Czesław Miłosz’s Space Travels

Space Travels

Having spent four decades in exile, Czesław Miłosz discovered a homeland in poetry.


When Czesław Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October of 1980, not a few readers believed the prize had somehow been awarded to Poland, the country. Many more believed the Nobel committee had chosen to honor Solidarity, the Polish trade union, for its resistance to Soviet control.

Strictly speaking, these readers were wrong: The committee had made its decision before Solidarity was founded on September 17, 1980. So reports Andrzej Franaszek in the first full biography of Miłosz, which was published in Poland in 2011 and now appears in a shortened English translation by Aleksandra and Michael Parker. But in a broader sense, those readers were right: Miłosz’s fame, especially among those who couldn’t read Polish, grew out of his words against totalitarian rule. His early poems reacted—­with desolation, with grim resolve, with a deliberately naive faith—to Nazi-­occupied Poland; his book-length essay The Captive Mind examined the seductions of communist doctrine and the perils of Soviet rule. Anglophone writers (and not only poets) still see in him a voice of integrity, a voice against political repression.

Sometimes Miłosz saw himself that way, too. And yet to view him only as a poet who made his stand against repressive regimes is to leave out much of what makes his poetry memorable. Reading his poems alongside his life means finding arguments, denunciations, alliances, credos, apologies, and promises about politics and history; it also means discovering why Miłosz thought none of these things were enough. Literature generally—and, for Miłosz, poetry in particular—could not simply argue, object, or denounce; it had to present an alternative, a form of hope, if not a way to believe.

Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911 to a Polish-speaking bourgeois family with roots in Latvia and Lithuania, territories then ruled from Imperial Russia. His father, an engineer, accepted assignments in Siberia and Estonia, with long trips in between. If the family belonged anywhere, it was in Wilno (now Vilnius), Lithuania’s historical capital. After the Russian Revolution, the family endured displacement and chaos—in one railway station, Miłosz writes, “I, six years old, got lost / And the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind, / Forever…. I would have been somebody else, / A poet of another language, of a different fate.”

At the end of 1918, the family settled on an estate belonging to his mother’s family in Szetejnie, Lithuania. There, a young Czesław found “communion with country life” among the oak trees, marshes, flower gardens, and geese. In retrospect, these would be some of his happiest hours, but they did not last. By the end of 1920, Wilno had become part of Poland, whereas Szetejnie lay in “the new, now-truncated Lithuanian state,” where Polish speakers in general, and Czesław’s father in particular (who had been part of a coup attempt), were unwelcome. The family settled again in Wilno, where Miłosz studied law, fell in and out of love, and began to publish poems.

Franaszek describes the personalities, literary mentors, and social circles of Miłosz’s world in the 1920s and ’30s in granular detail; most Americans will recognize very few of the names. But we will recognize the type: the young poet, sure of his exceptional talents, seeking a living from his pen, and making as few compromises as he can. In 1934–35, Miłosz explored Paris; there he spent time with his uncle, the French-­language poet and mystical prose writer Oskar Miłosz. “He was instrumental in my achievements in literature,” Miłosz told a former lover, “and…in spoiling my life by filling me with exaggerated spiritual yearnings.”

Miłosz returned to Wilno, then to the much larger city of Warsaw, where he found congenial employment with Polish Radio. There he also met and married Janina (Janka) Dłuska. As Miłosz wrote much later, with typical self-reproach: “She was a rational person, but made a mistake choosing me…. I was a man of short-term passions, illusions and dreams.”

Having skittered around Central Europe with and without Janka, Miłosz wound up in Wilno when the war broke out and then, fleeing the Russians, in Warsaw. There, life was at once ordinary and horrific: At one point the poet could hear, from a balcony, “the screams of thousands of people being murdered.” Still, editors paid for manuscripts, banks made small loans, jobless writers found work in cafés, and libraries stayed open despite nearby “graves of people executed in the street.” Miłosz’s poem “A Song on the End of the World” (1944) remains apropos: “those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps / Do not believe it is happening now…. As long as rosy infants are born / No one believes it is happening now.”

Miłosz reacted to the Warsaw Uprising and the arrival of the Soviets with poems of horrified witness and deliberately child- like hope:

Whoever wants to paint the variegated world
Let him never look straight up at the sun
Or he will lose the memory of things he has seen.
Only burning tears will stay in his eyes.

In Franaszek’s telling, Miłosz did little that was heroic, but also nothing dishonorable, in those years. The Red Army famously waited to move into Warsaw until the Germans had butchered the homegrown resistance: “what 1945 exposed was horrific,” Miłosz told one friend. “All I wanted was to get out.” Yet it seems he soured only gradually on the new Soviet-backed state, which might at least rebuild the country materially. Miłosz made himself useful as an energetic civil servant representing the new communist government abroad.

As a result, the poet spent the early postwar years not in Poland or Lithuania, but in New York and Washington, DC, as a young diplomat tasked with the promotion of Polish culture. The wealthy, ignorant United States, Miłosz believed, embodied the “spiritual poverty” of the West: “American puppets move…with a depressing inner stupor.” But the Polish People’s Republic, he realized, was worse: The noose of state control was tightening fast. In 1950, the poet returned to Warsaw, leaving Janka and his newborn son in New York; he defected to France the next year.

Franaszek presents this decision as the hinge of Miłosz’s life. It was “the first major breaking of ranks within Poland’s literary circles,” and it was a source of torment, even regret, for the poet. His last experience before defecting seems to have been a conference at which the Polish literati were told that they would be ex­pected to follow the social-realist line. Instead, Miłosz would soon declare: “The paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth.”

Given his experience in the United States, and the fact that his wife and children were already in New York (Janka had given birth there again in 1951), a move back across the Atlantic seemed appropriate. But the United States was caught up in the fury of McCarthyism and immigration authorities would not accept Miłosz, citing his prior associations with left-wing parties and the Polish state. The poet thus remained—not altogether unwillingly—in France for about a decade. Embraced by the Paris-based exile journal Kultura and by a few prominent French writers (Albert Camus among them), Miłosz remained anathema to both the pro-Soviet European left and the Polish-exile nationalist right. The latter also held some sway with the State Department. Janka shouted at one official, after Czesław’s US visa was blocked yet again, “You’ll regret it, because he’s going to win the Nobel Prize!”

Eventually, Janka and the children joined Miłosz in France. In 1953, he published The Captive Mind, which showed how antidemocratic ideologues could take over a society and a state—and why many intellectuals would submit to them. The pseudonymous case studies of intellectual collaborators (“Alpha, the Moralist”; “Delta, the Troubadour”) drew on the lives of Miłosz’s friends or ex-friends. The Captive Mind became—along with books like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984—one of the best-known accounts of totalitarianism in the early Cold War period. It also became an underground hit in Poland: One author called it “the voice of our secret thoughts.”

Then the University of California called, and in 1960, Miłosz became a grumpy, lonely, hardworking professor of Slavic, teaching Dostoyevsky to Berkeley undergrads; composing poetry in Polish that couldn’t be published in Poland; penning a history of Polish literature; and compiling the influential anthology Post-War Polish Poetry. He stayed in Berkeley for three decades but never felt at home there: “I did not choose California. It was given to me. / What can the wet north say to this scorched emptiness?” And again: “Did I then train myself, myself the Unique, / To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze, / To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?”

Miłosz did attract individual admirers in these years. Around his residence on Grizzly Peak, young poets and translators gathered: Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Peter Dale Scott, even, in 1971, Seamus Heaney. Yet he felt “less and less known in Poland,” Franaszek writes, “and never discovered in America.” At the same time, he was writing some of his most ambitious and personal verse, or rather verse-and-prose, most of all the great anti-autobiography From the Rising of the Sun (1974). The title refers to the East—to Lithuania, in particular—and to that sensation that makes each day new. The poem mixes landscapes, childhood memory, self-reproach, self-­defense, and historical meditation. “My generation was lost,” Miłosz writes. “Cities too. And nations. But all this a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow / Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect / That beauty is always elsewhere, and always delusive?”

The past always shone in Miłosz’s work, even as the present grew dim. When he turned 65, he wrote, he felt “as if I ceased to exist.” Janka had a cancer scare and surgery in 1977. After that, she “could barely walk, and was burdened by the pain of her body” as well as by mental decline. The couple’s younger son Piotr, back from work in Alaska, grew restless, violent, and suicidal, providing even more grief. Miłosz kept the illness of his son “a complete secret from his European friends,” though he did say things like this, from a 1978 letter: “I have run out of faith, hope, love…. While others had happiness, I had great work.” He also had an unknown number of lovers and a “compulsion to try to hit on women students.” (About this “compulsion,” the English version of Franaszek’s book gives no details.) For consolation, Miłosz rendered swaths of the Old Testament into Polish, including the Psalms and the Book of Job.

Then the Nobel Prize came, and celebrity with it. Still-communist Poland allowed the laureate to return for a victory tour, where he sent signals of solidarity with Solidarity without overtly denouncing the regime. Miłosz was also surprised by another discovery: Poles turned out to know his poetry after all. They also knew The Captive Mind, a book that Lech Wałesa was once jailed for sharing. “As Communist power lessened,” Franaszek writes, Miłosz feared “the re-emergence of nationalistic, right-wing tendencies” (Poland today shows that he was right to fear these tendencies).

The prize and subsequent European travel raised Miłosz’s profile—a parade of translations ensued—but they could not cure Piotr or Janka. “Everyone gets what they care about least,” the poet mused in 1981. Janka died in 1986; Miłosz wrote a grim memorial verse: “I loved her, without knowing who she really was…. / I remember so very little.”

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of communism in Europe, Miłosz was free to return to Poland. In 1992, he married the Emory University professor Carol Thigpen; they purchased a home in Kraków the next year. Miłosz lived there, in Poland’s old literary center, writing new verse and prose. His work, in this period, was wise and sardonic, sometimes even pious. A poet of national renown, a hero to the democratic left, and despised by the nationalist right, Miłosz found himself treated by young poets—or so I am told—as a figure from the recent past but not the present.

Miłosz has remained—along with Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska—a Polish poet that American readers know. He is also a symbol of moral integrity in a world of political and cultural repression, and he served as a beacon of hope for post-communist Poland. His writing was always accessible, philosophical yet not avant-garde, and possessed of a wisdom good enough to memorize in any language. He registered hypocrisies, persecutions, and horrors as few poets raised in America could.

Yet his reception in the United States—as a political writer and a figure of Polish resistance—still gets him wrong. For one thing, was he really Polish? In some senses, no: “Wherever I am,” Miłosz wrote in From the Rising of the Sun, “at whatever place on earth, I hide from people the conviction that I’m not from here.” He meant that he did not wholly belong to this earth, but also that his actual country was the long-defunct, polyglot, pluralist Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which fell to the Russians in 1795.

This multilingual, multinational world became something of a dreamscape for Miłosz—a partly remembered, partly imagined homeland. In 1931, he hoped to found a “new poetry magazine” that could “re-write our culture, taking into account our hybrid heritage as half-Poles, half-Lithuanians, half-Ukrainians.” In the 1950s, he kept a map of the old Lithuania on the wall of his study in France. Franaszek quotes the Nobel lecture: “It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania…. My family already in the 16th century spoke Polish…so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me.”

Famous as a writer who stood up against communism, Miłosz viewed Soviet ideology as a dangerous but worthy opponent; he saved his real contempt for blood-and-soil nationalism, in Catholic Poland and everywhere else. His loathing for that outlook dates back to his youth: At university in the 1920s, Franaszek writes, Miłosz stood “among the few defending the Jewish students” against stone-throwing anti-Semites.

Yet Miłosz was also a serious Catholic. Poetry wasn’t religion, but like religion it provided “a contradiction to nihilism.” Imagination and faith stood together, for him, against that giant idol of historical necessity, which he believed the Polish communists, power seekers, and political time-servers worshipped:

An inferior god to whom time and the fate
Of one-day-long kingdoms is submitted.
His face is the size of ten moons. He wears
About his neck a chain of severed heads….
Whoever bows to him attracts his scorn.

“I would be very happy,” Miłosz wrote late in life, “if my books were of service to people devout in the broadest sense of the word.” And they are. But they also try hard not to specify what we must believe. Miłosz called himself “an instructor in forgetting,” for whom “the true enemy of man is generalization.” As the critic and translator Clare Cavanagh has pointed out at length in Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Miłosz didn’t want to be read as a poet of witness or of bravery, nor as a survivor, nor as a leader. For him, we have politics so we can get beyond politics, which in bad times threatens to crush the immediacy, the reflection, the delicacy that belong to every life. “We wanted to confess our sins,” Miłosz wrote later, “but there were no takers. / White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind / Was too busy visiting sea after sea.”

Miłosz was never only a poet. He wrote essays on culture, literature, and religion; in France, he also wrote two novels, and in California, he started a third—The Mountains of Parnassus, unpublished (and arguably unfinished), which turned up in 2004 among the poet’s papers at Yale. Miłosz’s France-based Polish-language publisher had turned it down back in 1972, and one can see why. This terse, far-future dystopia has little plot, less suspense, and even less interest in how human beings might build or improve or salvage the future. Instead, the novel—which Miłosz’s preface avers “will give comfort to nobody”—echoes a belief that can be found in almost all of his poems and essays: History isn’t enough for us; to be fully realized, we need to imagine another realm in which the needs of the spirit are met.

This science-fiction brief against secular materialism (whether communist or capitalist) recalls the C.S. Lewis of Perelandra, albeit with less adventure, while the shifting perspectives and narrators evoke the Polish science-fiction novelist Stanisław Lem. One character, the Cardinal, devotes himself to remote church history; another, Lino, is an astronaut who chooses to quit the space-faring elite. The titular mountains shelter a vaguely presented monastic order or church, with whose liturgy the novel concludes: “Only in the most simple and elementary things / do we recognize ourselves.”

To read The Mountains of Parnassus in 2017 is to remember how far we are from the problems confronting Miłosz in the 1960s and ’70s. The greatest threats in his novel are not free-market fundamentalism, climate change, or authoritarian personalities, but the totalizing, impersonal superstate, on the one hand, and dancing hippies with their “collective shamanic rituals” on the other. Yet some touches still convince: “potentially dangerous individual[s]” are “cocooned…the cocooned person would speak, but fails to understand why his logical and convincing arguments sounded like incomprehensible babble to everyone else.” Sensitive souls commit suicide out of a sense of anomie; groups that promote ineffective, violent dissent serve as a social safety valve. Lino remembers his prior life as an astronaut among the “conscious and faithful soldiers of humanity…. I was the Union, and the Union was me.” Space travel, however, gives him a “desire for something greater” than physics and chemistry can provide: “The absence of speech in the interplanetary void triggered a reinforcement…of our existence as warm-blooded and thinking beings opposed to that void.”

Why did Miłosz, the philosophical poet and shrewd essayist, wrap these ideas in the mantle of science fiction? One answer appears to be the genre’s well-known ability to capture the workings of a repressive state. Another is the time dilation afforded by relativity: Since Lino travels through space at intense speeds, hours for him are decades back on Earth. Thus he learns the value of passing moments, and the potential meaninglessness of the years: His former lover grows old, a friend takes his own life, and Lino forgoes the treatments that make astronauts nearly immortal. “If the whole human species had the choice either of losing or winning as we have won,” he concludes, “then winning wouldn’t be worth it.”

Space travel becomes, at best, a travesty of the unearthly travel made possible by religious worship and by lyric poems, whose composition Miłosz describes as “building diminutive boats / More wieldy and speedy than those in our childhood, / Good for sailing beyond the borderline of time.” Whatever makes life worthwhile must be found not in logic or history or politics or technology, but in momentary discoveries, aesthetic or sensual, and in the eternity that those discoveries can represent. “I believed in the existence of a last door,” Miłosz wrote in 1968. “But the shape of lips and an apple and a flower pinned to a dress were all that one was permitted to know and take away.”

Science fiction’s alienating frame suited Miłosz less than the multiple frames—ironic or passionate, gauzy or heavy, transient or eternal—that he learned to place around the declarations in his poems. “Don’t come too close to the truth,” the late poem “Pelicans” advises (though did he mean it?); instead, “Live with a representation / Of invisible beings who dwell above the sun.” Other late poems found Miłosz addressing himself: “You searched for an answer but lived without answer.” Or: “I had to find a core that makes all things real, / Always hoping to reach it the next day.”

What makes life worth living? How can we find it on earth? The strength of Miłosz’s prose—his essays, novels, and memoirs—lay in its rejection of history’s bad answers. His poetry, on the other hand, found its power in the ways he continued to ask.

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