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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 places, let alone the time schedule.

Miosz, like a good teacher, tries to start from the simple in order to work gradually toward the complex. The title of the first chapter, “Place of Birth,” should indicate an easy history lesson, but in Eastern Europe, nothing is easy. Even the geography is unstable and deceptive. Miosz, who was born in Lithuania but was educated in Poland and writes in Polish, must interpret the shifting allegiances of a long and troubled history. Vilna (Lithuanian “Vilnius” and for Miosz “Wilno”), a city which is described in minute detail in several essays, can be taken as a prime example. In this hodgepodge of ethnic groups, religions, and national and political affiliations, even the name of the city itself was in dispute.

The contradictions inherent in Eastern European society control the structure of the work. Each essay stresses one piece of the puzzle and endeavors to fit it alongside its neighbors. For example, one of the early chapters, “Nationalities,” deals with the social and ethnic strata of Vilna, especially the situation of the Jews. In a typical progression, Miosz introduces the topic with the description of two Jewish playmates. He then fills in the historical background, explaining why they spoke a different language and went to different schools. The scope of the discussion broadens into an examination of political partisanship, that of the Jews and that of those groups that used prejudice against them for their own political motives. The chapter which had begun in the Vilna/Wilno of the 1920’s ends in the death camps of the 1940’s.

The tone of the work is one of melancholy. It cannot be otherwise for one who has “witnessed much of what Europe prefers to forget, because it fears the vengeance of specters” and who admits that “my first awareness came with war.” From czarist Russia to Nazi-occupied Poland, the first seventeen essays are permeated with the atmosphere of war.

After World War II, Miosz served in the diplomatic corps of the People’s Republic of Poland. After several years in the United States, he deliberately decided to return home. His stay was brief. Realizing that he could not tolerate the intellectual subjugation forced upon him by the Polish-Stalinist government, in 1951 he asked for political asylum in France.

The last two chapters, “Tiger I” and “Tiger II,” revolve around this painful decision, but, characteristically, they are not in any way confessional. Miosz dispenses with his return and departure from Poland in only one paragraph. Instead, he tries to focus on his dilemma by comparing it to that of a friend and mentor who chose a different path.

The Tiger of the final essays, given that nickname because of his ability to pounce on and destroy the arguments of others, was Juliusz Tadeusz Kronski, a professor of philosophy. (In the text, Miosz refers to him only by his nickname. As a result, when Irving Howe reviewed the 1981 reissue of Native Realm in The New York Times Book Review, he misidentified Tiger as Boleslaw Micinski, a philosopher who died in 1943 while still in his early thirties. Howe’s error has subsequently been perpetuated in several other sources.) Although Miosz admired Tiger greatly and considered him a catalyst for his thought and writing, he does not always treat his mentor sympathetically. Tiger was a man who, enamored of mind games, outwardly conformed to the dictates of the Polish government and accepted a university post. Hoping for a “humanistic revolution,” he believed that one must bend to the currents of history. Tiger was the one who stayed, Miosz the one who left. The parallels and contradictions of the two men form a fitting climax to Miosz’s meditations on the paradox of Eastern Europe.

Native Realm

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Until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in late 1980, Czesaw Miosz was a relatively obscure poet-scholar, born in Lithuania, writing in Polish, fleeing a Stalinized Poland in 1951, and settling into a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960. After his departure for the West the Polish Communist regime had proscribed publication of all his writings except a volume of poetry written in 1945, Salvation. For thirty years, the Party censors insisted on his official nonexistence, while his legend as a great poet grew in Poland through private recitations, tapes circulated in nonconformist circles, even illegal publication.

In 1981, the publicity of the Nobel award coincided with the liberalization of Poland’s cultural as well as political life. In June of that year, Miosz returned as a poet-hero to the land he had left in despair more than a generation ago. He became an instant symbol of Polish national pride, joining the small club of native-born immortals that includes Nicolaus Copernicus, Frédéric Chopin, Joseph Conrad, Marie Curie, and Ignace Paderewski. Hundreds of flower-offering countrymen mobbed him at Warsaw’s airport; thousands attended his speeches; twenty-two of his titles are now in sanctioned print in his homeland. Remarkably, this moving illustration of the Lazarus myth is paralleled by Miosz’s most recent literary venture: he has devoted his creative energy the past several years to translating the Scriptures into Polish.

Miosz’s literary career is unusually eclectic. In addition to his autobiography, he has written two novels, The Seizure of Power (1955) and The Issa Valley (1955, reissued 1981); an eloquent tractate against Soviet anti-intellectualism, The Captive Mind (1953, reissued 1981); and a collection of critical essays ranging from Emanuel Swedenborg to modern Russian authors to Simone Weil, Modes of Eccentric Vision (1977). His verse includes such titles as The Light of Day (1953), Treatise on Poetry (1957), The Land of Ulro (1977), and Bells of Winter (1978). The poet Joseph Brodsky, a fellow exile from Russia, has called him “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”

Native Realm is a highly unusual autobiography in its deemphasis of its subject’s personality, its preference instead for choreographing the grim dialectic of power struggles between Poland, Russia, and Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It traces Miosz’s intellectual and emotional education from his roots in Wilno, Lithuania, to his maturation in Poland, travels to Western Europe, underground survival in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II, unhappy service as a minor diplomat from 1945-1950, and agonized decision, in 1951, to exile himself from his East European heritage. The dominant perspective is that of a reflective, long-range lens focusing on theological and ideological debates, historic changes, philosophical observations, psychological nuances, above all the shaping of the author’s complex, profoundly reflective mind. Hardly ever does Miosz permit himself intimately personal revelations, so that the reader is only informed by way of casual parentheses that “my parents had long ago moved away, and I had been doing as I pleased since I was sixteen.” One learns little about his relationships with women, and nothing about his wife and two sons. “This is not a book of feelings,” Miosz explains:... if I were to present a personal history with a purely subjective slant, I would solve nothing because I would be leaving out the most interesting part ... this is not a diary; I am not telling what happened to me from day to day or from month to month... . The frames I cut should be intelligible to a wider audience, not just to framers of Expressionism.

Whether a “wider audience” will welcome republication of Native Realm remains to be seen; the original text sold sparsely, addressed as it was to an intellectual, historically informed audience by a virtually unknown émigré artist-scholar. Yet, the book rewards close attention: it is subtly argued, intensely if quietly felt, powerful in its loyalty to the traditional humanistic values of enlightenment and fraternal understanding, sad in its recall of romantic loyalties to ideologies that have now proved bankrupt.

Miosz stresses his East European roots throughout the book, alluding to himself as no more than “a sociological phenomenon.” His native Lithuania has an old history of being pressed on its Western flank by Roman Catholic Poles, on its Eastern by the Greek Orthodox princes of Moscow and Kiev. In William Shakespeare’s time, the country’s dense forests supplied England with live bears. In the nineteenth century, German universities introduced courses in Lithuanian since it turned out to be the oldest Indo-European language, akin to Sanskrit. By 1911, when Miosz was born and baptized into Roman Catholicism, he was “a child of defeat,” with the Russians dominating all public institutions while Polish and Yiddish were the everyday tongues of the streets and marketplaces.

Shy about describing his own life, Miosz draws vivid portraits of several relatives. One was a libertine, adventurous uncle who tamed bears into becoming his bodyguards and fell in love with the portrait of a beautiful young woman placed in a shop window. She turned out to be a Jewish schoolteacher’s daughter; he married her anyway, despite the strong disapproval of his gentry-Catholic family; their son, Oscar Miosz, became a brilliant linguist and writer who emigrated to France and generously befriended his younger cousin Czesaw in later years, treating him as an honorary “nephew” by virtue of their mutual profession of poetry.

Miosz’s earliest memory dates to 1914, when the Germans beat the czarist occupiers of Lithuania into retreat. A young Cossack, whom the boy had considered his friend, helped ambush and slaughter a little white lamb of which Czesaw was fond. This was his first encounter with “irrevocable unhappiness,” his first “protest against necessity.” He began his childish play in cemeteries, with the graves of Germans covered with blackberry and raspberry thickets, while no one tended the Russian dead.

Miosz waxes sentimental in his description of his native city Wilno, called Wilna by Germans and Byelorussians. Its 200,000 inhabitants were largely Catholic, making it one of the most powerful Jesuit centers in Europe, and attaching it emotionally to Poland. Yet, only the Lithuanian landed gentry accepted Polish culture: the peasantry, stubborn in retaining its Flemish heaviness, mistrusted it. Then there was a large Jewish population, which considered Wilno a Northern Jerusalem; most of them spoke Yiddish, with an emancipated minority—the Litvaks—preferring Russian, almost none Polish. Hence, Wilno had many sectarian schools; even at the university level student organizations separated themselves into Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Byelorussian entities.

Miosz devotes a number of pages to the complex phenomenon of anti-Semitism, insisting upon its subtle occupational, political, religious, and geographic variations. The Polish bias was mainly racial-religious.Yet if ever the object of [the Gentile Poles’] oddly ambivalent feelings were somehow missing, they would be overcome by melancholy: ’Without the Jews it’s boring.’ ... No cabaret could get by without Jewish jokes, and the pungent gallows humor peculiar to cities like Warsaw bears the clear stamp of Jewish popular humor. This symbiosis prevented indifference. At the opposite pole it produced specimens of philo-Semites for whom ... non-Jewish women had no appeal because they were regarded as intellectually inferior.

At the Catholic high school he attended in Wilno, Miosz’s mind was divided between real-life counterparts to the Jesuitical Naphta and humanistic Settembrini of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The former was inquisitorial, ugly, and sexually disturbed. His adversary was an elegantly ironic classicist who inculcated in Miosz a love for the rhythms of poetry. A simpler student would have sided with the benign Latinist, scorned the despotic religionist; not Miosz. His mind disdained shallow affirmations or denials: “... My relationship to [the humanist] could be described as sympathy corroded by mockery, and my relationship to [the Jesuit] as mockery corroded by sympathy.” His propensity was for an uneasy Manichaeanism, misunderstood by most teachers and fellow-students, who regarded him as “a Jew among the goyim.” Miosz’s philosophical and theological position was formed in this struggle to understand conflicting doctrines and mind-sets. He has difficulty elucidating it; perhaps the vague label of “Catholic humanist” would best describe it.

As for Miosz’s political position, it was easier to define by its negations than assertions. He was a consistent opponent of the anti-Semitic, fanatically nationalistic far Right, which dominated the Lithuanian Home Army and both Lithuania’s and Poland’s military forces. He was also contemptuous of the bourgeoisie, while at the same time mocking his contempt as immature self-righteousness. His resistance to reactionary obscurantism drove him toward a rather fluid Leftist allegiance by the time he attended the University of Wilno. He began to publish liberal poems and articles, and associated with arts-loving fellow students most of whom were Polish Jews. By an easy process of osmosis, he even became a Marxist at the University: “... the Marxists not without reason valued the doctrine as the inevitable outcome of a nineteenth-century scientific world view carried to its logical conclusion.” Miosz stresses the significance of the years he attended the University—1930-1935: the worldwide depression’s mass unemployment; Hitler’s seizure of power; and the consequent hardening of ideologies—“... the Right became more and more Fascist, and the Left more and more Stalinist.”

Miosz comments on his position during that time: “My mind worked ... like the mind of an artist. ... It advanced from negation to negation and actually delighted in the contradictions it attempted to resolve... . Long years of theological skirmishes ... had left me with a fondness for fencing with myself.” He was too much the Catholic to accept Russian atheism-materialism; too much the humanist to embrace easily a Popular Front that included Soviet apologists; yet consistently felt nauseated by the rabid patrioteering of the Polish Right. “Happy are they who can avoid radical choices,” he sighs. “My state of mind in those days could be described as the same dream over and over: we want to run, but cannot because our legs are made of lead.”

Miosz devotes a long, thoughtful chapter to a discussion of the traditional differences and dislikes between Poles and Russians. He agrees with Conrad in regarding their tempers as incompatible. Poland’s dominant force is that of the landed gentry, who adopted the ideas, literature, architecture, and craftsmanship of humanist Western Europe, receiving their permanent cultural imprint during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Russia did not get its cultural imprint until the nineteenth century, when it came from the Asiatic East’s absolutism as much as from the West. Miosz endorses the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s aversion to Russia’s “savagery in human relationships, the passivity and apathy of the people in their bondage.” He recalls that Karl Marx favored the Poles, Hungarians, and Serbs as “creative and freedom-loving,” while expressing violent antipathy to the tyranny of Pan-Slavic Russia. Above all, Miosz mistrusts the Russian inclination toward eschatology.

By 1936, Miosz had received his law degree but, disdaining the legal profession, instead obtained a cultural-activities position with a Wilno radio station that was a subsidiary of a Polish network resembling the B.B.C. when the Spanish Civil War erupted, its repercussions cost him his job: a Catholic newspaper accused him of belonging to a Jew-loving, Communist cell; county authorities consequently demanded his dismissal; the local station director fired him. The network’s Warsaw Head Office quickly hired him for its literary section, however, accounting for his presence in the capital when World War II began in 1939.

The agreement that led to virtually immediate hostilities was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed August 23, 1939, in which Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union promised each other nonaggression, and carved Poland’s territory into respective zones of influence. This event shocked millions of left-wingers by its cynical betrayal of their opposition to Nazism. While the German blitzkrieg conquered Poland, Miosz experienced a “mixture of fury and relief... . The nonsense was over at last. That long-dreaded fulfillment had freed us from the self-reassuring lies, illusions, subterfuges.” Later he adds, “... in my heart I could not regard National Socialism as a durable phenomenon ... it was too pure an evil.”

The war years in Warsaw liberated his thought and poetry. He made close studies of Western poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and T. S. Eliot, received small sums from the underground resistance, and filled a typewritten literary journal with anti-Nazi articles. Miosz managed to publish his own poetry in volumes printed on ditto sheets, sewn together by hand, and circulated through the underground structure. He tried to obey the advice given by Martin Luther when asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow: “I would plant apple trees.”

Miosz’s “apple trees” included a number of essays on novelists and philosophers. “They filled more than a private need,” he assures the reader: “They were read at clandestine gatherings where they provoked serious discussion.” He also compiled an anthology of resistance poetry, prepared a new translation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and generally led an active intellectual life.

Toward the end of the war, he became an intimate friend of a remarkable personality, the philosopher-poet Juliusz Tadeusz K., nicknamed “Tiger.” “Tiger” was a subtle, Hegelian dialectician who masochistically and sardonically allied himself with Soviet policy as the locomotive heading for an irrevocable future. He taught philosophy in both Paris and Warsaw, but, after a journey to Moscow in 1950, he returned “livid with fear,” yet afraid to remove his mask of Stalinist apologist, playing “with the absurdities of official doctrine like a juggler tossing balls into the air.” Thereafter, he retreated into reading Marcel Proust and Friedrich Hegel. “Tiger” died of a heart attack in 1958.

Miosz was caught in the tragic Warsaw Uprising of August, 1944, saved from transportation to a concentration camp by the ministry of a “majestic nun,” unknown to him, who persuaded German soldiers to release him to her custody as her “nephew.” He never saw her again. From then on, as he reflects on the ashes of Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz, his pages grow increasingly mournful with news of, and meditations on, torture and corruption, death and apocalypse.

From 1945 to 1950, he served in Washington, D.C., as a cultural second secretary of the Soviet-dominated “Embassy of People’s Poland.” The post sickened him: he wondered why he, a poet who refused to join the Communist Party, “warranted the privilege of being sent to America.” On his desk lay a letter from Polish relatives of a Siberian prisoner in a labor camp, asking for a food package; in Manhattan he encountered a former Warsaw actress who giggled when she told him of her husband’s horrible death when he had run up to a German tank loaded with dynamite. It is no wonder that he felt guilty outrage in the land of orange juice, milk shakes, and new shirts; that he “walked the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles as if I were an anthropologist privileged to visit the civilizations of Incas or Aztecs.” He identifies only with the blacks—they, like Europeans, “were alive, tragic, and spontaneous.”

Miosz felt he had to try once more to live in Eastern Europe. He returned there in the fall of 1950, “because for my despair to come to a head I needed to see for myself Poland’s Stalinist nightmare.” He does not relate the details of his final disillusionment; it is enough that he quickly broke with the Communist regime and moved to France. There he exposed Stalinist doublethink in The Captive Mind, only to wince with embarrassment when this work was misinterpreted as knee-jerk anti-Communism by right-wing United States reviewers. As usual, the scrupulous and subtle mind of a poet-historian had been inadequately apprehended.Many of my contemporaries may regard such thrashing about as the neurotic unhinging of a modern Hamlet. Their jobs and their amusements prevent them from seeing what is really at stake. I was not a philosopher. Events themselves threw me into my century’s towering philosophical pressures, into the vortex of its hardest and most essential questions. Perhaps these exceeded my grasp, but they mobilized all my energies.

In this concluding paragraph, Miosz resigns himself to being misunderstood.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

Contoski, Victor. “Czesaw Miosz and the Quest for Critical Perspective,” in Books Abroad. XLVII (Winter, 1973), pp. 35-41.

Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksander Fiut. Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987.

Gillon, Adam, and Ludwick Krzyzanowski, eds. Introduction to Modern Polish Literature, 1964.

Haas, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, 1984.

Howe, Irving. “The Moral History of Czesaw Miosz,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (February 1, 1981), pp. 3-24.

Miosz, Czesaw. The History of Polish Literature, 1969.

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