On Czesław Miłosz: Visions from the Other Europe by Eva Hoffman - review by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

The Poet’s Burden

On Czesław Miłosz: Visions from the Other Europe

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In a late poem about a friend’s death, Czesław Miłosz writes of the long passage between youth and age as one of learning ‘how to bear what is borne by others’. It could be a summary of his own poetic witness. Eva Hoffman’s moving and eloquent essay traces the ways in which that simultaneously guilty, compassionate and fastidious response characterises Miłosz’s work from its earliest days. Bearing what is borne by others is, for Miłosz, close to the heart of the poetic task, but it is also fraught with risk. Hoffman pinpoints how Miłosz’s hypersensitivity to the risks of sentimentality and grandstanding led to what many readers saw as an evasion of necessary commitment. He stood aside during the Warsaw Rising of 1944, wary of the overheated and unrealistic rhetoric surrounding it; he saw his first duty as being to the integrity of his poetry, not to the mythology of a sacrificially heroic Poland. Yet, as Hoffman stresses, the poetry itself reveals his full awareness of ambivalent motives and the dangers of willed detachment. Was he nervous of ‘being overwhelmed by emotions from which no detachment was possible’? The lines (from 1945), ‘You swore never to touch/The deep wounds of your nation’ – indeed, the whole poem in which they occur – reveal both a concern not to cheapen such wounds by sacralising the agonies of others and a recognition of the unbearable character of the pain involved: ‘My pen is lighter/Than a hummingbird’s feather. This burden/Is too much for it to bear.’

In other words, Miłosz was from first to last negotiating how poetry – how the poet’s imagination – can ‘bear’ the suffering all around without falsifying it. His was an austere vision of the poet’s calling and it was not guaranteed to make him friends. Miłosz’s postwar career – his brief diplomatic role with the Polish government, his defection to the West, his troubled and unhappy time in France and his long, surprisingly settled and productive residence in California – brought him back repeatedly to the same themes, in prose as well as poetry. 

Hoffman briefly and lucidly fills out the background to his decision to seek asylum abroad in 1951. Poland’s steady drift towards Stalinism made it plain to him that he could have no honest literary future in his homeland (and the fate of many of his contemporaries bore this out with tragic clarity). But he was shocked and hurt by the violent hostility he encountered from most of the French Left of the day (Camus, as so often, being an honourable exception). The shabby collusion with Stalinism of Sartre and his circle meant that almost any dissident from eastern Europe was regarded as a traitor. Ironically, when his move to the USA was first mooted, he was, in that McCarthyite era, seen by some as dangerously compromised by communism.

His five decades in the USA produced a stream of first-rate work. Hoffman describes his complicated relationship with the USA, illuminating this with references to her own experiences as a Polish migrant to Canada and, later, Texas. The ‘immigrant rage’ she shared with Miłosz was stirred by the crass naivety of the North American political radicalism of the 1960s and later – not as venomous and personal as the French variety, but still shadowed by a refusal to face the reality of the inhuman brutality of Soviet-style communism. Hoffman does not mention it, but Miłosz had a somewhat uncomfortable exchange of letters with the American monk and writer Thomas Merton in the early 1960s. As with a good many others, including Martin Luther King, Merton’s commitment to the civil-rights movement had led him to take a critical stance on the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race, but when it came to communism Miłosz, admiring of Merton’s work and witness in many ways, did not hold back in challenging what he saw as vacuous waffle about peace in the face of a system responsible for mass slaughter and indiscriminate repression.

American protest culture drew Miłosz’s scorn, but also a kind of reluctant, half-amused sympathy at some points. Hoffman gently interrogates Miłosz’s more dismissive attitudes, wondering whether he had fully digested the crushing sterility of so much North American culture in the postwar period – the malheur noted by other Europeans faced with the inhumanly vast spaces in which (non-indigenous) North Americans lived. Miłosz’s occasionally rhapsodic tributes to the USA’s achievement in producing a multiethnic and law-governed democracy ring a bit hollow these days, and they were not exactly fully earned in their own time. Miłosz was not the only European émigré (think of Hannah Arendt) to be a little tone-deaf at times to the USA’s racial inheritance. But it is important to recognise his rapidly growing acknowledgement of the cost of industrialised consumerism, and Hoffman is right to see him as a genuine ‘early adopter’ of ecological concerns.

It is a theme that is in fact deeply rooted in his work. Alongside the intense concerns with violence and pain, he was ceaselessly aware of the shadow of complicity; despite his courageous work on behalf of Polish Jews, he understood how he could be seen as in some sense one of the ‘helpers of death’ (a phrase from one of his best-known early poems about the Holocaust), part of the culture that made the Holocaust possible. But alongside this sombre note, there is always what Hoffman calls the ‘metaphysics of particularity’. ‘The visible world is all that remains’, he wrote in 1991. This sentiment underpins his suspicion of systems and ideology and his willingness, more and more in his later writing, to celebrate the sensuous and the specific. His very cautious and rather inconclusive reappropriation of his Catholic inheritance in those last decades both challenged and intensified his commitment to the local and particular.

Miłosz’s stature continues to grow. The collected poems (so finely translated by Miłosz himself, along with Robert Haas) will surely be one of the literary monuments of the 20th century, and we also now have Andrzej Franaszek’s magisterial biography, translated into English in 2017. But Hoffman’s short book ought to be on the shelf alongside these much larger volumes as one of the most perceptive and sympathetic introductions to Miłosz’s life and work available. She manages not only to bring vividly alive one of the greatest Europeans of the century, but also to raise once again all the hauntingly insistent questions about art, politics, power and suffering that the century generated – and that we are constantly in danger of forgetting.

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