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.

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