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All Things Considered

Enda O’Doherty
 

Proud to Be a Mammal, by Czesław Miłosz, Penguin, 296 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0141193199

 

I met the old soldier in the crowded lobby of the Hotel Mercure in Gdańsk. He was sitting by himself at a low table, nursing a glass of beer, but the chairs opposite him were free. “Can I join you, or ...?” He made a small welcoming gesture with his hand. Though dressed in full uniform and festooned with military decorations, his bearing was far from severe. Some people have a twinkling smile, others a twinkle in their eye; the old soldier was just all twinkle.

 

He was there with others of his kind, returning exiles mostly, back to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, which began with Germany’s devastating attack on Poland in the early hours of September 1st, 1939. For men in their late eighties, they were a remarkably well-looking bunch; perhaps the infirm had been asked to stay away. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “A little,” he offered. I asked him had he fought just on Polish territory or was he one of those who managed to get out to continue the war elsewhere. “Italy,” he said. “Ah, Monte Cassino?” “The whole lot,” he replied. “From tip to bloody top.”

 

I told him why I was there, invited with other foreign journalists to observe the official commemorations (Putin and Merkel had been in town that morning). But he didn’t want to talk about Putin. The accent, it was now clear, was straight London and the English easy and fluent, with just the most minute trace of something else in the far background, a barely detectable remnant of seventy years ago. Since he left Poland in 1939, the old soldier had been back just once, in the early 1990s. “So what do you think of the beer?” he asked, glancing at my bottle of Żywiec. “I like it a lot,” I answered truthfully. “Mmm,” he shook his head, a martyr perhaps to old man’s stomach. “Too much gas. I’m a bitter man myself.”

 

On August 23rd, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a treaty of non-aggression with a secret protocol attached agreeing the division of Poland between its two neighbours. The Germans attacked on September 1st; the Russians waited just another sixteen days to take control of “their” sector. A new accord between the allies on September 28th agreed a border running along the lines of the rivers Narew, Bug and Pisa. Everything east of that line, about fifty per cent of pre-war Polish territory, was incorporated into the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1940, at Katyń and other sites, NKVD secret police murdered about 22,000 Polish prisoners ‑ many of them officers in the army reserve who had in peacetime been doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and other professionals. A million and a half people were imprisoned and deported to the east. The Russians planned to cut off the head of independent Poland.

 

Part of the Polish army had escaped the invaders in autumn 1939, slipping over the border into Romania, where it was initially interned but later managed to get out and eventually make its way to France. Polish soldiers fought alongside the French in the unsuccessful defensive campaign of spring/summer 1940 and many were killed or captured. Some airmen made it across the Channel to take part in the Battle of Britain later that year, in both Polish (Poznań and Kościuszko) squadrons and mixed ones. Indeed about twenty per cent of the RAF’s fighter pilots were Poles. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Russians radically changed tack and allowed the formation of a new Polish army made up of the men who were now being freed from jails and camps there. In spring and summer 1942 this army, led by General Władysław Anders and accompanied by considerable numbers of civilians, was evacuated out of Russia through Iran. It went on to fight with distinction in the Italian campaign between 1943 and 1945.

 

“For a study of human madness,” writes Czesław Miłosz, “the history of the Vistula basin during the time it bore the curious name of ‘Government-General’ makes excellent material. Yet the enormity of the crimes committed here paralyzes the imagination, and this, no doubt, is why the massacres in the small Czech town of Lidice and in the small French town of Oradour are given more notice in the annals of Nazi-dominated Europe than the region where there were hundreds of Lidices and Oradours.” In this “experimental laboratory”, Miłosz writes,

 

the Nazis divided the population into two categories: Jews and Poles. The former were scheduled for complete extermination in the initial phase; the latter, in the next phase, were to be partially exterminated and partly utilized as a slave-labor force. The objective for the ‘non-Aryan’ category was nearly one hundred per cent realized, as borne out by the approximate figure of three million slain. The plan for the ‘Aryans’ was fulfilled more slowly, and their number only decreased by about twelve per cent.

 

It was in this laboratory, in Warsaw, that Miłosz spent the war years. “When I arrived [from Wilno/Vilnius, his home town], walls were being built around one-third of the city, into which the Jewish population was being herded. The gates to the ghetto were not closed yet, and we could still visit our friends. To discourage ‘Aryans’ from such visits, signs were hung on the gate: ‘Jews, Lice, Typhus.’” If the Jews were doomed, the “Aryans” too were threatened by arbitrary arrest, possible execution as a hostage or deportation to Auschwitz, but also by death from starvation or cold: “Life, as for primitive man, once more depended on the seasons of the year. Autumn was the hardest because potatoes and coal had to be got for the long, hopeless winter. With spring, dreams of Germany’s imminent defeat would make their appearance.” During these four years, Miłosz writes, he “unlearned Western civilisation, if what it teaches can be boiled down, more or less, to respect for money and the feeling that one has some kind of rights”.

 

The reference here to civilisation can be seen as somewhat tongue in cheek. Miłosz did not, as most young people did, join the military resistance organisation the Armia Krajowa (AK): he was averse to its right-wing and nationalist orientation, though he prefers in looking back to accuse himself of cowardice ‑ somewhat strangely given that the acts of literary opposition in which he was engaged throughout the war could have proved equally fatal to him as carrying a gun or explosives. Throughout the occupation the Polish underground ran a flourishing newspaper, periodical and book publishing industry, as well as secret schools and universities (the Germans had outlawed education for Poles beyond the elementary level). Miłosz published volumes of poetry, a translation of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain’s anti-Vichy work À travers le désastre, written in Canada and smuggled into Warsaw by a Dutch businessman, and a Polish acting version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He and his friend and publishing partner, the novelist George (Jerzy) Andrzejewski, concentrated on issuing books rather than periodicals or newspapers, which they distrusted for their false optimism about the military situation and the prospects for an independent Poland after the war. “Usually a book received an innocent-looking cover with a title like A Handbook for Grain Cultivation, and it was always antedated. But in our attempts to secure funds we rarely succeeded, for censorship functioned in the underground, making sure that all toed the London government [in exile] line, which did not look kindly on speculation about the future; that is, upon any sort of ideological ‘tommyrot’ from intellectuals.”

 

Much of Miłosz’s antagonism towards the dominant values of Polish society in the 1930s – the values of those he called “right-thinking people” ‑ stemmed from his experiences as an adolescent and young man in Wilno, where Poles shared a marginal territory somewhat nervously with Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Jews. Poland had been refounded as an independent state in 1918 (the Second Republic) after more than a century of non-existence. Established by the military successes of Marshal Józef Piłsudski and later consolidated by international agreement on territories that were home not just to ethnic Poles but to Germans, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians and Jews, Poland spent much time and energy in the 1920s and 30s debating what exactly it was or what it should become. Broadly speaking, the division was between the political family of Piłsudski (nominally a socialist one), which tended towards an inclusive definition of Polishness – he is Polish who thinks himself Polish – and that of his political rival Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democrat or Endecja movement, which believed that ethnic Poles must dominate, subordinate and exclude from power all other groups, which were either dangerous to the Polish nation or simply inferior to it; in the latter case the other ethnicities must be patient and submit to a long and gradual process of “civilisation” by the stronger element. With Byelorussians this process was not expected to ever lead to any positive result.

 

Miłosz’s own family background (mixed Polish, Lithuanian and German “blood”) immunised him against an over-rigid sense of nationality (“I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian”), while his marked philosemitism, accumulated through observation of the deep culture of the Jews of Wilno (dubbed the Jerusalem of the North), turned him against the Catholic right.

 

The Jews helped to form a complex in me thanks to which, at an early age, I was already lost for the Right. The nationalist party – the party of the right-thinking people; that is, of the newly arrived petty bourgeoisie – came into being at the end of the last century and was active mainly in the Vistula River basin, where it combated the Socialists. Its principal appeal was the vague but positive aura that surrounds the word nation. This was to be a linguistic, cultural, religious (meaning Catholic), and soon racial unity ... The press and slogans of this party entered my field of vision early. My allergy to everything that smacks of the ‘national’ and an almost physical disgust for people who transmit such signals have weighed heavily upon my destiny.

 

Heavily indeed. Miłosz’s hostility to nationalism brought him onto the political left, while his reservations about the philosophical claims of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism (Marxism-Stalinism he was later inclined to call it) made him more a socialist than a communist. But communists were of little consequence in Poland in the 1930s, a tiny group to start with and tinier still after the party leadership, in the middle of the decade, was invited to Moscow, only to be briskly eliminated. By the early postwar years however, communism, on the back of invading Russian tanks, was the only game in town, at least for those who wanted to play a part in their country’s affairs. In the 1930s, Miłosz writes, Polish intellectual fellow travellers of communism were, like their Western equivalents, foolish and deluded. But by 1945 or 1946, while in the West nonsense could still be believed, in the East this was no longer possible. Instead a “secret doctrine” had been created, “in many respects ... like the doctrine of the Stoics”. “If the Stoics meditated over how man should behave in the face of an inexorable order of nature against which it would be vain to rebel, my contemporaries saw themselves confronted by the inexorable order of history, and similarly excluded any possibility of rebellion. For the Party élite with whom I had contact, the Russian system was gloomy and repellent. But since it was chosen and anointed by the Weltgeist, to become a Communist was to perform an act of obedience toward the hidden law of becoming that is stronger than personal likes and dislikes. And so, from the dreams spun by nineteenth-century Socialists about a perfect society, nothing had really been salvaged. Instead, the foreground was dominated by the Hegelian conviction that certain phases will inevitably be victorious over others: that things are as they are, and we are not responsible.”

 

We may all take a view as to what degree it is necessary to bow down to “the hidden law of becoming” or its more physical manifestations of tanks, guns, soldiers and secret policemen, or whether indeed it might not be preferable in such a situation of powerlessness simply to cultivate one’s garden or say one’s prayers; but perhaps such quietist options were not open to Miłosz and his friends. One is reminded of his comment that the dissidents in a communist society are not necessarily those with the strongest minds but those with the weakest stomachs. Indeed those with strong minds often find it rather easy to make a satisfactory bargain with power. At any rate, for a period at least, Miłosz showed he had both a strong mind and stomach, choosing to work for People’s Poland through its diplomatic service, serving first in New York and Washington and then in Paris, until his defection in 1951. He also continued to serve the Polish language and poetry.

 

When Miłosz joined the diplomatic service in 1945, as he has pointed out in an interview with Ewa Czarnecka, Poland was not yet a fully totalitarian state: the government still included non-communist parties and non-party individuals, even if these were in the process of being marginalised. By the end of the decade however, the state, if not society, had become completely Stalinised. Miłosz talks of a trip back to Warsaw in 1949 when he went to a reception attended by all the best and most important people, followed by much drinking and dancing. Passing through the city sometime after four in the morning, he came upon groups of jeeps carting detainees off to prison, the guards warmly dressed against the cold, the prisoners shivering in jackets with turned-up collars: “I understood then that I was an accomplice.” The climate of fear was growing and now the insiders were becoming almost as vulnerable as the outsiders. In 1950, on a subsequent trip home from his new posting in Paris, Miłosz had his passport confiscated. Having managed through influence early in the following year to have it restored, he returned immediately to France where, on February 1st, he sought political asylum.

 

Miłosz spent the 1950s in exile in Paris. Here he was safe but not exactly happy, cut off from his family (at first), his country and his language, and living in a society where the intellectual class, being solidly “progressive” in politics, was inclined to look somewhat askance at a man who had chosen to turn his back on History and shirk the task of building socialism. Of the leading lights of the Parisian scene only Camus showed him real friendship and sympathy. Nor was he greeted without suspicion by the émigré community, who wondered why he had chosen to serve People’s Poland in the first place. The good will and friendship of one Polish collaborator from this period however seems to have compensated somewhat for the coldness of many others. This was Zygmunt Hertz, the driving force behind the Instytut Literacki publishing house and its journal, Kultura, whom Miłosz describes as “a buzzing bee in search of the sweetness of life”.

 

Kultura became a sort of collective, with Hertz, a former lieutenant in General Anders’s army, as its benevolent majordomo, cajoling and pacifying sensitive authors, liaising with printers, tying up parcels for despatch, cooking huge meals for his fellow toilers and pouring generous measures of spirits. Hertz

 

was born a hedonist and he was governed by the pleasure principle ... Thanks chiefly to him, the necessity of a communal kitchen at Kultura turned into the delights of the table, into feasts, revelries, because there was no stinting on food at least. Guests – non-stop, from everywhere, from European countries, from Poland, from America – assuaged his passion for company, his enormous curiosity about faces, characters, biographies ... Zygmunt was a philanthropos by calling, a friend of people, and his ability to do good for people could have found no better application than in that particular zone “between Poland and abroad.”

 

He was also free with his advice to Miłosz, advice that, if it was not always welcomed at the time, was remembered:

 

“Czesiu, don’t talk, you’ll say something stupid. Write.” Zygmunt’s advice, which I often repeated to myself later on, was very apt, and it referred to my bad habit of expressing extreme, offensive opinions out of spite.

 

Hertz, who thought the novel of reminiscence of childhood The Issa Valley was Miłosz’s best book, also often urged him to desist from philosophising and to “write for people”. This “didn’t bother me in the slightest. I have written various things out of inner necessity, but not without an awareness of the merely relative significance of intellectual edifices, so that Zygmunt’s voice, the voice of the average reader, no doubt alerted me to something there.”

 

It was in Paris, and under the wing of Kultura and the Instytut Literacki, that Miłosz wrote the book which is probably still most identified with his name, The Captive Mind (1953). Tony Judt (in a posthumously published essay in the New York Review of Books, September 30th, 2010) has described this work as “by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia”. In the essay “Speaking of a Mammal” in the collection under review, Miłosz writes: “The successes of Communism among the intellectuals were due mainly to their desire to have Value guaranteed, if not by God at least by history. With resistance, but at the same time with relief, they subjected themselves to a discipline which liberated them from themselves.”

 

This process whereby the intellectual, and in particular the intellectual whose social origins are somewhat suspect, can divest himself of his alienation and become organic simply by ceasing to question, agreeing to serve the working class and History, forgetting all those niggling petty bourgeois questions (Did this actually happen? Is this in fact true?) and when in doubt following the guidance of his party father confessor – this has also been Judt’s great subject and is the focus of his sharpest and most closely argued book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. Though the theology of Marxism is considerably more complex than that of born-again Christianity, the fraternity and sense of purpose the party could offer was for many a troubled soul just as soothing as the peace that comes from letting Jesus into your heart. For the lonely connoisseur of value, somewhat adrift, feeling rather underappreciated and unsure perhaps of what capitalist society had in mind for him, there can have been few warmer or more welcome words than “You are exactly the kind of person we are looking for.”

 

Yet Tony Judt is convinced that Miłosz’s argument, powerful though it is, no longer has the resonance it once had. Though “more subtle than Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and less relentlessly logical than Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals”, nevertheless, “The Captive Mind often encountered incomprehension” when he included it in a course of literature from central and eastern Europe he taught his students at New York University. In 1951, when he began writing the book, Miłosz could assume (writes Judt) that his readers would be familiar with the phenomenon of a “man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression”. When Judt was teaching Miłosz’s ideas in the 1970s, he writes, he sometimes had difficulty convincing his “radicalised” students that a captive mind was actually a bad thing. “By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out, my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.”

 

The analogy which Judt goes on to make in the New York Review essay between communist belief and modern “fundamentalist” faith in markets, or passing intellectual fads like the crusade against “Islamo-fascism”, is however deeply unsatisfying: he seems to wish to argue that passionate and perhaps irrational belief in the early twenty-first century has simply shifted its locus. But these modern enthusiasms – “faith” in the market, hatred of Islam ‑ are not in fact complex phenomena but rather shallow and politically driven ones, indeed to a great extent simply expressions of class and perceived national self-interest lightly dressed in ideology. Surely what has decayed in contemporary “free” societies is not belief in one particular system (communism) but belief in, or even interest in, any complex body of thought or belief, including philosophy, political ideology, or a religion like Catholicism with a tradition of twenty centuries of theory and speculation about every conceivable subject under the sun (not to mention a few that may be quite non-existent).

 

In this respect, the other side of Miłosz’s speculative world could prove to be just as baffling (just as boring, they might say) to today’s students as his interest in the mechanisms of the rationalisation and self-justification employed by communist fellow travellers. Miłosz, we have seen, rejected Catholic nationalism at an early age. But he did not reject Catholicism, whose methods and processes remained congenial to him, even if it often seems that he is engaging with his cradle religion more as a system of thought than of belief. In the autobiographical Native Realm, he writes about the two teachers in his secondary school who battled for the boys’ allegiance, the zealous and suspicious Father Prefect (“His unprepossessing body housed a rabid and afflicted soul”) and the elegant, humane Latinist Adolf Rożek (“ ... it was known he was a Socialist. He radiated optimistic faith in human reason, in teamwork, and in progress.”). In spite of what he later deprecated as “a young soul’s extremism ... let it be either/or” (and indeed the more sympathetic portrayal of Rożek than of the priest), Miłosz did not resolve his religious crisis one way or the other at school but carried it forward with him: “I was striving to build intellectual bridges between two dissociated entities. Such an endeavour was, in general, alien to my schoolmates, who considered religion a separate sphere, subject to the rules of convention. My intensity won me the position among them of a Jew among the goyim.” Miłosz’s failure to resolve – or refusal to resolve ‑ contradictory positions was to become a permanent feature of his thought. Later he was to find a kind of justification for it in the writings of Simone Weil, a thinker from a secular Jewish family background who was to embrace radical political thought and action (Marxism, anarchism) and eventually a form of Christian mysticism.

 

From the martyred Poland of the war years, the country of German occupation, casual murder and coolly planned genocide, Miłosz wrote a sequence of short naive poems entitled “The World”, whose titles include “Faith”, “Hope” and “Love”. Here is “Love”:

 

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way, heals his heart
Without knowing it, from various ills ‑
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

 

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

 

“In the thirties,” Miłosz writes, “the Central European-Baltic area carried in its air premonitions of the crimes to be perpetrated.” On top of this historical foreboding, his personal religion and philosophy were marked by a pessimistic vision: he was inclined to think that the universe had been created as a result of a cosmic catastrophe. Elsewhere Miłosz writes that his religious views, in the darkness of their reading of the human predicament and of human nature, often seemed to approximate more closely to Calvinism than Catholicism. The poetry he composed at this time “would have been utterly without hope if not for my awareness of the beauty of the things of this earth, and that beauty was incomprehensible, as it coexisted with horror”.

 

Miłosz’s fullest treatment of the part of his childhood he spent with his grandparents in the depths of the Polish (now Lithuanian) countryside (three full years, from age seven to ten) is in the autobiographical novel The Issa Valley, but there is also this lyrical passage in the sparkling miscellany Miłosz’s ABC under the heading “Szetejnie, Gineity, and Peiksva” (three hamlets close to his grandparents’ farm):

 

The Niewiaża Valley is like a crevice cut into the plateau, from which neither the parks nor the remains of manor houses can be seen. A traveler journeying across that plateau today will not be able to intuit what was once on it. Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creak of the well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people’s voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages – apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees.

 

As a child, Miłosz writes, “I was primarily a discoverer of the world, not as suffering but as beauty ... Happiness experienced in childhood does not pass without a trace: the memory of ecstasy dwells in our body and possesses a strong curative power.” Returning to visit this landscape at the age of eighty, Miłosz feels no particular regret, or anger, or even sadness. The orchards are gone of course, but so too is the communism which could find no place for them, vanished after less than fifty years: “Among the many definitions of Communism,” he writes, “perhaps one would be the most apt: enemy of orchards.” Now, in spite of the changes in the landscape, he can see that in all his wanderings and exile he had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here. “Or, to be precise, I understood this after a huge wave of emotion had overwhelmed me, and the only name I can give it now would be – bliss.”

 

Miłosz’s scepticism of complete systems, which seek to explain all and reconcile all, is well illustrated in the epigraph he chose for The Captive Mind, words he attributes to “an old Jew of Galicia”:

 

When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

 

Miłosz finds in Simone Weil ‑ among many other things –an acceptance of contradiction and apparent incompatibility: “From a criticism of an internal contradiction in Marxism between its scientific element and its prophetic element, she comes to a criticism of all attitudes which attempt to overcome the contradiction inherent in man by masking it, and create in this manner an artificial unity ... when two incompatible thoughts come to mind [one should] try to eliminate at least one of the two. If that is impossible, if both impose themselves, we must then recognize the contradiction as a fact.”

 

Perhaps the central point of Miłosz’s philosophy, certainly the key problematic to which he returns again and again, is man’s war with nature. Nature here is not to be understood as the beauty of trees, woods, rivers and flowers but as necessity, “the way things are”, “the kingdom of inertia, senseless birth, and senseless death”. Refusing to bow down before this necessity, we assert our “anti-natural freedom”, through our creation of religion and culture, politics and ideology:

 

We are unable to live nakedly. We must constantly wrap ourselves in a cocoon of mental constructs, our changing styles of philosophy, poetry, art. We must invest meaning in that which is opposed to meaning; that ceaseless labor, that spinning is the most purely human of our activities. For the threads spun by our ancestors do not perish, they are preserved; we alone among living creatures have a history, we move in a gigantic labyrinth where the present and the past are interwoven. That labyrinth protects and consoles us ... Death is a humiliation, because it tears us away from words, the sounds of music, configurations of line and color ...

 

The collection Proud to Be a Mammal is a curious publication, released by Penguin last year in a new series (distinguished by beautiful cover artwork) called Central European Classics, which also includes books by Josef Škvorecký, Karel Čapek, Sławomir Mrożek, EM Cioran and others. But what kind of a classic is it? Well it is a collection of miscellaneous essays on various subjects, supplemented by two fairly substantial historical chapters from Miłosz’s autobiographical Native Realm. When were the essays written, and in what circumstances? No information is given. When and where were they first published? No information. Amazingly, Penguin has managed to publish a book of essays and extracts drawn from various sources and written at various times without a single scrap of bibliographical information or any other guide for the possibly perplexed reader. And if Proud to Be a Mammal is indeed a classic, how come we have never heard of it? Why does it have no reception history? I am indebted for clarification of the origins of these essays to the Miłosz scholar Jerzy Jarniewicz, who was able to tell me that the collection under review is in fact largely a reissue of a previous one published under the title To Begin Where I Am – and also the approximate dates of composition of its various elements. Why the book is appearing under a different title we are not to know: at any rate Penguin is not telling us.

 

There are a few points to be made here. A book of this nature certainly requires an introduction, and some basic bibliographical information and notes: it does not quite speak for itself. Second, the attribution to it of the status of a classic is not just an arbitrary and questionable act; it is also potentially a damaging one since it conveys a misleading impression to the reader (for reasons which one assumes are entirely dictated by sales and marketing concerns). Much of the material in Proud to Be a Mammal (the philosophical/theological essays, for example) is rather complex and difficult. Will readers seduced by the attractive packaging and the “classic” tag but disappointed or puzzled by some of the content ever return to Miłosz’s other works? If not, they will be missing the deeply engaging and entirely accessible Native Realm (which is indeed a classic), the visionary childhood idyll The Issa Valley and even the penetrating political and psychological analysis of The Captive Mind ‑ and of course the poetry.

 

Czesław Miłosz, the centenary of whose birth occurs this year, had a long and productive life. After his spell in Paris, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught at the University of Berkeley in California. While he appreciated the opportunities the United States gave him (and loved its great outdoors), he remained, over the decades he spent there, rather hostile to its commercial culture and continued to note how savagely American capitalism treated those at the bottom of the heap. In his final decade, following the collapse of communism, he returned to live part of each year in Poland. One of his last public acts, in 2004, the year in which he died, was to declare his support for gay rights activists demonstrating in defiance of ultra-Catholic and Polish nationalist homophobia in Kraków.

 

In his early adulthood Miłosz saw the world plunge into evil, but unlike many of his friends and contemporaries he survived that evil and even outlived the repressive political system he had once believed to be an inescapable destiny for his nation. Disagreeing with Adorno, he believed that poetry was possible after Auschwitz and that just as there is the extermination camp, so also there is the flower, the wood, and spring. The flower cannot expunge the camp, and the camp cannot expunge the flower. Life is a burden, but one that sometimes seems worth bearing; and if it can be hard and painful, at least it does not last forever.

 

A Story

Now I will tell Meader’s story; I have a moral in view.
He was pestered by a grizzly so bold and malicious
That he used to snatch caribou meat from the eaves of the cabin.
Not only that. He ignored men and was unafraid of fire.
One night he started battering the door
And broke the window with his paw, so they curled up
With their shotguns beside them, and waited for the dawn.
He came back in the evening, and Meader shot him at close range,
Under the left shoulder blade. Then it was jump and run,
A real storm of a run: a grizzly, Meader says,
Even when he’s been hit in the heart, will keep running
Until he falls down. Later, Meader found him
By following the trail – and then he understood
What lay behind the bear’s odd behaviour:
Half of the beast’s jaw was eaten away by an abscess, and caries.
Toothache, for years. An ache without comprehensible reason,
Which often drives us to senseless action
And gives us blind courage. We have nothing to lose,
We come out of the forest, and not always with the hope
That we will be cured by some dentist from heaven.

This essay was first published in early 2011.

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