Postcolonial Europe

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Czesław Miłosz: "Native Realm" *

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Some authors fall into oblivion after their death, whereas others grow in importance. Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz belongs to the latter category.[1] In Native Realm, a collection of essays from 1959, Czesław Miłosz restores the memory of a lost world. At the date of its publication he is 48 years old, but his experiences far surpass his age.

The Polish-Lithuanian author-in-exile has lived through two world wars and one revolution. He has witnessed the incarceration of one third of Warsaw's population, and their subsequent deportation in goods wagons. He has been heedful of the strengthening of borders and the raising of barriers. He intimately experienced the iron curtain's parting of the continent. In the midst of all this historic turmoil he has found himself a poet. These essays are his attempt at interrelating these events and states of affairs. The wars, the massive uprisings and the struggles for survival (many of Miłosz's friends were not as fortunate as he) are linked with his own ideas, writing and literary journey. He is capable of discerning the interrelationship of these processes already at the age of 48.

In Native Realm, Miłosz recounts his years of education, from the idyll of his childhood Lithuania, throughout the revolution and right past the occupation of German military. His personal experiences with these dramatic changes have left an imprint upon his intellect and are what bring about the astuteness of its dynamic. On the one hand, he develops a telescopic deep perception and ponders over the meaning of history - or, perhaps, its meaninglessness. On the other hand, he embraces the instantaneous, that sense of presence typical of seeing something for the first or last time: "I loved the morning fog, geese honking at dawn, the icy well-water streaking over my body, the chimney smoke trailing low before evening, and the whole dale, with its little river under the alder trees, where the village lay. That microcosmos sufficed ..."

Crystallizations of such moments are a trademark of Miłosz's poetry. His poems harbour an erotic tension that charges the instantaneous and unites the poet with the objects of his poetic attention: a hazel tree, a polka-dot dress or Berkeley's students of the 1960's - "our being beneath heaven and the day and our endless communion". The poems testify to a cosmic unitary force, mightier than lords and time itself, which he labels "this, which I do not attempt to name". Although constrained by this vow of silence he still miraculously manages to materialize this cosmogenetic element in his language. His ambition? "To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal."

Miłosz's vision of the world rises out from the conflict between harmony and violent destruction. His words are marked by the insight that all of man's efforts are in vain, yet it bespeaks a conviction that every fingernail and blade of grass is indispensable. This is contradictive - and Miłosz in fact makes a point of living and writing in contradiction. In Native Realm he describes what his life was like in the mid-1930's, while a student in Vilnius: "On one side were the Germans - Hitler and the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. On the other was Russia. In the middle was the nauseating Polish right, which, in the perspective of time, was doomed to failure. The groupings of the center - Populists and Socialists undermined by Communist sympathies - were difficult to take seriously. Parliamentary methods were discredited in the eyes of my generation." In these circumstances, Milosz becomes a Marxist in appearance and a poet at heart, a leading figure of the catastrophist school of Polish lyrics.

In terms of ideology, Miłosz is a maverick. A catholic who has seen through the bigotry of the priest's rhetoric. A Marxist in doubt of the utopian idea. An adherent of Polish communism frightened the very same communists might cut his throat. An admirer of French and British high culture who takes stand against their imperialism and slave trade. An opponent of Stalin's totalitarianism who openly ridicules the anticommunism of the West.

In writing essays Miłosz finds the meditative space needed to balance these inner contradictions, while he hones them in his poetry. He writes that he truly became a poet only after he realized the true meaning of dialectics - not a vain quest for a definitive solution, but an ability to endure and cultivate "the tension born of the conflict between thesis and antithesis". In this way he successfully avoids becoming a stock author of the party, without ending up in the trap of the opposite camp, "the comfort of moral intransigency". In this manner, he invents his own third alternative, which also is why he remains a much read writer.

Native Realm was originally published during the coldest of Cold War years. The new Europe of the postwar era had firmly taken shape in the years before its publication. Western Europe was with a shamed face redrawing from its former colonial possessions. EEC had been formed in 1957. The US had helped get Western Europe back on its feet, while Eastern Europe had been helped by the Soviet Union. It still remained unclear, however, which system would stand victorious in terms of military, economy and politics - or whether it all would end in mutual destruction. Morally, the West had already won - the signs, rumours and reports of Stalinist repression had been undeniably corroborated by the events in Hungary in 1956 - but victory only came after the West had gazed into its own darkness, the Holocaust, which Milosz believed was the utmost consequence of colonialism.

As Miłosz was writing Native Realm the political map of Europe was being redrawn in a way that was obliterating the Europe that had been his native realm, making it disappear under mass graves and gray socialist realism. That this Europe once had been vital, normal and unshattered by ideologies, was not obvious to the standard Westerner of the 1950's. With this in mind, Milosz's original intentions clear up significantly: "to bring Europe closer to the Europeans". In the deep of the Cold War, he sets his mind to salvage one kernel of Eastern European wisdom into a Western context. Which kernel? The events in Eastern Europe during the first part of the 20th century "taught us the meaning of full commitment and exploded the barriers between the individual and the social, between style and institution, between aesthetics and politics".

The accelerated changes in Europe since 1989 render the book in a new light. In one essay, Miłosz relates the late 19th century process of "colonization" of the Polish, Baltic, Belarusian, Bohemian and Ukrainian countryside. This led to the replacement of smallholdings by major estates - the plantations of Eastern Europe.

The frontier of Western modernity was not only in the West, there was also another one facing Eurasia. And if we look around today, what do we see if not a similar development: a comparable colonization, the strings now being pulled from Brussels, Paris, Vienna and Berlin? And is this not also today warranted by the same imperialistic rhetoric, behind which lure more aggressive nationalistic and ethnocentric ideologies? The old map of Europe, which Miłosz draws up, is perhaps still of some use to us. And the Europe he depicts may not be as far from our Europe as we may think.

 

 

Translated into English by Alexander Lindskog

 

 

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[1] new version of the text which was published in the "Dagens Nyheter" 2011-11-26 by review of the new edition of Czesław Miłosz: Mitt Europa (My Europe - Native Realm), Translated to Swedish by Stellan Ottoson, foreword by Richard Swartz, Brombers and Ärlig beskrivning (Honest description), Poems Selected by Anders Bodegård and Leonard Neuger, foreword by Agneta Pleijel, Bromberg's)

* The Polish title of this book is Rodzinna Europa, which translates to something like Familial Europe or Native Europe. The title of the English translation, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, is misleading because it implies that the quest of the book is the self understood in individualistic sense, and the quest a process of psychological probing. But Milosz makes it very clear in the introduction that this is not his purpose. Rather, he wants to explain who he is as a representative of the part of Eastern Europe that he hails from, to write against the prevailing view of Eastern Europeans. [ed.]

 

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