To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays
By Czeslaw Milosz
Edited by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $30
Who is Czeslaw Milosz? Poet extra ordinary, of course, regarded by some as the greatest living poet; Polish-Lithuanian by birth and education, resident since 1960 in the United States; nonagenarian; winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. That much we know.
Novelist? Yes, that too. Less well known for his contributions to this genre, but nonetheless justly revered in some quarters for The Issa Valley in particular, his lyrical and moving evocation of the landscape and the cultural peculiarities of his Lithuanian birthplace.
Political analyst? Agreed. The Captive Mind, his exposition from the early 1950s of the totalitarian temptation in Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II, is generally viewed as a classic, a worthy companion to works by George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and Hannah Arendt.
But essayist? Who in the English-speaking world knows Milosz as an essayist? The Nobel committee's citation of 1980 noted with regret that his “many-sided essays” had largely been “overlooked” by the reading public. Alas, little has changed.
Yet here, too, the material abounds, much of it readily available in English—in, for instance, Beginning With My Streets, Visions from San Francisco Bay, and, most recently, Milosz's ABCs. Still, on this side of the Atlantic the essays have never received the attention accorded his other work. The present volume, To Begin Where I Am, is intended to correct that. We are given what the editors call a sampling, a collection of forty-one pieces from a life, most of them previously published in English and easily accessible elsewhere. One of the prominent items here, “Alpha the Moralist,” is a chapter central to the much admired Captive Mind. Five essays come from Milosz's ABCs, which appeared from the same publisher only last year. While seven shorter pieces have been newly translated for this volume, these are—aside from one confessional essay, “If Only This Could Be Said”—relatively minor items.
This, then, is reheated Milosz. The collection has been assembled and edited by two professors of Polish literature, Bogdana Carpenter of the University of Michigan and Madeline G. Levine of the University of North Carolina. Their effort has a touch of academic mountaineering—assaulting Everest yet again, not for its own sake, but to satisfy the manufacturers of climbing gear.
But enough of this peevishness. Can the world ever get enough Milosz, in whatever form? The simple answer is: No. Milosz reheated is far superior to most of our freshly prepared nourishment. He speaks to all of us, to our confused condition, to our humanity, and to our need. He, representative man and Old Testament prophet rolled into one, speaks from experience across the borders of time and place, with a blend of passion and intellect. He, Protean creature, polymath, poet-historian, philosopher-critic, man of indeterminates, addresses us on all the important issues—history, evil, faith, art—with a sensibility and compassion at once all-embracing and humble.
Grandfatherly instead of paternal, he coaxes us to reexamine and rethink. His critical impulse is the antithesis of the Nietzschean fire storm, with its vitalist assertion; his humanity revolves around humility and the logic of the diagonal. Most importantly, though never crassly or obtrusively, the Christian cross, with its suffering and hope, stands as the centerpiece of his symbolism.
Milosz brings to all intellectual discussion the authority of personal experience, much of it at the crossroads of the twentieth-century agony. Born in Lithuania in 1911, educated in Wilno (now Vilnius) when it was part of Poland, rising star in Polish literary circles in the 1930s, he was then witness to the inconceivable horrors and devastation of World War II, when the totalitarian whirlwind, Nazi and Soviet, settled on Poland. Of all the events that seared his imagination and that of his compatriots, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 stands out, when a city rose against one foreign tyrant, expecting but not receiving help from the other, only to be reduced to rubble. History, hope, duplicity, evil, nihilism—everything seemed to converge in those Warsaw days from August to October. Milosz survived. Many of his friends did not. After the Soviet occupation, he joined the Polish foreign service, was posted to Paris, then Washington. In 1951 he fled. He lived for the better part of a decade in Paris, and then in 1960 joined the faculty at Berkeley.
His work is autobiographical in the best sense. His reflections derive not from abstract principles but from engagement. Thus the integrity of his commentary is never in doubt. That said, like all great poets he remains elusive, impossible to pin down, even contradictory. Some of the crucial parts of the personal story remain blank. His own life he describes as a “migration away from obdurate divisions and definitions to a harmony with the fluid and undefined.” If his own life is a matter of “de-definition,” who, then, is Czeslaw Milosz?Movement has been the essence of his experience. Movement remains the leitmotif of his intellectual quest. Transience, however, is hard to celebrate. Permanent motion is more likely to evoke pleading than plaudits, imprecision instead of focus. Milosz's defection is from the tyranny of a rationalism where history has a fixed and purposeful meaning. William Blake despised Isaac Newton because Newton bowed down to the material world and its mechanistic laws; Milosz bows to William Blake. Clio, muse of history, is a fraud for Milosz, as she was for Schopenhauer, the one philosopher he is prepared to laud. Clio is a false goddess, a creature of arrogance, as well as a temptress. She is an empress without clothes.
Milosz denounces history as ideology; he denounces Marxist determinism and all modern horrors that have been justified by theories of history. His is, however, hardly a denial of the reality of the past. This past in fact overwhelms Milosz and dominates his thought, but any attempt to represent it must remain in the realm of art.
If history as purposeful development is the monstrous fabrication of tiny minds, history viewed as art, as suggestion, is worthy of a lifetime of devotion. In this vision the historian and the poet merge. In the essay “Ruins and Poetry,” which was one of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he delivered at Harvard in 1981-82, Milosz celebrates the humility of minimalism, poetic microreportage, the beauty of detail. In such reconstruction, no comparisons are necessary, no banal metaphors. History becomes invitation, not lesson.
But how should the poet-historian deal with inexpressible horror? Milosz rejects Theodor Adorno's proposition that after Auschwitz art is impossible. He cites the example of Anna Swirszczynska (1909-1984), who lived through the war in Warsaw, took part in the Uprising, survived and then tried to write about the experience. Only thirty years later did she come up with a mode of expression that half satisfied her, a poetry of less, without meter or rhyme, that produces miniature snapshots of incidents or scenes, “a most humble art of mimesis,” as Milosz admiringly de scribes it. Following her example, we should construct poetry (read history) out of the “remnants found in ruins.”
But what is the point? Why bother? Evil, insists Milosz, is the one undeniable constant in the human drama. “Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth,” he writes in a brief, chilling essay entitled “Anus Mundi.” If art, literature, and historical writing were truthful, no one would be able to tolerate them. What, then, is the role of the artist in the modern world?
Here Milosz is disposed to a tragic fatalism. You must plant the fruit tree, he insists, regardless of the likelihood of disaster tomorrow or the day after. Among the many definitions of communism, the most apt, he says, is “enemy of orchards.” Poetry and history rise from ruins, always, and from the seeds of fruit trees. In humility, in doubt, not in certainty, is to be found faith. Milosz would like to believe completely, wholly, but he remains suspicious of all inclinations, except that of doubt. I doubt, therefore I am.
It is in fact this very doubt—bordering at times on despair—that convinces him that there is more to life than the here and now. It is not history as meaning, or experience as exhilaration; it is rather the quanta of human goodness, pulsing ever in the midst of darkness, that elevate existence to transcendence, and that provide a suggestion of ultimate resolution. Milosz is fond of Albert Camus, the existential unbeliever, whom he celebrates in the end as a true believer. Camus rejected God out of love, insists Milosz, unable, as a mortal and fallible being, to find appropriate justification for God.
Along with history, art, and faith, the theme of exile, from the orchard grove, is a constant in these essays. Milosz was born in Lithuania when it was a Russian province. He was educated in Wilno when, between 1920 and 1939, it was a part of Poland. He has now lived in America for almost half his life. Where is his homeland? What is his language? Where is his audience?
If language is a problem for all poets, Milosz shoulders multiple burdens. He is a man of the word, and yet he is riven by Kafkaesque doubt about language as a dishonest fabrication. His return to his birthplace after a half century was like closing the circle, he says. He, the poet, was reduced to silence, unable to articulate his emotion. For the inaugural item in this collection and the inspiration for the volume's title, the editors have wisely chosen a short piece from the late 1960s that starts with the words: “I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said—you begin with those words and you return to them.”
Who, then, is Czeslaw Milosz? He refuses to explicate identity or faith. “I understand nothing,” he cries out at one point. Yet his very existence, as a conscience-stricken survivor, provides succor. In his rejection of extremes, in his pervasive doubt, anxiety, and guilt, but also in the affirmation that is a counterpart to conscience, and of course in his consummate poetic artistry, he is one of the great moral intellectuals of the last century. Incandescent but also evanescent, he is a personal manifestation of those irrepressible moments of goodness that revivify humanity and allow us to continue.
Modris Eksteins, author of Rites of Spring and Walking Since Daybreak, is a professor of history at the University of Toronto.