Legends of Modernity

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In Legends of Modernity, a young Czesaw Miosz explores the sources of World War II in the literature and art of the modern era. Written between 1942 and 1943, the essays and letters in this book resulted from Miosz’s attempts to both explain and escape the nightmare of Nazi occupation through writing. In his note to the 1996 Polish edition, he describes using calm, intellectual prose as a way to distance himself from the war’s anguish. In addition, he was also trying to understand why Europe had succumbed to the nightmare of World War II. The result is a highly articulate and penetrating study of the relationship of creativity to political extremism, a book that, while unpublished until 1996, formed the foundation for his classic essay collections such as Zniewolony umys (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953), Emperor of the Earth (1977), and Zaczynajc od moich ulic (1985; Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections, 1991).

When World War II began, Miosz was twenty-eight, an accomplished poet, and a broadcaster for Polish State Radio in Warsaw. After Poland fell to the German Blitzkrieg, he escaped briefly to his home city of Wilno on Poland’s eastern frontier, but when the Soviet Union captured Wilno, Miosz returned to Warsaw. There he joined the resistance movement and for a while made a living transferring books from the bomb-damaged French Institute to the University of Warsaw library. As he saved the books, he read many of them, and this immersion in French literature became the centerpiece of Legends of Modernity.

Nonetheless, the collection’s first essay is “The Legend of the Island,” a critique of a British novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). With this essay, Miosz begins the overarching thesis of Legends of Modernity: that modern literary concerns resulted in the immoral excesses of fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism. In Robinson Crusoe, there is the metaphor of the island as a place isolated from society and all its problems. The salvation portrayed in the novel is individual rather than societal, revealing literature’s growing obsession with unchecked individualism. Also present in Robinson Crusoe, from Miosz’s point of view, is the immorality of viewing people of a different race as separate and dispensable entities, the alien “other” or outsider, as found in Crusoe’s lack of emotion at the murder of his faithful servant Friday toward the novel’s end.

The next three essays, which form the book’s core, focus on French literature and the evolution of modernism as represented in the works of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and André Gide.

In “The Legend of the Monster City,” Miosz use Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911) to explore the myth of the modern city as Leviathan. In this monstrous metropolis, the old religious basis for morality gives way to the modern belief that a human is simply an amoral animal seeking personal survival and gain. Thus, Balzac’s nineteenth century Paris becomes a place of alienated individuals competing against one another in a capitalist frenzy.

“The Legend of the Will” drives Miosz’s thesis deeper with Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898). For Miosz, the novel’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the prime model for the “strong man,” a character type who pursues his desires with a driving will that possesses no moral compass except victory and can only be stopped by violent death or execution. Miosz sees in Sorel echoes of Napoleon, and by way of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s admiration for Stendhal, ultimately one of the influences on Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Miosz also discerns a literary line beginning with Stendhal that threads its way through the works of Fyodor Dostoevski and Gide, with dire consequences for European culture.

Gide serves as the central figure for the next essay, “Absolute Freedom.” Miosz argues that this French novelist, with his complete adoration of Nietzsche, is the epitome of modern literature’s dangerous fixation on the irrational, the intuitive, and the realm of the unconsciousall of which lead directly to rise of fascism, and by a more circuitous route, revolutionary Marxism. Miosz explains that Gide’s urge...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 16 (August 15, 2005): 900-901.

Library Journal 130, no. 17 (October 15, 2005): 56-58.

The Nation 282, no. 2 (January 9, 2006): 26-30.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 33 (August 22, 2005): 53.