The following interview with Czeslaw Milosz took place in Berkeley, California, in August 1985.
NATHAN GARDELS: Your poems are very popular today in Poland. Why is poetry so important there?
CZESLAW MILOSZ: At moments of cataclysm and upheaval, poetry becomes popular as the expression of the people’s hope, aspirations, and identity. In such moments, poetry is the most expressive voice of freedom. Also, poetry has been popular in Poland for centuries. On the other hand, maybe there are some very down-to-earth reasons. In the Europe occupied by the Nazis, poetry was the most handy instrument of moral resistance because you could copy a poem and pass it from hand to hand. Prose was too long and difficult for this purpose. So there are various reasons, historical and practical.
G: In Poland today, it seems that the civil society and the culture belong to the forces of opposition—to Solidarity, the Catholic Church, and the poets—while the state belongs to the Communist party.
While the martial law declared in 1981 imposes the power of the state, do you believe that the legitimacy of that power has been undermined by the opposing culture?
M: Let me speak about it in the following way. The importance of the movement in Poland, of Solidarity, is that it is not just a Polish phenomenon. It exemplifies a basic issue of the twentieth century. Namely, resistance to the withering away of society and its domination by the state. In the Poland of Solidarity, owing to some historical forces, there was a kind of resurgence, or renaissance, of the society against the state.
Quite contrary to the predictions of Marx, this is the basic issue of the twentieth century. Instead of the withering away of the state, the state, like a crab, has eaten up all the substance of society. Destroying society, as a matter of fact. As a workers’ movement, Solidarity resisted this. Whether various societies that have been conquered by the state will awaken in the future, I don’t know. The movement in Poland presents a hopeful pattern.
G: Do you see state domination growing as a threat, not diminishing?
M: It is growing because in the stage of taking power and establishing itself, the state is justified by the most noble of human aspirations. The egalitarian tendency, which is a factor all over our planet, favors the installation of the totalitarian state as does the riddance of hunger and misery for those who have nothing to lose except their chains. These factors work in favor of establishing a new form of the state as omnipotent and monopolistic. So, of course, many chances are presented for revolution, as in Latin America, because of objective conditions, and because of desperation, I suppose.
G: In this country, several conservative intellectuals have attacked the notion of “moral equivalence,” which argues that the two superpowers have the same moral culpability in world affairs because they act alike. The Soviets have Poland; the US has Chile.
Many Latin American writers argue that there is a great similarity between the US war on Nicaragua and the Soviet war on the people of Afghanistan.
Eastern European writers, Milan Kundera, for example, seem to have a different view. “When it comes to the misfortunes of nations,” Kundera has written, “we must not forget the dimension of time. In a fascist dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel. In the empire to the East, the tunnel is without end, at least from the point of view of a human life. This is why I don’t like it when people compare Poland with, say, Chile. Yes, the torture and the suffering are the same, but the tunnels are of very different lengths. And this changes everything.”
Do you agree with Kundera? Is this also your perspective?
M: Yes, yet I feel there is more to be said. Correct reasoning and realistic appraisal are very important. Moral issues are, of course, largely a result of sentimental propaganda. We are living in the era of propaganda. A basic difference between the various social structures shouldn’t be underestimated. You shouldn’t put on the same balancing scale organisms that are completely different. You cannot compare a lemon and a triangle. They don’t belong to the same realm.
In Western thinking, parallelism has a very long tradition. I believe that the plan of division of the world between America and the Soviet Union, of which Europe is a victim today because Europe as a unit is destroyed by division, was caused to a large extent by this parallel thinking.
The problem should be put with respect to certain acquisitions of civilization that risk being lost. For instance, I feel that a division of powers into legislative, executive, and judiciary is a basic acquisition of civilization. There is no reason to be ashamed of such an acquisition, which some call “bourgeois democracy”; the worst can be withstood if this division is maintained.
So the onslaught of the totalitarian state is just a kind of illness. Of course, whether one cooperates and coexists with illness is a practical consideration. But to compare the two systems on a purely moral basis, that is completely wrong!
G: You have written about “the struggle for the world” in which the poets of North America and Europe are called to participate, but which Latin American writers don’t consider part of their struggle. You also talk about this question of parallelism:
Latin American writers seem to live in a different historical time, the time of popular movements in that part of the world, and are unconcerned with things of which inhabitants of Poland or Czechoslovakia have firsthand knowledge. The nonparallelism of historical time coexisting on earth introduces elements into the general anxiety.
M: I believe firmly that the planet moves toward unification and the emancipation of human masses. As I argued, there are great egalitarian tendencies. Enormous progress has been made in the last decades; but with possible traps and dangers. At the present moment the planet lives simultaneously in several different centuries and different times. Maybe this is disappearing, but at present it is still so.
I do not want to be considered one of those Europeans who say that you Americans don’t know anything, that you have no experience compared to Europe’s long and often tortuous history. To make a competition of suffering is not the point.
The American Civil War and the American Depression were clearly periods of great suffering. But, unfortunately, the horrors of the war against the Nazi regime, the experience of Poland before the war and before the Communist regime, and then subsequent decades of Communist rule, give an insight into a general pattern which, when we observe Latin America, repeats itself.
They have agricultural problems, the problem of the peasants and the problem of unemployment in the cities. We’ve had our share of all these problems in Poland. Of course, there are specific historical factors in every country and those factors should not be underestimated. But there is a general pattern which repeats itself in many countries. It seems clear to me. After all, I have had the experience in my youth of being on the left, not on the right.
Based upon our own experience, it is with a certain boredom that we look at the repetition of the pattern in Latin America. For instance, an economy dictated not by economic reasons but by ideological ones. When the agrarian reform was created by the Communists in Poland immediately after the war, they were not frank with the peasants because they wanted to collectivize. They would give small plots of land so as not to create strong peasant farms. And the rest was supposed to go to the state farms.
G: What, then, is this “struggle for the world” that you talk about?
M: It is a struggle against the state which appears at first on the historical scene as a voice of the oppressed, for the power of the oppressed, for reversal of the existing, unjust social order, and so on.
G: In your view, what is the basis for the moral antagonism between East and West? Is it this question of the state vs. society?
M: Moral questions probably exist on the level of the Western public, but on the other side of the wall we have Marxist ideology and it is growing sterile. Yet it is still the ideology that has been used to create and justify the power of the state.
Your question again raises the problem of parallelism. In 1968, in Berkeley or in Paris, there was a kind of revolution that was also going on in Prague. Parallelism would lead one to put on the same level these movements, which had nothing to do with each other.
One can say that to protest against the totalitarian state and to protest against the power of the bankers and university authorities is the same. But it is not. The system in America is much more complex and so many issues were involved here of a completely different nature. In America there is still a society not dominated by the state. France is still a society. That makes all the difference. The basic difference between East and West is that in the West the society still has some autonomy.
G: Kundera has written that the novel is able to exist in the West because ambiguity and relativity can exist; there is no unique truth that must be conformed to.
Is this possibility of pluralism the essence of the West? Is it worth fighting for?
M: I wouldn’t agree with Kundera in everything, although we come from the same Central Europe.
I have been very sensitive to the negative sides of life in America or France, the so-called West. I perfectly understand the decadent features. In the West, there has been a constant race between disintegration and creativity, creation and destruction. Freedom allows the new to be born at the expense of tradition and history. Somehow it happened that the West has been racing for a long time in this way—it gets the prize for creativity. But if you look from a certain perspective, like my compatriot Isaac Bashevis Singer in his last book, The Penitent, there is also an indifference to basic values. The narrator of that novel looks at life in America as sordid and becomes a convert to Orthodox Judaism in the Hasidic quarter of Jerusalem. He returns, as it were, to a search for the sacred.
My suspicion is that if we look at the history of the last centuries of civilization, which is roughly the same as Western civilization, it has really been hardly surviving from decade to decade. It is as if mankind could cope with the worst possible conditions of completely hopeless decay, decadence, strange and loathsome morals, and somehow survive.
Of course, for a person who wants to have a highly moralistic approach, survival is very difficult. Like the narrator of The Penitent, they look for a solid moral foundation, they look for security. The totalitarian state offers perfect security. You have an illusion of order. The state assures order. There are no such things as murderers roaming the country. They have no guns there, after all. The guns all belong to the state!
G: You’ve written about civic virtue in the West declining to such an extent that “the young generation ceases to view the state as its own, worthy of being served and defended even at the sacrifice of their lives.” Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist, says similar things. “The real evil of liberal capitalist societies is the predominant nihilism, not a nihilism which seeks the critical negation of established values, but a passive indifference to values.”
Where does this come from in the West?
M: The indifference, even the anti-American posture, which I have observed while teaching at Berkeley is very shocking. It is very hard to understand. Probably it means that still I come from a very traditional world as far as values are concerned. I have been witnessing in America the subversion of the ethic of the working class which was God, my country, my family.
As to the causes for all this, one can go back infinitely. I link it with a very profound transformation as far as religious imagination is concerned. There are some people who are optimistic about the state of religion today, but I am rather pessimistic. I consider that both believers and nonbelievers are in the same boat as far as the difficulty of translating religion into tangible images. Or maybe we can say that the transformation that is going on in religion reflects something extremely profound in the sense of nihilism. I am inclined to believe that only when profound shifts appear, for example a new science, will there be a basic change.
What do I mean?
At the present moment science is in the process of transition from the science of the nineteenth century to a new approach, in physics particularly. The whole society, as we observe in America, lives by the diluted “pure rationalism” of nineteenth-century science. What young people are taught in high school and the university is a naive picture of the world.
In this naive view, we live in a universe that is composed of eternal space and eternal time. Time extends without limits, moving in a linear way from the past to the future, infinitely. Functionally speaking, mankind is not that different from a virus or a bacteria. He is a speck in the vast universe.
Such a view corresponds to the kind of mass killing we’ve seen in this century. To kill a million or two million, or ten, what does it matter? Hitler, after all, was brought up on the vulgarized brochures of nineteenth-century science.
This is something completely different from a vision of the world before Copernicus, where man was of central importance. Probably the transformation I sense will restore in some way the anthropocentric vision of the universe.
These are processes, of course, that will take a long time.
Nihilism, Memory, the Sacred
G: In your writings, you link nihilism to memory. “The eye of the nihilist,” you quote Nietzsche writing in 1887, “is unfaithful to his memories; it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves.” In your Nobel lecture, you said that our planet is characterized “by the refusal to remember.”
M: If nihilism, as Nietzsche says, consists in the loss of memory, recovery of memory is a weapon against nihilism. There is probably no other country as full of historical memory as Poland, and somehow that memory provides a foundation for values. There is a link, a feeling of profound affinity and identity with past generations. With memory, classical virtues once again acquire value. In Polish poetry, memory goes back to Rome and Greece. There is a feeling of the continuity of European civilization. We find that a certain moral, even natural, law is inscribed in centuries of human civilization.
I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the questions of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false, have been discovered not through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.
In my opinion this is one of the secrets—maybe the main secret—of the mass participation of the Poles in religious rites today. One can say that this participation is purely political, that religion is popular because it marks political opposition of the nation to the state. But there is more than this. Nonbelievers and believers alike take part in the pilgrimages because they share the same notion of good and evil. And, the Church maintains, there is a convergence between believers and nonbelievers. Here is good, here is evil. This affirmation of basic values of good and evil brings people together.
G: Do we have a truthful way of thinking, of judging good or evil in the West?
M: Yes, but under the condition that intellectuals and writers do not insist on forcing nihilism in their descriptions of the world as the only valid image from the point of view of the literary establishment. Of course, every period has its fashions. To break away from fads is extremely difficult. Nihilistic presentation of the world is a fad today. And if there is an original talent, like Singer, who doesn’t care about it, he immediately grows in stature.
I feel great affinity with Singer because we both come from religious backgrounds, I from Roman Catholicism and he from Judaism. Constantly, we deal with similar metaphysical problems.
I have taught Dostoevsky for many years. And I have been fascinated by his prophetic insight into what was happening at that time in Europe and in Russia. He evinced a very deeply seated fear of the future, of the nihilism that would appear.
For me, the religious dimension is extremely important. I feel that everything depends on whether people are pious or not pious. Reverence toward being, which can be formulated in strictly religious terms or more general terms, that is the basic value. Piety protects us against nihilism.
G: Your essays have traced the rise of modern, rational man and the Enlightenment world view, moving toward an understanding of its illusions. At one point, you speak about the labyrinth of mirrors that our society runs into, just like the poets and alchemists of past centuries.
Perhaps we are coming to the end of the period dominated by the modern world view. Certainly in America, the most religious of Western nations, we seem to be experiencing yet another Great Awakening with the influence of religious fundamentalism. But there are other anti-modern strains, such as the ecology movement, which seeks a return to the absolute values of balance and limits in nature.
All this would indicate that we are moving toward a “postmodern” view of the world.
M: Yes, but I am certainly not against science. I am not for an escape into the mountains. I’m not for a naive ecological and green world.
We are committed. There’s no way out. We have to move forward, but on a different track. In my book The Land of Ulro, I compared what happened in the eighteenth century with taking the wrong subway train in New York. You can go in a wrong direction somewhere. You go very far and can’t get off. Maybe we’ve been on the wrong train. Goethe had an intuition that something was going wrong, that science should not be separated from poetry and imagination. Blake also. Maybe we are going to return to a very rich era where poetry and imagination are once again alongside science.