A Prophet for Then and Now
By Will Joyner
In the last several years, the number of well-executed literary memoirs has grown in such harrowing proportion that I, for one, have needed to devise ways to be super-selective as a reader. Above all, I immediately avoid any memoir that, no matter how lyrical, dwells on addiction, violence, or other family dysfunction. This strategy cuts out quite a lot. Beyond this, I also tend to pick up only memoirs that promise worthy insight into not just a particular life but also the processes of one or more of my chief concerns—spirituality, for example, or moral philosophy, or cultural politics, or poetry.
Over the recent holidays, I read two current books that I would classify as literary memoir, by two poets I respect. One book, Andrew Motion’s In the Blood (David R. Godine), is pure memoir, artfully built through poetic perception; the other, Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), uses personal narrative in a more elliptical manner, coupled with a critic’s approach (two Wiman poems appear elsewhere in this issue of the Bulletin). Each of these books is worthy in its own right, but I cite them here primarily because each vaguely reminded me of a memoir I had not read in years but sensed I needed to read again.
At first I couldn’t for the life of me identify that book. As I often do, I lingered in front of my shelves at home, scanning titles and occasionally picking out a volume to peruse. After not too long, and somewhat uncannily, I spotted Czeslaw Milosz’s Native Realm and knew it was the book I was after.
It’s a bit absurd, I admit, to recall Milosz here under the rubric “Shelf Life,” implying that his work could ever be in danger of neglect. Coming of age—that is, surviving as a Lithuanian Pole—amid the largely horrific events at the center of Russian, German, and then Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, he also developed as a writer who would prove to be one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
His poems will be read for as long as poems are read. His book The Captive Mind, published in 1951, just as Milosz left Communist Poland for exile in Paris and then the United States, will continue to be studied widely as the most honest and revealing examination of intellectual life under totalitarian rule. In 1980, soon after retiring from the University of California at Berkeley, where he had taught since 1960, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Then, with the opening of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, writing as powerfully as ever, Milosz was able—against virtually all expectations of his previous existence—to return home to Lithuania and Poland, where he died, in Krakow, in 2004.
So, what about Native Realm? In fact, it was neglected early on. One explanation might be that the book appeared first in the United States, rather than Europe; but probably more telling was that it appeared in 1968, a year of uninterrupted American political turmoil. Perhaps it was inevitable that a personal narrative so entwined with the political turmoil of such a different time and place—1911 to 1950, on the Russian frontier, and in Vilnius and Warsaw, with brief interludes in Paris and the United States—would be overlooked. In 1981, just after Milosz won the Nobel, Native Realm was reissued by the University of California Press, and the reaction of critic Walter Clemons in Newsweek was typical: “Czeslaw Milosz’s autobiography, little noticed when it appeared in 1968, is now republished because he won the Nobel Prize. Good. It is a powerful book we should have read earlier.” And in recent years, Native Realm has been kept in print by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I turn to Native Realm in this context not really because it has been neglected, but because it is an important book to read (or reread) now, especially for Americans who are bewildered by the ways the world has shrunk in the last decade, so much so that we need better examples of acute thinking on the flux and jagged interpenetration of cultures, languages, religions, “civilizations.”
In Native Realm, Milosz first of all constructs vivid, highly readable eyewitness accounts—from the fringe battlefields of World War I (the very young Czeslaw and his mother had to accompany his father, an engineer who was pressed into service by the Russian army), to high school classrooms in Vilnius (a frontier of rough cosmopolitanism, where Catholics and Jews, for example, got along together well for a time, as still-romantic socialism provided a tenuous link), to wartime Warsaw (where Milosz forged his skills and outlook as a poet, in a vibrant literary underground, as the city was destroyed around him), to postwar Washington, D.C., of all places (where Milosz served as a cultural attaché for the new Communist government of Poland, and worked through the guilt and nuanced derationalizing that would infuse Captive Mind).
More important in Native Realm, however, is that Milosz does the work of his subtitle—A Search for Self-Definition—by interrupting his vivid anecdotes to reflect back and trace the growth of a personal moral philosophy that’s attuned to any times that tend to not give an individual the advantage of peace. Here, for example, is Milosz’s analytical description of his status as a “typical Eastern European,” a description that, today in 2008, could often well apply, in its essence, both to reluctant immigrants and to people displaced within the borders of a “homeland,” all over the world: “His good qualities—intellectual avidity, fervor in discussion, a sense of irony, freshness of feeling, spatial (or geographical) fantasy—derive from a basic weakness: he always remains an adolescent, governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos. Form is achieved in stable societies. My own case is enough to verify how much of an effort it takes to absorb contradictory traditions, norms, and an overabundance of impressions, and to put them into some kind of order. The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident. If, however, they whirl around like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one’s feet on solid ground without falling.”
In rereading Native Realm, I found myself jotting down the page numbers of these passages, which are at once personal in a “poetic” sense and ”philosophical” in being so widely applicable, and building a set of tools by which to look at my own, privileged American personal history. Here’s another of these passages: “A country or a state should endure longer than an individual. At least this seems to be in keeping with the order of things. Today, however, one is constantly running across survivors of various Atlantises. Their lands in the course of time are transformed in memory and take on outlines that are no longer verifiable.”
How fortunate are so many of us in the United States—those of us who have been Americans for generations, and those of us who are prospering newcomers—that our homeland, still a “young” country but now much older than many of the nations in more ancient places, is not such an Atlantis. Should there be any doubt that, in the face of such widespread global terror, suffering, and the sudden tossing and squelching of human lives, we have an enormous responsibility to serve abroad—in the armed forces and not—as instruments of peace, and to serve at home as welcoming, flexible, kind even if careful citizens? Is there any excuse left for blindered ideologies that prevent such thoughtfully conceived, and articulated, service? In Native Realm, finally, Milosz speaks of the absolute necessity of “our [everyone’s] adaptation to historical fluidity,” and he points to the dire alternative in a voice that rings with the same timeless authenticity of the prophets of old:
“Woe to those who suddenly discover historical time unprepared, as an illiterate would discover chemistry. But woe also to those who deceive themselves by their obedience to an unchanging moral claim, because for them historical time, which demands for us constant renewal, is but fog and delusion. Even their art will be inert, for it has not been toughened in the purgatorial fires—and man’s unavoidable contradictions are his purgatory.”
Will Joyner is executive editor of the Bulletin.