Every now and then, an author’s words hit you with the force of nature – no matter how quiet and reasonable they seem. The opening pages of Milosz’s Selected essays – To Begin Where I Am - about exile and his return as an 80 year-old to the landscape of his childhood Lithuania have had this effect on me. I don’t really know Milosz and bought the book simply because a blurb told me they represented a very powerful example of the essay form – which is one I love.
Some reminiscences I found on the internet suggest that he is an “unfashionable poet”. To go by the Amazon lists, he is certainly a neglected writer – with only the one set of essays (Proud to be a Mammal issued recently by Penguin Central European Classics is apparently the same book as To Begin where I am!), his poetry and The Captive Mind in print. That needs to be changed – since the man has more than 20 books to his credit – let alone his poetry. The reviewer in the Dublin Review of Books tells it well -
Czesław Miłosz, the centenary of whose birth was in 2011, had a long and productive life. After his spell in Paris, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught at the University of Berkeley in California. While he appreciated the opportunities the United States gave him (and loved its great outdoors), he remained, over the decades he spent there, rather hostile to its commercial culture and continued to note how savagely American capitalism treated those at the bottom of the heap. In his final decade, following the collapse of communism, he returned to live part of each year in Poland.A couple of nice tributes are here and here.
In his early adulthood Miłosz saw the world plunge into evil, but unlike many of his friends and contemporaries he survived that evil and even outlived the repressive political system he had once believed to be an inescapable destiny for his nation.
Miłosz’s fullest treatment of the part of his childhood he spent with his grandparents in the depths of the Polish (now Lithuanian) countryside (three full years, from age seven to ten) is in the autobiographical novel The Issa Valley, but there is also this lyrical passage in the sparkling miscellany Miłosz’s ABC under the heading “Szetejnie, Gineity, and Peiksva” (three hamlets close to his grandparents’ farm): The Niewiaża Valley is like a crevice cut into the plateau, from which neither the parks nor the remains of manor houses can be seen. A traveler journeying across that plateau today will not be able to intuit what was once on it. Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creak of the well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people’s voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages – apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees.
As a child, Miłosz writes, “I was primarily a discoverer of the world, not as suffering but as beauty ... Happiness experienced in childhood does not pass without a trace: the memory of ecstasy dwells in our body and possesses a strong curative power.” Returning to visit this landscape at the age of eighty, Miłosz feels no particular regret, or anger, or even sadness. The orchards are gone of course, but so too is the communism which could find no place for them, vanished after less than fifty years: “Among the many definitions of Communism,” he writes, “perhaps one would be the most apt: enemy of orchards.” Now, in spite of the changes in the landscape, he can see that in all his wanderings and exile he had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here. “Or, to be precise, I understood this after a huge wave of emotion had overwhelmed me, and the only name I can give it now would be – bliss.”………
Perhaps the central point of Miłosz’s philosophy, certainly the key problematic to which he returns again and again, is man’s war with nature. Nature here is not to be understood as the beauty of trees, woods, rivers and flowers but as necessity, “the way things are”, “the kingdom of inertia, senseless birth, and senseless death”. Refusing to bow down before this necessity, we assert our “anti-natural freedom”, through our creation of religion and culture, politics and ideology:
We are unable to live nakedly. We must constantly wrap ourselves in a cocoon of mental constructs, our changing styles of philosophy, poetry, art. We must invest meaning in that which is opposed to meaning; that ceaseless labour, that spinning is the most purely human of our activities. For the threads spun by our ancestors do not perish, they are preserved; we alone among living creatures have a history, we move in a gigantic labyrinth where the present and the past are interwoven. That labyrinth protects and consoles us ... Death is a humiliation, because it tears us away from words, the sounds of music, configurations of line and colour ...