On a summer morning in 1926, a lovesick 15-year-old on an aristocratic estate in Poland survived a drunken, solitary game of Russian roulette. The boy’s name was Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004), and the full life granted to him by Providence was surely one of the most eventful of the 20th century.
That life, chronicled in the impeccably researched (and newly translated) Miłosz: A Biography, by Andrzej Franaszek, consisted not only of a Nobel Prize–winning literary career but of work as a diplomat, polemicist, and anti-Soviet defector and dissident as well. Born to ethnic Poles in Lithuania, Miłosz spent much of his early childhood crisscrossing Eastern Europe, fleeing first the Kaiser’s army and then the Bolsheviks. By the time he began writing poetry, at the age of 13, he had already pocketed an extraordinary share of raw material, much of which would show up in such early collections as Poem of the Frozen Time and Three Winters.
Other poems would soon follow, as would employment with Polish Radio (where Miłosz would eventually be dismissed for holding leftist views), numerous love affairs, and an ever-widening literary circle. Like many of that circle’s members, Miłosz would come to professional maturity just as the dual Nazi and Soviet occupations of his country, enacted according to the notorious Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, were beginning. The poet spent the first months of the Second World War in Vilnius, Lithuania, before making the difficult journey to Warsaw, desperate, despite his Marxist beliefs, to avoid becoming a Soviet citizen but uneasy, too, with an anti-Nazi resistance whose “cult of patriotic bravery,” in the words of Andrzej Franaszek, “irresponsibly play[ed] with too many human lives.”
It is exactly this tension — Miłosz’s opposition to Stalinism vying internally with his disgust at a nationalistic (and often anti-Semitic) European Right — that drives much of Franaszek’s narrative. En route to Warsaw through Russian-held territory in January 1940, less than four months after Stalin’s invasion, Miłosz observed firsthand the full extent of Soviet brutality against ordinary citizens, writing later to a friend of his “utter revulsion” at “the cold misery of this hell in which people are reduced to insects.” A dozen years later, however, on becoming the first Eastern Bloc artist to defend publicly his defection from a “people’s republic,” Miłosz felt the need to insist that he was “not a reactionary.” And later still, visiting Poland again after two decades in America, Miłosz poured scorn on what Franaszek characterizes as “the binarist mind-set of many Poles who viewed the United States as indisputably ‘the good guys.’”
Despite this ambivalence, Miłosz thrilled American conservatives with his publication, in 1953 (a mere two years after his defection), of The Captive Mind, the work for which he remains best known in the West. In that exploration of Communism’s poisonous allure, he surveyed the intellectual and social wreckage of the so-called social democracies in the U.S.S.R.’s sphere of influence, providing crucial support to those who wished to oppose what Irving Kristol described, in an essay written the previous year, as “the insidious myth according to which Communism is a political trend continuous with liberalism, . . . only more impatient.” In depicting Soviet-approved intellectuals as “haunted by a void,” as Franaszek puts it, “and thus susceptible to a ‘new faith,’” Miłosz upended the popular belief, on the intellectual left, in Communism’s inevitable, secular, and ultimately benign reign on Earth. He also gave the lie to the related notion that “only dialectical materialism, by illuminating history and reality, [could] lessen the pain [of the Nazis’] camps and crematoria.”
Miłosz’s ultimate conclusions — that Communism led its adherents away from “the wisdom of past ages” and that human nature itself was “the enemy” of totalitarian control — drew praise from such luminaries as Thomas Merton, the American theologian and Trappist monk; Karl Jaspers, the famed German-Swiss existentialist; and Albert Einstein, who wrote, in a kind letter, that Miłosz had made “a very good contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the situation faced by the Eastern European intelligentsia.” Despite this success, however, Miłosz remained for many years a figure with no obvious ideological home, writing in 1960 that his work had led other Western intellectuals to avoid him “as if I had a contagious disease or was a sinner.” “To the right — no common language. To the left — total misunderstanding.” Such feelings of isolation could only have been exacerbated by Miłosz’s removal, in an Orwellian touch, from Polish encyclopedias or by news that following his 1951 defection, a well-attended Warsaw literary conference had devolved into a trial of the writer in absentia. Its aim, Franaszek writes, “was to stigmatise Miłosz as a renegade, with a secondary purpose of clearing those who had come into contact with him of any suspicion of ideological contamination.”
Miłosz, whose ‘entire shaping’ had been Marxist, according to one contemporary, turned against the Soviet project at a time when so many others continued to defend it.
What had prompted Miłosz, a man whose “entire shaping” had been Marxist, according to one contemporary, to turn against the Soviet project at a time when so many others continued to defend it? One answer proposed by Franaszek involves the poet’s visit to Warsaw, in the spring of 1949, after several years abroad in the Polish diplomatic service. What Miłosz saw on his return shocked him:
A prison inhabited by people steeped in hatred for those who ruled over them, people whose faces expressed fear. . . . To live in Washington and reflect on the diabolical essence within Communism was one thing; to hear at first hand from an old friend, “We are slaves here,” another.
Whatever his reasons, and, as Franaszek makes clear, Miłosz was sustained in his loneliness by the Catholic faith of his youth — a faith that, the author writes, “helped him capture something pivotal to him, and also provided an antidote to the world of ‘pseudo-thinking’ which surrounded him and filled him with dread.” Yet Miłosz’s faith was no mere political counterbalance. Instead, it seems to have been a deeply held (indeed, a literal) understanding of Christianity’s ability to confront the destructive nihilism of the 20th century. “Do I believe in the absurdity that Jesus rose from the dead?” the poet asked in 1991, eleven years after securing literature’s most famous prize. “The answer is ‘yes,’ and so I refute the omnipotence of death.”
All of this, one can imagine, makes for highly compelling reading, even though Franaszek, like many biographers of great men, seems to have included every last nugget acquired during his long study. Was it necessary to learn, for example, that, swimming in Warsaw’s municipal pool, Miłosz preferred the breast stroke? Or that the poet’s father abandoned farming in 1947 because of a “plague of mice”? On the other hand, one reader’s superfluity is another’s gem. I was delighted to read that the pavements on which the young Miłosz walked to school in Vilnius in the 1920s were made of wooden planks, and that Solidarity’s Lech Wałęsa was once imprisoned for distributing banned copies of The Captive Mind.
However one takes such details, Miłosz succeeds because of its portrait of bravery: the kind of bravery we see today, still, in men and women of the left and right who tell the truth, respectively, about radical Islam and the odious alt-Right. I like to think that they have something of Miłosz’s spirit.