The following excerpts are drawn from Czeslaw Milosz’s forthcoming A Year of the Hunter, a diary of 1987 and 1988.
At night, right after returning from a screening at Wheeler Hall of the Soviet film Repentance, with the director [Tengiz Abuladze] present, the auditorium full, an audience of several thousand. An amazing film. Abuladze’s answers to questions from the audi-ence demonstrate his deftness as homo sovieticus….
Abuladze quoted some American’s remark to the effect that such an honest and open film could not be made in America. This is nonsense, the usual American chest-beating. The truth is that such a film could not be made in America for entirely different reasons than a lack of honesty. I saw the capitalist financing of films in prewar Poland by the owners of movie theaters, who dictated what should be in the films. That old Polish capitalism is to American capitalism as a street in Drohobycz, as described in Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, is to an American street. The American crocodiles who finance films make sure that they contain the appropriate dose of sex and violence and, if possible, of madness, illness, and perversion, too. Another factor is unconscious infection by a dehumanizing atmosphere which paralyzes the imagination independently of any financial concerns.
What if one were to investigate the political tendencies of particular individuals, tracing them back to their innate features, their character? Then my permanent aversion to capitalism would turn out to be more or less the same as my aversion to nature. The reason is a feeling of menace, my revulsion against brutality, pity, all mixed together, difficult to disentangle. All my observations of cruelty in nature. “The cry of the hare as it is torn to pieces fills the forest.” And my consciousness, perhaps even exaggerated, of the fate of the poor in America, their miserable neighborhoods, their hard labor, their fear of unemployment, also the hell of the inner-city ghetto. America does not threaten me. I experienced success in America, but so what? It is not out of the question that, sufficiently protected by my industriousness and my ability to submit to discipline, I would not have perished in America under any circumstances. Still, I could never assent to the state of nature—that is, that each person should have to live as if he is constantly endangered, as in the time of the cavemen. Of course, capitalism is natural; whoever wants something different is going against the elementary right of survival of the strong, and no one knows if attempts at escaping from that right can be successful.
Almost every day, Public Television airs nature programs, mainly for young people. About spiders, fish, lizards, coyotes, animals of the desert or of alpine meadows, and so on. The technical excellence of the photography doesn’t prevent me from considering these programs obscene. Because what they show offends our human, moral understanding—not only offends it, but subverts it, for the thesis of these programs is: You see, that’s how it is in Nature; therefore, it is natural; and we, too, are a part of Nature, we belong to the evolutionary chain, and we have to accept the world as it is. If I turn off the television, horrified, disgusted by the images of mutual indifferent devouring, and also by the mind of the man who filmed it, is it because I am capable of picturing what this looks like when translated into the life of human society? But the children, those millions of young minds, are they able to watch this with impunity since they don’t associate anything with the blind cruelty of Nature? Or, without realizing it, are they being slowly and systematically poisoned by those masters of photography who also do not know what they are doing?
I read the following in a journal devoted to the humanities in the American high school [The Humanities and the Nation, an official publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities]:
The refusal to remember, as Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz argues, is the principal characteristic of our age. There are certainly numerous examples demonstrating that it is the principal characteristic of our nation. We hear of students who do not know that George Washington led the American army in the War of Independence, that there was a Second World War, that Spanish and not Latin is the main language of Latin America. National surveys reveal shocking gaps in knowledge. According to studies conducted recently by the Hearst Corporation, 45 percent of those who responded to the survey believed that Marx’s pronouncement, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” can be found in the United States Constitution.
So, I have emerged as a reformer of the American educational system, or at least I am an inspiration for it. I, who have something to say about collective memory if only because my children began their study of history in Brie-Comte-Robert with the sentence Nos ancêtres les Gaulois… “Our ancestors, the Gauls, had blond hair and blue eyes.” So, memory is structured in a particular fashion which is totally at odds with the French Revolution’s slogan that one belongs to La Nation by choice.
And what if it were true that the less memory there is, the fewer the occasions for indoctrination; the more memory, the greater the temptation to arrange it in preselected patterns? Furthermore, a given collectivity’s memory is linked with pain and humiliation. One remembers what hurt. The Jews remember. The Poles remember. Comparatively speaking, the historical knowledge of Polish youth is immense; it sustains national legends and is renewed by them. A question: How to preserve the most memory possible with the lowest possible dose of indoctrination?
The horror of this world. I once read something about Cézanne’s youth. Now, he was sensitive to horror, but you wouldn’t guess it from his later canvases. His early painting is violent, obsessive, sarcastic, grotesque, hostile to sexuality. One should remember that sex, like death, introduces a true, pitiless measure into a sphere where the deceptive colors of mellowness somehow manage to hang on. I am thinking of the Marquise Brie-Serrant and her daughter from my poem about the little town of Pornic. “Drunken men punished them for their pride.” To have their thighs forced apart and a revoltingly alien organ stuffed into their virginal vagina has been the fate, after all, of innumerable women from time immemorial. But the reverse is true, too—the terror experienced by innumerable young lads when confronted by the rapacious, perhaps toothed, maw of the female genitalia.
Whenever I see a daddy longlegs spider moving across a smooth floor on its long legs, or recall the dreamy but ominous movement of a snake as it coils, I think about my own death. To abandon this earth, sever my ties with it? How should I do this? How many more illnesses, or the slow ebbing of my strength, still await me? It’s better not to write about horror and to be satisfied that somehow or other I have isolated myself from it by praising tangible forms in spite of it, just like the mature Cézanne.
August 11, 1994