The Free and the Brave

Milosz: a Biography Harvard. . .

In the late 1940s, the poet Czesław Miłosz wrote to a Polish friend from the United States: “The spiritual poverty of millions of the inhabitants of this country is horrifying . . . The only living people—the ability to create art is a sign of living—are the Blacks and the Indians.” In contrast to the nation’s beleaguered minorities, it seemed to him, the “unfortunate American puppets move . . . with a depressing inner stupor.” Miłosz was then the cultural attaché of Communist Poland in New York. Within four years he would be persona non grata to the Stalin-installed regime in Warsaw, and he was eventually forced into a long exile in the part of the world he seems to have disliked most—the US. Already recognized internationally as a major poet in Polish, he had taken the New York post simply because he wanted to get out of war-ravaged Poland, where in 1943 he had witnessed, or heard, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “The screams of thousands of people being murdered,” he later wrote, “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. There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously.”

A new biography of Miłosz by Andrzej Franaszek focuses on his early decades in Europe and his confrontations with Nazism and Communism. His criticisms of those two ideological enemies of Anglo-America cemented his reputation as a “dissident,” making him an icon of the “free world”—still the light in which most English-speaking readers are likely to think of him. Miłosz would have preferred to be known as a poet rather than an essayist or a polemicist. To be sure, history had imposed an onerous responsibility on his art. As he put it in one of his earliest poems, in 1932,

One life is not enough.
I’d like to live twice on this sad planet,
In lonely cities, in starved villages,
To look at all evil, at the decay of bodies,
And probe the laws to which the time was subject,
Time that howled above us like a wind.

Yet bearing witness to large-scale horrors wasn’t poetry’s only task. Miłosz was thinking of himself as well when he described his compatriot Wisława Szymborska as “first of all a poet of consciousness [who] speaks to us, living at the same time, as one of us, reserving her private matters for herself, operating at a certain remove, but also referring to what everybody knows from one’s own life.” He wrote elsewhere that

The true enemy of man is generalization.
The true enemy of man, so-called History,
Attracts and terrifies with its plural number.
Don’t believe it.

Still, even the picture readers are often given of Miłosz the essayist is misleading. A much longer version of this biography appeared in Polish in 2011, and the English translation appears to tactfully scant many of Miłosz’s critiques of American life. The few American reviews of the book have ignored them, too. A notice in the National Review, predictably titled “Cold-Warrior Poet,” claims that Miłosz “thrilled American conservatives” with The Captive Mind (1953), the first of many descriptions of the inauthenticity of life under Communist regimes and the shaming compromises of their intelligentsia. Miłosz may indeed have provided this frisson of moral superiority to some American intellectuals. But it was during his decades in the “paradise . . . suspended in a hell of global insecurity,” as Reinhold Niebuhr described Cold War–era America, that Miłosz sharpened his sense of the barbarism that underpins stable, happy lives—he was continually appalled by the moral and intellectual complacency of a people then savoring their unprecedented wealth and power.

He was not alone. Many refugees and visitors from a Europe devastated by war and totalitarianism encountered in the US an unbearable lightness of being. In New York in 1946, Albert Camus wondered in a letter to his publishers “whether we find ourselves amongst the craziest or the most sensible people on earth? Is life as easy as they say here, or as idiotic as it seems?” America, E. M. Cioran wrote in 1956, was a “superficial monster,” since “unlike the other nations which have had to pass through a whole series of humiliations and defeats, she has known till now only the sterility of an uninterrupted good fortune.” Furthermore, as the Cold War accelerated, the US was falling prey to its own propaganda, with Reds appearing to lurk underneath most beds. A joke that circulated among émigrés from Nazi Germany describes two people sailing on the Atlantic, one toward Europe, the other toward America: They pass each other and burst out simultaneously, “Are you crazy?” In another letter from the late ’40s on the “cow-like existence” of Americans driven by colossal machineries of manipulation, Miłosz echoed the stern conclusions of an earlier generation of exiles: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Siegfried Kracauer. “The means by which public opinion was moulded in countries such as Poland,” he wrote, “were child’s play compared to the art-form the Americans had developed.”

The experience of both the free and unfree worlds weighed on Miłosz as he wrote The Captive Mind. The book was immediately weaponized by free-world sentinels against the totalitarian East, even if it could not serve the same ideological function as would Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which, appearing in 1973 during a severe crisis of capitalism, was used to help entrench the enduring prejudice that socialism can never be a decent alternative to the unregulated play of market forces, no matter how chaotic, malign, and unjust the latter become. One appreciative and subtle reader of The Captive Mind was the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. He found Miłosz’s analysis of everyday hypocrisy and timidity under Communism compelling but also recognized that the situation for intellectuals in America was dire: “There is the awful shame and revolt at being in this continual milkshake, of being a passive, inert captive of Calypso’s Island where no one is ever tempted to think and where one just eats and exists and supports the supermarket and the drugstore and General Motors and the TV.”

From his Argentinean exile in the ’50s, the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz also acknowledged the book’s perceptiveness. He underlined “the power and wisdom” that can result from an experience of “mendacity, terror, and consistent deformation.” But, he added, “Miłosz the defender of Western civilization interests me far less than Miłosz the opponent and rival of the West.” Communism, he felt, “can be judged effectively only from the perspective of the most severe and profound sense of existence,” not from that of Western bourgeois complacency. The shrewdest of the so-called dissidents believed this, too. Solzhenitsyn claimed that the “split in the world” induced by the Cold War was “less terrifying than the similarity of the disease afflicting its main sections.” Writing from Communist Czechoslovakia in the ’80s, Václav Havel reached the same conclusion: Political systems based on propaganda and lies, which existed around the world, by no means just in the East, deprived “us—rulers as well as the ruled—of our conscience, of our common sense and natural speech and thereby, of our actual humanity.” “Many people in the West,” Havel wrote, “still understand little of what is actually at stake in our time.”

This Western failure to break free of parochialism and self-flattery confronted the writer from the East with a difficult task (one, incidentally, that writers from Asia and Africa still struggle with): He had to explain his particular ordeal to the Western reader without caressing the latter’s unexamined sense of moral superiority. As Gombrowicz defined it, “Miłosz is fighting on two fronts: the point is not only to condemn the East in the name of Western culture, but also to impose one’s own distinct experience and one’s own new knowledge of the world—derived from over there—on the West.” Miłosz also had to maintain cordial relationships with Western writers, who, even when naive or ignorant, possessed power and influence simply by virtue of their citizenship in powerful and influential countries.

Gombrowicz wrote that both he and Miłosz felt “antipathy and condescension” for these Western writers, “mixed with a bitter powerlessness.” Miłosz certainly had cause to feel bitterly powerless. His early, expedient association with Poland’s Communist regime stigmatized him in the eyes of the State Department, preventing him from taking up an academic appointment in the US for nearly ten years. He finally arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, just as the counterculture was kicking off (and Nixon and Reagan’s counterrevolution was invisibly gathering force). His initial distrust of left-wing activism soon gave way to sympathy with the student protesters and strikers. “The horrors of Vietnam,” he wrote to a friend, “can only be interpreted by reading reports from American pilots. . . . So, for two days I honoured the strikes by cancelling lectures and putting my career on the line. . . . Of course, I was the only one in that Department [to do so], because the others are not political animals.”

Years earlier, in a 1954 article introducing Dwight Macdonald and his magazine Politics to Polish readers, Miłosz had praised the contributions of small US periodicals and the “specific American type” they fostered—“the completely free man, capable of making decisions at all times and about all things strictly according to his personal moral judgement.” But his sense of intellectual possibility in America rapidly diminished in the ’60s—the decade when a huge influx of money to universities and private foundations ushered even many former left-leaning writers and intellectuals into a service class for politicians and businessmen, and into a patriotic identification with their country’s power and wealth. Miłosz observed this monetization of intellectual life, and the marginalization of unaffiliated thinkers, like Macdonald, with distaste. American intellectuals, in his view, were “remarkably well supplied with worldly goods. Their conformism is so far advanced that they are sometimes reminiscent of Pantagruel’s sheep.” Solzhenitsyn would later express his own sense of outrage (that of “someone coming from the totalitarian East with its rigorously unified press”) on discovering in the American media “generally accepted patterns of judgment,” whose “sum effect” was “not competition but unification.”

Miłosz also remained alert to the anti-intellectual strain in his sanctuary, especially those “exercises in nihilism” whose monstrous upshot is Donald Trump. He marveled, in the essay “The Agony of the West” (1973), at a “country that has achieved the greatest economic power in history, but—judging by the rage and contempt emanating from books, paintings, and films—never before have so many people taken up indictment as a pastime.” Such trenchant assessments of postwar American culture, collected in The Witness of Poetry and Visions from San Francisco Bay, rival the best of Christopher Lasch and C. Wright Mills. However, these books also verify Gombrowicz’s insight that, compared to such Western thinkers, Miłosz was “more ‘modern,’ and what’s more, more free spiritually, more open to reality and more loyal to it.” This unillusioned realism made Miłosz immune during his long decades in America to the usual temptations of exile: to overvalorize one’s refuge (as Nabokov did, commending Lyndon Johnson for his “admirable work” in Vietnam) or to absurdly idealize, like Solzhenitsyn, the lost homeland.

It is instructive in this regard to compare Miłosz to the Francophile Milan Kundera, who, recoiling from his encounter with Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968, retreated into a melodramatic vision of Russian irrationalism, which he implied had obliterated the West’s Enlightenment rationalism. “Faced with the eternity of the Russian night,” Kundera claimed to have “experienced in Prague the violent end of Western culture such as it was conceived at the dawn of the modern age, based on the individual and his reason, on pluralism of thought and on tolerance.”

As Joseph Brodsky tartly pointed out, the Soviet Communism that so oppressed Kundera was also a child of Enlightenment rationalism. Though Miłosz had many more reasons than Kundera to fear and despise Russia, nothing so banal as the Czech writer’s denunciation of the East in the name of the West ever issued from his pen. He rejected simple binaries—liberalism versus fanaticism, irrationalism versus rationalism, democracy versus authoritarianism—of the kind that still keep many intellectual idlers and wannabes employed in the West. The price of Miłosz’s refusal of easy ideological oppositions was his relative obscurity in the US, even after his anointing with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today, however, he seems wiser than many Cold Warriors.

For what Gombrowicz called “that entire section of today’s literature that lives off of just one problem: Communism” is now largely redundant, and the patriotic American intellectual struggles to make sense of his loss of status and dignity, as a Twitter troll much beholden to fake news leads the free world. Thomas Merton had warned in a letter to Miłosz during the worst years of the Cold War of the American tendencies toward propaganda and thought control, of men “without heads and without imagination, with three or four eyes and iron teeth, who are secretly in love with the concept of a vast managerial society.” One day, Merton wrote, “we are going to wake up and find America and Russia in bed together . . . and realize that they were happily married all along.” What makes Miłosz a unique guide to our bewildering age is that he recognized early this marriage made in hell.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of Age of Anger (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).