What the greatest poet of the 20th Century was worried about under German occupation, July 14, 2006
This review is from: Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (Hardcover)
When Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes was asked what he did during the French revolution, he responded “J’ai vecu”–”I survived”. For many, that was exactly their ambition when they found themselves in Nazi-occupied Warsaw between 1939 and 1944 and it often involved daily heroism. But today we admire those that joined the armed resistance, the couriers that kept the links with the Government- in-Exile, the teachers that taught in underground schools, and the intellectuals who sought to protect the Polish culture that, in the Nazi scheme of things, had no business existing.
“Legends of Modernity” is a collection of eight essays by Milosz and an exchange of nine essay-length letters between Milosz and Jerzy Andrzejewski written in 1942-43. For a reader who would not pay attention to where and when these essays were written, but who was merely interested in the history of European ideas and wanted to observe a keen intelligence at work, there is plenty here to keep him fascinated.
“The basic theme, threaded through numerous digressions, is an attempt to clear the field of convictions about man’s natural impulses and also about the natural conditions of his life–not without the hope that by destroying the legends he creates about himself, it will be possible to locate the surest footing. The chapter about Daniel Dafoe is aimed against belief in natural goodness outside of civilization. The chapter about Balzac describes the evil spell cast by civilization conceived of as an automatic process subject to laws of natural evolution. The chapters about Stendhal and Andre Gide grapple with the position of an individual who identified the laws of nature with the laws of human society, and taking it further, arrived at a cult of power. The chapter about William James criticized the acceptance of fictions and legends as a normal condition that we cannot move beyond. The fragment from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is used as an example of disillusionment with civilization and the miseries connected with this disillusionment. Marian Zdziechowski makes his appearance as a specimen of religion founded on the innate demands of the heart. The rather long sketch about Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz shines a light on metaphysical theories of art.” (From Milosz’s 1944 Preface)
While the essays are quite detached and calm, the letters to and from Andzejewski are less so. Their chief theme is the crisis of the Western Civilization and the role that the Catholic Church might have in rescuing it. The feeling of being affected by what was happening in the streets outside is somewhat easier to discern.
One can read this book to be dazzled by the display of critical wisdom by a 30-year old author. Or, one can remember that the writer was a simple laborer in 1942 when this book was written, and one could look at this book as an assertion of independence from the everyday reality, however horrible. In this sense, the book ought to be read alongside books such as Bartoszewski’s “1859 Dni Warszawy” or Szarota’s “Okupowanej Warszawy Dzien Powszedni”.
Josif Brodsky saw Milosz as a 20th century Job. Nothing less.
(Originally written for the Polish Library in Washington DC)
This review is from: Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (Hardcover)
Czeslaw Milosz, who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, after becoming a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, lived in Warsaw when it was occupied by the Nazis during the winter of 1942-1943, and wrote the essays and letters now translated into English in LEGENDS OF MODERNITY during that winter. The book does not have an index, and the Contents on pages v-vi only includes the names of four Polish authors, one of whom (the Catholic writer Jerzy Andrzejewski 1909-1985) wrote four letters to Czeslaw Milosz which are included on pages 160-172, 187-201 (dated September 1, 1942), 213-225, and 239-244. Notes to the 1996 Polish Edition on pages 259-262 reveal that the letters were exchanged in a café in the center of Warsaw, a coffeehouse with two pianos where the bartender was film director Antoni Bohdziewicz. Though the Notes to the Essays on pages 263-266 include French, Dutch, and German writers, the only American cited in “The Boundaries of Art” might be Edgar Allan Poe (n.5, n. 6, and n. 7, p. 265). William James is mentioned in “Absolute Freedom” in connection with Nietzsche, André Gide, and breaking with “Platonism,” the traditional understanding of good and evil. (p. 54). The fascist movements were the first examples to come to mind of man-God themes. (p. 55).
As a poet, Czeslaw Milosz has a very intellectual approach to political difficulties in historical times. Rather than attempting to locate the themes which I found interesting in the essays, I would prefer to adopt a bad analogy for the history of the twentieth century and attempt to apply thoughts from Milosz to explain the aspects of the analogy which relate to the contents of this book. Having just done a little research on videos that are currently available about Evel Knievel, I would like to apply his assertion that he was like a Roman general who believed that what was considered impossible would eventually be done. One famous stunt involved a motorcycle jump over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. As I remember the video clip shown in the movie starring George Hamilton, Evel Knievel was flying prone over his motorcycle with his hands on the handlebars when the rear wheel of the cycle came down on the short side of the lip at the far edge of the fountain, bouncing the motorcycle up into the vulnerable underside of Evel Knievel’s body, busting bones and rendering Knievel unconscious for a month. The stunt had a certain appeal because many people had seen the fountain at Caesar’s Palace and were genuinely curious about what a motorcycle could do besides wheelies. Whatever terror Evel Knievel may have felt, he was clearly outnumbered by the crowd who wanted to see the stunt accomplished or the splatter that would result otherwise.
The first essay in Legends of Modernity, “The Legend of the Island,” on Robinson Crusoe’s island, is about being able to free “himself from the evil influences of the crowd,” (p. 8). “The Legend of the Monster City” examines Balzac’s celebration of “The observer, smiling benignly at the picture of mindless desires and mindless efforts, is like a child standing over an anthill. He inserts a stick and is delighted with the insects’ chaotic scurrying. The crazier the actions of his victims, the more they lead to total infatuation” (pp. 22-23). The third essay, “The Legend of the Will,” discusses THE RED AND THE BLACK by Stendhal. “Julien Sorel is totally consumed by ambition.” (p. 36). “And he gave tit for tat, with hatred and contempt.” (p. 44). As a fellow exile-to-be, Milosz shows great appreciation for “The matter of Stendhal’s national defection (he considered himself spiritually a Milanese, not a Frenchman) demonstrates how much effort he invested in extracting himself from the authority of others’ opinions, how painstakingly he selected his privileged position, a position on the sidelines.” (p. 44).
Religion is the main topic considered from William James’s THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE in “Beyond Truth and Falsehood.” The same essay ventures into “a contradiction that was the driving force of Byron’s creative work.” (p. 68). Being able to identify the source of creative tension is like Evel Knievel’s ability to conceive of stunts that people would like to see, however dangerously the actual experience might turn out to fall short of the perfect expectation. “Is this the inevitable consequence of the collision of several value systems appearing in a simplified form between the hour of history and the hour of religion? I think not.” (p. 69). Dangerous myths include “the myth of labor or the myth of the dictatorship of the proletariat, propagated by the various branches of Marxism.” (p. 72).
An essay, “The Experience of War,” in which “we are condemned to self-examination” (p. 75), takes a stab at Pierre Bezukhov in Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE in which, “A vague imperative, incomprehensible even to him, crystallizes into a bizarre decision: Pierre decides to stab Napoleon, the author of all his fatherland’s woes.” (p. 77). Similarly, “To be sure, there is no truth, no beauty, no goodness–but there is German truth, German beauty, and German goodness; and thus the void was filled, and within the confines of the new canon there was room for heroism, dedication, friendship, and so forth.” (p. 82). The following essay, “Zdziechowski’s Religiosity,” considers flirtatiousness as adopting a particular mentalité totally lacking in the statement written in 1922 that, “We are a small part of Europe, we are linked with her fate, we are infected with the same diseases of communism and nationalism as she is, and together with her, biting at each other in a mad rage, we are rushing headlong into the abyss.” (p. 91). Key to understanding the identity of dogma is that it “is constantly acquiring new forms, is continually realized anew, and by the very necessity of struggle in a changing historical environment, it profits from new ways of understanding the world.” (p. 93).
This review is from:
Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943 (Hardcover)
There are several aspects to ‘Legends of Modernity’ that make it worth recommending – the immediacy of its subject matter, its relevance to today, the lively mind of the author – but above all, I’ll have to admit to developing a sense of hero worship for Czeslaw Milosz since I’ve read it.
These essays, written in Warsaw in 1942-43 during the Nazi occupation, were his efforts to discover “Why …the European spirit succumb(ed) to such a devastating disaster”.
Watching footage of smiling German crowds cheering Hitler as he stormed through his tirades, I have often wondered the same. Political theory and historical events do not give me satisfactory answers. Perhaps there are none, but Mr. Milosz’s inquest into the spirit of his times, written from amidst the rubble, is an amazing intellectual record – not only because of his insights, which are certainly interesting stepping stones for further thought, but for the man’s grit and tenacity and faith.
‘Legends of Modernity’ is not an account of Mr. Milosz’s experiences during the occupation – that is rarely commented on. Instead, it is an attempt to make sense of events, and its basic thrust is that the particular madness of both National Socialism and Stalinism did not arise circumstantially, but that they flourished because the cumulative effect of humanistic ideas over the centuries had slowly and almost imperceptibly prepared the modern mind to accept destructive ideologies as not only natural but desirable. The author’s contention is that this build-up of humanistic ideas, these ‘legends’, is the skeletal structure on which Modernity is constructed, which in turn set the stage for the various destructive isms of the early and mid twentieth century.
That specific observation is probably not groundbreaking, not now or then, though the usual bogeymen for this argument are Nietzche, Marx, and Darwin. Those three have a role to play, according to Mr. Milosz, but only at the end of a long chain – what I found surprising, and fascinating, was how the author connected his ‘modernity legends’ to people with which I would not normally have associated them. Daniel Defoe, Balzac, Stendhal, André Gide, and even William James all take center stage, and illustrate, through their literature, examples of the legends and myths that facilitated man’s rejection of a supernatural force as a limiting factor on his behavior. Though I understood some of these authors and their roles in the formation of modern thought, I’d never before considered them as Mr. Milosz does here – as a linked group reflecting the blow each generation gave in turn to the wedge that society was driving between God and man.
The first strike of the wedge’s tip is almost unnoticeable. Robinson Crusoe, somewhat of a prodigal before his shipwreck, discovers religion and a moral life away from ‘wicked’ society, and away from the communal aspects of the church. As Jaroslaw Anders sums up nicely in the introduction, “The human soul becomes its own government and its own church”. The succeeding essays follow this basic idea as it develops and changes through the years, leading up to the pragmatism of William James, which sweeps aside objective truth and only recognizes the ‘truth’ of action. The concluding essays, while still relevant, are not as linearly connected, dealing with the experience of war, and critiques of religious and artistic thought and individuals in the interwar decades of the twenties and thirties.
The author isn’t really in the business of drawing dogmatic conclusions, though it isn’t difficult to see where his sympathies lie, especially when you consider the wartime correspondence between Mr. Milosz and Jerzy Andrzejewski, also included in this volume. I have never been interested enough in the personal letters of any figure to read a volume dedicated to it, so I have no experience with which to compare this small selection. Their archival value seems evident, and they do give insight into both men and their thought processes during the occupation, but overall I thought this section weaker than the preceding essays. Much of the argument between the two concerns rationalism and irrationalism, and the role of Catholicism and faith between these two techniques, but their exchange sounds weighty and ponderous to me, almost affected.
It isn’t necessary to accept all of Mr. Milosz’s arguments to appreciate this collection – I didn’t, but I found that just by reading the way he framed them that I had a clearer picture of the various ideas and movements (and how they are connected) leading up to the twentieth century. Too often, with these sort of discussions, I find myself sinking into a pit of jargon from which I can’t break free. That doesn’t mean ‘Legends of Modernity’ was easy for me either, just that there didn’t seem to be an artificial barrier between author and reader.
Finally, as I read through these essays, I developed a distinctly favorable impression of Czeslaw Milosz, apart from his intellectual powers. This is harder for me to articulate, but I think of him as a role model for the thinking man – a man who didn’t lose himself to the madness that surrounded him.