Czeslaw Milosz is a poet who has been run over twice, in fairly rapid succession, by the steamroller of state. Born in Lithuania in 1911, he wrote for Polish underground publications during the Nazi occupation. After a brief postwar career in the new Polish government’s diplomatic service, he sought asylum in 1951 in Paris, where he wrote his best-known book, The Captive Mind, a study of the effects of communism on authorship. Ten years later he came to America, and now teaches Slavic literatures at the University of California at Berkeley.
Of himself and his epoch Milosz writes,
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.
It is not so very different in countries where writers are free to speak exactly what words they choose. The pressures which Milosz refers to can distort a man, but absolute freedom, feather-bedded and pressureless, can distort his speech even more. The “pure and generous words” we hear today are commonly devoted either to a safely irrecoverable past or else to a fashionable image, starving refugee baby or Vietnamese peasant (I know someone who papered his room with blown-up atrocity photographs from Vietnam, for the sake of his art), to whom alas such words will do little good. Theirs is a differently disposed generosity. To people who think of artistic creation as the most “natural” of activities, as natural as breathing and as unthinking, it may be a grim consideration that there is nothing so conducive to the production of major art as having it made hard for you—but a salutary one for as long as our failure of critical nerve (make it easy: anything goes) persists.
Milosz remarked in the preface to his anthology, Post-War Polish Poetry, that the tragic history of Poland had perhaps left the Polish poet “more energetic, better prepared to assume tasks assigned to him by the human condition, than is his Western colleague.” But his argument is less simple than the one I have outlined above. The shrieking of political tyrants in one era leads to the survival of their tongue, “the tongue of dwarfs and demons,” in the writers of the next. And to a condition of insistent cynicism and ultimately an inhumanity if not of actions then of words. Thus Milosz felt it necessary to stress his “distrust of a poetry which indulges in negation and in a sterile anger at the world,” adding a few years later, lest the Penguin edition of his anthology should “help the present tendency to write ironic or sarcastic poetry,” that “irony is an ambivalent and sometimes dangerous weapon, often corroding the hand which wields it.”
Unless they are ideologists, and unless they are low…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.