Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052
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 its lack of a definite form.In a certain sense I can consider myself a typical Eastern European. It seems to me that his differentia specifica can be boiled down to a lack of form—both inner and outer. . . . He always remains an adolescent, governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos. Form is achieved in stable societies.
Miosz’s life with its inner and outer chaos mirrors the lives of his fellow intellectuals. The most intimate revelations of these autobiographical essays are of his inner turmoil and search for some degree of metaphysical stability. This book, claims Miosz, “is not one of feelings.” Perhaps it is of choices made and not made. The choices Miosz and his contemporaries made were never abstract. They were not the purely intellectual commitments made by a Westerner who knows that certain rights and traditions support him even if he disdains that legacy. “By choosing,” Miosz laments, “we had to give up some values for the sake of others, which is the essence of tragedy.”
The final two chapters of Native Realm offer the life of Miosz’ friend Tiger as a significant example of the brutal consequences of choice. Miosz attempts to describe Tiger’s inner struggle, knowing that others have vehemently accused the philosophy professor of cowardice, hypocrisy, and a chameleonlike change of attitude. Tiger had two personas, that of lecturer at the Party Institute at Warsaw and that of the leader of a small group of loyal friends to whom he could vent his frustrations and express his true opinions—camouflaged, however, in the form of allegories or parables. Unable to liberate his inner demons by writing them out as his friend Miosz did, Tiger had to be content with his mental games. Believing that man must align himself with historical necessity, Tiger outwardly swam with the current, but he endeavored to keep his inner self free from contamination. He believed that outward deception could still serve the truth, if one did not retreat into total submission. Such a balancing act required a deliberate, self-directed violence that Tiger could not long sustain. After recounting his unexpected death from a heart attack, Miosz states that “Tiger was killed by the game. The heart, too quickly consumed by the game, is unable to keep up with the mind, straining to discern the will of God in the current of history.”
Miosz credits Tiger with keeping him honest by his mockery and sarcastic challenges. Preoccupied with his subterfuges, however, Tiger could never answer the crucial question that Miosz repeatedly asked: What is the responsibility of the writer when the concessions cost too much and the true voice cannot be heard?
It seems that the reader, without even opening the book, must know Miosz’s answer to that question. After all, Native Realm is the work of a noted emigre reflecting upon the causes and situations that led to his defection from Communist Eastern Europe. After completing this memoir, however, the reader is struck by the realization that no final answer to the question has been given. Life in the West did not permit instant inner peace or guarantee artistic integrity. Miosz compares himself to the time traveler in one of Tiger’s parables who finds that he has landed in the past. The same traps (and more) lie in wait for him. Miosz is especially troubled that even in the West his words can be twisted out of context and used as political fodder.
Nevertheless, the final tone of Miosz’s meditations, although resigned and tinged with melancholy, is not lacking in optimism. He is buoyed by a Unamunian faith in the intrahistoria of the land and consoles himself with the thought that those who have suffered much gain understanding and value commitment.
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