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.

No comments:

Post a Comment