Thursday, May 19, 2016

Native Realm II

I've finished the book and will continue where I left off. Milosz's high school was Catholic, and his Roman Catholic background was reinforced there, particularly by one teacher who taught his pupils that sex was repugnant. Milosz had strong heterosexual drives and did manage to find sexual partners later on, but as far as I am able to ascertain he did not have a serious relationship with a woman until he was in his thirties. After high school he studied law in Vilnius and began to associate with intellectuals. He joined the Vagabonds, a group that disdained snobbery and fraternities, and they arranged wilderness outings for themselves. In June of 1931 they traveled to Prague and bought a used Canadian canoe, transported it by train to Lake Constance in Bavaria, and set off down the Rhine, hoping to follow its tributaries to get as close as possible to Paris. However, they didn't consult their map carefully enough, and their canoe capsized and sank when they unexpectedly passed through rapids and struck a rock. They were thrown out of the canoe along with their knapsacks and were able to recover two of them and the canoe, but the one containing their passports and money was lost. Nevertheless, they did manage, after many delays and the help of others, to make it to Paris by other means.

After college, in 1934, Milosz got a scholarship to study literature in Paris for a year. He spent time with a distant uncle there, Oskar Milosz, an eccentric poet who became a Roman Catholic mystic late in life, whom he had met on his first trip. This may have reinforced Czeslaw's fledgling self-image as a Catholic poet, and throughout the book Milosz's inner conflicts seem to contain a religious element that, while not a straightforward presentation of church doctrine, represents how he sees the good part of himself. When he returned to Vilnius he became a bureaucrat, a job that he didn't like at all: was not long, however, before I had made up my mind (later my conclusions were verified) that bureaucrats are parasites, paid not for what they do but for being in this or that room, behind this or that desk, from morning to evening. Every month they receive salaries that have nothing to do with any completed achievement but depend on their place in the hierarchy.  

In 1940, when the Soviets controlled Lithuania, life in Vilnius had become miserable and, with the help of a woman he knew, he devised a complex, risky and perhaps foolish plan to escape to Nazi-occupied Warsaw. At the last minute Sophia said that they would have to take along a third person, a pharmacist, in order to pay the guides at each stage of the journey. The pharmacist was completely inept, unkempt and terrified during the trip, and Milosz nicknamed him "Slob." One of the most harrowing events of the book, but also one of the funniest, occurs when they cross a large swamp between Lithuania and Prussia on foot in the middle of the night:

I felt at home in such swamps, and I have always been affected by their somewhat melancholy beauty. The smooth sheet of water shone with an oily gleam between clumps of vegetation, and here and there on it a motionless piece of dry leaf floated. We broke into it and sank up to our knees, then up to our thighs. Slob still strained our tempers because he splashed, caught himself in bushes, and fell behind, forcing us to go back and pull him out of the brambles. When the water reached our waists, he managed to go under, calling out in a hoarse gurgle for help. In the moonlight I caught a glimpse of his exhausted, inhumanly mud-smeared face. Sophia preserved her sense of humor. In a mutual effort we rescued her from a treacherous quagmire where she had sunk up to her shoulders and was afraid to move for fear the mud would suck her in. Almost naked in her clinging dress, she smiled, "I lost my panties."  

He eventually made it to Warsaw, where he stayed for most of the remainder of the war and met his first wife. As fate would have it, after the war Milosz became the Second Secretary at the Embassy of People's Poland in New York and Washington, D.C., where he lived with his family for several years (though he doesn't mention them here). I was fascinated to read his description of the area where I moved with my family a few years later:

...I liked New York, I liked to melt into her crowds. Most of all I got to know the American countryside, which restored me, after a prolonged interval, to my boyhood. Like all Europeans I had painted for myself a false picture of technology's reign in America, imagining that nothing was left to nature. In reality her nature was more luxuriant even than the wooded regions where I grew up, where the farmer, plowing with a wooden plow, had for centuries been wreaking effective destruction. Outside of New York City, the asphalt highways were like swords thrown into the thickets to signify that man belonged to a different order, that he was fundamentally a stranger to the snakes, turtles, chipmunks, and skunks who perished under the wheels of cars trying to cross the unnatural band; the place where their line of march intersected the line of the driver's will somehow resembled the encounter of human destinies with the intentions of the godhead. I plunged into books on American flora and fauna, made diplomatic contracts with porcupines and beavers in Pennsylvania, but I was most drawn to the Northern states: Vermont and Maine.

In these early years, before he had defected from Poland, his view of Americans was mixed, to put it mildly:

Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.

All their aggressiveness had been channeled into the struggle for money, and that struggle made them forget the bloody lessons of the Civil War. Later on every one of them had so trained himself to forget, that during the depression he regarded unemployment as shameful proof of his own personal inability. I esteemed these men; I was an admirer of their America. At least no one here could justify his laziness by sighing: "If only nations were not predestined, if it weren't for the Czar, if it weren't for the government, if it weren't for the bourgeoisie..." But, paradoxically, that triumph of the individual had wrought an inner sterility; they had inner souls of shiny plastic.

This book is a good companion to his better-known work, The Captive Mind, which was written a few years earlier. In that context, Milosz describes himself as a practitioner of Ketman, i.e., the presentation of conformity outwardly while holding entirely different thoughts privately when living in a totalitarian regime. In the years described in this book he lived under Soviet ideology, Nazi ideology and then communist Polish ideology before escaping to the West. He doesn't specifically describe his feelings in terms of survivor's guilt, with so many of his friends and acquaintances having perished, but it is difficult to think of his personal conflicts outside that context. He at least recognizes that his innate survival skills served him well, but at a cost to his integrity as an intellectual. He tended to look at Eastern Europe in historical terms, with the Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Germans each having their own cultures and distinct views of the others. Where he sees himself falling short is in his inability to adopt any of the prevailing ideologies while failing to come up with a coherent substitute of his own. This makes him seem to lack real character when compared to those around him who were willing to take more definite stands at the risk of their lives in some instances.

I don't at this point feel that I have enough information about Milosz to draw much of a conclusion about him as a person. The book, he states, is not a diary. It is difficult to disentangle his inborn characteristics from his cultural background and the horrendous times that he lived through. I suspect that he was always introverted and had developed escapist habits before his trials started. While it is hard for me to understand someone who selects poetry as a career, in this instance it allowed him to maintain a healthy distance from the widely-accepted dogma favoring Marxism that was mindlessly lapped up by other intellectuals well after its tenability as a desirable system of governance had been discredited. Milosz may have been in over his head philosophically, but the only criticism I have of him is that the Roman Catholic Church seems to have been his most important resource. If he could see through Marxism, why couldn't he see through religion? That would perhaps be too much to ask of him, and in any case nothing can diminish his stature as one of the finest chroniclers of the great crises of the twentieth century. I might add that A Book of Luminous Things, a much later work, is the only decent poetry anthology I've been able to find; it contains an excellent collection of world poems and inspired me to take a second look at poetry after I had given up on it. His comment about plastic American souls rings true today, and I don't know of any of our current crop of American writers who have the insight or courage to say as much.

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