What Is Good?

What Is Good? Professor Timofey Pnin, the lovably hapless, ‘ideally bald’, comic-heroic émigré protagonist of Nabokov’s novel, thinks the unthinkable: In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind … but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. Vladimir Nabokov and Czesław Miłosz – the Russian novelist, and the Lithuanian Polish poet – were, are, secret sharers: Here, in this garden I held her hand, Her body was like a swallow’s body Fluttering in my palm. Death. And I don’t even know whether it could be said, That she was taken away into darkness by Charon’s boat, Because of barbed wire, abomination, blood. (‘A Warsaw Faust’) Born into the gentry, both idealised a childhood of innocent, sensuous wonder – were forced from their homeland – moved to the States, to teach, like Pnin. They write poetry after Auschwitz (Nabokov, and Miłosz, sometimes, in prose) and cling to the notional sovereignty of art over unspeakable realities. Both were taxidermists. Neither enjoyed music, describing concerts with self-praise of their visual nous: ‘a strange ritual was being enacted’, writes Miłosz, and ‘sound had value only insofar as it set two fields of bows in motion, like wheat bent in the wind’. Resisters of ideological literature, whatever the risk, they exalted close observation, fusing, like Pnin, conscience and consciousness: ‘When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures, / When the letter falls out of the book of laws, / Then consciousness is naked as an eye’. Like Nabokov, Miłosz really had some ego. He could be overtly self-admiring – alert to, and keen to describe, the relentlessness which saw him through. Bravura passages in the work of both writers arrest time, preserving in the amber of style the vanishing nanosecond. However influenced by ‘the pantheistic strain within Lithuanian folk culture’, Miłosz, a friend of Pope John Paul, returned gradually, and idiosyncratically, to Catholicism; Nabokov, like Pnin, appears to have believed, or wanted to, in a ‘democracy of ghosts’ – elsewhere he hints electricity is made of them. The dead abide, even if it is, to apply Simone Weil, their very absence, our need to think of them, which allows them to return. Though Miłosz, Franaszek confirms, ‘luckily, never had to experience prison or transportation’, he had the worse of it – if such things can be measured. (Luck, unstably overhauled as fate, looms large in his life and verse – ‘A Ninety-year-old Poet Signing his Books’ mentions ‘miraculous events / Like the ones that once saved me / From Auschwitz, and also (there’s evidence) / From a gulag miner’s fate somewhere in Vorkuta’.) Born in Szetejnie, in Lithuania, in 1911 (his family considered itself Polish), he lived through both world wars, the Russian Revolution, and the Nazi occupation. History crept up on him: his memoir of 1955, The Issa Valley, depicts a childhood in which – this is Franaszek – ‘nothing much had altered since the nineteenth century … Time was measured by the rhythm of harvesting, with Lithuanian peasants, Polish nobility, Jewish tradesmen, and Russian civil servants bustling alongside each other.’ Miłosz tinges this rather artfully and, one feels, retrospectively constructed paradise with hints of what’s to come: Thomas was very fond of his grandfather. He had a nice smell about him and the gray bristles above his lip tickled his cheek. He lived in a little room where a print showing people tied to stakes, with half-naked men putting torches to the stakes, hung above his bed. One of Thomas’s first reading exercises was to read aloud, syllable by syllable, the inscription: The Torches of Nero. In this way he came to know the name of that vicious tyrant, the name he later gave to one of the pups when the grownups, after examining the pup’s mouth, had said it was bound to be fierce because it had a dark palate. Miłosz desires a moral speech that is both aboriginal and futuristic – that is, as yet unachieved: You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek. I answer that it is proper that we move our finger Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone, And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable, We discover the true dignity of speech. (‘Readings’) The Issa Valley – Miłosz took the name from a Japanese poet – was first published in Polish in 1955, and I wonder if we have, in Nero the pup, the donnée for Miroslav Holub’s poem ‘Napoleon’, about schoolchildren with no idea who he is: ‘Our butcher had a dog / called Napoleon, / says Frantisek. / The butcher used to beat him and the dog died / of hunger / a year ago. // And all the children are now sorry / for Napoleon.’ Yet the verse of Miłosz isn’t as rigorously unclad as the Czech’s – or that of Zbigniew Herbert, whom he translated. The paradox of an unlying art enthrals him. His Treatise on Poetry avers ‘one clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose’; ‘I want not poetry, but a new diction, / Because only it might allow us to express / A new tenderness and saw us from a law / That is not our law’; and he writes in ‘Ars Poetica?’: I have always aspired to a more spacious form that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose and would let us understand each other without exposing the author or reader to sublime agonies. Planished, shapely, and of an enviable gravitas – an authority which isn’t only biographical, but is felt along the lines – this is Miłosz in English. He desires a form that is neither prose nor verse, neither spiritless journalism nor undue embroidery. Franaszek’s capacious biography reveals the origin of this yearning – grounds it. In 1914 the poet’s father, Aleksander, was conscripted as a military engineer. When the Germans took the capital, Czesław and his mother Weronika became itinerant. The boy noticed things, continuously and desperately and impressively: beautiful Cossacks slaughtering a lamb; ‘guns of various caliber, rifles, tents, locomotives (one looked like a gigantic green wasp)’. In the winter of 1917/18, he writes of being awakened in the night by house searches, and he ate ‘bread that contained more sawdust than flour’. The advance of the Red Army broke up the family once again. Returning to Szetejnie, Czesław and Weronika were fired on by an armoured train: I was two people at once: along with the rest of the living contents of our wagon, I spilled into the ditch and crouched there in the sticky mud, praying and sobbing; but at the same time, I did not stop being curious, nor did my senses cease to recollect impressions as keenly as ever … On the bank leading down into the ditch was a tree with protruding roots. Illegal trips between Poland and Lithuania followed; a grenade, chucked through the window of the Miłosz manor, did not explode. The revolution forced upon him a dichotomy which would thoroughly engross his writing. He would be obsessed for the rest of his life by the thought of a brutality which lurks within civilisation, and which may oust at any moment the proprieties we live by. In 1921 the family moved to Wilno. ‘The pavements young Czesław used on his way to school were made of wooden planks, which sagged like piano keys and splashed mud on his trousers.’ They were no longer rich, and he loathed the compensatory boasting of his relatives about their aristocratic heritage. Forced at the gymnasium to interact with other children, Miłosz was stunned and haughty: ‘my flights of imagination were a necessity and a flaw, because I would have given anything to be like the others, equal to the others’. He vowed ‘never to form an alliance with Polish Catholicism … I would not submit to apes’. Yet he was in need of transcendence, for the Darwinian fact of our actually being apes was unbearable: Aleksander liked hunting, but Czesław didn’t. ‘Gradually the realm of nature appeared to me like one big slaughterhouse.’ Aged 13, he wrote verse in classical forms. At university he switched from Polish studies to criminal law. Travelling to France, he was wonderstruck by its cathedrals, and its poverty. On this trip he met his cousin Oskar Miłosz, a lifelong inspiration: the tender mystic whose assuaging theories would, eventually, allow the poet a reconciliation with the Catholicism he never imaginatively disdained. While travelling in Switzerland, Miłosz and his friends concocted a phrase which provides, I think, a handle on the occasionally sentimental, even fanboy, gushing over his verse by Western critics. Franaszek quotes a letter of 12 September 1931 in which Miłosz, following a stay in Switzerland, says that western Europe experiences ‘no tensions or struggle – which are a prerequisite for confronting so many crucial issues’. When he refers to a type of ‘Emmental freedom’ – full of holes, bland to the point of flavourlessness – it reminds me of Seamus Heaney, before converting to Ashberyism, describing the work of that American poet as ‘a centrally heated daydream. And it’s also sorrowful, it knows that it’s inadequate.’ Reading Miłosz, the inadequacy is ours – to contend with, to wriggle out of. ‘Mine … is a piety without a home; it survives the obsessive, annihilating image of universal disjointedness and, fortunately, allows me no safe superiority.’ This is true of the poet, but does it apply more universally, to those sharing in Miłosz’s epiphanies, with the complacency of a WASP teen listening to rap? That his asseverations are hard won is essential to their power: Human reason is beautiful and invincible. No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, No sentence of banishment can prevail against it. It establishes the universal ideas in language, And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice With capital letters, lie and oppression with small. (‘Incantation’) The irony is squeezed into the title: a rhetorical move which also appears in, among other works, ‘Preparation’ and ‘What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch’. This allows the language of the poem to appear unchallenged, or, challenged only by history. Unignorably solid and radiant. A Sri Lankan Tamil – from a background which fuses aspiration with intellectuality, and the idea of civilisation enshrined in (the English) language – I am deeply moved by Miłosz, and feel, if not kin exactly, then in need of his sincerity. Not everyone can afford the pre-emptive irony, the hipster scepticism, which some wear on their breast like Karna’s kavacha. That said, the authority Miłosz craves is perhaps too readily ascribed to him by his acolytes – as if it were a secure possession, under lock and key, rather than a tenuous and momentary foothold. Donald Davie wrote of his shift beyond the ‘lyric’, revealing it to be historically insufficient; Christopher Ricks objected, saying this was true of many. Helen Vendler affirmed the importance of Miłosz to US poets, but also claimed that they shouldn’t, couldn’t, ape what he does: ‘scenes at which he looked with horror will not be seen that way by a child of a young parochial imperium. Americans do not carry in them a thousand years of history.’ In the 1930s, antisemitism flared in Poland. There was a scandal concerning medics only operating on ‘Aryan’ corpses, and when right-wing thugs attacked, Miłosz defended the Jewish students of Wilno University. He was at this time a Marxist who worried, in his own words, that his ‘constant distaste for capitalism would turn out to be my dislike of Nature’; as Franaszek explains, ‘the idea of communism would be a response to these fears – the fulfilling of a dream to conquer the world by reason and step outside the laws of nature’. As a class defector, Miłosz identified, wryly, self-suspiciously (though it’s never clear how much he is talking in retrospect) with Jews: ‘Somewhere in the depths glimmered the thought that my Leftism and theirs was a disguise for our otherness. As they repudiated the ghetto, so I hid away the Grand Duchy of Lithuania among dusty souvenirs.’ In 1932 he dodged conscription; A Poem on Frozen Time, his first collection, appeared the following year. ‘Three hundred copies of this thin, light-brown booklet were produced’: it won awards for its, in the words of Manfred Kridl, ‘very noble kind of outrage’. His second, Three Winters (Trzy Zimy), was published in 1936, when Miłosz was working in radio: Franaszek ascribes to it a prophetic ominousness concerning the next war. He also quotes Ryszard Przybylski: ‘In Miłosz’s early poetry iciness reigns … The way frost freezes a stream of water, eternity stops and solidifies a stream of moments.’ This may appear a riff on his own titles – criticism too dependent on the poet’s own tropes – but it does connect with a rare moment of literary analysis on page 345 of this biography, where Franaszek discusses the ‘condensed’ history of A Treatise On Poetry, published twenty years later. This long poem transmits ‘a series of micro-images’: Chickens cackle. Geese stretch their necks from baskets. In the town, a bullet is carving a dry trace In the sidewalk near bags of homegrown tobacco. All night long, on the outskirts of the city, An old Jew, tossed in a clay pit, has been dying. His moans subside only when the sun comes up. The Vistula is gray, it washes through osiers And fashions fans of gravel in the shallows. ‘To remain aware of the weight of fact,’ writes Miłosz, ‘without yielding to the temptation to become only a reporter is one of the most difficult puzzles … It calls for a cunning in selecting one’s means and a kind of distillation of material to achieve a distance to contemplate the things of this world as they are, without illusion.’ Stylistically, his solution is a poetics of merged time-signatures. The duration of the old Jew’s dying is situated among the cackling of chickens, the movement of geese, the water-patterned gravel. The bullet we see in slow motion, ‘carving a dry trace’ – Miłosz insists that ‘the aesthetic experience’ is central to our being in the world, and also beautifies bullets in his account of the Warsaw Rising. He, his wife Janka, and her mother took refuge in a house which had previously held literary gatherings: From our host’s bookcase I dug out a volume of sociological essays about pre-war Poland, The Young Generation of Peasants, and plunged into its sorry reckoning of my own and my country’s past, from time to time dropping flat on the floor as bullets traced long patterns across the plaster. Is there a hint of vanity? Miłosz wishes to both affirm and dispel what we might perceive as a disparity between atrocity and analysis of it. Translating The Waste Land into Polish, Miłosz remarks that it ‘made somewhat weird reading as the glow from the burning ghetto illuminated the city skyline’ of occupied Warsaw, where samizdat editions of his own Poems (1940) were produced with a cobbler’s needle, chenille thread, and a razor blade to cut the sheets to size. (A shrewd sentence on Eliot: ‘his precision also began to appear to be just a structural device concealing his intellectual uncertainty’.) When Lithuania was absorbed by the Soviet Union that year, Miłosz tried to escape across the border, was turned in by an informer, struck in the face by the Gestapo, and ate his passport as a precaution. Another passport was confiscated when Poland eventually rescinded his activities as a diplomat. In the meantime, he turned to ‘the sparer style of poets ten years his junior’: Tadeusz Borowski, for one, and Krzysztof Baczyński – a poet-soldier killed in 1944 during the Rising, along with his pregnant wife. Franaszek quotes from the news magazine Przekrój Miłosz’s description of these events. It’s spring; he is standing on the balcony, ‘on a beautiful quiet night, a country night’. Then he hears it: They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. This uncomplacent, unsentimental, lyrical prose alludes to Blaise Pascal’s ‘Le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.’ Miłosz simply won’t dismiss the happiness of a protected moment as being unreal, privileged, a lie. In 1943, he published a twenty-poem sequence called ‘The World: Naïve Poems’: obstinately nostalgic, jewel-bright, vignettes. The lines are end-stopped, the sentences are contained, all is tinglingly configured. We sense the historian’s irony, but the detailing of his miniatures exceeds the making of this smug point: Later dense hops will cover it completely. As for now, it has the color That lily pads have in very deep water When you pluck them in the light of a summer evening. The pickets are painted white at the top. White and sharp, like tiny flames. Strange that this never bothered the birds. Even a wild pigeon once perched there. (‘The Gate’) Evanescence, borders, Szetejnie lent the faint odour of hell; ‘Here, at a tiny table, brother and sister / Kneel, drawing scenes of battle and pursuit. / And with their pink tongues try to help / Great warships, one of which is sinking.’ Their unselfconscious concentration is also that of the poet, wishing his urgency could stop tanks and save ships. Helen Vendler compares these poems to, once again, The Waste Land: ‘both spring from the devastation of a world war; but where Eliot shows what was, Miłosz shows what-ought-to-be as an “is”’. When the war ended, Miłosz ‘threw himself zealously into efforts to try to rebuild Poland’s cultural life’: he gave readings, edited magazines, spoke at conventions, and wrote opinion pieces, as well as his only play – Prologue, set in a decimated, greyscale Warsaw. Returning there, to his ruined house, he found a copy of Three Winters wounded by shrapnel. He translated Paradise Lost, among other English classics; published an anthology of English and American verse; and tried to put together an experimental film about Warsaw whose treatment was, however, mauled by the film industry. His next book of verse, Rescue, was a ‘Selected’, 150 pages long, and was published in a run ten times that of his previous collections; reviews were mixed. He was too level-headed, too classical, and the distance between the poet and his masks went over some heads. Miłosz didn’t feel too aligned, either, with US culture when he visited. Separated for years from his family, who moved to the States before him, he bristled at that nation’s tawdriness. Yet his children were born there, and he worked at the New York consulate. From the off, Janka wanted to stay, but Miłosz was repeatedly drawn back to Poland, where he had a solid cultural role, a battle to fight, acquaintances. The ‘centrally-heated daydream’ was unbearable to him; he called it ‘spiritual poverty’, and announced that in America ‘the only living people – the ability to create art is a sign of living – are the Blacks and the Indians’. Atrocity was, for him, the required baptism by fire. It made people cognitively serious, it put them in touch with reality. But it was possible for him to take tea civilly with Eliot, to meet Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy and other big names, on campuses and in New York. ‘People in the West like to live in the heaven of exalted expressions about spirituality and freedom, but hardly ever ask the question as to whether someone has enough money for dinner.’ Those who have suffered, whom history has done dirt on, may press back with loudness, egotism, ecstasies. These affects, qualities, experiences, become saleable, transferable. Miłosz begins his Nobel speech: ‘My presence here, on this platform, should be an argument for all those who praise life’s God-given, marvelously complex unpredictability.’ Miłosz is, perhaps, more Americanised here than he would like to be, in his individualistic defiance – he loved Whitman, after all, and I think of that poet’s declaration: ‘I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, / We convince by our presence.’ The leap from presence, which means personality, to proof of the miraculous, is essential to Miłosz, and alluring, I’d suggest, to any of us washed up on the shore of the present moment by an unutterable combination of the big global forces: war, trade, migration. We’re impure and extraordinary, it seems amazing how we got here: and this applies, of course, to everybody who looks closely enough at their family history. But I do wonder if for us to share readily in Miłosz’s licensed astonishment remains a form of bad faith, or Ketman, the Iranian term he fastened, in The Captive Mind, to the mind-forged manacles of Stalinist communism. This appeared in 1953, following Miłosz’s defection. He had been pushing his luck for some time: publishing, for example, verse alluding to the crimes of the NKVD. Franaszek uses the word ‘Orwellian’ a couple of times – so washed-out by now, meaningless, that adjective does provide a handle on the situation, the verse, and the governmental transformation of the poet into an ‘unperson’. It had become, as Miłosz had it, ‘necessary to be a 100 per cent Stalinist, or not at all … I simply could not stand that ever-growing totalitarian atmosphere there, and that fear of everyone by everyone’. When he fled, he was removed from libraries and encyclopedias: ‘it was Miłosz’s flight that constituted the first major breaking of ranks within Poland’s literary circles’. Adrift, he found support among the non-communist left, and became close friends with Camus. He was writing frenziedly, unstoppably, out of a mixture, I suppose, of ardour and resentment: it was necessary to describe where he came from in order for him, and others, to recognise who exactly Czesław Miłosz really was. The Seizure of Power was published the same year as The Captive Mind, having been composed in three months, so as to be entered for a fiction prize totalling 10,000 Swiss francs. Franaszek is dismissive, he considers it a warm-up effort for The Issa Valley (Miłosz’s prose titles are rather constipated and unvarying, aren’t they?), revealing of ‘haste and dislike for the extended process of novel-writing’. But it was joint winner of the Prix Littéraire Européen: 5,000 francs wasn’t bad, and there were royalties to come. Miłosz also earned a living writing for the BBC on a range of subjects, including ‘an analysis of Nabokov’s Lolita as a pornographic novel’. ‘From 1951 until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had a small readership, and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles written about him … almost three decades after his defection Miłosz was a writer who had resigned himself to the fact that he had failed and would be forgotten.’ Daylight, also published, amazingly, in 1953 (what a year!), only sold 700 copies in four years. The Captive Mind – his best-seller – saw him pigeonholed as a writer on politics, a label he loathed, and was dismayingly approved of by the US right wing. The University of California offered him a job, and he moved there from France, apparently for good. He protested against the Vietnam War yet, by the end of the decade, struggled to sympathise with student radicals who disrupted lectures, practised arson, were tear-gassed, and were, horrifyingly and unhistorically, fascinated by communism. Now he claimed for himself the role of a describer, a ‘faithful chronicler of our times’, nothing else. This was part, if you like, of a prose turn: The Issa Valley, and its stellar reception in Poland, confirmed the approach. A work of clearer, more naked biography, Native Realm, divided critics, some of whom were appalled by their role in the narrative, or their absence from it. Miłosz was writing prose not only about Poland (Settling Accounts on Two Fronts) but also about America (Visions from San Francisco Bay); collections of essays appeared to self-generate – Franaszek’s account (we’re approaching, now, the 400th page) is splashed over with italics. He bigs up the criticism – ‘a very important prose publication, The Land of Ulro, published in 1977, is an essay about the decline of the artistic and religious imagination’ – but I’m not sure if he means important in the grand scale of things, or important to those of us interested in the verse. Miłosz is religious, he believes stolidly, immitigably, in a ‘higher metaphysical bond’ and, more winningly, insists that in the teeth of evil, ‘small grains of kindness remain immune’. Collections began to arrive at regular intervals. On the one hand, Miłosz worked on longer poems – collage-like, segmented, with time-skips – others, however, were minimal, gestures, really. His first English collection appeared only seven years before the Nobel Prize was given him in 1980; his Collected Poems turned up in 1988: ‘nearly thirty years after his arrival in Berkeley, American readers benefited from fuller access to his work and an appreciation of its scale’. Miłosz had also won, by this point, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Neustadt International Prize. He had thought only Poles read him! Now he refused, as best he could, to become Yeats’s ‘smiling public man’. His Nobel speech was extended into six lectures given as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. ‘While readily accepting invitations to readings, lectures and conferences, he shunned the very idea of “media” celebrity.’ He was touched, when it was possible to return to Poland, by the veneration of his work – ‘I never expected young people … to know my poems by heart’ – and was photographed with Lech Wałęsa. Once the Communist Party was pressed to acknowledge and accommodate Solidarity, and commit to a reshaped constitution, Miłosz began to summer in Poland; and when Lithuania left the USSR in September 1991 he could truly go home. The weaker verse, once Miłosz had moved to sunny California, and was too consistently astonished by the incongruity, suffers from the absence, in his own words, of that crucial tension, or struggle. ‘In Common’ was published in the 1991 collection Provinces. In it, the question ‘What is good?’ ripens, becomes substantial – moving from pleasure to morality – ‘What is good? Garlic. A leg of lamb on a spit’; ‘What is good? After a long drive water in a pool and a sauna’. But the poem falters, and there are others like it. Like Heaney, who admired him, Miłosz struggles to reconcile his self-delighting responsiveness with a diplomatic role. ‘I am submerged in everything that is common to us, the living. / Experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh.’ This would appear to refer not to the living but the dead – as if Miłosz, eating and relaxing in the US, were somehow enjoying himself not despite, but on behalf of history’s victims. Over forty years earlier, he had written: Of those at the table in the café where on winter noons a garden of frost glittered on windowpanes I alone survived. I could go in there if I wanted to and drumming my fingers in a chilly void convoke shadows. (‘Café’, from ‘Voices of Poor People’) At least, he would like to believe so – as the Miłosz of ‘In Common’ believes he honours those who didn’t make it by ‘experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh’ – a provocative idea, and a characteristic leaping from sensuous, to sensual, to sexual. ‘Although there were misogynistic strains within me, I have almost converted to feminism, so much do I enjoy the company of women, that special aura that comes from talking to them and sharing wine.’ Reading this biography, one sympathises with Janka – so strong-willed and elusive, succumbing eventually to a tumour of the spine. Miłosz nursed her lovingly; she stuck with him through multiple infidelities, including his ‘compulsion to try to hit on women students’. Such was the libido which Franaszek, like Miłosz, links pretentiously with the poet’s more than usual organic sensibility: ‘It is possible that she did not realise that these social failings were indicative of a core sensuality within him and a hunger for intense, “naked” sensations, unrestrained by conventions.’ But he refused to leave her, even once she became, in his words, ‘physically and mentally … a ninety-five year old’, for the 30-something journalist who inspired Unattainable Earth, published in 1984. Although Miłosz continued to win Polish awards, some were ambivalent. He wasn’t theirs anymore, and there were protests, when in 1993 he was made an honorary citizen of Kraków – despite being Lithuanian. He died there, on 14 August 2004. Seven years later, squabbling marred the instauration of a ‘Year of Czesław Miłosz’; he lived to see contemporary Polish verse turn secular, verbalist, ludic – and experience the inevitable takedowns aimed at the marble bust he had become. So the poet’s own self-scrutiny, tending towards the morbid, could always find its instigating prompt in the outside world, however laurelled he eventually became. From poem to poem, the later Miłosz apologises for bouncing back; insists it’s okay; tells himself, and us, that to survive is no crime, and emits no obligations: ‘No duties. I don’t have to be profound. / I don’t have to be artistically perfect. / Or sublime. Or edifying. / I just wander. I say: “you were running, / That’s fine. It was the thing to do.”’ This no one would gainsay. Yet are we, and Miłosz, fellow citizens? Louis Iribarne wrote in the TLS that, in contrast to US poets, the waste land he depicted was ‘hellishly real’. Yet Lars Gyllensten, in his Nobel presentation, said that though Miłosz was ‘an exiled writer … the physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical or even religious exile applying to humanity in general’. The requirement of the major, the much-awarded poet is that they should appear to speak for, and about, everyone. But the universalising process often creaks: the rhetoric swinges. And there is also the politics of identity, and the authority lent to the twentieth century’s primary victims: wounds which, as in Shakespeare, have, or should have, tongues, and whose utterance is beyond refutation. Miłosz does wish to take us where he has been, but I wonder. Auden said the crack in the tea cup opened a lane to the land of the dead – what if it doesn’t? I think often of ‘Song on Porcelain’, translated by Robert Pinsky: Rose-coloured cup and saucer, Flowery demitasses: You lie beside the river Where an armored column passes.   ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  The ground everywhere is strewn With bits of brittle froth – Of all things broken and lost Porcelain troubles me the most. Miłosz attempts a poetry of happiness, but only in terms of a deliverance from evil. He hopes to reveal once and for all the fragility of civilisation, but seems to me doubtful as to the existence of a reader who is paying attention. The ‘savagery of the struggle for existence is not averted in civilisation’, and only for a few moments can we not take porcelain for granted; in fact, taking things for granted – those necessities we affirm as rights and not privileges – establishes the baseline for artistic creation. ‘For years I used to think about the indecency of all types of artistry, which, in every country I am familiar with, now or in the past, would have been impossible if the fate of the downtrodden and the humiliated were really felt intensely by others.’ One feels, but then one doesn’t. In a sense, we simply have, as Pnin realises, to forget – remember – forget, again. He knows Mira was killed in Buchenwald; and he knows, also, it’s only ‘an hour’s stroll from Weimar, where walked Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Wieland, the inimitable Kotzebue and others. “Aber warum – but why – ” Dr Hagen, the gentlest of souls alive, would wail, “why had one to put that horrid camp so near!”’ © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Cambridge Quarterly Oxford University Press

What Is Good?

The Cambridge Quarterly , Volume Advance Article (2) – Jun 1, 2018

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
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0008-199X
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1471-6836
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10.1093/camqtly/bfy002
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Abstract

Professor Timofey Pnin, the lovably hapless, ‘ideally bald’, comic-heroic émigré protagonist of Nabokov’s novel, thinks the unthinkable: In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind … but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. Vladimir Nabokov and Czesław Miłosz – the Russian novelist, and the Lithuanian Polish poet – were, are, secret sharers: Here, in this garden I held her hand, Her body was like a swallow’s body Fluttering in my palm. Death. And I don’t even know whether it could be said, That she was taken away into darkness by Charon’s boat, Because of barbed wire, abomination, blood. (‘A Warsaw Faust’) Born into the gentry, both idealised a childhood of innocent, sensuous wonder – were forced from their homeland – moved to the States, to teach, like Pnin. They write poetry after Auschwitz (Nabokov, and Miłosz, sometimes, in prose) and cling to the notional sovereignty of art over unspeakable realities. Both were taxidermists. Neither enjoyed music, describing concerts with self-praise of their visual nous: ‘a strange ritual was being enacted’, writes Miłosz, and ‘sound had value only insofar as it set two fields of bows in motion, like wheat bent in the wind’. Resisters of ideological literature, whatever the risk, they exalted close observation, fusing, like Pnin, conscience and consciousness: ‘When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures, / When the letter falls out of the book of laws, / Then consciousness is naked as an eye’. Like Nabokov, Miłosz really had some ego. He could be overtly self-admiring – alert to, and keen to describe, the relentlessness which saw him through. Bravura passages in the work of both writers arrest time, preserving in the amber of style the vanishing nanosecond. However influenced by ‘the pantheistic strain within Lithuanian folk culture’, Miłosz, a friend of Pope John Paul, returned gradually, and idiosyncratically, to Catholicism; Nabokov, like Pnin, appears to have believed, or wanted to, in a ‘democracy of ghosts’ – elsewhere he hints electricity is made of them. The dead abide, even if it is, to apply Simone Weil, their very absence, our need to think of them, which allows them to return. Though Miłosz, Franaszek confirms, ‘luckily, never had to experience prison or transportation’, he had the worse of it – if such things can be measured. (Luck, unstably overhauled as fate, looms large in his life and verse – ‘A Ninety-year-old Poet Signing his Books’ mentions ‘miraculous events / Like the ones that once saved me / From Auschwitz, and also (there’s evidence) / From a gulag miner’s fate somewhere in Vorkuta’.) Born in Szetejnie, in Lithuania, in 1911 (his family considered itself Polish), he lived through both world wars, the Russian Revolution, and the Nazi occupation. History crept up on him: his memoir of 1955, The Issa Valley, depicts a childhood in which – this is Franaszek – ‘nothing much had altered since the nineteenth century … Time was measured by the rhythm of harvesting, with Lithuanian peasants, Polish nobility, Jewish tradesmen, and Russian civil servants bustling alongside each other.’ Miłosz tinges this rather artfully and, one feels, retrospectively constructed paradise with hints of what’s to come: Thomas was very fond of his grandfather. He had a nice smell about him and the gray bristles above his lip tickled his cheek. He lived in a little room where a print showing people tied to stakes, with half-naked men putting torches to the stakes, hung above his bed. One of Thomas’s first reading exercises was to read aloud, syllable by syllable, the inscription: The Torches of Nero. In this way he came to know the name of that vicious tyrant, the name he later gave to one of the pups when the grownups, after examining the pup’s mouth, had said it was bound to be fierce because it had a dark palate. Miłosz desires a moral speech that is both aboriginal and futuristic – that is, as yet unachieved: You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek. I answer that it is proper that we move our finger Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone, And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable, We discover the true dignity of speech. (‘Readings’) The Issa Valley – Miłosz took the name from a Japanese poet – was first published in Polish in 1955, and I wonder if we have, in Nero the pup, the donnée for Miroslav Holub’s poem ‘Napoleon’, about schoolchildren with no idea who he is: ‘Our butcher had a dog / called Napoleon, / says Frantisek. / The butcher used to beat him and the dog died / of hunger / a year ago. // And all the children are now sorry / for Napoleon.’ Yet the verse of Miłosz isn’t as rigorously unclad as the Czech’s – or that of Zbigniew Herbert, whom he translated. The paradox of an unlying art enthrals him. His Treatise on Poetry avers ‘one clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose’; ‘I want not poetry, but a new diction, / Because only it might allow us to express / A new tenderness and saw us from a law / That is not our law’; and he writes in ‘Ars Poetica?’: I have always aspired to a more spacious form that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose and would let us understand each other without exposing the author or reader to sublime agonies. Planished, shapely, and of an enviable gravitas – an authority which isn’t only biographical, but is felt along the lines – this is Miłosz in English. He desires a form that is neither prose nor verse, neither spiritless journalism nor undue embroidery. Franaszek’s capacious biography reveals the origin of this yearning – grounds it. In 1914 the poet’s father, Aleksander, was conscripted as a military engineer. When the Germans took the capital, Czesław and his mother Weronika became itinerant. The boy noticed things, continuously and desperately and impressively: beautiful Cossacks slaughtering a lamb; ‘guns of various caliber, rifles, tents, locomotives (one looked like a gigantic green wasp)’. In the winter of 1917/18, he writes of being awakened in the night by house searches, and he ate ‘bread that contained more sawdust than flour’. The advance of the Red Army broke up the family once again. Returning to Szetejnie, Czesław and Weronika were fired on by an armoured train: I was two people at once: along with the rest of the living contents of our wagon, I spilled into the ditch and crouched there in the sticky mud, praying and sobbing; but at the same time, I did not stop being curious, nor did my senses cease to recollect impressions as keenly as ever … On the bank leading down into the ditch was a tree with protruding roots. Illegal trips between Poland and Lithuania followed; a grenade, chucked through the window of the Miłosz manor, did not explode. The revolution forced upon him a dichotomy which would thoroughly engross his writing. He would be obsessed for the rest of his life by the thought of a brutality which lurks within civilisation, and which may oust at any moment the proprieties we live by. In 1921 the family moved to Wilno. ‘The pavements young Czesław used on his way to school were made of wooden planks, which sagged like piano keys and splashed mud on his trousers.’ They were no longer rich, and he loathed the compensatory boasting of his relatives about their aristocratic heritage. Forced at the gymnasium to interact with other children, Miłosz was stunned and haughty: ‘my flights of imagination were a necessity and a flaw, because I would have given anything to be like the others, equal to the others’. He vowed ‘never to form an alliance with Polish Catholicism … I would not submit to apes’. Yet he was in need of transcendence, for the Darwinian fact of our actually being apes was unbearable: Aleksander liked hunting, but Czesław didn’t. ‘Gradually the realm of nature appeared to me like one big slaughterhouse.’ Aged 13, he wrote verse in classical forms. At university he switched from Polish studies to criminal law. Travelling to France, he was wonderstruck by its cathedrals, and its poverty. On this trip he met his cousin Oskar Miłosz, a lifelong inspiration: the tender mystic whose assuaging theories would, eventually, allow the poet a reconciliation with the Catholicism he never imaginatively disdained. While travelling in Switzerland, Miłosz and his friends concocted a phrase which provides, I think, a handle on the occasionally sentimental, even fanboy, gushing over his verse by Western critics. Franaszek quotes a letter of 12 September 1931 in which Miłosz, following a stay in Switzerland, says that western Europe experiences ‘no tensions or struggle – which are a prerequisite for confronting so many crucial issues’. When he refers to a type of ‘Emmental freedom’ – full of holes, bland to the point of flavourlessness – it reminds me of Seamus Heaney, before converting to Ashberyism, describing the work of that American poet as ‘a centrally heated daydream. And it’s also sorrowful, it knows that it’s inadequate.’ Reading Miłosz, the inadequacy is ours – to contend with, to wriggle out of. ‘Mine … is a piety without a home; it survives the obsessive, annihilating image of universal disjointedness and, fortunately, allows me no safe superiority.’ This is true of the poet, but does it apply more universally, to those sharing in Miłosz’s epiphanies, with the complacency of a WASP teen listening to rap? That his asseverations are hard won is essential to their power: Human reason is beautiful and invincible. No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, No sentence of banishment can prevail against it. It establishes the universal ideas in language, And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice With capital letters, lie and oppression with small. (‘Incantation’) The irony is squeezed into the title: a rhetorical move which also appears in, among other works, ‘Preparation’ and ‘What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch’. This allows the language of the poem to appear unchallenged, or, challenged only by history. Unignorably solid and radiant. A Sri Lankan Tamil – from a background which fuses aspiration with intellectuality, and the idea of civilisation enshrined in (the English) language – I am deeply moved by Miłosz, and feel, if not kin exactly, then in need of his sincerity. Not everyone can afford the pre-emptive irony, the hipster scepticism, which some wear on their breast like Karna’s kavacha. That said, the authority Miłosz craves is perhaps too readily ascribed to him by his acolytes – as if it were a secure possession, under lock and key, rather than a tenuous and momentary foothold. Donald Davie wrote of his shift beyond the ‘lyric’, revealing it to be historically insufficient; Christopher Ricks objected, saying this was true of many. Helen Vendler affirmed the importance of Miłosz to US poets, but also claimed that they shouldn’t, couldn’t, ape what he does: ‘scenes at which he looked with horror will not be seen that way by a child of a young parochial imperium. Americans do not carry in them a thousand years of history.’ In the 1930s, antisemitism flared in Poland. There was a scandal concerning medics only operating on ‘Aryan’ corpses, and when right-wing thugs attacked, Miłosz defended the Jewish students of Wilno University. He was at this time a Marxist who worried, in his own words, that his ‘constant distaste for capitalism would turn out to be my dislike of Nature’; as Franaszek explains, ‘the idea of communism would be a response to these fears – the fulfilling of a dream to conquer the world by reason and step outside the laws of nature’. As a class defector, Miłosz identified, wryly, self-suspiciously (though it’s never clear how much he is talking in retrospect) with Jews: ‘Somewhere in the depths glimmered the thought that my Leftism and theirs was a disguise for our otherness. As they repudiated the ghetto, so I hid away the Grand Duchy of Lithuania among dusty souvenirs.’ In 1932 he dodged conscription; A Poem on Frozen Time, his first collection, appeared the following year. ‘Three hundred copies of this thin, light-brown booklet were produced’: it won awards for its, in the words of Manfred Kridl, ‘very noble kind of outrage’. His second, Three Winters (Trzy Zimy), was published in 1936, when Miłosz was working in radio: Franaszek ascribes to it a prophetic ominousness concerning the next war. He also quotes Ryszard Przybylski: ‘In Miłosz’s early poetry iciness reigns … The way frost freezes a stream of water, eternity stops and solidifies a stream of moments.’ This may appear a riff on his own titles – criticism too dependent on the poet’s own tropes – but it does connect with a rare moment of literary analysis on page 345 of this biography, where Franaszek discusses the ‘condensed’ history of A Treatise On Poetry, published twenty years later. This long poem transmits ‘a series of micro-images’: Chickens cackle. Geese stretch their necks from baskets. In the town, a bullet is carving a dry trace In the sidewalk near bags of homegrown tobacco. All night long, on the outskirts of the city, An old Jew, tossed in a clay pit, has been dying. His moans subside only when the sun comes up. The Vistula is gray, it washes through osiers And fashions fans of gravel in the shallows. ‘To remain aware of the weight of fact,’ writes Miłosz, ‘without yielding to the temptation to become only a reporter is one of the most difficult puzzles … It calls for a cunning in selecting one’s means and a kind of distillation of material to achieve a distance to contemplate the things of this world as they are, without illusion.’ Stylistically, his solution is a poetics of merged time-signatures. The duration of the old Jew’s dying is situated among the cackling of chickens, the movement of geese, the water-patterned gravel. The bullet we see in slow motion, ‘carving a dry trace’ – Miłosz insists that ‘the aesthetic experience’ is central to our being in the world, and also beautifies bullets in his account of the Warsaw Rising. He, his wife Janka, and her mother took refuge in a house which had previously held literary gatherings: From our host’s bookcase I dug out a volume of sociological essays about pre-war Poland, The Young Generation of Peasants, and plunged into its sorry reckoning of my own and my country’s past, from time to time dropping flat on the floor as bullets traced long patterns across the plaster. Is there a hint of vanity? Miłosz wishes to both affirm and dispel what we might perceive as a disparity between atrocity and analysis of it. Translating The Waste Land into Polish, Miłosz remarks that it ‘made somewhat weird reading as the glow from the burning ghetto illuminated the city skyline’ of occupied Warsaw, where samizdat editions of his own Poems (1940) were produced with a cobbler’s needle, chenille thread, and a razor blade to cut the sheets to size. (A shrewd sentence on Eliot: ‘his precision also began to appear to be just a structural device concealing his intellectual uncertainty’.) When Lithuania was absorbed by the Soviet Union that year, Miłosz tried to escape across the border, was turned in by an informer, struck in the face by the Gestapo, and ate his passport as a precaution. Another passport was confiscated when Poland eventually rescinded his activities as a diplomat. In the meantime, he turned to ‘the sparer style of poets ten years his junior’: Tadeusz Borowski, for one, and Krzysztof Baczyński – a poet-soldier killed in 1944 during the Rising, along with his pregnant wife. Franaszek quotes from the news magazine Przekrój Miłosz’s description of these events. It’s spring; he is standing on the balcony, ‘on a beautiful quiet night, a country night’. Then he hears it: They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. This uncomplacent, unsentimental, lyrical prose alludes to Blaise Pascal’s ‘Le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.’ Miłosz simply won’t dismiss the happiness of a protected moment as being unreal, privileged, a lie. In 1943, he published a twenty-poem sequence called ‘The World: Naïve Poems’: obstinately nostalgic, jewel-bright, vignettes. The lines are end-stopped, the sentences are contained, all is tinglingly configured. We sense the historian’s irony, but the detailing of his miniatures exceeds the making of this smug point: Later dense hops will cover it completely. As for now, it has the color That lily pads have in very deep water When you pluck them in the light of a summer evening. The pickets are painted white at the top. White and sharp, like tiny flames. Strange that this never bothered the birds. Even a wild pigeon once perched there. (‘The Gate’) Evanescence, borders, Szetejnie lent the faint odour of hell; ‘Here, at a tiny table, brother and sister / Kneel, drawing scenes of battle and pursuit. / And with their pink tongues try to help / Great warships, one of which is sinking.’ Their unselfconscious concentration is also that of the poet, wishing his urgency could stop tanks and save ships. Helen Vendler compares these poems to, once again, The Waste Land: ‘both spring from the devastation of a world war; but where Eliot shows what was, Miłosz shows what-ought-to-be as an “is”’. When the war ended, Miłosz ‘threw himself zealously into efforts to try to rebuild Poland’s cultural life’: he gave readings, edited magazines, spoke at conventions, and wrote opinion pieces, as well as his only play – Prologue, set in a decimated, greyscale Warsaw. Returning there, to his ruined house, he found a copy of Three Winters wounded by shrapnel. He translated Paradise Lost, among other English classics; published an anthology of English and American verse; and tried to put together an experimental film about Warsaw whose treatment was, however, mauled by the film industry. His next book of verse, Rescue, was a ‘Selected’, 150 pages long, and was published in a run ten times that of his previous collections; reviews were mixed. He was too level-headed, too classical, and the distance between the poet and his masks went over some heads. Miłosz didn’t feel too aligned, either, with US culture when he visited. Separated for years from his family, who moved to the States before him, he bristled at that nation’s tawdriness. Yet his children were born there, and he worked at the New York consulate. From the off, Janka wanted to stay, but Miłosz was repeatedly drawn back to Poland, where he had a solid cultural role, a battle to fight, acquaintances. The ‘centrally-heated daydream’ was unbearable to him; he called it ‘spiritual poverty’, and announced that in America ‘the only living people – the ability to create art is a sign of living – are the Blacks and the Indians’. Atrocity was, for him, the required baptism by fire. It made people cognitively serious, it put them in touch with reality. But it was possible for him to take tea civilly with Eliot, to meet Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy and other big names, on campuses and in New York. ‘People in the West like to live in the heaven of exalted expressions about spirituality and freedom, but hardly ever ask the question as to whether someone has enough money for dinner.’ Those who have suffered, whom history has done dirt on, may press back with loudness, egotism, ecstasies. These affects, qualities, experiences, become saleable, transferable. Miłosz begins his Nobel speech: ‘My presence here, on this platform, should be an argument for all those who praise life’s God-given, marvelously complex unpredictability.’ Miłosz is, perhaps, more Americanised here than he would like to be, in his individualistic defiance – he loved Whitman, after all, and I think of that poet’s declaration: ‘I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, / We convince by our presence.’ The leap from presence, which means personality, to proof of the miraculous, is essential to Miłosz, and alluring, I’d suggest, to any of us washed up on the shore of the present moment by an unutterable combination of the big global forces: war, trade, migration. We’re impure and extraordinary, it seems amazing how we got here: and this applies, of course, to everybody who looks closely enough at their family history. But I do wonder if for us to share readily in Miłosz’s licensed astonishment remains a form of bad faith, or Ketman, the Iranian term he fastened, in The Captive Mind, to the mind-forged manacles of Stalinist communism. This appeared in 1953, following Miłosz’s defection. He had been pushing his luck for some time: publishing, for example, verse alluding to the crimes of the NKVD. Franaszek uses the word ‘Orwellian’ a couple of times – so washed-out by now, meaningless, that adjective does provide a handle on the situation, the verse, and the governmental transformation of the poet into an ‘unperson’. It had become, as Miłosz had it, ‘necessary to be a 100 per cent Stalinist, or not at all … I simply could not stand that ever-growing totalitarian atmosphere there, and that fear of everyone by everyone’. When he fled, he was removed from libraries and encyclopedias: ‘it was Miłosz’s flight that constituted the first major breaking of ranks within Poland’s literary circles’. Adrift, he found support among the non-communist left, and became close friends with Camus. He was writing frenziedly, unstoppably, out of a mixture, I suppose, of ardour and resentment: it was necessary to describe where he came from in order for him, and others, to recognise who exactly Czesław Miłosz really was. The Seizure of Power was published the same year as The Captive Mind, having been composed in three months, so as to be entered for a fiction prize totalling 10,000 Swiss francs. Franaszek is dismissive, he considers it a warm-up effort for The Issa Valley (Miłosz’s prose titles are rather constipated and unvarying, aren’t they?), revealing of ‘haste and dislike for the extended process of novel-writing’. But it was joint winner of the Prix Littéraire Européen: 5,000 francs wasn’t bad, and there were royalties to come. Miłosz also earned a living writing for the BBC on a range of subjects, including ‘an analysis of Nabokov’s Lolita as a pornographic novel’. ‘From 1951 until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had a small readership, and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles written about him … almost three decades after his defection Miłosz was a writer who had resigned himself to the fact that he had failed and would be forgotten.’ Daylight, also published, amazingly, in 1953 (what a year!), only sold 700 copies in four years. The Captive Mind – his best-seller – saw him pigeonholed as a writer on politics, a label he loathed, and was dismayingly approved of by the US right wing. The University of California offered him a job, and he moved there from France, apparently for good. He protested against the Vietnam War yet, by the end of the decade, struggled to sympathise with student radicals who disrupted lectures, practised arson, were tear-gassed, and were, horrifyingly and unhistorically, fascinated by communism. Now he claimed for himself the role of a describer, a ‘faithful chronicler of our times’, nothing else. This was part, if you like, of a prose turn: The Issa Valley, and its stellar reception in Poland, confirmed the approach. A work of clearer, more naked biography, Native Realm, divided critics, some of whom were appalled by their role in the narrative, or their absence from it. Miłosz was writing prose not only about Poland (Settling Accounts on Two Fronts) but also about America (Visions from San Francisco Bay); collections of essays appeared to self-generate – Franaszek’s account (we’re approaching, now, the 400th page) is splashed over with italics. He bigs up the criticism – ‘a very important prose publication, The Land of Ulro, published in 1977, is an essay about the decline of the artistic and religious imagination’ – but I’m not sure if he means important in the grand scale of things, or important to those of us interested in the verse. Miłosz is religious, he believes stolidly, immitigably, in a ‘higher metaphysical bond’ and, more winningly, insists that in the teeth of evil, ‘small grains of kindness remain immune’. Collections began to arrive at regular intervals. On the one hand, Miłosz worked on longer poems – collage-like, segmented, with time-skips – others, however, were minimal, gestures, really. His first English collection appeared only seven years before the Nobel Prize was given him in 1980; his Collected Poems turned up in 1988: ‘nearly thirty years after his arrival in Berkeley, American readers benefited from fuller access to his work and an appreciation of its scale’. Miłosz had also won, by this point, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Neustadt International Prize. He had thought only Poles read him! Now he refused, as best he could, to become Yeats’s ‘smiling public man’. His Nobel speech was extended into six lectures given as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. ‘While readily accepting invitations to readings, lectures and conferences, he shunned the very idea of “media” celebrity.’ He was touched, when it was possible to return to Poland, by the veneration of his work – ‘I never expected young people … to know my poems by heart’ – and was photographed with Lech Wałęsa. Once the Communist Party was pressed to acknowledge and accommodate Solidarity, and commit to a reshaped constitution, Miłosz began to summer in Poland; and when Lithuania left the USSR in September 1991 he could truly go home. The weaker verse, once Miłosz had moved to sunny California, and was too consistently astonished by the incongruity, suffers from the absence, in his own words, of that crucial tension, or struggle. ‘In Common’ was published in the 1991 collection Provinces. In it, the question ‘What is good?’ ripens, becomes substantial – moving from pleasure to morality – ‘What is good? Garlic. A leg of lamb on a spit’; ‘What is good? After a long drive water in a pool and a sauna’. But the poem falters, and there are others like it. Like Heaney, who admired him, Miłosz struggles to reconcile his self-delighting responsiveness with a diplomatic role. ‘I am submerged in everything that is common to us, the living. / Experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh.’ This would appear to refer not to the living but the dead – as if Miłosz, eating and relaxing in the US, were somehow enjoying himself not despite, but on behalf of history’s victims. Over forty years earlier, he had written: Of those at the table in the café where on winter noons a garden of frost glittered on windowpanes I alone survived. I could go in there if I wanted to and drumming my fingers in a chilly void convoke shadows. (‘Café’, from ‘Voices of Poor People’) At least, he would like to believe so – as the Miłosz of ‘In Common’ believes he honours those who didn’t make it by ‘experiencing this earth for them, in my flesh’ – a provocative idea, and a characteristic leaping from sensuous, to sensual, to sexual. ‘Although there were misogynistic strains within me, I have almost converted to feminism, so much do I enjoy the company of women, that special aura that comes from talking to them and sharing wine.’ Reading this biography, one sympathises with Janka – so strong-willed and elusive, succumbing eventually to a tumour of the spine. Miłosz nursed her lovingly; she stuck with him through multiple infidelities, including his ‘compulsion to try to hit on women students’. Such was the libido which Franaszek, like Miłosz, links pretentiously with the poet’s more than usual organic sensibility: ‘It is possible that she did not realise that these social failings were indicative of a core sensuality within him and a hunger for intense, “naked” sensations, unrestrained by conventions.’ But he refused to leave her, even once she became, in his words, ‘physically and mentally … a ninety-five year old’, for the 30-something journalist who inspired Unattainable Earth, published in 1984. Although Miłosz continued to win Polish awards, some were ambivalent. He wasn’t theirs anymore, and there were protests, when in 1993 he was made an honorary citizen of Kraków – despite being Lithuanian. He died there, on 14 August 2004. Seven years later, squabbling marred the instauration of a ‘Year of Czesław Miłosz’; he lived to see contemporary Polish verse turn secular, verbalist, ludic – and experience the inevitable takedowns aimed at the marble bust he had become. So the poet’s own self-scrutiny, tending towards the morbid, could always find its instigating prompt in the outside world, however laurelled he eventually became. From poem to poem, the later Miłosz apologises for bouncing back; insists it’s okay; tells himself, and us, that to survive is no crime, and emits no obligations: ‘No duties. I don’t have to be profound. / I don’t have to be artistically perfect. / Or sublime. Or edifying. / I just wander. I say: “you were running, / That’s fine. It was the thing to do.”’ This no one would gainsay. Yet are we, and Miłosz, fellow citizens? Louis Iribarne wrote in the TLS that, in contrast to US poets, the waste land he depicted was ‘hellishly real’. Yet Lars Gyllensten, in his Nobel presentation, said that though Miłosz was ‘an exiled writer … the physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical or even religious exile applying to humanity in general’. The requirement of the major, the much-awarded poet is that they should appear to speak for, and about, everyone. But the universalising process often creaks: the rhetoric swinges. And there is also the politics of identity, and the authority lent to the twentieth century’s primary victims: wounds which, as in Shakespeare, have, or should have, tongues, and whose utterance is beyond refutation. Miłosz does wish to take us where he has been, but I wonder. Auden said the crack in the tea cup opened a lane to the land of the dead – what if it doesn’t? I think often of ‘Song on Porcelain’, translated by Robert Pinsky: Rose-coloured cup and saucer, Flowery demitasses: You lie beside the river Where an armored column passes.   ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  The ground everywhere is strewn With bits of brittle froth – Of all things broken and lost Porcelain troubles me the most. Miłosz attempts a poetry of happiness, but only in terms of a deliverance from evil. He hopes to reveal once and for all the fragility of civilisation, but seems to me doubtful as to the existence of a reader who is paying attention. The ‘savagery of the struggle for existence is not averted in civilisation’, and only for a few moments can we not take porcelain for granted; in fact, taking things for granted – those necessities we affirm as rights and not privileges – establishes the baseline for artistic creation. ‘For years I used to think about the indecency of all types of artistry, which, in every country I am familiar with, now or in the past, would have been impossible if the fate of the downtrodden and the humiliated were really felt intensely by others.’ One feels, but then one doesn’t. In a sense, we simply have, as Pnin realises, to forget – remember – forget, again. He knows Mira was killed in Buchenwald; and he knows, also, it’s only ‘an hour’s stroll from Weimar, where walked Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Wieland, the inimitable Kotzebue and others. “Aber warum – but why – ” Dr Hagen, the gentlest of souls alive, would wail, “why had one to put that horrid camp so near!”’ © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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The Cambridge QuarterlyOxford University Press

Published: Jun 1, 2018

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