He was “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.” This is how the Irish poet Seamus Heaney described Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Nobel Prize-winning Lithuanian-born poet, novelist, and essayist. This “ambiguous privilege” spanned enough of the disasterous twentieth century to fill several lifetimes.

Milosz was raised as a Pole in Lithuania under Tsarist Russian rule. As a child, he witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. When he was twenty-eight and living in Warsaw, Germany invaded. After surviving the Nazi occupation, he lived through Soviet control of Poland, eventually sought asylum in France during the intellectual swirl of the 1950s, and took a professorship at Berkeley in the 1960s, just as the cultural revolution was beginning.

Throughout all the upheavals, he wrote-and was well regarded for it. But his fame and influence reached a new level once he began teaching at Berkeley, a critical node of Anglophone intellectual life. Though he never abandoned Polish as his primary form of expression, translators always stood ready to render his work into English, and Milosz became a virtual English writer just as English established its dominance as a global language. As his writings reached a wider audience, increasingly he became known for his eloquent and steadfast witness against communism in his homeland. It is probably no accident that his Nobel Prize in 1980 coincided with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk.

The publication of Legends of Modernity, then, provides a fresh look into the early development of a literary giant. Legends collects the letters and essays Milosz wrote during the Warsaw occupation, when he labored as a janitor, carting books from one bombed library to another, and became involved in an underground literary resistance to the Nazi regime.

Milosz was always a beneficial disturbance in modernism, partly because he never lost touch with the central reference points of his Catholic education. His ambivalent relationship to Catholicism has always been one of the more fascinating elements of his work. Milosz returned to the church later in life, but rejected the appellation Catholic writer “because if you are branded as a Catholic, you are supposed to testify with every work of yours to following the line of the church, which is not necessarily my case.”

Still, the classic Catholic question of reconciling faith and reason, best exemplified in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, features in Milosz’s writing. Aquinas differed from Augustine, who argued that human reason depends on divine intervention-an illumination of the intellect that draws our thoughts into conformity with truth. Without God, reason moves in circles; language is merely self-referential. Aquinas, responding to new translations of Aristotle, thought reason self-sufficient-subservient to, but not constituted by faith. As Milosz tells it, the nineteenth century put Thomism to the test by taking God out of the picture, and the twentieth century, in two world wars, may have proven Augustine right. The death of God turned out to entail the death of reason.

Milosz invokes Augustine only occasionally in these essays, but, through several essays and letters, he does take up the baleful process by which reconciled reason and faith were supplanted by an increasingly unreconciled, even polarized, reason and unreason. Amid the war ruins wrought by that process and the dull thumping of bombs, Milosz sought the origins of this polarization in “legends of modernity,” which portrayed one side or the other of the split.

In one such legend, that of Robinson Crusoe, he sees autonomous reason-man alone with his God, capable of “starting anew” because he is cut off from community. This model of man’s relation to God is essentially Protestant. It replaces the Catholic model, which emphasizes grace in the community of believers. The individualism of Robinson Crusoe feeds into not only the idea of capitalism, but also the ideal of the noble savage.

But not even a solitary reason uncorrupted by city life can escape the city’s advance. Reason suffers under the further embarrassment of being able to undermine its own autonomy by its powers of radical analysis. Under the scrutiny of this analysis, Milosz argues, the city becomes a monstrous collective governed by the laws of biology that operate inexorably in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine to subvert the individual. Rational analysis always seeks laws, and the more laws it discovers to explain behavior, the less scope remains for the free will, which, ironically, we have always associated with reason. The individual, having reasoned himself out of his Crusoe-like autonomy of reason, defiantly reasserts that autonomy as will. Milosz sees a fundamental danger in the fact that the will expresses itself as act rather than idea. Under its regime the individual asserts himself not by deliberative reason but by spontaneous unreason. He strikes out against the vulgar collective, like Julien Sorel in Stendahl’s Rouge et Noir, or against the very feelings of empathy that bind the individual to that collective, like Lafcadio in Andre Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican, who commits the perfect crime of murdering a man for no reason at all. Milosz calls Gide “that depraved man” for his Nietzschean glorification of this “gratuitous act.” This is an end point in self-assertion of will that presents itself as the only alternative to the impersonal forces of biology or economics.

This is but one line of Milosz’s thought that winds through several of the essays. A full account of some others, equally exciting, can’t be given in the space of a review. But I can recommend his reflections on war hysteria, illustrated by Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, who wanders through Moscow as it burns, “overcome by a feeling of obscure but powerfully experienced obligation, the necessity to participate at any cost,” and conceives a mad plan to assassinate Napoleon. And there is Milosz’s wary homage to Marian Zdziechowski, a former teacher who insisted that a genuine belief in God must be in some sense irrational. Milosz naturally sympathizes with this “intuitionist” stance, even as he recognizes that its surrender to belief fatally resembles the Nazis’ surrender to the imperatives of blood and race.

Yet an ironic thread of hope runs through these essays. The bleakest legend of the modern for Milosz is the primacy of impersonal forces-whether these are the biological forces worshiped by Nazis or the economic forces worshiped by Marxists-over reason. This legend makes ideas the secondary result of acts rather than their source, or what the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the representations of a generalized prerational will. Even in the malevolent history that Milosz traces to Nazism and communism, he finds a refutation of this theory.

Intellectuals akin to the “depraved” Gide have blood on their hands because, even though read by few, their ideas find their way to the many: “And so the coin of ideas, of thoughts, starts rolling; along the way its more subtle letters are rubbed out until, smooth and simplified, it reaches the masses in the form of a single motto, a cheap slogan.” The SS men who slaughter Jews are racially “the same as those German youths who under the influence of [Goethe’s] The Sorrows of Young Werther ran into fields and woods to commit suicide from sorrow over the imperfection of the world.” What joins them, race, is nothing compared to what separates them, an idea.

This optimism returns unobtrusively throughout the book and is a point of contention in the letters exchanged with Milosz’s friend Jerzy Andrzejewski, who later wrote Ashes and Diamonds. If the idea is primary, Milosz argues, then there is hope, beginning to show itself even in occupied Warsaw, in the possibility of a new idea.

Published in the 2006-08-11 issue: View Contents
Daniel M. Murtaugh is associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.
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