Monday, January 8, 2018

Milosz: A Biography IV

After his family's arrival in France, Milosz continued to live near Paris and worked as a journalist. They bought a house in 1957. Janka was preoccupied with raising the two boys, who became trilingual, speaking English, French and Polish, while Milosz struggled to earn enough money to support them. He developed a knack for churning out articles and translating poetry to and from Polish, though he did not feel that he had enough time left for writing poetry. The Captive Mind was very well received by intellectuals, but its sales were dismal. The Issa Valley, his first novel, also sold poorly. As it happened, the Department of Slavic Languages at UC Berkeley was expanding, and he was offered a job there as a Visiting Lecturer in 1960. He accepted, and this improved his family's financial state considerably; he was promoted to Professor with tenure after only one year.

His life in the U.S. from 1960 onward had ups and downs, and he never became completely acclimated to the American environment. Physically, Northern California felt harsh and alien to him; it seemed hostile and imposing, and he missed the seasons of Poland and Lithuania. He also missed the warmth and openness of the Polish people and found Americans cold and boring. During the Vietnam War, Berkeley became a hotbed of student protest, and he initially supported the students. However, by the late 1960's, the protests had become out of hand, with pointless destruction and incoherent ideologies, and he would not be bullied by protesters, whom he called to their faces "the spoilt children of the bourgeoisie," which, according to Franaszek, earned their respect.

Milosz's position within the department was unique, and he had little in common with the other faculty members, who were Ph.D.'s with academic specialties, while he was a lecturer who covered broad topics of his choice. He became a popular lecturer and enjoyed flirting with his female students. Some of his funniest episodes are described here:

Departmental gossip held no appeal for him, and he was bored by cocktail parties and chit-chat about trivial matters. On social occasions he would get drunk very early on and invite guests to participate in a game Gombrowicz devised, which he passed off as a venerable Polish tradition; this involved lying on the floor and creating a tangle of bodies. He appears to have had a strong compulsion to try to hit on women students. As this most certainly did not meet with Janka's approval, she quickly put an end to his partying. Often she endeavoured to instruct him in good manners and the correct code of behavior, telling him off as if he were a little boy when he had had too much to drink or ate too quickly or did not sit properly at the table. It is possible that she did not realize that these social failings were indicative of a core sensuality within him and a hunger for intense, 'naked' sensations, unrestrained by conventions.

In Berkeley, he was truly isolated in his vocation as a Polish poet, with his important contacts remaining in Paris. He craved feedback on his work and became despondent over the lack of incoming mail. He had hoped that Polish-Americans would appreciate his work but soon determined that most Polish immigrants were peasants who didn't read much except for vocational purposes. Even for the U.S., Berkeley was a poor location for him, since most publishing and intellectual activity took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. However, with the publication of an English translation of The Captive Mind in 1968, his name recognition gradually picked up, and, by the late 1970's, people such as Robert Pinsky and Helen Vendler were seeking him out. In 1979 he met an attractive young Polish journalist and conducted an affair with her for several years. He did not want to leave Janka, whose health had become precarious, causing frequent incapacity before her death in 1986. At the same time, his younger son, Piotr, began to exhibit symptoms of severe manic depression. By 1980 he was well known in American poetry circles, and he was surprised to find himself not only nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but winning it that year.

The confluence of events soon significantly raised Milosz's profile in Poland. Pope John Paul II, who was conspicuously Polish, became Pope in 1978, and, after receiving the Nobel, Milosz met him on more than one occasion. The Solidarity labor union was founded in 1980, and Milosz met Lech Walesa, who became President of Poland in 1990. The dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred from 1990 to 1991, and Germany was reunified in 1990. Although Milosz had not been well known in Poland, and some Poles questioned his Polish credentials, since he was of Lithuanian origin, in Polish minds he became lumped in with the rebirth of Poland as an independent nation, and as a Nobel laureate he added to Polish self-esteem. To his credit, Milosz avoided behaving like a celebrity and always remained low key. Prior to Janka's death, Milosz broke up with his Polish girlfriend and began seeing the American academic, Carol Thigpen, who was also much younger than he was. He and Carol married after Janka's death, and they later moved permanently to Krakow. However, Carol died unexpectedly from blood cancer in 2002, two years before his death.

In the course of reading this book I have been trying to piece together what I think of Milosz. On the positive side, he was a person whose range of life experiences vastly exceeded mine or that of most people, he was a good observer, and he usually wrote clearly and honestly. On the negative side, I think that, although he was extremely productive, he was intellectually lazy, and, to my mind, he was not a particularly good poet. Looking at his background, he seems to have had an ax to grind about his family's fall from aristocratic grandeur, his early poverty and the military domination and unthinkable abuse of Lithuania and Poland by the Nazis and the Soviets. He also seems to have wanted to raise the stature of the literature of his region to the levels of Western Europe and Russia.

Milosz's intellectual laziness can be seen in his rapid movement to Roman Catholicism subsequent to writing The Captive Mind. I think that he had always been uncomfortable in the world of ideas, and, rather than bring a clear resolution to his beliefs, he fell back on the traditions of his region even though he had not been truly religious earlier and still retained a healthy skepticism toward the existence of God. He did not seem to recognize that Roman Catholicism was simply an ideology that has been refined over many centuries to attract and retain adherents, and that, as such, it was more sophisticated with regard to winning his conversion than newer, untested ideologies such as Marxism. Under Roman Catholicism, one can do whatever one pleases, as long as there are periodic private admissions of weakness and requests for absolution. It is the perfect religion for criminals, child abusers and sensual people like Milosz, the latter preferring not to rein in their sexual impulses. Furthermore, the Church supports the kind of sexism that Milosz unconsciously practiced throughout his life. Although I think that the current movement against sexual harassment has been getting a bit excessive lately, if you imagine Milosz still alive and teaching at Berkeley, he would soon find himself disgraced and out of a job, and in his mind he would have been using the Roman Catholic Church as his cover the whole time. It is possible that, in rejecting Nazism and Stalinism, Milosz threw out the baby with the bathwater; he seems to me to have elevated the importance of faith prematurely when, with just a little more effort, he could have arrived at a more tenable worldview without willfully rejecting science.

As to the quality of Milosz's poetry, I can't speak with much authority, because I can't read it in the original and certainly don't have any qualifications as a poetry critic. I'll say that I think his poetry could just as well have been written as prose, because I don't find it as imaginative and striking as the poetry that I like. I see all of the poems I quoted earlier on this blog as far more imaginative and striking than anything I've read by Milosz. Even if you allow that Milosz writes in a different, lyrical tradition, his work pales in comparison to Homer's Odyssey.

My conclusion on Milosz is that he was an interesting case study in how an intelligent person reacts to various adverse conditions. People who have not had the same experiences should not presume that they would have been able to handle them any better than he did. I must note that there were probably some inborn characteristics that Milosz possessed that steered him in the choices that he made. In particular, there are hints throughout the book that his strategy may have been designed specifically to combat a tendency toward depression, and in his case it seems, on the whole, to have worked. Although, after reading this book, I am unlikely to become a full Milosz convert, I have found much to cogitate over in it and recommend it highly, even to those who are not likely to become Milosz aficionados.

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