If one could get back to Wilno, one would perhaps understand everything. If only—and this thought must afflict many others who now write about Eastern Europe—one could be transported to that brilliant, polyglot little city as it was, say, thirty-five years ago, how much of the mystery which both swaddles and envenoms the relations of Poles and Lithuanians and Russians and Byelorussians and Jews would make sense at last! Europe, and in fact the world, is littered with puzzling fragments of that entity which was smashed and scattered from 1939 onward. There persists, of course, the city of Vilnius, capital of a Soviet republic, ruled by a very-muchless than independent Communist Party of Lithuania. Some Poles and some Jews still live there. Perhaps its citizens feel qualified relief that the decades of alarming uncertainty about whom the town belonged to have been settled, even if in such a glum manner. But “Wilno,” the meeting-place where the attitudes of all these peoples to each other found such vivid expression, has gone.
This is the importance of Czeslaw Milosz’s latest book, whose subtitle, significantly, is “a search for self-definition.” Perhaps it is a less than adequate judgment upon a major literary essay by one of the senior living Polish poets. Milosz, who was born in Lithuania in 1911, left Poland in 1951 and now teaches at Berkeley as Professor of Slavic Literature. He began writing verse well before the war and—in spite of his exile—has exercised an influence on the younger generation of Polish poets which seems to increase with the years rather than to diminish. In return, he has become one of the best-known translators of Polish writing into English.
Czeslaw Milosz first became known in the West for his The Captive Mind (1951 and 1953), a book of essays and portraits which at the time was hailed as a splendid anti-Communist missile, but which now, in calmer years, is seen more clearly for what it is: a work of Polish literature that will eventually find a permanent place among sources for the nature of Polish Stalinism. It was written very shortly after Milosz abandoned his post as attaché in the Polish Embassy in Washington: it is brilliantly polemical and a good deal less candid and more elusive than it seems on the surface. Now, however, in Native Realm, Milosz has provided at last for the interested Westerner several key pieces of the bewildering Polish-Lithuanian puzzle which is so important to an understanding of Eastern Europe. How could Pan Tadeusz, the epic of Polish patriotism, open with the words: “Lithuania, my homeland…,” if the relationship between Pole and the land of Lithuania were not like that between the English traditionalist and the Scottish bagpipers who reduce him to tears of nationalist emotion? How could Feliks Dzierzynski, a well-born Pole from Lithuania, belong first to a party dedicated to the denial of Polish independence, transfer to Moscow as the first great Bolshevik policeman, and still have a square named after him in modern Warsaw? Why are the Polish Communists so neurotic about the Jewish element in Party history and about Zionism? To all these questions, on which an understanding of Eastern Europe in part depends, Native Realm helps to provide answers.
For Poland, in the centuries of its greatness, was not a nation state but a Commonwealth in which many peoples lived in loyalty to a crown combining the Kingdom of Poland with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Milosz’s family were Wends flying East from the German colonizations who over the centuries became Polonized Lithuamans; yet even that begs many questions. To the young Milosz, the question, “What am I?,” so far as nationality was concerned, was one of the “absurdities, like the quarrel whether Copernicus was a German or a Pole.” He owed much to his uncle, Oscar Milosz, the poet. This formidable man once owned estates on the Dnieper and was regarded as a traitor by neighboring Polish landowners because he had sold his property to Russians; in 1919 he opted to become a Lithuanian citizen (although he had to learn the language by “rummaging through dictionaries”), and ended up as a diplomatic representative of the young Lithuanian Republic in Paris. His nephew Czeslaw inherited not only the writer’s talent, but the sovereign view of traditions and prejudices around him. Or, as he puts it, “a typical East European…[who] always remains an adolescent, governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos.”
At a Catholic high school, he came to appreciate not only the gloomy aspects of Polish Catholicism (which tended “to regard sin as an offense against Canon Law”) but also the vital culture of Wilno’s great Jewish community.
Jewish boys and girls were possessed very early by the spirit of progress, and their protest against the mentality of their fathers and their religion was incomparably stronger than that of the Christians. They ridiculed superstitions, read Lenin, and usually proclaimed themselves Marxists. They took a rather dim view of the country whose citizens they were (Poland at the time)…. The Communist movement, which was weak and combated by the police, recruited its militants and sympathizers mainly from among Jewish young people, and those in our city were particularly receptive, owing to their penchant for Russia.
Many of Wilno’s young Jews and Poles were later to hold office in the Polish Communist Party: here, uncovered, is one of the sources of the lasting Polish suspicion of the “rootless cosmopolitan Jew, lacking in patriotism” and of his role in the Party.
Milosz found himself caught up in the Russian Revolution as a boy, and in Native Realm there are pages of reflection on the relationship of Poland and Russia in history which bear comparison with that most ambitious of all Polish efforts to understand the enormous neighbor, Under Western Eyes. Milosz spent time in Paris, worked for Polish Radio under the fascistic regime of the Colonels, was active in the Resistance, and witnessed (from a sardonic point of view which recalls Munk’s film Eroica) the Warsaw Rising. Afterwards, he served Peoples’ Poland for several years as a diplomat, until friends in the Party, observing his deep disillusion, made it possible for him to leave and make his home in the West.
Milosz is never sharper than when he considers the role of the petty aristocrat in Polish society. He traces the traits of the intelligentsia today to their issue from the impoverished minor nobility, who gravitated to the cities and left the stamp of the gentry on all classes, including the proletariat. Under Communism, he found that his superiors appreciated his own petty-gentry origins. That class had a disgust for usury and a contempt for (and ignorance of) capitalism which were reliable. The ideology of those superiors was “strongly marked by the atavistic resentment of the impoverished nobleman, those begetters of revolution in literature and politics.” He himself found “sadistic pleasure” in expropriating private shops and farms, and adds: “the offspring of any family ruined soon enough—that is, before the Revolution—frequently possesses the advantage of dialectical flexibility.”
That is the sort of remark which illuminates the East European intelligentsia from the inside, and in historical depth. Mr. Blumenfeld’s book is a sensitive and diligent attempt to understand the creative intellectuals as they work and exert political influence now, and it is naturally an approach from the outside. He selects one group in one country at a time and examines by chapters, for instance, Hungarian poets, television in Romania, novelists in Bulgaria, contemporary painters and composers in Poland.
He is a first-class reporter, and the best things in Seesaw are the interviews and the descriptions of his encounters. His record of a six-hour discussion with Bulgarians in the Union of Writers, while explanations of what social realism now might mean grew ever dimmer in the billows of American cigarette smoke and the whisky washed uneasily round the tumblers, is more expressive as a stage set than many paragraphs of criticism. The most impressive section of all is the chapter on Polish composers—learned and perceptive (and generously appreciative of the sustained work which poor old Polish Radio has put into its patronage of the most difficult musica nova). Many remarkable men and women, before known in the West only as names and only when stamped on by dogmatic. ideologues, come to life: the portly Gulyashky, fictional creator of a fastidious Bulgarian agent who tackles and overcomes James Bond himself, the melancholy Sandor Weöres, who is Hungary’s most interesting metaphysical poet, the Polish painter Hasior in his apartment adorned with opped-up junk.
Mr. Blumenfeld is less sure in his generalizations. In his first sentence he says that “the cultural awakening is the most meaningful development occurring in the Communist regimes,” which seems to put the cart of effect before the horse of cause. He is often very acute in isolated observations, about the absence of Freud and the prevalence of symbol, or about “the certain patient, reflective resignation” which is necessary to produce good satire. But when he looks at an environment, as in his chapter on architecture and planning particularly, he suffers from the Western reporter’s imbalance of being shocked at Eastern squalors when—perhaps—he would not cross the path of Western squalors at home. Budapest may be dirty, but for filth, noise, and civic chaos it is many degrees superior to, say, northeast London. Hungarian poets may be subjected to Byzantine subterfuges by the Party, but at least they can live by writing verse and our poets cannot. And to revert to his first sentence, I felt that Mr. Blumenfeld was drawn to judge artists too directly by the “boldness” (i.e., politically oppositional content) of what they produced in a Communist context, rather than to put the intellectuals into historical perspective as groups with a claim to authority dating back to their leading role in liberal nationalism in the last century.
In Polish Writing Today and especially in New Writing of East Europe, the intensity and integrity of a literature—as opposed to its mere political content—comes over with over-whelming force, and the two introductions to the second book, by Charles Newman and George Gömöri, recall those ancient continuities which Mr. Blumenfeld sometimes undervalues. New Writing of East Europe, for example, includes a good deal of contemporary criticism of writing from earlier periods. Jan Kott, the “Spitzbube” of modern Shakespeare studies, contributes several critical essays including one on Wyspianski’s The Liberation as revived fifty years after the playwright’s death; Czeslaw Milosz himself (many of whose translations appear in both these anthologies) discusses Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (“beautiful as an archangel”), who killed himself in 1939 after hypnotizing a Polish generation with the pessimism of his philosophical novels; Andras Sandor provides a critical essay on Attila Joszef. There are philosophical essays (Kolakowski’s on “Jesus Christ, Prophet and Reformer”), reflections on society and liberty, like the long article “on artistic freedom” by the old Slovak writer and politician, Laco Novomesky, and even a series of plates of contemporary painting, graphic art, and stage design. The Polish selection in the Penguin Writing Today consists almost exclusively of verse and fiction; a small paperback cannot attempt the total view of a culture which Gömöri and Newman achieve.
But both anthologies convey the dense and subtle quality of East European writing and thought, the matchless philosophical discipline observed by writers whose ideas have been formed amid the tensions of Marxist and Catholic and older Hegelian ideologies, and whose approach is conditioned by long and wary maneuverings against Zhdanovism and subsequent efforts to dictate the social role and function of literature. Some of the prose in these selections has a sullen, showy tendency to fling horror upon injustice into a jagged heap. The verse, on the other hand, is superb, and here pages are rightly devoted to Sandor Weöres (in the first book) and to Zbigniew Herbert, perhaps the finest poet Poland has educated since the war, in the second anthology. Here is Herbert’s delicate joke about bumbling translators:
one simply cannot reach
through the head of a flower
to its roots
so the bumble-bee gets out
I have been inside
And to those
who don’t quite believe him
he shows his nose
yellow with pollen
—which is hard on the Milosz renderings of his major poems like the famous “Elegy of Fortinbras”:
…you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view on the anthill and the clock’s dial.
Poland, Eagle in the East is a book about Poland by a foreigner which is nevertheless modest. Mr. Woods confesses in his Introduction that “to write about Poland is to walk on eggs, and this is a book I shall wish for the rest of my life I could rewrite…” and his respect before the tragedy and subtlety of Poland cautions him on every page. The Polish government asked him to write “a book” and provided him with every kind of help during his stay. They asked only that he should “look at things in the perspective of Polish history and with an awareness of Poland’s particular…problems.”
This was a fairly bold enterprise on the Polish side. As it happened, Mr. Woods found himself in Warsaw the day the student demonstrations broke out last March, and witnessed the beginning of the great convulsion which followed. Some of what he subsequently wrote, about this and other things, is very angry indeed. One suspects that the man who commissioned him to write this book is not surprised by this. To write about Poland with “perspective” and “awareness of particular problems” must either produce a mixture of rage and reverence or be a waste of time.
Mr. Woods is enthusiastic about the lively, sturdy, secure life of the miners in the Silesian industrial basin, moved by the cultural vitality of the young city of Wroclaw, haunted by the vileness and heroism of the Occupation. Other things revolt him. He considers the Party press ludicrously dull, he records the dirt and apathy he found in a rural district near Szczecin, he attacks with outrage the “Pax” organization of pro-government Catholics with its leadership of old fascists and anti-Semites. He weighs up Poland’s present leaders in the light of their attitude to the upheaval which began with the student riots and concludes reluctantly that “not one of them…tries to represent the conscience of his race.” If he has a fault, it may be his very diligence at the task of fairness, so that the complexities of Poland, that country where people often combine the best and the worst of human characteristics in their own person, are dried out into a balance-sheet of the laudable and the reprehensible in separate columns.
Mr. Woods traveled all over the country, saw progress and squalor, investigated industry and agriculture, and talked to all conditions of men. His book is an impression rather than a handbook. But he has not shirked the difficult parts: his account of the relations between Poles and Jews before, during, and after the Occupation makes a great effort to be fair in a field where others take leave of their senses. He puts together the story of the German terror and the Warsaw Rising, and makes no apology for this emphasis. “It is probably true to say that the strongest cohesive force in Poland today, second, of course, to a sense of nationality, is a loathing of the Germans.” This sentence, like the book itself, walks almost comically on eggs, but Mr. Woods completes his feat without breaking many which were not already addled.
Soviet-East European Dialogue, only now published though completed nearly two years ago, is a flat, systematic analysis of “inter-state relations.” Its conclusions are not startling, and it reads often as if it had been composed by an animated IBM machine. Moreover, a study of East European “dialogue” with the Soviet Union which confines itself to organizational analysis and ignores the development of socialist societies as agents of change seems oddly static. Some bombastic Soviet quotations enliven the booklet, but remarks like “the Red Army pushed its way into a vast power vacuum” make one wonder if human history is not just vapor on the face of a computer dial. The way from the Mozhaisk highway to the Reichstag was thought rather hard going at the time.
May 8, 1969