For a writer who declares poetry to be his first vocation, Czesław Miłosz’s essayistic output is remarkable. He is the author of about a dozen volumes of essays published after World War II both in Polish and in translation. Before the war, as a member of the poetic group Żagary (Brushwood), he was involved in heated literary debates carried in Vilnius and Warsaw periodicals. These articles—manifestos rather than essays—reveal the seeds of Miłosz’s views on literature which the poet cultivates consistently in his later works: the condemnation of purely aesthetic and narcissistic trends in literature in the name of the metaphysical and ethical dimension of artistic creation; attacks on the formalism of the poetic avantgarde in the name of poetry which expresses the personality of a poet and his philosophy of the world; and criticism of socially committed poetry from a position of Christian personalism. In his juvenilia there are also traces of Miłosz’s persisting distaste for any form of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and ideological indoctrination. These concerns gain particular importance in his analysis of certain aspects of the Polish cultural tradition in Rodzinna Europa (1959; Native Realm), the poet’s autobiography, and of communism in Zniewolony umyst (1953; The Captive Mind).
Miłosz writes essayistic books rather than collections of essays. Most combine biographical memoirs, historical and literary analyses, poetic descriptions, poems and translations, notes and thoughts on literature, philosophy, and culture, as well as arresting portraits of other writers. This formal diversity illustrates Miłosz’s lifelong search, in both his poetry and his prose, for more elastic forms than those existing in the literary canon. The search reflects not only his need for formal experimentation but most importantly his religious or metaphysical aspiration—the source of a fundamental tension in his works—to reach beyond the describable toward the essence of things. In his Nobel Prize lecture of 1980, Miłosz calls this aspiration “a quest for reality.” It is also a quest for a harmonious solution to “the contradiction between being and action, or, on another level, a contradiction between art and solidarity with one’s fellow men.” The poet believes in the redemptive power of art and treats it as a “moral discipline” and a moral obligation in the world suffering from a metaphysical crisis and a loss of historical memory.
Miłosz’s thoughts develop from personal digressions and fragments, which he anchors in individual and historical details drawn from centuries of cultural heritage. The scope of his intellectual reflection is enormous: from language and its use as a creative medium, through contemplation of the essence of poetry and the obligations of poets, to Hegelianism, Catholicism, and the nature of evil. In Ziemia Ulro (1977; The Land of Ulro), a book regarded as Miłosz’s philosophical testament, he analyzes the hermetic,
metaphysical systems of his intellectual mentors: William Blake (from whom Miłosz borrows the title of his book), Oskar V.de L.Miłosz, and Emanuel Swedenborg. He devotes many pages to the works of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and “the Romantic crisis of European culture” (so termed by Stanisław Brzozowski, another intellectual patron who is the subject of the booklength study, Człowiek wsród skorpionów [1962; Man among scorpions]). His thoughts on Fedor Dostoevskii and Simone Weil (expanded in Emperor of the Earth, 1977), on Witkacy (i.e. Stanisław Witkiewicz) and Witold Gombrowicz are part of a broader discourse on the history of ideas and religion (with a particular interest in Manichaeism, with which the poet admits particular fascination). In Widzenia nad Zatokq San Francisco (1969; Visions from San Francisco Bay), Miłosz’s essays on contemporary American culture, including his polemics with Herbert Marcuse, Henry Miller, Robinson Jeffers, and Allen Ginsberg, are also a springboard for the reflections on his most important topic: the relationship between nature, history, art, and religion.
Miłosz’s intellectual fascinations stem from his own preoo cupation with the most important dilemmas of Western civilization: the irrevocable failure of secular humanism; the ontological disinheritance of mind described as “the mind torn between the certainty of man’s insignificance in the immensity of a hostile universe, and an urge, born of wounded pride, to endow man with preeminence” (The Land of Ulro); and the dramatic and incurable split—initiated by “the three sinister figures: Bacon, Locke, Newton, the unholy trinity”—between the laws of science and the inner life of man.
The combination of autobiographical facts and reflections on the readings gives Miłosz’s essays a highly personalized tone. He speaks in a multitude of voices: the Eastern European exile and the American professor, the Polish poet and the native of Lithuania, the historian of ideas, the Catholic, the skeptical intellectual, and the catastrophist. The dialogic character of his essays helps to paint a complex spiritual portrait of an author who tries to reconstruct his own intellectual, poetic, and ethical lineage. Fascinated by the essence of Being (he opens The Land of Ulro with symptomatic words: “Who was I? Who am I now, years later…?”), Miłosz examines his own life in its historical, political, cultural, and social contexts. He objectifies personal spiritual experiences to find the meaning of human existence and of history—his acknowledged obsession. In fact, he often searches for the essence of man in his historicity.
Miłosz, the interpreter of cultures, historical experiences, and ideas, does not write for a wide circle of readers. His essays are dense and intellectually demanding, requiring the reader to make a smooth leap from the description of a casual encounter or detail to the recognition of a general truth which takes contradictions and paradoxes into account. He employs an austere eloquence and a rigorous intellect in his lucid sallies and multilayered reflections. His prose develops through digressions and circumventing descriptions.
However, the reader who is willing to meander through his thoughts finds in Miłosz’s personal, philosophical, and interpretive essays a unique and profoundly spiritual insight into the “peculiar aspirations of humankind.”
Born 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania. Studied at the University of Stefan Batory, Vilnius, M.Juris., 1934; studied in Paris, 1934–35. Cofounder, Żagary literary journal, 1931. Worked for Polish National Radio, 1936–39. Participated in clandestine cultural life during World War II. Worked for the Polish Diplomatic Service, Washington, D.C. and Paris, 1945–50. Defected to the West, 1951; lived in Paris, 1951–60, then moved to the United States. Taught Slavic languages and literatures, University of California, Berkeley, 1960–78, then emeritus. Became a U.S. citizen, 1970.
Awards: many, including the European Literary Prize, 1953; Kister Award, 1967; Neustadt International Prize, 1978; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1980; National Medal of Arts, 1989; honorary degrees from five universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Institute of Arts and Letters.
Essays and Related Prose
Zniewolony umysl, 1953; as The Captive Mind, translated by Jane Zielonko, 1953
Rodzinna Europa, 1959; as Native Realm: A Search for SelfDefinition, translated by Catherine S.Leach, 1968
Ogród wsród skorpionów, 1962
Widzenia nad Zatokq San Francisco, 1969; as Visions from San Francisco Bay, translated by Richard Lourie, 1982.
Prywatne obowiqzki, 1972.
Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, 1977
Ziemia Ulro, 1977; as The Land of Ulro, translated by Louis Iribarne, 1984
Ogród nauk, 1979
Nobel Lecture, 1981
Swiadectwo poezji: Sześć wykłZaóow o dotkliwśsci naszego wieku, 1983; as The Witness of Poetry, 1983
Poszukiwania: Wybór publicystyki rozproszonej 1931–1983 (selected essays), 1985
Zaczynajqc od moich ulic, 1985; as Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections, translated by Madeline G.Levine, 1991
Metafizyczna pauza, 1989
Rok myśliwego, 1990; as A Year of the Hunter, translated by Madeline G.Levine, 1994
Szukanie ojczyzny, 1992.
Other writings: many volumes of poetry (collected in translation in The Collected Poems 1931–1987, 1988) two novels (Zdobycie władzy [The Seizure of Power], 1955;
Dolina Issy [The Issa Valley], 1955), and studies of writers and literature. Also translated poets from the Polish, and edited anthologies of poetry.
Collected works edition: Dziela zbiorowe, 6 vols., 1980–85 (in progress).
Volynska-Bogert, Rimma, and Wojciech Zalewski, Czesław Miłosz: An International Bibliography, 1930–1980, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1983
Brodsky, Joseph, “Presentation of Czesław Miłosz to the Jury,” World Literature Today 3 (1978)
Bruno, Eva, “Czesław Miłosz: Barn av Europa och andra dikter Tolkning frou amerikanska,” Artes 3 (1979)
Coleman, Alexander, “The Still Point in Miłosz’s Native Realm,” World Literature Today 3 (1978)
Contoski, Victor, “Czesław Miłosz and the Quest for Critical Perspective,” Books Abroad
1 (1973): 35–41
Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksander Fiut, Conversations with Czesław Miłosz, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987
Czesław Miłosz: A Stockholm Conference, September 9–11, 1991, edited by Nils Ake Nilsson, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1992.
Danilewicz-Zielińska, Maria, Szkice o literaturze emigracyjnej, Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1978: 192-212
Fiut, Aleksander, Czesława Miłosza autoportret prezkorny, Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988
Gombrowicz, Witold, Diary, vol. 1, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988: 56–58
Iribarne, Louis, “The Human Thing: Encomium for Czesław Miłosz,” World Literature Today 3 (1978): 365–68
Jelehski, Konstanty A., “Miłosz et Gombrowicz,” La Discordance i (1978): 14–16
Poznawanie Miłosza, edited by Jerzy Kwiatkowski, Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985
Scherer, Olga, “The Ulro Through San Francisco Bay,” World Literature Today 3 (1978): 395–99
Walicki, Andrzej, Zniewolony umysl po latach, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1993
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