Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Native Realm I

For a number of reasons my reading has been curtailed a little over the last few days, but I am making progress in Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz, and finding it quite worthwhile. I'm a third of the way through the book, which is a memoir about his life and development from his childhood to the 1950's and includes a lot of history as a result of the time and place. Milosz's background was Lithuanian, from a landowning family that had seen better days. This put him in a class that is almost nonexistent in the U.S., because he was aware that he came from a better family than most, and in his culture the lack of money did not diminish his self-conception; like some Europeans, he considered the pursuit of wealth vulgar and lower-class:

My "place" did not correspond in the least to what is known as the "bourgeois way of life." Along with my feeling that one should know who one is went a pinched pocketbook and enforced curtailment of my personal needs. My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries....If the urge to earn and spend money testifies to the acquisitive spirit, it was the opposite attitude that took root in me – a passive vitality. When I was down to my last penny, I preferred to go to bed. That way the organism consumes less, and one can go without dinner and supper. This may have been largely a question of personal pride, but it was surely not unrelated to the scale of values considered proper for my social group, which had inherited, if not privileges, at least the strong persuasion that wage-earning was somehow below a man's dignity....

Besides, I was a poet; that is, a so-called intellectual. Although such a profession depends on strictly personal factors, my choice was not made, or so I think, without some social motivation. A society that clearly distinguishes an individual's social status from the amount of money he is worth – i.e., when the one does not determine the other – is applying a scale of values that is, in one sense or another, aristocratic. Thus, for the Eastern European the drive to gain recognition in the sphere of literature, science, or art has all the earmarks of a search for identity formerly conferred by a coat of arms. Nowhere outside of this part of Europe does the artist, writer, or scholar enjoy such exceptional privileges, and this is not the result of transformations brought about by the Communist Party, which understood just enough to make use of such a setup. Exceptional privileges and a high income do not always have to go together, because money can be replaced by fame; nor must they necessarily go with freedom, for the state, even as it tames and subjugates an artist or scientist, by this very effort pays homage to his role and his importance. It is interesting that only in France is there a similar respect for the intellectual – but, as has often been remarked, the ways of the cultural milieu of Paris resemble the behavior at a royal court. In the bourgeois world one islet has survived where poverty is not a disgrace: when it is decorated with a title; that is, publicity.

Although the era described is receding into ancient history – much of the book covers the period between the World Wars – some of the same cultural phenomena exist today, but not noticeably in the U.S. To find an American intellectual who accords with Milosz's description you would probably have to go back to the nineteenth century: Henry David Thoreau comes to mind. Milosz did not move to the U.S. until 1960, after this book was written, and it would be interesting to know what impression he had of intellectual life here. Notably he was at best a minor contributor to the New York Review of Books, which inclines me to think that his worldview had little in common with their editor's. From my vantage point the NYRB looks like a cut-and-dried bourgeois publication, though I suppose it is possible that Milosz himself became more bourgeois in his later years. Perhaps he did his best work – essays – before arriving here: I can't say that his poems impress me.

Milosz doesn't devote much space in the book to his parents. His father was a civil engineer who worked for Czarist Russia before the revolution, and sometimes he took the entire family with him in a covered wagon or an army railroad car while he worked on construction projects in the Russian hinterlands. He was energetic and loved the outdoors, hunting, etc. His mother seems to have influenced him more deeply:

The tangle of contradictions I see in myself becomes clearer when I try to understand the principles that guided her up to her calmly accepted death in the typhus epidemic during the mass migrations of 1945. Seemingly weak and frivolous, she used superficiality as a mask and delighted in playing a role because it led the people off the track. Her relationships were formed at the least cost to herself, and showed her not as she really was but as others expected her to be. Doubtless this mimicry was the result of a disbelief in her own worth and a complete inability to take command, or, possibly, of pride: "What I know is not for others." Under the surface there was stubbornness, gravity, and the strong conviction that suffering is sent by God and that it should be borne cheerfully. Still another trait of hers was patriotism, but not toward the nation or the state – she responded rather coolly to that brand. Instead, she taught me a patriotism of "home"; i.e., of my native province.

Milosz spent his high school and college years in Vilnius, which was under Russian control before World War I, under German control during the war and then intermittently controlled by Poland, the Soviet Union and Lithuania. In 1922 Poland annexed Vilnius, and it remained Polish until the Soviets returned it to Lithuania in 1939. Later on, in the years of the Holocaust, nearly the entire Jewish population of Lithuania was killed by Nazis and Nazi collaborators. The variety of cultures and languages present in Vilnius influenced Milosz's development:

In a certain sense I consider myself a typical Eastern European. It seems to be true that his differentia specifica can be boiled down to a lack of form – both inner and outer. His good qualities – intellectual avidity, fervor in discussion, a sense of irony, freshness of feeling, spatial (or geographical) fantasy – derive from a basic weakness: he always remains an adolescent, governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos. Form is achieved in stable societies. My own case is to verify how much of an effort it takes to absorb contradictory traditions, norms, and an overabundance of impressions, and to put them in some kind of order. The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident. If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one's feet on solid ground without falling....Where I grew up, there was no uniform gesture, no social code, no clear rules of behavior at table. Practically every person I met was different, not because of his own special self, but as a representative of some group, class, or nation. One lived in the twentieth century, another in the nineteenth, a third in the fourteenth....Modern civilization, it is said, creates uniform boredom and destroys individuality. If so, then this is one sickness I've been spared.

As you can see, Milosz was an excellent writer and thinker, at least before he moved to the U.S. I'll continue later when I've read more of the book.

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