Originally published in the January 2018 issue of First Things.
Milosz: A Biography
by Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap, 544 pages, $35
The impression left in the mind of an American reader, after he finishes Andrzej Franaszek’s exhaustive new biography of Czesław Miłosz, is how absurd it is that this man was ever considered a political sage. A great poet, yes. A generous translator of other Polish poets, absolutely. His tireless efforts to make American poetry less provincial by lending his famous name to anthologies of world poetry, not just European but Asian and Latin American, remain underappreciated to this day. But his reputation as a Cold War dissident was accidental and was neither deserved nor welcomed by the poet himself.
Miłosz made only one venture into the world of politics, and that under the oddest of circumstances. The Captive Mind (1953) was written during an in-between period for Miłosz, after he defected from Poland but before the American government had decided to grant him a visa. Denunciations of Miłosz by earlier Polish émigrés had flooded the State Department, leaving the Americans reluctant to help such an unpopular man who, after all, had worked for Poland’s Communist government until the day before yesterday. The Captive Mind therefore had something of the character of an audition.
Jerzy Giedroyc, the well-connected publisher who presided over the Polish émigré community in postwar Paris, confessed years later that he considered The Captive Mind “a false book.” All that stuff about Murti-Bing pills and Ketman overcomplicated what was really a simple matter. Writers collaborated with the Communist regime out of “the usual fear and opportunism.” He nevertheless accepted Miłosz’s manuscript for publication because he thought it would be politically useful. It would give future defectors an alibi, casting their decision to collaborate as a tragic spiritual confusion instead of simple cowardice. It would also endear Miłosz to the Americans.
It worked. Miłosz came to the United States in 1960, just in time to observe a decade of campus unrest from his front-row seat in the Slavic studies department at the University of California, Berkeley. Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement hurled epithets like “Nazi” and “Eichmann” at every authority figure who resisted them, from university president Clark Kerr to campus police. Rather than call out their ridiculous comparison, Miłosz honored a student strike by canceling two days of lectures, the only professor in his department to do so. As he explained in a letter to a friend in 1966:
I support what is, in essence, opposition to crimes of homicide. . . . The horrors of Vietnam can only be interpreted by reading reports from American pilots (who are unaware that what they write about is, in European eyes, an atrocity that almost puts Hitlerism in the shade).
He considered their fascination with narcotics stupid and their defenses of the Soviet bloc uninformed, but ultimately Miłosz’s criticism of the student radicals was that of a sympathetic ally. He agreed with them that American culture was materialistic and shallow. “The spiritual poverty of millions of the inhabitants of this country is horrifying,” he had written on his first visit to New York in 1947, when he was still working for the People’s Republic of Poland as a cultural attaché. This firmly held opinion prevented him from ever becoming an enthusiastic crusader for the free world.
The Captive Mind took on a life of its own, joining Darkness at Noon and 1984 on the shelf of twentieth-century anti-totalitarian classics, but Miłosz was never comfortable with his role as a cheerleader for the capitalist West. Susan Sontag lamented that she had first become aware of Miłosz not because of his poetry, but because “very reactionary right-wing groups” were using his book to provoke “anticommunist hysteria.”
Reluctance to get involved in Cold War politics almost prevented Miłosz from embarking on the best work of prose he was ever associated with, a book superior to The Captive Mind in every sense, political and literary. It is a genre popular in Eastern Europe but unknown elsewhere: the “spoken book,” a manuscript-length transcript of conversations between a literary eminence and a younger interviewer, usually a protégé. The eminence in this case was Aleksander Wat, a Polish poet ten years older than Miłosz who joined him on the faculty at Berkeley from 1964 to 1965. The edited interviews run to 450 pages and were published in 1977 under the title My Century. (New York Review Books Classics brought it back into print in 2003.)
Miłosz almost refused to participate in the project because, “to be frank, I was . . . apprehensive that this book would turn out to be yet another confession of a disillusioned ex-Communist.” It is fortunate that he changed his mind, because his sensitive questioning helped Wat to articulate a more convincing theory of communism than the psychological ones Miłosz put forward in The Captive Mind: that Bolshevism is literally demonic.
Wat suffered from debilitating headaches that doctors told him were psychosomatic. His own explanation was different. “My coming to the idea of communism, my intimacy with that idea, was really a demonic bond whose fruits are being felt only now, in my illness,” he tells Miłosz. “Doctors can’t cure me, but a good exorcist probably could.” Miłosz, who despite a skeptical streak remained a Catholic, says nothing to dispute Wat’s self-diagnosis.
The climax of My Century is Wat’s description of his conversion to Christianity (his parents were observant Jews), the result of a mystical vision of “the devil in history” in a Soviet prison in Saratov.
I saw a devil with hooves, the devil from the opera. I really did see him—it must have been a hallucination from hunger, but not only did I see him, but I could almost smell the brimstone. My mind was working at terribly high revolutions. It was the devil in history. And I felt something else, that the majesty of God was spread over history, over all this, a God distant but real. . . . It was so actual, so sensual, as if the devil was in my cell, the ceiling of the cell was lifted away, and God was above it all.
Miłosz, unlike Wat, was not a convert, which may be why he valued his Catholic faith less for its explanatory power than for the comfort it gave him. He acknowledged that, in the darkest days after his defection, “had it not been for the piety of a child brought up in the Catholic faith and able to pray in adulthood, I would not have coped.” Catholicism also gave his poetry a wonderful lushness, a rich embodiment of the beauty of creation in all its fleshly glory. If he had let his faith into his intellectual life the way he did into his emotional life and his art, it might have made him the acute diagnostician of Communist collaboration that his Western admirers wanted him to be.