Obits ~~From around the globe and around the block~~
Czeslaw Milosz, Poet and Nobelist Who Wrote of Modern
Cruelties, Dies at 93
The New York Times 15 August, 2004
zeslaw Milosz, the Polish émigré writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, in part for a powerful pre-mortem dissection of Communism, in part for tragic, ironic poetry that set a standard for the world, died Saturday at his home in Krakow, his assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, told The Associated Press. He was 93
An artist of extraordinary intellectual energy, Mr. Milosz was also an essayist, literary translator and scholar of the first rank. Many of his fellow poets were in awe of his skills. When another Nobel poet and exile from totalitarianism, the Russian Joseph Brodsky, presented Mr. Milosz with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978, he said, "I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz in one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest."
Mr. Milosz was often described as a poet of memory and a poet of witness. Terrence Des Pres, writing in The Nation, said of him: "In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world."
In 1951, he was in Paris, on duty there as a Polish cultural attaché following elite assignments in the United States at the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. An urbane man fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French, Mr. Milosz had established close associations with leading left-wing intellectuals in Paris. These diplomatic contacts were important to the Warsaw authorities, but Mr. Milosz, a skeptic about Marxist rule, was tipped off that he faced arrest and trial in the Stalinist purges then under way if he returned to Poland. So he denounced the Moscow-dominated system that was tightening its grip on his homeland and took political asylum in France.
Formulating a New 'New Faith'
In his youth, Mr. Milosz had been drawn to some of the idealized aspects of Marxism but he rejected dictatorship. In large measure, he defected, he explained later, because of damage he saw inflicted on spiritual values and intellect by Communist dogma, which he scorned as the "New Faith." For Mr. Milosz, faith was something else, as he made clear in a 1985 poem under that title:
Faith is in you whenever you look
At a dewdrop or a floating leaf
And know that they are because they have to be.
Even if you close your eyes and dream up things
The world will remain as it has always been
And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.
Mr. Milosz detested Socialist Realism, the Soviet-contrived literary doctrine that distorted truth into propaganda to promote the political and ideological goals of the Communist Party.Two years after defecting, Czeslaw Milosz, (pronounced CHESS-wahf MEE-wosh) published "The Captive Mind," a searing analysis of Stalinist tactics and their numbing effect on intellectuals. "The Captive Mind" was translated and published in many countries, becoming itself a historical document. In it, Mr. Milosz wrote:
"The philosophy of history emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New Faith.
"At the same time, Stalinism attacks him from within, saying his opposition is caused by his 'class consciousness,' just as psychoanalysts accuse their foes of wanting to preserve their complexes."
"Still," he added, prophetically, "it is not hard to imagine the day when millions of obedient followers of the New Faith may suddenly turn against it."
"The Captive Mind" was among a powerful group of books in the early 1950's that condemned Communist ideology and foreshadowed the downfall of Communist power. A similar book was "The New Class" by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident, which deplored self-aggrandizement and moral rot in the Communist leadership.
After his defection, Mr. Milosz explained in a speech: "I have rejected the New Faith because the practice of the lie is one of its principal commandments, and Socialist Realism is nothing more than a different name for a lie." In the same year "The Captive Mind" appeared, Mr. Milosz also published "The Seizure of Power," a fictionalized scrutiny of the relationship between Communism and intellectuals.
By 1960, Mr. Milosz had tired of his life amid leftist intellectual squabbling in France. Years later he would speak with acerbity of those in Western Europe who continued to regard the Soviet Union as the hope of the future, particularly those "French intellectuals who considered that only a man who was insane could abandon his position of a writer in a people's democracy in order to choose the capitalistic, decadent West." He accepted a professorship in the Slavic Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
He became an American citizen and lived in the Berkeley hills in a modest house with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay. He celebrated that vista in his poetry ("Views From San Francisco Bay" in 1972), but he also spoke of the alien remoteness of the California landscape. Mr. Milosz, with his bushy eyebrows, herringbone tweed jacket, wry humor and brilliant lectures was soon a popular figure on campus, especially in his seminars and lectures on Dostoyevsky. He continued to write verse, translated literary masterpieces into Polish and compiled a large volume, "History of Polish Literature," published in 1969.
The hardships and dangers in Mr. Milosz's life, first under Nazi military terror and then under Communist oppression, followed by long years as an émigré in the West, clearly marked his writing. "In both an outward and inward sense he is an exile writer, a stranger for whom physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical - or even religious - spiritual exile applying to humanity in general," the Nobel Committee observed in 1980. "The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry, prose and essays is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of Paradise."
A Multilingual Boyhood
Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30, 1911, to a Polish-speaking family in Szetejnie, Lithuania, which together with Poland, Latvia and Estonia was part of the Russian empire at the time. The complex, multiethnic Baltic region was inhabited by communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Russians and others, all speaking their separate languages and living their own cultures.
His family was not rich but it was distinguished and intellectual. He was only 3 when World War I broke out, and his father, a civil engineer, served in the czar's army, while his family was kept on the run from advancing German armies. From his childhood on, Mr. Milosz had a rich inner life, reading widely. He also had a challenging array of talents, interests and skills. As a schoolboy, he was fascinated by the scientific world of animals. But in the end, he enrolled in law school at the University of Vilnius, graduating at the age of 23. He worked several years in radio, and sometimes remarked in interviews that he felt guilty for having abandoned science.
Mr. Milosz traced the distinctive imagery of his poetry to his boyhood experiences in the rural countryside of Lithuania; his childhood is evoked in an autobiographical novel published in the United States as "The Issa Valley" (1981) and in "Native Realm," an autobiography. In one of his essays he wrote: "If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from I would say that its roots are in my childhood in Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible."
The author Eva Hoffman, a native of Poland, said of him: "He has never been a provincial artist. His writing may bear the marks of his particular Lithuanian-Polish past, but the material of his own life is filtered through a fully cultivated intelligence and probed to those depths at which individual experience becomes universal."
He attended high school in the city of Vilnius, which by then had been transferred from Lithuania to Poland, and later restored to Lithuania, and published his first poem at the age of 15, He studied Latin for seven years in school, and in his Nobel acceptance speech credited that underlying linguistic discipline and classroom translations of poems with helping him to develop his mastery. He also learned Hebrew and Greek well enough to later translate the Bible into Polish.
Poetic Vision Born of War
At the age of 22, while attending law school, Mr. Milosz published his first experimental verse, "Poem on Time Frozen." Favorable reaction helped him win a state scholarship to study literature in Paris after he was awarded a law degree in 1934. A relative there, Oscar Milosz, who worked in the Lithuanian legation and wrote poetry in French, helped broaden his world outlook and shape his poetic style.
He returned to Vilnius after the publication of a second book of poems called "Three Winters" but was fired from his job at a local Polish radio station for being too liberal. Mr. Milosz was working in Warsaw for Polish Radio when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939.
During the Nazi occupation, he worked in the Warsaw University Library, wrote for the anti-Nazi underground, heard the screams and gunfire in 1943 as Germans killed or captured the remaining Jews in the walled Ghetto and witnessed the razing of nearly all Warsaw after the uprising in 1944.
One of his most moving poems, "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" (1943), described the assault on the Jews:
Bees build around red liver,
Ants around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel,
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals,
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.
Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.
Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
After the war, a collection of poems called "Rescue," which showed the influence of T. S. Eliot, established him among Poland's pre-eminent writers. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party he was accepted into the diplomatic corps in 1946 and began the journey that ended with his defection in 1951 in Paris.
Mr. Milosz chose throughout his life to compose his poetry in the complex but rich Polish language, even after he mastered French and English. Poetry can be true, he said, only if created in one's mother tongue. As his work won increasing attention and respect, Mr. Milosz developed close ties to many leading world intellectuals, writers, and political and religious leaders, especially to Pope John Paul II, his countryman and leader of his faith.
When he consulted on his plan to break with Communism, it was with no less a figure than Albert Einstein, who advised him during a talk at Princeton University that he should go home to Poland, not defect to the West to join the sad fate of exiles.
'A Poet Remembers'
Mr. Milosz also knew Lech Walesa, the electrician who led the anti-Communist Solidarity movement and went on to become president of Poland. Lines from a verse by Mr. Milosz were put on a memorial in Gdansk to honor Mr. Walesa's fellow shipyard workers who were shot by the police in the early 1970's: "You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure: for a poet remembers."
When Communism was smashed in Poland, Mr. Milosz returned to what he called "the country of my first immigration." Arriving in Warsaw after an absence of three decades, he received a hero's welcome. Mr. Milosz was regarded as one of the world's literary immortals. When he chose, he walked and talked with the great men of his time, but he remained humble.
He also had a remarkable memory and could readily recall the names of his early teachers, companions and friends, and he remembered in vivid detail the first books he read, his adventures and mishaps. He demonstrated that acute memory in his 1968 book "Native Realm, A Search for Self-Definition," a compelling and mildly ironic account of his life, work and thoughts in the illuminating context of Baltic and family history.
Mr. Milosz enjoyed pleasures of the body as well as of the mind, as he acknowledged in his 1985 poem, "A Confession," translated by himself and Robert Hass:
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman's body.
Also, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress's neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I know what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud.
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
At times, Mr. Milosz fell into melancholy, but he firmly fended off any would-be therapists. His early poetry was in what was called the "Catastrophist" school of the 1930's, which foresaw the annihilation of the principal values of modern culture and a devastating war. His wartime ordeals tended in ways to bear out the forebodings.
Mr. Milosz was a man of quiet manner but strong opinions and he expressed them, sometimes to the distress of his admirers. For example, in a PEN congress talk he reminded his fellow writers, "Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia - either progressive or reactionary, and always there were writers who provided convincing justifications for massacre."
Reacting to the atrocities in the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990's, Mr. Milosz blamed intellectuals more than politicians and generals. "These people who had liberated themselves from Marxist doctrine very quickly became nationalists," he said in 1996. "And we see what happens now in Yugoslavia. In my opinion, intellectuals are responsible for the horrors in Bosnia, for they initiated the new nationalist tendencies there."
Mr. Milosz was married twice. His first wife, Janina Dluska, shared his ordeals in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation and went into exile with him. She died in 1986. They had two sons, Anthony and John Peter, who survive him. In 1992, Mr. Milosz married Carol Thigpen, a historian. Ms. Thigpen died in 2003, The Associated Press said.
After Mr. Milosz was awarded the Nobel, many of his books were translated into English and published in the United States. Ecco Press gathered a half-century of his work in "The Collected Poems 1931-1987." In it is a 1986 poem called "And Yet the Books," which contained these lines:
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.