Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Apples at World’s End

Enda O’Doherty

Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition was first published in Polish in 1959 by the Instytut Literacki in Paris under the title Rodzinna Europa.

In early 1951, Czesław Miłosz, having previously served for six years as a diplomatic representative of “People’s Poland” in New York and Washington, returned to his new posting in Paris after a brief visit to Warsaw during which the authorities had placed him in some fear for his life, or at least his liberty, by confiscating his passport; it was later restored to him through the political influence of friends and he quickly left the country again. Back in Paris he lost no time in seeking political asylum. He was to remain in France, eking out a fairly precarious living but constantly writing and publishing, until in 1960 he emigrated to the United States, where, in the following year, he became a professor in the school of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California, Berkeley.

Miłosz’s relationship with France was a knotted one. He had visited Paris twice as a young man in the 1930s: his distant kinsman the poet Oscar Miłosz, whose published literary work was entirely in French, was minister at the Lithuanian embassy there. In 1942 in Warsaw Czesław Miłosz wrote what he later called “a very pro-French introduction” to a clandestine translation of Jacques Maritain’s À travers le désastre, smuggled into occupied Poland from Canada by a Dutch businessman. Nevertheless, postwar Paris was a difficult place for a defector from a socialist society in the making to live: the city’s “progressive” intelligentsia was gripped by a Stalinising pensée unique and so a writer who had “fled from a country where Tomorrow was being born” was an embarrassment, someone “guilty of a social blunder”. There was also the small problem of French, or western European, parochialism: if it was to be half-admitted that the economic and political models that the Soviet Union was imposing on the lands east of the Elbe were a little harsh, still, perhaps that was what was required to bring about change in this region where feudalism had remained largely intact and the seed of democracy had never really taken. It was Europe of course in a sense, but not in our sense, rather eastern Europe, a remote place where things were done ‑ and perhaps must always be done ‑ differently. That this was never Miłosz’s way of seeing his country, or his region, or his culture, or his continent is evident from the title he chose for his memoir: Native Realm does not adequately render Rodzinna Europa (“Familial Europe” is an alternative translation); the book has been published as Otra Europa in Spanish, La Mia Europa in Italian, Enfant d’Europe in French: Europe then, an idea of Europe, would seem to be an important part of what it wishes to say, even if this seems to have escaped its Anglo-Saxon publishers. Czesław Miłosz often emphasised the curative power (at least for him) of nature and natural beauty; but here, writing of the gradual healing he experienced as he began to overcome his sense of loneliness and isolation a few years into his French exile, he is touching on another idea:

... it was not the same as it had been in America; it was not only nature that cured me. Europe herself gathered me in her warm embrace, and her stones, chiseled by the hands of past generations, the swarm of her faces emerging from carved wood, from the gilt of embroidered fabrics, soothed me ... Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help: the country of the Dordogne is like a Platonic recollection, a prenatal landscape so hospitable that prehistoric man, twenty or thirty thousand years ago, selected the valley of the Vézère for his abode (was he, too, moved by a Platonic recollection of Paradise?) And while I climbed the hills of Saint-Emilion, near a place where only yesterday the villas of Roman officials had stood, I tried to imagine, gazing out over the brown furrows of earth in the vineyards, all the hands that had once toiled here ... Gradually ... I stopped worrying about the whole mythology of exile, this side of the wall or that side of the wall. Poland and the Dordogne, Lithuania and Savoy, the narrow little streets in Wilno and the Quartier Latin, all fused together. I was like an ancient Greek. I had simply moved from one city to another. My native Europe, all of it, dwelled inside me, with its mountains, forests, and capitals; and that map of the heart left no room for my troubles. After a few years of groping in the dark, my foot once again touched solid ground, and I regained the ability to live in the present, in a “now” within which past and future, both stronger than all possible apocalypses, mingle and mutually refresh each other.

Of one of the most dangerous periods of his life, the years he spent in German-occupied Warsaw during the war, Miłosz was to remark that if one wished to go out for a walk one should never be fully confident of returning home; not only because something might happen to one personally, but also because the house in which one lived might cease to exist, an observation which in the twentieth century might apply not just to dwellings but to entire countries. Nevertheless, in spite of his very real brush with danger in the 1940s and 50s, Miłosz’s own life was to be a long one, stretching from his birth in June 1911 in the village of Šeteniai, then in the Russian empire, now in Lithuania, to his death ninety-three years later in Polish Kraków. Native Realm, though it is not a conventional autobiography, covers roughly the first half of this life, from his birth and his cultural inheritance from Polish, German and Lithuanian ancestors to the death of the close friend whom he calls “Tiger” in Warsaw in 1958.

In the beginning was Lithuania, a mist-shrouded land of lakes, hills and forests in the far northeast which provided Elizabethan England with masts for its galleons and bears for its bear gardens and which, from the fourteenth (1386) to the eighteenth (1775) centuries was part of a dual state which came to be known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest state in fact in central Europe, stretching at one point from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea. “It is difficult for outsiders,” Miłosz writes, “to understand the acute national hatreds in Eastern Europe.” But this is to fast-forward to the nineteenth century, before which the dominant cleavages would have been not of nationality but those between town and countryside, landowner and peasant, Christian and Jew or Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Though relations between Poles and Lithuanians during the period of the commonwealth were certainly not without tension, Lithuanians as a whole, Miłosz argues, rediscovered a sense of separate national identity only in the age of steam and electricity. When the country gained political independence in 1918 many patriots had to sit down with grammar books and dictionaries to learn their language.

Oscar Miłosz, who was born on his father’s estates in Czereia (today Čareja in Belarus), spoke Polish as a child but was educated in France from age eleven. Returning to the east as a young man he realised he would never be accepted by the Polish gentry caste, the obstacle being his mother, Miriam Rozenthal, a Jewish beauty whom his rich and eccentric father had married after seeing her portrait in a Warsaw shop window. “Remember,” Oscar told his young kinsman in Paris, perhaps pushing an open door, “in Europe there is nothing more stupid or more brutal in its petty hatreds than the Polish gentry.” Among the words and concepts that came most readily to this caste – which was not composed exclusively of the wealthy: one could be gentry (szlachta) without being rich – were treason and betrayal. Oscar Miłosz’s father, Vladislas, had betrayed his class and country by marrying a Jew. Oscar himself had compounded the offence by selling his immense estates, valuable for their timber, to Russian merchants, thereby diminishing Polish patrimony and enhancing that of the historic rival in “the lands in between”, the Baltic territories, Belarus (Byelorussia), Ukraine. The money he got through this sale he invested in Tsarist bonds, which after 1917 were of course to become worthless.

Miłosz’s schooling in Wilno (then a Polish city, today the capital of Lithuania and known as Vilnius) seems to have given him a double inheritance, a concern for words and their proper use and an acute moral scrupulousness ‑ which did not however always lead to virtuous behaviour. The care for words came as a gift from the Latin master Adolf Rożek: “ ... if a student scanned a hexameter or an Alcaic strophe faultily, a hissing came from the teacher’s lips as if he had been stuck with a pin”. Often an entire class would be spent on a single line of Ovid, “pivot[ing] between subject, predicate, and modifiers until at last, after many tries, we read off the collective achievement:  ‘And golden from the green oak seeped the honey ...’” Religious instruction came from Father Prefect, whose “rabid and afflicted soul” saw man’s fallen nature everywhere, and in particular in the rough jests and forced laughter of adolescent boys: “According to his gloomy vision, no spiritual remedy could cure the evil in human nature. One may conclude that he did not believe in the efficacy of grace, since it evaded human control ...” This spiritual pessimism found an echo in Miłosz’s own soul. He wondered about the law of nature: if the strong survive and the weak perish, and it has always been this way, where is the room for God’s goodness? His real quarrel with Father Prefect was not to be over his ideas but the police methods with which he enforced them. Failures to attend Mass were noted down; those who had made their confession were issued with a chit, which they might well be required to produce later. Since men were weak, the priest obviously reasoned, it would be madness to give them free rein. In this he was merely carrying on the traditions of his predecessors, who had converted infidels with the sword.

Miłosz’s main problem with Catholicism however was not doctrinal but political. It was his religion’s apparently indissoluble identification with nationalism which forced him to take a step back. If you were a Catholic, it seemed, you must be a nationalist and if you were not a Catholic (let us say a Jew) you could not be a nationalist, or even a genuine member of the Polish nation. And so, if you were not a nationalist, if indeed you found most or all of nationalism’s propositions to be idiotic or repulsive, then you must find your political home somewhere on the left.

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, although more than one descendant of a rabbi could be found among its most energetic propagandists. 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 on my destiny.

In the years just before the war Miłosz was found a job in a local branch of Polish radio in a pleasant office “where coconut matting silenced human footsteps and modern furniture awakened the temptation to prosperity”. The basis of all bureaucracy, he writes (of his broadcasting experience), is the propaganda that is passed up the line from bottom to top, and whose essence is that everything is going very well (and in particular the latest initiatives) and that we are all doing a very valuable and necessary job. In their tiny hearts, however, at least some of the office insects know that the reality is otherwise. The peasant is honest, Miłosz reflected in idle moments, in so far as he makes bread out of his physical labours; the artisan transforms wood, or metal or stone into useful or beautiful artefacts, even the small shopkeeper, so often blamed for high prices, “is a titan, if his fourteen-hour workday be known: he saves his customers millions of hours a year that shoppers at state-owned stores must waste standing in lines or chasing after some product not available in their neighborhood. I was more or less thinking along these lines, while the Marxists, who dreamed of changing the state into one huge office, paid no heed to such trifles.”

Assailed by boredom and guilt, Miłosz diverted himself with sexual adventures, but here too the spirit of Father Prefect and even more so his own restless, hyperactive conscience were to follow. He sought out partners, he writes, who were, like himself, capable of divorcing the pleasure, or hygiene, of the act from any meaningful “romantic” patina that might be ascribed to it: that way there would be less room for misunderstanding. But even here there were problems:

Because the drive is universal, its object is more or less a matter of indifference. What was to have been animal purity becomes a slavery to the prejudice of social prestige, since the choice of objects depends on whether or not winning them impresses us. Along with this I yearned so strongly for a platonic love, for an intellectual brotherhood infinitely superior to the realm of fleshly compulsion, that I would almost have been prepared to accept that proverbial lady who, in the most ardent moments, reached for a piece of chocolate. Of course, by setting up an equation of either/or and reducing sex to a thing that was not completely worthy of me (Lucifer, that proud and weightless spirit, is hostile to the body), I was deluding myself.

Miłosz was rescued from this sweaty wrestling with his conscience – which one imagines might have gone on for ever – by the Russian/German invasion and partition of Poland in September 1939 (the Germans arrived from the west, north and south on September 1st; the Russians came from the east sixteen days later). Contact with Russia had been so painful for Poles, he writes, that several communists even escaped from the Soviet into the German zone (and why not? ‑almost all of the party leaders had been murdered by Stalin just a few years before).

Poles and Russians, Miłosz plainly admits, are not disposed to mutual amity; indeed they harbour for each other all sorts of uncomplimentary feelings, ranging from contempt, to disgust and hatred. Greater Russia became what it was, he argues, “only by liquidating the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica” [or commonwealth] and, “starting from 1839, by converting to Orthodoxy great stretches of territory whose population was mainly Greek-Catholic [or Uniate, that is Orthodox in rite though Latin in its loyalty – drb], therefore pro-Polish and obedient to the Vatican. Places such as Galicia under the Habsburgs [a province today divided between Poland and Ukraine ‑ drb], where the Greek-Catholic church managed to survive, were forcibly converted to Orthodoxy [in their Ukrainian/Russian parts – drb] after the Second World War – a fact that, torn from its context in the past, would be incomprehensible.” The great Polish poet Mickiewicz was appalled by Russia’s savage landscapes, the savagery in human relationships and the passivity and apathy of its people in their bondage. Germans, on the other hand, thought that barbarism began immediately to their east, where they noted disorder, irresponsibility and an inability to control matter or make life orderly and gemütlich. While the Poles might be inclined to admit some of these faults, they also believe they have virtues that are not found among their more ponderous neighbours: “imagination; a sense of irony; a gift for improvisation ... [and] a tendency to make fun of all power, which enables them to dissolve every political system from the inside”.

Whether for reasons of ancient prejudice or because of more immediate concerns for his safety Miłosz, like the more historically aware communists, decided in 1940 to make the difficult and dangerous journey across the “peace boundary” from the Soviet to the German zone. His later views on this choice between evils go beyond assumed national characteristics to a consideration and attempted differentiation of brands of what was to become known to political scientists as totalitarianism. National socialism, Miłosz felt, was too devoid of intellectual content to prove a durable construct; Marxism-Stalinism, on the other hand, for all its sinister aspects, did have a body of thought whose appeal was a little broader than that to blood and soil and hatred: Nazism “was too pure an evil, and it had already, at least in theory, yielded to Lenin’s more diabolical sheaf of both good and evil”. If the Soviet Union had proved itself the conscienceless enemy of any centre of independent thought (among the 22,000 Polish prisoners of war murdered at Katyń and other sites in spring 1940 were thousands of reserve officers who in peacetime had been doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, writers and journalists), Nazi Germany was “merely” the enemy of those who were not Germans or those who stood in Germany’s way. Survival, or casual selection for death, were here matters of chance, but with this randomness might come a certain freedom:

... I had run from Stalin’s state to be able to think things over for myself instead of succumbing to a world view imposed from without. There was complete freedom here, precisely because National Socialism was an intellectual zero. However, I had to solve the problem of hope, or, rather, to find a position from which hope and despair were equally irrelevant. My chances of survival and of seeing with my own eyes what came out of this cauldron were negligible. With some effort, I finally obeyed Martin Luther’s advice: when asked what he would do if he knew tomorrow was going to be the end of the world, he said, “I would plant apple trees.”

Miłosz spent the war years working for a clandestine publishing house financed partially by the black market and partially by the Polish government in exile, while reading as widely as he could and writing poetry. A very high percentage of young Poles during this period were driven by a desire to regain their dignity to join the underground Home Army (AK). Miłosz was not one of them, not only because he did not wish to die but also because of his hostility to the military top brass, who he felt were planning a return after the war to the kind of rightist dictatorship, a bulwark against communism, that he felt would do nothing for his country, or more importantly, its people.

The political fantasy of prewar Warsaw – with its slogan “We will not yield an inch,” with its conviction that if the Germans struck, the Polish Army would occupy Berlin in a matter of days, was only amplified by the defeat, and the whole conspiratorial apparatus fed on an illusion, pumping into itself a gloomy national ecstasy.

The fantasies related not just to the recent past but, as the war turned against Germany, to the immediate future: for the Soviets had no intention of allowing an independent and very likely hostile Poland to re-emerge on their borders. The Home Army prepared to rise in Warsaw (“a blameworthy, lightheaded enterprise” according to Miłosz); the rising was encouraged by the broadcasts of nearby Russian radio units but very little help from the Soviets arrived, while airborne drops from the British and Americans were inadequate and came too late. The Home Army was defeated and the city subsequently destroyed by the Germans.

Miłosz’s was the kind of profile (leftist, “progressive”, but not communist) which the authorities in Poland and several other people’s democracies found so useful to have on board in the short transitional postwar period before “full socialist democracy” could be implemented. Nor was his provisional loyalty to that regime cynical or empty: he wished to see major changes in his country, in particular land reform; he did not wish to see the return of the old ruling class. In due course however the true nature of the new Poland in which he had invested became impossible to ignore. On a brief visit home on leave he observed:

The whole country was bursting with suppressed hatred for its rulers and their Russian employers. The Normans after the conquest of England could not have been more isolated from the population than the new privileged caste (I, by the very cut of my clothes, carried the mark of that caste), and more than once I noticed fear in the eyes of those who passed me in the street ... In addition, Poland’s economy, a captive of ideological requirements, made one’s hair stand on end. It brought to mind Gulliver’s observations about the land of the Balnibarbi, administered by the enlightened Academy of Projectors, where “the people [at the top] are too much taken up in their own speculations to have regard to what passed here below,” and where “the people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags.”

A selection from Miłosz’s work entitled Proud to Be a Mammal was published by Penguin in 2010 in a series called Central European Classics. The title of the series seemed to raise the question of what exactly a classic is and through what process a newly published anthology composed of bits of this and bits of that can become one. It is probably Miłosz’s study of the intellectual’s attraction to communism, The Captive Mind, that has most often attracted the “classic” tag and indeed it is a deep and probing investigation of a phenomenon which was to mark European thought over several decades of the twentieth century. But do classics, when the most pressing reason for reading them (their “relevance”) no longer exists, cease to be classics? Certainly it is the sections which deal with purely political/historical themes in Native Realm (“In 1950, [Tiger] went to Moscow on a university-group excursion. He returned livid with fear.”) which will now seem most puzzling to readers. The late Tony Judt remarked that when he started teaching in the 1970s he had difficulty persuading his “radical” students that a captive mind might be a bad thing; in his later years he found that very few of them could make the necessary imaginative leap to envision a secular faith for which an intelligent person might sacrifice everything. Marxism has disappeared down the plughole - and yet it is only thirty years ago that in Ireland a native brand was able to command the allegiance of many, perhaps most, of the best and brightest of the younger intelligentsia.

In spite of these difficulties, Native Realm does have some claim to be called a classic. It presents a guide to the recent history of a little known Europe which all Europeans could benefit from knowing more about. It tells of “adventure” and close brushes with death, of the strange gaiety and creativity which people can sometimes find in themselves in apocalyptic circumstances, of human weakness, of striving and spiritual anxiety, of the pleasures of home – where home is not “History” but the world. Miłosz recalls a family holiday spent long after the Second World War on the Ile d’Oléron on the French Atlantic coast, where the wreck of a ship straddled the sea and sand. Initially they thought it had lain there since an Anglo-American landing in 1944, but it turned out to be considerably older:

A ship flying a Uruguayan flag had run ashore there, carrying copper for the French troops who were at war with the army of Wilhelm II. The permanence of things and the impermanence of people is always surprising. I touched the bulwarks overgrown with barnacles and sea moss, still not quite able to accept the thought that two great world conflicts were already as unreal as the Punic Wars.

Czesław Miłosz belonged to a generation and an intellectual caste which thought that it understood History’s laws and furthermore that it might succeed in cornering it and taking it by the neck. One of his earliest memories is of playing bureaucrat as a child, wearing a red armband and shouting out in Russian to his friend: “Pavlushka, davay bumagu!” (Pavlushka, hand over the papers!). He was, however, to live to see that a bureaucracy, no matter how powerful or numerous, cannot always prevail and that History can have a way of wresting itself free even from the roughest grip.

... The tide had washed over the Uruguayan wreck on the sands of Oléron not only while mustard gas was disabling bodies on Flanders’ field, and thrones and empires were toppling, but also while I was living my personal life of hopes and disappointments, and while the gas chambers and watchtowers of the concentration camps were being built. There is always a taste of nothingness in the roar of the ocean. It is better to seize the small drops of time that are man’s.

24/03/2014

Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books

Categories