Learning from Czeslaw Milosz

This article was published in The Tablet

Freedom, faith and a Polish poet on the underground

22 July 2011

There is a treat for users of the London Underground. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Polish Catholic intellectual and poet, Czeslaw Milosz, the Poems on the Underground team have put up some of his crisp short poems on the tube.

The coincidence of the centenary of Milosz with Poland taking over the six month presidency of the European Union is a reminder that Poland remains not only Europe’s most Catholic nation but increasingly an important European power. Both the Polish Finance Minister who is delivering economic growth that George Osborne can only dream of and the Polish Foreign Minister were educated in Britain. Indeed Radek Sikorski, Poland’s and Europe’s most forceful foreign minister was in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford alongside David Cameron and George Osborne in the 1980s.

Milosz, like his great friend Pope John Paul II sprung to global prominence 30 years ago. In 1978 the Polish Pope arrived in the Vatican. Two years later, Solidarity was created and the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz himself shied away from being defined as a Catholic poet. “I may be too much of a sinner and a heretic to be considered a real Catholic intellectual though a priest who studied my work decided there was no obstacle to calling me a Catholic intellectual even though I do not call myself a Catholic poet.”

Like Pope John Paul II Milosz also spent the war years in Poland and then worked briefly as a diplomat after 1945 before realising that his need to write freely was incompatible with living under communism. His 1951 classic, “The Captive Mind” argued that whatever communism’s claims to be a force for social emancipation and economic equality its denial of intellectual freedom and religious belief made communism incompatible with humanism, hope and rationality.

Then, the left was still enthralled to the heroism of the Red Army in defeating Hitlerism and to the claim that communism would build a better world. The Labour Government in 1945 refused to allow the Polish Spitfire pilots of 1940 or the Polish infantry who had assaulted Monte Cassino or landed at Arnhem in 1944 to march in the great victory parades after the war. For Whitehall, being nice to Communist Russia was then a priority.

This shameful silence on the crimes of communism can find echoes today in David Cameron’s refusal to mention by name, the Chinese Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo in public for fear of upsetting the Chinese communist dictators who have locked away in the Chinese gulag this great and noble pacifist and pro-democracy intellectual.

Milosz was luckier than Liu and got out to live in the United States. He taught European literature at Berkely telling his students to get to grips with TS Elliot and Dostoievsky as European culture was not to be limited by national boundaries. He kept writing poem after poem in Polish, writing for small publications long before the net or modern forms of communication could bring his poetry and his ideas to a wider public.

In 1970, he wrote a poem addressed to the petty tyrants running Poland after their security forces in the best style of the despots in Syria or Bahrain shot dead an early pro-democracy demonstration in the city of Gdansk.

“Do not feel safe.

The poet remembers.

You kill one,

Another is born.

The words are written down,

The deed, the date.”

Unlike W. H. Auden who excised his major political poem about the Spanish Civil War from later anthologies because he felt embarrassed by the commitment expressed in it, Milosz always refused to despair or give up hope that one day his Poland would be free. In 2005, Tony Blair asked me to attend the inauguration of the monument to Solidarity put up in Gdansk to the workers shot dead in 1970. Milosz’s poem is inscribed there to be read in decades, centuries to come.

The church in Poland in the communist years created some space for intellectuals, including those in exile, to be published. The Polish equivalent of the Tablet, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly) was able to publish Milosz. Catholic political intellectuals like Tadeusz Mazowiecki kept insisting to the leaders of Solidarity, including those ready to unleash a more hot-headed nationalism, the central importance of peaceful protests and never allowing any violent provocations to provide the communist ruling elites with an excuse for a crackdown. The term, “the self-limiting revolution”, was used to define both the ambition but also the careful choice of tactics by Solidarity.

To visit Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk and other Polish cities in the first flowering of freedom in the communist world thirty years ago was to see an explosion of publishing of books forbidden by Stalinist censorship. Milosz’s poems and “The Captive Mind”itself were top of the books published in the sixteen months of Solidarity freedom between August 1980 and the repression of the union in December 1981.

In the West, the Polish uprising was seen as a forlorn romantic gesture against the still invincible might of communism. It was in the tradition of the myths of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks in 1939 or Polish uprisings in the 18th and 19th century against Russia. But this was always to patronise a much deeper liberal European tradition in Poland.

Joseph Conrad, the most famous Pole to write in English rejected the idea of the Poles as a Slav nation. “The Polish temperament with its tradition of self-government, its chivalrous view of moral restraints and exaggerated respect for individual rights: not to mention the important fact that while the Polish mentality, western in complexion, had received its training from Italy and France and historically had always remained, even in religious matters in sympathy with the most liberal currents of European thought.”

Milosz’s western liberalism could be seen in his approach to contraception and abortion. The latter he considered “a great crime” but he did not think that the Poles like other western democracies should legally seek to ban it. He was nostalgic for the Latin Mass but it was just that - nostalgia. He described himself as “an ecstatic pessimist” echoing Gramsci’s “optimism of the spirit and pessimism of the intellect.”

Before he moved to America, Milosz lived in France at a time where Albert Camus wrote: “The great event of the 20th century was the forsaking of the values of freedom by the revolutionary movement. Since that moment a certain hope has disappeared from the world and a solitude has begun for each and every man.”

Such was the despair and misery of any European intellectual in the mid-century as they looked both on what had happened to the great European culture of science, music and poetry that was Germany which had succumbed to xenophobic right-wing politics. It was also the despair of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and citizens of the Baltic states who also seemed to see only a black hopeless vista stretching out to eternity as communism crushed European freedom in the eastern half of the continent after 1945.

Milosz is a testament to the need to reject the ultimate sin, that of despair, that of giving up in belief and hope.As he wrote:

“Human reason is beautiful and invincible...

It puts what should be above things as they are,

Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.

So we write Truth and Justice with capital letters,

lie and oppression with small.”

Today the spirit of Milosz can be felt, if not always seen, in Arab countries and in China and wherever else human reason is temporarily crushed by communist or other forms of dictatorship. The poems we can read on the Underground at the moment are a reminder that the spirit of freedom and the hope of reason never die.