(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In one of the final pages of Native Realm, Miosz remembers words spoken to him in Poland before his defection: “One has the right to escape only if he finds a way to fight.” Fight what? Not any specific ideology or government. Miosz’s essays are not a diatribe against Marxism, a defense of capitalism, or a nationalistic plea for Polish independence. If there is outcry, it is directed against violence, physical violence, and, above all, crimes of violence against the mind. On the other hand, men and women may willingly do emotional and psychological violence to themselves by resisting, at least inwardly. These are Miosz’s heroes.

Miosz believes that the individual, indissolubly welded to his history, cannot be alienated from his heritage and environment. To confess alienation is also to confess a lack of humanity. This opinion is in direct contrast to much Western literature of the twentieth century, in which the alienation of the individual is a dominant motif. Therefore, underlying Miosz’s attempt to explain an Eastern European perspective is the implicit realization that, in the final analysis, it may never be fully understood by a Westerner, but one must at least make the effort.

This inability to comprehend is not merely philosophical or literary. It reveals the very essence of people’s character and perception, which are, in turn, molded by personal and national history. One of Miosz’s principal criticisms of the West, especially of the United States, is that it lacks a sense of history and, consequently, a sense of the tragic. Miosz affirms the Aristotelian belief that the individual can be purified by suffering. Nations can undergo catharsis through historical pain, and no one can deny that Eastern Europe has not passed through the fire. Miosz cannot help but feel resentment toward those who seem to have slipped unscathed through the horrors of the twentieth century. In a telling passage, he describes the outrage he felt upon seeing for the first time the skyline of New York City, standing straight and tall, oblivious to the destruction of others. The inhabitants of New York constituted a personal affront to Miosz because they had no empathy for his own private, inner wars. Behind him lay Warsaw in ruins while Americans, and Miosz among them, enjoyed their trivial pleasures.

This sense of unreality finally drove Miosz back to Poland. It is an ironic turnabout, because if Miosz criticizes the West for its lack of historical perspective, he severely chastises Eastern Europe for its atmosphere of unreality and...

(The entire section is 1052 words.)