In the three years since Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, a number of his books have been published, including previously untranslated works, reissues of books long out of print, and new works—for Milosz, now in his seventies, is still active as a writer. In 1982, Visions from San Francisco Bay appeared in English for the first time, while the novel Zdobycie wladzy (1953; The Seizure of Power, 1955), long out of print, was reissued with an introduction by the émigré Polish poet Stanislaw Baraczak, who discusses the book’s reception in Poland in 1980.
Although the bulk of Milosz’s poetry remains to be translated, both Milosz the poet and Milosz the essayist and novelist (he has written only two novels, both of which have been translated) are well-represented in English. Published in Polish over several decades, Milosz’s books are appearing in English (and in many other languages) all at once, and the reader with no knowledge of Polish is now in a position to arrive at his own judgment of one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
Milosz is a man of many contradictions. He is a highly unorthodox Christian (in an earlier time, he would have been called a heretic), who believes that one day God will restore His creation to perfection, reconciling to Himself all men who have ever lived, saints and sinners alike. Citing precedents, he writes: “So believed: St. Gregory of Nyssa,/ Johannes Scotus Erigena, Ruysbroeck and William Blake.” He has also written that “the decision to go to church on Sunday, if only because the neighbors are going, because it is proper to do, and what not . . . , might represent an adequate act of faith to God, who is surely endowed with a great sense of humor.” His every statement of faith is flanked by confessions of doubt, unknowing, and despair. An arcane poet, he nevertheless devotes much of his attention in the 1981-1982 Charles Eliot Norton lectures which make up “The Witness of Poetry” to the diseases which afflict poets who separate themselves from “the great human family.” Exiled from his native land for more than thirty years, he has continued to write in Polish—a decision which, until recently, has denied him both the readership and the acknowledgment he has merited. Yet there is about him nothing of the stifling inwardness and increasing narrowness of vision characteristic of the writer cut off from his natural audience.
All of these contradictions and more are evident in Widzenia nad Zatoka San Francisco (Visions from San Francisco Bay), which first appeared in Polish in 1969, issued by the émigré publisher in Paris under whose imprint virtually all of Milosz’s works have appeared since he broke with the Communist regime in Poland in 1951. Like many of Milosz’s books, this unified collection of more than thirty brief essays is difficult to categorize. It is one of those countless books, too various to constitute a clearly defined class, which confront the malaise of twentieth century man. It also fits in several more specialized and well-defined genres. It is a European’s view of America; it is (like books as diverse as Carey McWilliams’ Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, 1946, and Raymond Dasmann’s The Destruction of California, 1966) a book about California which attempts to grasp the spirit of the place. Finally, it is a book about “the Sixties”—probably the only one in that crowded genre in which Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse, LSD, The Berkeley Barb, and other phenomena of the period are analyzed in the light of the Manichaean heresy and illuminated by references to Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Robinson Jeffers, and Blaise Cendrars.
One can see most clearly how these overlapping concerns bear on one another in an essay entitled “On a Certain Illness Difficult to Name,” the essay to which the reader might turn first to sample the flavor of the collection. The “illness” in question is the malaise of twentieth century man: “Let it be called alienation,”...
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