California Monthly, December 2004,
At Berkeley I encountered a few truly great people, thus learning the existence and importance of greatness. Each of these people was difficult. The poet Czeslaw Milosz, possibly the greatest of them all, was no exception.
Wherever he was, he never truly fit. A Polish icon now, because of his Nobel Prize, he was born in Lithuania, a country which (during the Soviet occupation) he could not visit for 52 years. As a poet of the Warsaw resistance, he already saw beyond public over-simplifications; and he wrote war poetry suffused by transcendence:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
This doubleness between the visible and invisible developed in his mature poetry. Estranged from the land and language of his birth, he became a poet of the globe, annihilating boundaries, and struggling to recuperate through fragments of scattered experience everywhere the memories of a sacredness he first encountered as a child.
After World War Two, trying to remain loyal to a country that was not truly his, he became for a few years a diplomat in Poland's postwar Communist government. In 1951 he defected to Paris, abandoning a nation where his poetry was banned for decades, but in fact read reverently by every good writer I knew when I was a diplomat there in 1959-61.
He was no more comfortable in France, where his first famous book, The Captive Mind, was attacked as fashionable Orwellianism by the intellectual left.
So he came to Berkeley in 1960, famous but isolated. I arrived the next year intent on meeting him. Many in the local Polish community advised fervently against it, describing Milosz's years in the postwar government as a treason that could never be exculpated.
When I met him in 1961 or 1962 he lived in a fine house off Grizzly Peak, but with few friends outside the Slavic department. The next five years I met regularly with him to translate Polish poetry -- the entire Polish canon, including Zbigniew Herbert and himself.
These were perhaps the most stimulating evenings of my life. I had never before met such critical acuity combined with such passionate erudition. Coming from a region where frontiers slipped east and west, and where Poland could vanish from the map for a century, Milosz was engaged primarily with the fate of language.
As he wrote later, "My faithful language,/ I have served you./ Every night I have set before you little bowls with color/.... You were my homeland because the other one had gone missing." He saw the poet, in his services to language, as fulfilling a socio-historic role, maintaining contact with the sacred which words, untended, would otherwise obscure.
On my side I hoped for an English poetry not numbed by cliches like "Poetry makes nothing happen" or "A poem should not mean, but be." I felt a door opening in my mind to a different tradition, where poets, by default, are repositories of a people's hopes. (Such as Milosz's brief poem -- "....Do not feel safe. The poet remembers...." -- inscribed on a monument to Solidarity in Gdansk.)
There was an irony here that luckily took time to unfold. Down on the campus I was soon caught up in the historical eddies after the FSM, above all speaking out against the Vietnam War. Obviously, Milosz's hostility to Communism was irreconcilable with my desire then for coexistence with Moscow.
A North American, I did not yet fully appreciate, as he did, the "fragility of those things we call civilization or culture," and the "high cost" of our "growing consciousness of global interdependence."
He started exploring the grandeur of Jeffers, a poetry of withdrawal, if not contempt for history. His distaste for pro-Soviet utopias had led him, by a kind of inverted Cartesian dialectic, to share Jeffers's rejection of secular humanism:
I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom is identical with your guru's.
No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.
If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.
Later I realized his rejection of eastern and western pieties about human goodness was grounded in a considered affirmative Catholic faith, but a faith which encompassed what he called "the twentieth century's simple touchstone of reality: physical pain."
It's beyond my understanding.
How could you create such a world,
Alien to the human heart, pitiless,
In which monsters copulate, and death
Is the numb guardian of time?
For two or three years the political differences between us did not seem to matter. Our long and sometimes quite drunken evenings above the fog were resulting in new artefacts and new aporias, beyond the previous limits of either Polish or English. And certainly (I thought) beyond politics.
Then in 1967 Milosz attended a rally where I spoke on the same platform as Noam Chomsky. At our next meeting he said stiffly that he could understand my remarks, but he could not forgive Chomsky's ("the kind of intellectual who weakened Weimar"). In those days the U.S.-Weimar analogy still seemed far-fetched to me; and I brashly said so. After that we barely saw each other for years. I was, frankly, broken-hearted.
My despair resulted in a long poem to him (it's in Crossing Borders). Someone gave it to him, and to my delight he phoned to set up a reconciliatory meeting. We talked for three hours, with a new candor about our differences.
I last saw him at a memorial dinner for our mutual friend Denise Levertov. He was in his late eighties, and his wife Carol sat me next to his one good ear. He proceeded to deconstruct the complexities of Polish Catholicism with undiminished discrimination and ardor. And I was able to tell him how much I admired and loved and had been changed by him.
When he died in Krakow there was almost a fracas at his funeral. Nationalist Catholics, who had never trusted him, threatened to block the procession, partly because Milosz had signed a statement supporting gay rights. It took a telegram from Pope John Paul to calm matters.
Americans will turn more and more to Milosz, including those Americans who now share his pain at being governed by strangers with little intelligence and even less compassion. There is a new timeliness to his studies of how brilliant minds can adjust themselves to the intolerable. And some will study too how he managed to balance withdrawal with engagement, in his conviction that "The passionless cannot change history."
[Remembered by Peter Dale Scott, professor emeritus of English at Berkeley and author of Listening to the Candle and Crossing Borders, which both remember Milosz]