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26 April, 2011

Searching for the Europe of Czeslaw Milosz

2011 is the year of Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004). The centenary of the greatest modern Polish poet allows us a glimpse of Eastern and Central Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century

An eminent and cosmopolitan, albeit deeply rooted in the Lithuanian and Polish historical and cultural sensibilities, European who felt at home in several European languages and cultures, and who spent much of his time in the United States, Milosz anticipated the crucial dilemmas of European identity and memory which we started tackling immediately after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The paradox of Milosz is that it was through the fame of his eye-opening and captivating political essays on the mindset of the Eastern European intelligentsia, rather than his superb poetry and literary essays, that he became a central figure among Eastern and Central Europe’s émigrés in the USA and all over the world. The Captive Mind came as a shock to the West. The same applies to Joseph Brodsky and other greatest Eastern and Central Europeans who captivated the West as public intellectuals and social critics, rather than brilliant writers or living classics of literature.

He stripped much of Western Europe and the USA of their political myopia and naiveté concerning the nature of the communist regime. He did so by showing that not only coercion and violent politics, but also the vanity and fear of Eastern European intellectuals played a pivotal role in the emergence of what Milosz described, with the stroke of genius, as Ketman – the art to act in the public concealing one’s true political views or even religious and cultural identity.

As the recently deceased British-American intellectual historian and public intellectual Tony Judt (1948–2010), who, among his other areas of competence, was knowledgeable of Eastern and Central Europe’s intellectual dramas and history of ideas, subtly noted reviewing Milosz’s The Captive Mind and commenting on the phenomenon of Ketman, “writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty,” which is a sad lot of an Eastern European intellectual frequently bound to choose between his country and his conscience.

In the pivotal part of his perceptive review, Judt reveals fear of the indifference as a primary moving force behind mental acrobatics and immoral maneuvering described by Milosz as Ketman. Judt quotes from The Captive Mind: “Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.”

In fact, it is not infrequent in Eastern and Central Europe that culture precedes and shapes politics. In the case of Lithuania, it was through the word of two most eminent Polish men of letters, people of multiple identities, such as Milosz himself and a Parisian Polish émigré Jerzy Giedroyc (1906–2000), a highly respected editor of a leading Polish-émigré literary-political journal, Kultura (1947–2000), that it became possible to confront some worn-out clichés concerning the clashes of memory that occurred between twentieth century Lithuania and Poland.

From the Lithuanian side, Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet and literary scholar, who also acts as Professor if Slavic Literature at Yale, was in the lead from the very beginning of the debate on Poland vis-à-vis Lithuania. In his essays and poetry, Venclova easily and naturally migrates between Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Jewish sensibilities bridging these cultures and identities. In this, Venclova remains unique among Lithuanian writers and thinkers.

Born in Klaipeda and raised in Kaunas, Venclova comes to project his worldview onto Vilnius, a characteristically Central European – multicultural and cosmopolitan – city around whose poetic vision revolves the entire map of his thought. This is, perhaps, best revealed in “A Dialogue about a City,” a real masterpiece of the epistolary genre written by Venclova and Milosz. Two perspectives on Vilnius, Lithuanian and Polish, not only complement one another; they reveal how human memory and sentiment work re-enacting history and bridging it with the present. Needless to say, there can be strong Jewish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian perspectives on Vilnius as well.  

“A Dialogue about a City” was written in the late 1970s, yet it took quite a while for both countries to put behind their mutual animosities, which was achieved nearly overnight when Poland and Lithuania signed, in 1994, a historic treaty of friendship and cooperation. It recognized Vilnius once and for all as the unquestionable capital of Lithuania. This cleared the air and paved the way for a friendship, a natural outcome of the centuries of a common state and of a shared culture.

A happy combination of liberal patriotism, multiple and communicating identities, and the readiness to criticize one’s owncountry, instead ofsearching for the Devil elsewhere and, first and foremost, in an opponent, as best exemplified by Milosz, still stands as hisinvitation to search forthe Europe as an extended motherland of all of us, or as the native Europe, to put it in his words.

Local sensibility combined with sensitivity and attentiveness to other cultures and identities could become a clue to present dilemmas of the troubled European identity. We should search for the Europe of Czeslaw Milosz, instead of returning to the hibernated and frozen dramas of memory and identity, which appear as the unholy legacy of the twentieth century.

It is extremely important to remember and do this now when Lithuania and Poland have just recently nearly ruined their relations for no serious reason. 


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