Sunday, December 31, 2017

Milosz: A Biography III

Surprisingly, the war years in Warsaw were among the happiest in Milosz's life. He and Janka were well-matched intellectually, and she was often the first to critique his writing. There was a rare camaraderie among the intellectuals during the Nazi occupation, and although they faced privations, they were able to survive adequately by trading on the black market. They wrote articles, met regularly, discussed issues and even created books by hand using a needle and razors. Since few regular jobs were available, they did not face the burden of humdrum workweeks. Milosz refined some of his ideas, such as the one requiring art to reveal something beyond "art for art's sake." In discussions with others, the question of the viability of democracy came up in relation to the fact that it had enabled Hitler's rise to power. He did not participate in active resistance to the Nazis and defined his role more as an observer and chronicler, and he considered the young members of the resistance irresponsible in their risk-taking and use of violence. Around the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, which was followed by the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, in which the Polish Resistance launched a major offensive against the Nazis, conditions deteriorated to the point where Warsaw finally became uninhabitable. Franaszek is a little light on details here, perhaps because he wrote for Polish readers who would be familiar with these events. Milosz and Janka escaped to southern Poland for the remainder of the war.

When the war ended, Milosz was in a strong position for obtaining a job as a diplomat, since he was fluent in English and French and had also translated into Polish. Although he had never been a Stalinist, his credentials as a communist sympathizer were adequate for the time. He was appointed cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in New York. His initial impression of the U.S. was completely negative. He was appalled by the mindlessness and conformity of the public and saw this particular capitalist environment as far more effective at thought control than any existing communist regime. Since his job involved cross-cultural exchanges, he traveled all over the country, and usually he was unimpressed. For example, he described Los Angeles as "a small hell-hole with no imagination, consisting of palm trees and nothing." The habit in America was a blatantly unreflective life, which he abhorred. Although he held a lowly position, his accurate and concise reports soon led to his promotion, and he was transferred to the embassy in Washington, D.C.

While he was a diplomat, a couple of new aspects of Milosz's personality become apparent. One is that, by contemporary standards, he was a womanizer. He met Janka in 1937, and they had sons in 1947 and 1951, but, partly because of Janka's preexisting marriage, they did not marry until 1956. He was impressive as a public speaker, and this seems to have made him a rock star in the eyes of intellectual women. Although he remained married to Janka until her death in 1986, their relationship seems to have declined after 1956, and he was seeing other women before and after that. Franaszek has not so far provided much analysis of this behavior, but I am inclined to think that the attention of women was an ego-boost to Milosz and reveals a hunger for recognition, which I don't consider a positive trait. The other aspect is that he actively sought contact with the most distinguished people whom he could find and often attempted to establish friendships with them. There seem to be two sides to this phenomenon. Part of it had to do with seeking a father figure and mentor to replace Oskar Milosz, who had died in 1939. Quite incongruously, he sought guidance and help from Albert Einstein on several occasions. Although Einstein seems to have thought well of him and praised The Captive Mind, he had none of Milosz's artistic angst and little interest in political ideology. I doubt that Einstein read poetry. It is odd that a minor Polish diplomat who, until about 1953, had little name recognition as a writer, managed to meet T.S. Eliot, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, Randall Jarrell, Henry Miller and Albert Camus, among others. Some of these contacts occurred as a matter of course through his job as a diplomat, but I suspect that he endeavored to increase his name recognition and to enhance his future prospects, and in this respect he can be construed as a shameless networker.

Another vague section of the book concerns the changing political conditions in Poland during Milosz's diplomatic career. Apparently, Soviet influence made politics in Poland increasingly ideologically rigid, and Milosz was eventually seen as a liability as Poland evolved into a puppet state. In 1950, his loyalty was questioned, his passport was confiscated, and he was reassigned to the embassy in Paris. At this point, he decided to defect, taking political asylum in France, and went into hiding near Paris, assisted by the conservative Polish émigrés who published Kultura, a right-leaning journal. He was under great stress for some time. Janka and his sons were still in the U.S., and he was unable to obtain a visa to travel there. Moreover, he detested the U.S. and would have preferred to remain in France, while Janka, who was more practical, wanted to stay in the U.S., because it was safer and a better place to raise her sons. Milosz came under attack from both émigrés and current Poles for defecting, though many of them were merely jealous. He fretted about the loss of his Polish identity and became emotionally unstable, considering suicide. However, he eventually settled down and wrote The Captive Mind, which seems to have been the game changer in his life and is probably his most significant work. Later that year, 1953, Janka and the children came to live with him in France.

Milosz remains interesting to me primarily because of his critique of intellectuals. I have yet to find any of his poems appealing, and I don't think that I would like his novel, The Issa Valley. However, he was also a complex person, and I enjoy pondering his psychodynamics, and this biography provides ample material for that purpose. I part company with Milosz's ideas in important ways, because I don't care at all about religion, and, not having what he would consider a "homeland," with associated nostalgic connotations like the ones that he invokes in Native Realm, I have no sense of missing something that previously constituted an important part of my life. So I am left with the feeling that Milosz led an interesting life, but that his contribution, other than expressing the value of poetry, has been merely to point out the deficiencies of intellectuals with respect to improving the human condition. I take a more skeptical view of human potential than he does: I don't expect people to come up with systems that will serve mankind well indefinitely, and, while there are perils, I see more promise in artificial intelligence than in the ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx or anyone else, past or future. For me, it is now well-established that the majority of intellectuals are poseurs if you view them in a long-term historical context.

I'm only up to 1956, and Milosz lived until 2004, so I'll have at least one more post on this book.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Milosz: A Biography II

1931 was a confusing year in Milosz's life, and he was not completely forthright about it in his public writings. Franaszek makes an admirable effort to sort it all out, but some of the details may be lost forever. Milosz established a friendship with the successful poet, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, and visited him in Warsaw; he made the river trip to Paris that I mentioned in my comments on Native Realm and began a romantic relationship with fellow law student, Jadwiga Waszkiewicz, the younger daughter of a wealthy Wilno gynecologist. Franaszek speculates that she later became pregnant and had an abortion. It seems that Milosz did not want to get married, and they broke up permanently in 1935. Late in 1931, Milosz decided to transfer to Warsaw University to finish his law degree, and it isn't clear why. Franaszek thinks that, due to his inability in mathematics, he may have been worried about flunking a statistics course, which he would have been required to take at Wilno in order to complete his degree, and that he may have thought that Warsaw would be a preferable location for establishing his career as a poet. As it turned out, the students at Warsaw University were much wealthier and better prepared than he was, and Milosz flunked out after just one semester, returning to Wilno.

So far, the only "character" issue that has arisen has had to do with why Milosz broke up with Jadwiga. From the point of view of her family, he was a narcissist and took no responsibility for his actions. It may have been that he simply did not want to be forced to marry and support a family at the cost of destroying his ambitions as a poet. At first glance, this Machiavellian attitude does not seem admirable, but in the long run it may have been a good choice. He was only twenty-four at the time, and, to put it in a familiar context, I have been thinking about my own situation when I was twenty-three. I was living with my then-girlfriend in Columbus, Ohio, and her parents decided that we should either get married or break up, since cohabitation of an unmarried couple was unacceptable within their milieu. I don't think that they had much interest in our well-being, and their motivation seems to have been to maintain their carefully cultivated public image as conservative, small-town bourgeoisie. I attempted to avert the marriage but was forced to choose, and, not having any particular plans or good advice at that time from any source, I acceded to their demands, and we were married in February, 1974. Certainly, it was not an optimal marriage for me. As time passed, my ex-wife-to-be increasingly seemed stupid, self-centered and cold, in addition to possessing the unpleasant neurosis that runs in her family, and, though she wouldn't admit it then or now, she was obsessed with her perceived social rank, which was always lower than she thought, and her self-appraisal seemed ludicrous to me given her deficiencies in social skills. In fact, one of the reasons why I had been attracted to her in the first place had been that she needed help. As for her family, although we always remained on cordial terms, they were of no benefit to me whatsoever with respect to emotional or practical support, and conversationally they fell into the category of boring, provincial Midwesterners. On the whole I would say that I got no benefit from that eleven-year marriage, unless you count children, and in hindsight I would not repeat that mistake. My entire experience in the Midwest, spanning about four decades, now looks like a complete waste of time, but that's a different story which I won't delve into now. Therefore, even though Jadwiga Waszkiewicz seems to have been superior to my ex-wife, I can't say that Milosz made an error by not marrying her. They communicated by letter late in their lives, but did not meet again.

Milosz completed law school in Wilno in 1934 and then received a scholarship to study French language and literature in Paris for a year. This proved to be a confidence-builder for him, as Paris was the cultural center of Europe, and his uncle, Oskar Milosz, had lived there for many years and was well known in literary circles. I think that Czeslaw's trajectory as a writer was significantly derived from a model he picked up from Oskar, though in writing style and ideas they probably diverged considerably. Milosz partook in literary and political discussions, museums and brothels and circulated among both émigré Polish groups and native Parisians. When he returned to Wilno, which was then part of Poland, in late 1935, his life began to take on a ho-hum tone. He held a boring position at Polish Radio. In 1936 he published a volume of his poems, Three Winters, which was well-received by critics and launched his career. The political atmosphere was becoming polarized, with right-wing Polish nationalists on one side and communist sympathizers on the other. Milosz was not particularly radical, but he was too left-wing for the Polish administrator in charge of the Wilno radio station and was fired in 1937. He then managed to get a job at Polish Radio in Warsaw and moved there. At this job he met his future wife, Janina (Janka) Cekalska. Janka was married to someone else at the time, but this did not prevent them from developing a relationship.

In 1939, all hell broke loose when Germany invaded Poland at the onset of World War II. The invasion seems to have caught the Poles off guard, and few were prepared for it. At the time, Milosz and Janka were in different locations and became separated for some time. He hoped to reunite in Paris but was unable to make the arrangements. She remained stranded in Warsaw, and he, by a circuitous route through Soviet Ukraine, became stranded back in Wilno. The lives of most Poles were imperiled by Nazi bombing and the Soviet Army. Stalin, like Vladimir Putin today, was itching to seize more territory. Traveling without the proper documents meant almost certain death, and several of Milosz's friends died during this period. Milosz himself was already fairly well-connected in Poland because of his literary reputation, and he felt guilty about the advantages that he received with the help of wealthy acquaintances of whom he tended to disapprove because of their unearned privileges. Finally, he made the perilous journey from Wilno to Warsaw in 1940, as described in Native Realm, was reunited with Janka, and remained there for the duration of the war.

I am finding Milosz's life quite engrossing, and will continue on this biography as time permits over the next few weeks. The author, Franaszek, not only has done his homework, but he has also done a good job ferreting out Milosz's emotional state at each phase of the story, which is something that not all biographers do well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Milosz: A Biography I

I'm making some progress in this biography of Czeslaw Milosz by Andrzej Franaszek and, as is my custom, will comment on it as I go. Ever since I read about Milosz in a 2010 article by Tony Judt, he has intrigued me, though I was also quite impressed by the poetry collection, A Book of Luminous Things, which he edited and I read in 1996. More recently, I found Milosz's The Captive Mind and Native Realm instructive. As a person with intellectual interests, I have been deeply disappointed with the intellectual climate in which I've spent my life, and the only writers I've found who have anything of value to say on this subject have been Tony Judt and Czeslaw Milosz, though there may be others of whom I am unaware.

Milosz was born in a time and place that guaranteed a challenging life: Lithuania, 1911. World War I began when he was three, the Bolshevik Revolution began and Lithuania declared independence from Russia when he was six, parts of Lithuania were seized by Poland when he was seven, the Great Depression began when he was eighteen, and World War II began when he was twenty-eight. Although he had aristocratic Lithuanian ancestry on both sides, the family had little money, and his father worked somewhat unsuccessfully as a civil engineer. He spent some of his childhood at family estates, where he learned to appreciate the outdoors and often hunted, and most of his educational years in Wilno (Vilnius), where he attended a Catholic gymnasium and studied law at Wilno University.

During his earliest years he was home-schooled by his mother, and when he began to attend school, he was deficient in some areas, particularly in math. Although, with his outdoor proclivities, he tended to be a naturalist and was interested in Darwin, literature and poetry soon became his focus. From his father he inherited a tendency toward adventurism, and this played out at first in his reading interests. Wilno was surprisingly diverse and intellectually rich for a small city, and he became aware of the various ethnicities, though in those days, as was the case throughout Europe, they remained segregated. Like the majority of the people, he was poor during his childhood and adolescence, and at one time he owned only a single pair of socks, which he darned himself. He has not had any romantic life so far in the book, perhaps because of his shyness, his somewhat unattractive appearance and the shortage of money, but it is possible that he had some sexual encounters with prostitutes, as was common then.

At this stage in my reading, he is nineteen and pursuing his law degree, which in some respects includes an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, while working at a literary journal and participating in poetry readings. Already, he seems to be trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance that he is experiencing. The main elements of that, as far as I can tell, are the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between religious faith, ideology and the role of the artist and intellectual in society. Especially in this early period of his life, Milosz exudes idealism, but in his case it is accompanied by a moral seriousness that I find rare. He is showing signs of impatience with frivolous, stylized poetry and disgust for the facile, fashionable ideologies of the so-called intelligentsia. His distant uncle, Oskar Milosz, whom he met on his first trip to Paris, became a role model to him as a poet, and perhaps infused in him a respect for religion, to which he was otherwise disinclined. I would have preferred it if Czeslaw Milosz had not clung to religion, but if you look at the world from his point of view, it offered a perspective which was not tainted in the manner of political ideology or aesthetic tastes, and it provided a basis, however artificial, for making moral judgments. I am willing to cut him a lot of slack on his religious beliefs, because in his case they gave him a platform for questioning the less-substantial positions that were adopted by the ideologues and artists around him. As I have noted, a better-known intellectual of the postwar period, Jean-Paul Sartre, while an atheist, was a hypocrite regarding the brutality of Stalin's regime. The intellectuals to whom I've been exposed in the U.S. are typically protected by academic moats and rarely venture out into the world; when they do voice opinions, they tend to follow party lines without demonstrating any understanding of the underlying problems. This is why Tony Judt referenced The Captive Mind during the Iraq War, and the same conformity and careerism prevails today within the extant crop of American intellectuals. To my knowledge, they have not provided any conceptual frameworks which might have prevented the Iraq War, the Great Recession or the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump. Milosz, though perhaps not correct on every point, deserves careful consideration, while they do not. For me, Milosz represents a kind of seriousness that is almost nonexistent in the U.S. I think that the circumstances of his life played a significant role in the formation of his identity as an intellectual, and that such circumstances may never have been experienced by any Americans, so in a way it is understandable that Americans of all educational levels carry on in their infantile fashion. However, the whole point of being or claiming to be an intellectual rests, in my opinion, on the ability to distill information that is not readily discernible in one's immediate environment, and in the absence of that ability one begins to crave the arrival of an adult upon the scene.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Those of you who have no interest in rodents will be pleased to know that my removal efforts have been successful, and I probably won't write about them again for some time. In the recent case, it seems that mice had chewed an entry to the house at the intersection of the dormer roof and the main roof. The roofers hadn't covered the niche adequately, and mice were free to gnaw on exposed wood in a protected location. They probably established nests in the attic by late summer and had sufficient time for one or two litters and the collection of a food hoard from outside. There was no evidence of them in the house until they traveled down to the basement through the walls later on. As I caught them I released them in the yard until late November, at which point I began to transport them farther away. I then caught three additional mice, and those appear to have been the last ones. The last mouse, unlike the others, didn't defecate at all while in the trap, which leads me to think that it had run out of food and had come looking for it in the basement. A secondary mouse entrance was created when they chewed through an exposed crack in the wood at the side of the house underneath the bay window on the ground floor. I had to cut a hole in the side of the bay window in order to gain access. This mouse entrance was noticed immediately, because I could hear them gnawing, and they didn't have time to establish nests before being blocked out. I used steel wool and mouse-resistant foam to block the holes.

The previous owners of the house appear to have done little or nothing about mouse prevention, as there were mouse droppings everywhere when we moved in. When I installed a new dishwasher, I found that the insulation around the old dishwasher was full of mouse droppings, indicating that mice had been nesting directly in the kitchen. Now, after six years of mouse-blocking, the house has become more secure, and it may take several years for another episode.

It occurred to me that a writer could turn this into a story called "The Last Mouse," reminiscent of Krasznahorkai or Kafka. Kafka's unfinished story, "The Burrow," is written from the point of view of a mole-or-vole-like creature going about its paranoid underground life. However, because I am a realist, fanciful writing tends to annoy me, because it distorts what actually occurs in nature. Kafka's story, which I found entertaining, was about an anthropocentric mole and actually expressed nothing more than Kafka's psychological state. I have noticed, in particular, that although mouse behavior seems complex enough to imply advanced cognition, mice really operate more like sophisticated algorithms. Because mice have different solutions to problems that they encounter in their environment, one might mistakenly come to believe that they improvise and adapt when in fact they are hard-wired to react according to instructions encoded in their genes over millions of years. To the extent that humans are like mice, it is in their inability to transcend their deterministic impulses inherited from their distant ancestors. The difference is that the automatic responses that work for mice are more inclusive than the automatic responses of humans, whose evolutionary path has made genetically-based algorithmic solutions insufficient for solving many of the kinds of problems we currently encounter. In particular, we have altered our environment to the extent that our ancestors would not be at all comfortable living in it. Thus, although we do have many automatic responses like mice, we also need the "slow thinking" referred to by Daniel Kahneman in order to solve many of our problems, and this is well beyond the capabilities of mice.

Speaking of infestations, things are starting to look good regarding the Trump infestation at the White House. Robert Mueller seems to be hitting pay dirt by delving into Trump's banking records. From my point of view, there is no plausible explanation for Trump's deferential behavior toward Vladimir Putin that excludes the likelihood that Putin has the goods on Trump, probably with respect to illegal financial dealings, but perhaps also in other areas. It is difficult to know exactly how this will play out, but I am hoping that Trump will leave office before the end of his first term. In the meantime, I am enjoying some of the high quality satire that is being produced now.

I continue to read the biography of Milosz, but without much enthusiasm, as the chapters on his early life draw heavily from Native Realm, which I read previously. With any luck, my reading will accelerate and I'll have something to say before long.