Copyright © 2001 Czeslaw Milosz.
All rights reserved.
WHO WAS I
* * *
Who was I? Who am I now, years later, here on Grizzly Peak, in my study overlooking the Pacific? I have long deferred the telling of certain spiritual adventures, alluding to them until now only discreetly and grudgingly. Until I noticed that it was getting latein the history of our shrinking Earth, in the history of a lifeand that it was time to overcome my long-abiding distrust of the reader. That distrust can be traced back to my literary origins, to the distant thirties. Even in those days, as one who sensed the general drift of things, as a "Catastrophist" who nonetheless pined for an age of "faith and fortitude"as one of my early poems had itthere were few in whom to confide my hopes and fears. No doubt I was inhibited by certain class-inherited prejudices, resident in me as well, of the Polish intelligentsia, so that I was everywhere confronted by forbidden territory. The label "a young avant-garde poet" was, again, a significant source of misunderstanding: by and large, the avant-garde shunned those things with which I was, secretly, engaged. But since I had to belong somewhere, I conformed, often to the point of dissimulating. Thus was I given to many defense strategies, all the more as my attitude toward those monuments of wisdom towering in the universities and literary columns was one of sacred awe mixed with suspicion (maybe they were foundering, too), and nothing so favors arrogance and disdain as such an ambivalence. Not that I would condemn arrogance; it can be a protection.
This partially explains my obsession with silence, the fear that if I spoke, no sound would escape from my mouth. One can well imagine the effect, on one so inhibited, of having one's gravest forebodings borne out; of wartime Warsaw and that postwar spectacle when suffering, by then routine, was to be experienced in even stronger doses, and how solitude and academic work could be a blessing. My work for foreigners has been of a practical, even pedagogic natureI do not believe in the possibility of communing outside a shared language, a shared historywhile my work in Polish has been addressed to readers transcending a specific time and place, otherwise known as "writing for the Muses."
I do not understand my life (who does?). Nor my books, and I shall not pretend to understand them. All bespeak a strenuous self-disciplineof which it can be said that those who lack it yearn for it, while those who have it to spare know how much is lost through it and long to be released from it, to proceed by impulse and the hand's own free momentum.
But to gain that freedom is to commune with a reader, hoping for some flicker of understanding in his eyes, believing that he is really communing with us, that we are joined by the same belief or at least by the same hope. I shall now assume such a reader; that a new audience, however few in number, is there. Among the readers of books, one in a thousand will suffice. If I idealize that audience slightly, it is to rid myself of old habits.
To begin, then. At the age of sixty-five, after a month's stay in Holland and France, I returned to Berkeley in mid-July, where I settled down to gardening and reading, mainly works from around the year 1800. These were Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Elective Affinities, both in English translation, and a volume of German Romantics in the Pléiade series. At the same time, I became distracted, or rather consumed, by the sort of thoughts inspired by my every trip to Parisafter Wilno, the second site of my ill-fated youth. Thirty years after the war, to Lesmian's question "Can economic well-being be achieved in a world of nonbeing?" Paris was answering unequivocally, without a quibble: "Yes, it can." But how did that affect me, I who had nothing to say to any Frenchman?
We are born on earth only once and we indulge in much mimicking and posing, dimly aware of the truth, but with pen in hand it is difficult to escape that awareness: then, at least, one wants to keep one's self-respect. As a young man I was struck by the magnitude of what was occurring in my century, a magnitude equaling, perhaps even surpassing the decline and fall of antiquity, so that I remained oblivious to, almost unconscious of, disputes over poetics, whether those of Skamander or the Avant-Garde; to the political comedies of the late thirties; and to the sort of literary debates promoted by Karol Irzykowski. How, then, at a later date, as a witness to what was under way, could I seriously have pursued a literary career, either in the People's Republic of Poland or abroad among the émigrés, as if nothing had happened? To whom, about what, was I to speak? Even after I had surfaced from my meditations on History, now investing them with a new tone and sense, and brought my thoughts to bear on language, on Polish poetry, and on individual poets, I was against narrowing the argument to questions of craft and thus ignoring the great paramount theme. Yet I lacked the tools to handle that theme, nor am I much better equipped now. Today I am awed by the violence of my prewar poetry, a violence of tone born of a disproportion between the matter conveyed and the imagery to match it. To have pursued a "literary career" would have signaled a retreat from far more dramatic urgencies. Even my switching of careersfrom diplomat to a professorship in Berkeleymay have been a way of escaping literature. If I was to evade that highest calling, which only in a handful of poems I had managed not to betray, then let it be to a minimum, which consideration, along with my disdain for the laws of the marketplace, saved me from the frantic pursuit of fame and money. If my earlier conflicts with the literary profession had been ambivalent, condemning myself to the agonies of a civil servant had proved calamitous. My conflict with the market in the West, on the other hand, was clear and decisive, my arrogance blatant; and my persistence was rewarded, quite providentially, for, unlike the tedium of bureaucracy, working with young people can be meaningful and of mutual benefit. From the moment I became a "professor of Slavic literatures," I was relieved of having to attend to the success of my literary work; that is, I was again denied a writer's vocation, and this time happily so.
Those readings from around the year 1800 which occupied me during July and August of 1975 were in preparation for a fall course on Dostoevsky; but not only. Their choice alone testified to the gradual nurturing of this book's undertaking, one in which the Romantic era will rear its head more than once.
To obey the freely moving hand ... Is that possible? To forget that there may be other readers, not just Polish, and yet to write only in Polish, for an exclusively Polish audience? One of the most serious and frustrating dilemmas resulting from prolonged residence abroad is having to repress the constantly intruding thought: How would this sound in English? How construed by a foreign reader? I cannot stand writing in a foreign language; I am incapable of it. There was a time when I dreamed of an international role for myself, of world renownguiltily; hesitantly soand though my fantasies never took any definite shape, they were no less real. True, I did get a taste of that fame, even my share of foreign reviews, like those in Germany comparing me to Faulkner (?), or those in the United States acknowledging my influence on American poets of the younger generation, but seldom were they written with intelligence and even more seldom were they willing to grant me any originality. The din of the marketplace, I could not help thinkingpart of the general clamor of voices and names that are quickly forgotten the next day. How glad I am now that I clung to my native language (for the simple reason that I was a Polish poet and could not have been otherwise); that I did not emulate those émigrés in France and the United States who shed one skin and language for another. I would not deny that my Polish served my pride by erecting a protective barrier between myself and a civilization in the throes of puerility (qui sombre dans l'idiotie), just as my "Westernness," my "universality," served me as a faithful ally in my revolt against "Polishness"both when the word "Nation" was enthroned with a capital "N," and later, following its dethronement, when it was restored to full honors. Let my case stand as a lesson: behold the enduring image of a poet, ill at ease in one place, ill at ease in the other"always and everywhere ill at ease"who managed to distance himself by spinning, cocoon-like, his incomprehensible language. Sartre once wrote to Camus that in view of his distaste for political systems, he saw only one place for him: the Galápagos Islands. How often I have recalled those words, here, in California, which has beenfor me, a Polish poetmy Galápagos; and how I grieved, even suffered guilt, over the forfeiture, until I accepted it and stopped feeling ashamed. What did I have to be ashamed of? That I was made of this very clay?
Nonetheless, I belong to the estate of Polish literature and to no other. What American writer feels himself a part of an American literary estate, especially when, in light of the different service to which the word is put here, the reality of that estate remains something tenuous? While the estate of Polish, Russian, and Czech literature is for me something visible, even palpable, I am not so sure but that the estate of French literaturenotwithstanding its Academy, its annual awarding of prizes and honors (more reminiscent of some tribal contest)has not gone to seed amid all the furor.
One would like to astound the world, to save the world, but one can do neither. We are summoned to deeds that are of moment only to our village, our Catalonias, our Waleses, and our Slovenias. Not that in defying Alfred Jarry's "Debraining Machine" I would now try to uphold a belief in Slavic idylls. But if I am to nourish the hope of writing with a free hand, with gaiety, and not under pressure, then I must proceed by keeping only a few Polish readers in mind.
Excerpted from TO BEGIN WHERE I AM by CZESLAW MILOSZ. Copyright © 2001 by Czeslaw Milosz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.