What to make of a young man who wrote literary criticism in Nazi-occupied Warsaw? The young Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wished to restore the categories of Western civilization in the midst of its destruction. His country was at the center of a war of totalitarianisms. First Poland had suffered joint Nazi-Soviet invasion in 1939. Then Germans had turned on their Soviet allies in 1941, occupying all of Poland along the way. Milosz fully expected the Soviets to return. His wartime prose, completed in January 1944, published in a single volume in Polish in 1996 and now available in Madeline Levine’s sublime translation, brings us closer to this Polish experience of totalitarianism. Because the essays themselves are of very high quality and admirable limpidity of style, Legends of Modernity also brings us a bracing, if not always convincing, reading of the American, English, French, Polish and Russian writers Milosz discusses.
Milosz (1911-2004) was as cosmopolitan as the interwar Poland that formed him, perhaps even more so, but he wrote these essays in a world defined by racial slavery and murder. The Nazis meant to destroy Poland as a society that could think for itself. Auschwitz, where Jews were being sent to die, had originally been built as a camp for Polish political prisoners. At the time Milosz was writing, the German ambition to decapitate Polish society was understood and the German plan to eliminate the Jews was becoming clear. To write in occupied Warsaw, Milosz believed, was to take part in an alternative polity that resisted the Germans. As he put it a few years later, “The whole country was sown with the seeds of conspiracy and an ‘underground state’ did exist in reality, so why shouldn’t an underground literature exist as well.” Writing was indeed an act of resistance, yet Milosz was writing to gain understanding rather than to advance a political cause.
The literary criticism in Legends of Modernity, much like the underground state, was audacious. Milosz wished to explain not only the causes of the Polish defeat but the roots of National Socialism and totalitarianism more broadly defined. In his view, totalitarianism was the outcome of Western modernity itself, and his project in these essays was to take modernity apart, to subject its mythologies to unflinching critique.
That he chose to do so in a work of literary criticism rather than history or sociology reflected the classical Eastern European supposition that literature defines society. The method of critique, although it reflects close reading and an excellent memory of books long before read, hangs on the selection and development of a single theme at the conjuncture of a book and society. Each essay in Legends of Modernity seeks to deconstruct a particular mystification of the world found in a work of literature. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example, reveals the “legend of the island”: that our surroundings are responsible for the evil within us and that, given a fresh start, we could reform and even perfect ourselves. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black Milosz perceives the “legend of the will”: that a lone individual can apprehend the complexity of society as hypocrisy and assert his authenticity by rebelling against it. Balzac’s La comédie humaine, in Milosz’s reading, manifests the “legend of the monster city”: that somewhere beneath the hurly-burly of the metropolis lurks the real city, a secret society known only to locals.