By Driscoll, Jeremy
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 147
Joseph Brodsky once declared that "Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." After his death on August 14, many of the obituaries and published tributes said the same thing. Milosz's greatness was displayed not only in his poetry but also in his prose. In both he showed himself to be one of the bravest and sharpest thinkers of his time, as most critics have agreed. Yet there is an element of his greatness that has been generally avoided or underestimated even by his admirers. One rarely sees Milosz discussed as a Christian writer or his work as an expression of a profoundly religious imagination. How is it possible to praise Milosz as poet and thinker without coming to grips with his Christian vision? To do so is not just to ignore an essential dimension of his work; it is to miss the heart of his message.
Czeslaw Milosz was born in Szetejnie in 1911 and raised in Wilno, both of which are in present-day Lithuania. His family was part of the large Polish-speaking population of that city. For this reason he identified himself as a Polish writer. Living there through his university education, he was present in 1939 when the Soviets invaded Lithuania, while Hitler simultaneously invaded Poland. At great personal risk, he escaped through the Soviet borders and worked for the Polish resistance in Warsaw throughout the war. Once the war had ended, he tried to make a life for himself in his own nation and was part of the diplomatic corps of Communist Poland's postwar government. He was posted to the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. In 1951, while he was serving as the cultural attache at the Polish embassy in Paris, he defected. He remained in France until 1960, when he took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor of Slavic literature. In 1980, at the age of seventy, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Having lived in exile for fifty years, he moved from the United States to Krakow in 2001 and died there this summer at the age of ninety-three. He had remained productive until the end; a final book of poems, Second Space, is being published in English this fall.
This bare-bones summary of his life shows that Milosz's personal history included almost the whole of the twentieth century. He participated in some of its most dramatic episodes and lived within several of its colliding cultures, carving out homes in Lithuania, Poland, France, and the United States. These are the contexts in which his Christian vision was shaped and delivered. Although he often expressed this vision obliquely, he was relentless in his criticism of those who despised faith as an anachronism: "I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is glad to style himself an 'intellectual,' proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart.... The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions." Milosz believed that the role of the poet is crucial in any society--regardless of how little poetry is appreciated or its importance understood. Consider his apologia for the poetry he was writing during and after World War II, when the world was undergoing a shock and disillusionment perhaps unparalleled in human history. How should the poet react? Here is Milosz's proposal:
As is well known, the philosopher Adorno said that it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz, and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave the year 1941 as the date when God "abandoned" us. Whereas I wrote idyllic verses, "The World" and a number of others, in the very center of what was taking place in the anus mundi, and not by any means out of ignorance.... Life does not like death. The body, as long as it is able to, sets in opposition to death the heart's contractions and the warmth of circulating blood. …