [the author's] life was radically different from anything an American or even West European could know. In sensibility and memory he was profoundly connected to that strip of land where Poland and Lithuania meet, a patch of Eastern Europe neglected by both modern history and industrial civilization. (p. 3)

Being an East European—though very much not a Russian!—meant for Milosz that even in Europe he felt himself to be an "outsider."… Susceptible to the myths of his native realm yet soon learning to despise the claustral nationalisms [of Eastern Europe, Milosz]...

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Harold B. Segel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the world came to know Milosz as the gifted defector whose prose works bared the dilemmas of conscience faced by intellectuals in a Communist society, the reader of Polish has been aware of a poet of the first magnitude considered by many, in fact, as the foremost Polish poet of this century. Beginning with the characteristically apocalyptic volumes of the 1930's, A Poem in Time Frozen (1933) and Three Winters (1936), Milosz has never ceased being a poet and it is as a poet that we must come to know him better….

Selected Poems at least affords a preliminary acquaintance. The subject range is broad, but certain concerns become recurrent: the hardship of reconciling appearance...

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Paul Zweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "The Captive Mind," [Milosz] described members of the Polish intelligentsia who, under the pressure of Communism, had edited themselves into a standard model of hopefulness and brotherhood. Their reasons? Physical fear, to be sure, but also fear that history would leave them behind as mere litter, mere individuals. Today we read "The Captive Mind" as something more than a political document. It is also a parable of the human struggle to become a particular self, to resist overwhelming force, to ignore the honeyed call to solidarity in the name of revolution, church or state….

In America, his "Selected Poems" became available in translation in 1973, and since then his reputation here has slowly...

(The entire section is 735 words.)