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…
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