Form and Content
In 1951, Czesaw Miosz, the Lithuanian-Polish poet, scholar, and diplomat, defected to the West. Zniewolony umysl (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953) describes the conflict of the artist in a totalitarian society. Utilizing the plight of all intellectuals as a backdrop, Miosz attempted to explain the motives for his defection not only to others but to himself as well. Although the book was a critical success, Miosz, after reading its widely differing reviews and commentaries, realized that many if not most of his readers had misunderstood the book’s central premises because of their inability to penetrate the cultural and historical perspective underlying the essays. Given the typical Westerner’s knowledge of its histories and cultures, Eastern Europe might as well be on another planet. Any cultural awareness in the West of countries such as Poland or Lithuania is, to put it charitably, vague at best. Yet at the core of Miosz’s writings is the insistence that an individual can only be evaluated in terms of his or her cultural heritage and environment. In the introduction to Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, he asserts:Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground, one can focus attention on the background, looking upon oneself as a sociological phenomenon. Inner experience, as it is preserved in the memory, will then be evaluated in the perspective of the changes one’s milieu has undergone.
The times and places of his homeland from his birth in 1911 until the moment when he felt compelled to leave are re-created by Miosz in Native Realm. It is a selective autobiography. Miosz describes only these episodes or personal encounters which he deems of primary importance to his artistic, philosophical, and, not least, political development. Although the narrative consists of chronological chapters, Miosz’s sense of time is also selective. Events and conversations melt into a fluid panorama of past, present, and future. This journey is not simply that of one individual in his own private time and space. It is the journey of a region of the earth which has suffered tremendous crises and change in the twentieth century. Native Realm may be, as its subtitle indicates, an exercise in self-analysis, but, while explaining himself and his generation, Miosz sought to give a history lesson to his Western readers. The book was written not for his compatriots from Eastern Europe but for those who cannot understand the names of the stopping...
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