Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) – “Slowly, because not until after reaching ninety, the doors opened for me and I walked out into the clarity of the morning (…) and I said that we are all children of the Lord. Because we come from where there is no divide between Yes and No, nor the division into Is, Will be, and Was.”
“Second Space” – Czesław. Miołosz
Czesław Miłosz – poet, prose writer, essayist, translator, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born on June 30, 1911, in Sztejnie on the banks of the Niewaza River in Lithuania. “Sztejnie, Ginejty, and Peiksiva – these were noble villages, very independent and sometimes in conflict with the local manors over lands in the forest. (…) The villages were purely Lithuanian and very aware of their heritage. (…) After the occupation of these lands by the Soviet Union the residents of these villages were transported to Siberia. (…) Buildings were torn down, orchards cut down and cleared (…).” This is how the Nobelist recalled his childhood.
In 1921, he moved to Wilno along with his parents and began studies at the school named after King Zygmunt August, where he received his matura (secondary school leaving examination). “You cannot go into the same river twice. What is your understanding of the mindset in Heraclitus’ times?” – this was one of the topics that Czesław Miłosz decided to write about for his matura, a bit nervous after just completing an exam in math. The commission graded the paper very highly. As a student on that May morning in 1929, he could not have imagined how far the great river of time would carry him, as Heraclitus taught.
He began his college studies at the university in Wilno named after Stefan Batory. He debuted in the field of literature by writing for the college paper, “Alma Vilnensis,” poems such as “The Composition” and “The Journey”. In 1933, the university’s Circle of Polish Students published his first volume of poems, Poem in Frozen Times.
After finishing college, he received the Filomata Prize for literature, awarded by the Professional Union of Polish Writers. He was also presented with a scholarship from the Polish Cultural Foundation, which allowed him to stay in France, where he studied French at the Alliance Francaise. There, he met his distant relative Oskar Miłosz, a diplomat and French poet.
After the tragic September of 1939, Czesław Miłosz worked throughout the German invasion of Warsaw as a caretaker of the National Library. Between the books he hid his handwritten volumes of poems, published by the underground organizations of Warsaw with the pseudonym of Jan Syrus.
During the years 1943-45, he translated Shakespeare and Eliot and wrote essays about Balzac, Witkacy, and participating in poetry evenings. In December of 1945, he left for the United States to take a diplomatic post in New York. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1947 to work as a cultural correspondent.
He continued to mail his articles to literary publications in Poland. In 1948, his “Moral Treatise” appeared in the April edition of Tworczość, received without comment by the critics.
His short visit to Poland in the summer of 1950 made him realize the strength of the Communist movement. He moved to Paris, where he asked the French authorities for asylum. “Why are you breaking ties with the Communist regime?” asked a reporter at a press conference organized by the Cultural Defenders Congress. “Because following the Soviet way became mandatory for Polish writers,” was his answer.
His early difficulties as an immigrant were made easier by the Parisian Kultura (Culture), with which he worked for many years.
In Paris, the following books appeared: The Captive Mind, The Seizure of Power, The Issa Valley, stories about his youth in Wilno, and a book of poems The Light of Day.
In 1957, The Poetic Treatise was published in book format. In this work, the author tried to answer the question, “How is good poetry possible in a world full of wrong doing?” To write good poems, the poet needs to decide to reach the roots of evil, uncover the “core of darkness”.
The great river of time moved Miłosz to the United States in 1960. At the University of California at Berkley, he took the position of professor of Polish and Russian Literature in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department. He combined university work with writing. He published essays in View of the San Francisco Bay and poems such as “Where Does the Sun Rise When it Sets”, both of which were praised very highly by critics. He made a foreign culture popular by publishing in the United States an anthology of modern Polish poems, , which he himself selected and translated. His recognition was confirmed by many grants and awards.
The most prestigious of these awards was the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Czesław Miłosz in 1980, for his life’s work “in which without compromise, with great detail, he shows the human dangers caused by a world full of conflict.”
In Stockholm in November of 1980, Miłosz received from the king the highest medal for literature. He said then, “My standing here on this podium should serve as an argument for all of those who rejoice in what is received from God, in a beautifully put together, immeasurable life.” (All noticed the “Solidarity” logo that graced his lapel.)
In the summer of 1981, after a thirty-year absence from his home country, he returned for a visit. In Gdansk, he met with Lech Wałęsa and placed flowers at the monument for the fallen heroes of the shipyard. His visit was like a calling. “It was great that he appeared during those hard times in June. He brought hope and strength in believing in the truth and freedom for the people,” as stated in Życie Literackie (Literary Life). “When we have Wojtyla, Walesa, and Miłosz, we have to shape up psychologically”- wrote Jan Turnau in Więź (Ties).
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Miłosz continued to translate, as well as write essays and poems, including the religious volume Second Space. This includes the famous “Theological Treatise”, his metaphysical search in which he takes account of his life. Even though we find in this work many contradictions, the poet believed the secrets of faith are to be contemplated, not to be logically sorted out, because the spirit is very complicated and a simple “yes” or “no” is not enough.
Czesław Miłosz was a witness to the greatest events in his era. He himself experienced totalitarianism, and, as an artist, he felt the pain of this system. For his beliefs, he paid the greatest price. Until 1980, his books were not published in Poland, and his name appeared in papers only in a negative context as a traitor to Poland and Poles. But the river of history, which took him from Lithuania to European kings to the other side of the ocean changed course and returned him to his native land.
In a free Poland, he took a special place. He was a symbol of Polish rebirth – next to the Polish pope and the electrician from the Gdansk shipyard.
He passed away at his home in Kraków on
August 14, 2004.
Translated by Monika Glazar