Books: Cultural Amnesia — Czesław Miłosz |
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Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) was born in Lithuania and grew up speaking Polish. In 1934 he reinforced his career as a poet and freelance writer by taking a law degree. As a contributor to radio he got into trouble under the pre-war right-wing government for his left-wing views. Under a more ruthless regime, his experience at dodging official opprobrium came in useful when he wrote for the underground press in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Representing post-war Communist Poland, he was a diplomat to the United States and, in 1950, to Paris, where he asked for political asylum. He spent ten years in Paris, and students of his writings will often get the sense that he was later more comfortable having his Polish translated into French than into English. In 1953 he published The Captive Mind, a bitterly disillusioned analysis, from the inside, of the influence of Marxist orthodoxy on his generation of idealists. The book, which students should regard as essential reading even today, can now be seen as an early blow at the foundations of the Warsaw Pact. Written before the Berlin Wall went up, The Captive Mind was a key factor in eventually bringing it down. At the end of his decade in Paris, Miłosz left for California, where he became established as professor of Slavic languages and literature at Berkeley. In 1980 he received the Nobel Prize, and after 1981 his writings began to be published in Poland: not all at once, and seldom without official doubts, but inexorably. For the regime in its long final crisis, Miłosz’s international prestige was just too big to ignore, like the Pope’s. Miłosz wrote poetry, essays and political analysis as if they were all in the one medium, a genre beyond a genre. From the technical angle, this now looks like the next breakthrough after Ortega, early in the century, identified the newspaper article as a vital medium for serious thought. The genre beyond the genres had already been established by Miłosz’s fellow Polish-speaking exile Gombrowicz but nobody pursued it with quite the copious fluency of Miłosz, whose poems and esssays flow into each other as if they belong to the one river system. John Bayley, in his useful introductory essay on Miłosz collected in The Power of Delight, says, “By writing in every form, he writes virtually in one: and he instructs in all.” Miłosz had a wealth of personal experience to base his instruction on, much of it tinged with remorse. As with Marcel Reich-Ranicki, another future liberal who was a servant of the Polish Communist regime after the war, the supposed puzzle of Miłosz’s unfortunate allegiance can be quickly solved: the Poles had no reason to trust anyone. With his background so thoroughly poisoned, the miracle of Miłosz’s writings is his range of fellow-feeling: he can talk about modern history and the contradictions within liberalism as if we, his listeners, had been made wise by the same childhood.

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The scriptures constitute the common good of believers, agnostics and atheists.

THAT THE BIBLE, for a Western civilization, is the common good of believers and non-believers ought to be obvious, but for some reason it is a truth hard to see except when that same civilization is at the point of collapse. Miłosz had seen a civilization collapse: like any of the post-war Polish writers awarded the privilege of growing to adulthood, he had been obliged to wonder whether a national culture can be said to have any roots at all after the nation itself has been obliterated. It has to be remembered that the typical Polish writer was Bruno Schulz. But for that to be remembered, Bruno Schulz has to be remembered, and the main reason he was so easily forgotten is that a Gestapo officer blew his brains out. It happened in the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942, when Schulz was only fifty, with the best of his career ahead of him. Schulz’s little book The Cinnamon Shops had the promise of a genius that would take time to realize itself, because the nature of time would be one of the things it would define. Even if he had never written a word, he would have been a hope for Poland’s future just for how he could paint and draw. He was a walking fountain of talent, and the flow was stopped almost before it started, by one bullet in the right place. But at least he was heard of. Among the younger elite obliterated by the Russian firing squads before the Nazis even arrived, there were probably more like him. There were certainly more in the Warsaw ghetto, where the cultural life (plangently evoked by Marcel Reich-Ranicki in his long interview Die doppelte Boden) was like a university of dreams. Alas, the university had a direct rail connection with the slaughterhouse, and all that beautiful promise went into smoke. It took Roman Polanski, by his very existence, to remind us of what had ceased to exist: a whole generation of young talent was destroyed, and if Polanski had not been blessed with an inconspicuous personal appearance even he would have shared the fate of his mother. When the war was over, the memory of all this was not: for the artists who had come through, the pit was only a step behind them. When they looked over their shoulders, they could see right into it. In that direction, there was little else in view, except rubble. Miłosz was living with that knowledge when he said this about the scriptures.

Looking for something to count on, he found the Bible in the ruins. For us, blessed with a more comfortable set of ruins—even if the streets are more dangerous, most of us live better now than we did in the houses we grew up in—there seems less to be afraid of: we can persuade ourselves that history is a linear development, in which even the eternal can become outdated, and be safely forgotten. Perhaps our own catastrophe will never come in any readily intelligible form, so it will never matter if there is nothing to go back to, no past to legitimize the permanent present, which will legitimize itself by doing us no evil except by its puffball bombardment of triviality. There is always the chance that our confident iconoclasts are right. Miłosz is telling us not to bet on it, but perhaps he was unlucky. Like the Polish intelligentsia that was wiped out half by one set of madmen and half by another, he was just caught in the squeeze, and had his heart broken even though his body walked away.

You can be a non-believer, however, and still be amazed at how even the believers are ready to let the Bible go. In England, the most lethal attack on the scriptures has been mounted by the established Church itself. The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions, done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability. Eliot said that the Revised Standard Vesion was the work of men who did not realize they were atheists. The New English Bible was worse than that: Dwight Macdonald (his hilarious review is collected in his fine book Against the American Grain) had to give up looking for traces of majesty and start looking for traces of literacy. Those responsible for the NEB probably did realize they were atheists: otherwise they could scarcely have been so determined to leave not one stone standing upon another. For those of us unable to accept that the Bible is God’s living word, but who believe that the living word is God, the successful reduction of once-vital language to a compendium of banalities was bound to look like blasphemy, and the perpetrators like vandals. When I joined in a public protest against the rejigging of the Book of Common Prayer, a practising Christian among the London editors—it was Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye—accused me of being in bad faith. He hated the new prayer book even more than I did, but thought I could have no reason for sharing his contempt. But it was my book too. I had been brought up on the scriptures, the prayers and the hymns. I had better reasons than inertia for deploring their destruction. Miłosz had the same reasons. The scriptures had been his first food. For me, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, demagogic politics—all the verbal corruptions of democracy, the language of illusion. But for Miłosz, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against a much more dangerous language, the language of legalized murder. We have to imagine a situation in which the state was so oppressive and mendacious that the Church looked like a free institution, and its language sounded like the truth. Miłosz was well aware that the record of the Church in Polish politics had not been brilliant. One of his many braveries, post-war, was to give an unflinching account of Poland’s institutionalized anti-Semitism, a strain of opinion in which the Church had always been implicated. We should also strive to remember that any German lover of his Bible must cope with the knowledge that its classic translation was the work of Martin Luther, whose loathing for the Jews was well up to Nazi standards. But we are not talking about our love for a Church, whether Catholic or Protestant. We are talking about our love for a book, and what we love is the way it is written. Rewriting it is not in the realm of the possible, and any attempt to do so should be seen for what it is: the threat of destruction.

Sooner than become the enemy of its own classical texts, the Anglican Church would have done better to seize the first opportunity of disestablishing itself. However tenuous, its offical connection to the state has been enough to saddle it with the doomed ambition of maximizing its popular audience, like a television channel in desperate search of more viewers who eat crisps. Separated from a fully secularized state, it might have fully enjoyed the only civilized condition for a religion, which is to provide a spiritual structure for private life. Only a secular state can be democratic; although the democracy will soon be in trouble if the private citizen is deprived of a spiritual code, to be acknowleged for its moral example even if he does not believe in its divine provenance.

With the possible exception of Buddhism, no religion we know about is capable of allying itself to the state without working to the destruction of liberty. Less commonly noted is that it will also work to the destruction of itself, by trivializing its own teachings, or rendering them obnoxious in the attempt to impose them legally, instead of by exhortation, example and witness. In its proper sphere, private life, a religion can keep its teachings as pure and strict as it likes, as long as they do not break the law. It is also free to protect its own sources of spiritual nourishment against the fatal obligation to make them universally intelligible. We can be sure that one of the consolations the Pope brought to Poland in 1979 was a few words of Latin. That he spoke Polish helped him to be understood, but that he also spoke Latin was the reminder, thirsted for by the faithful, that there was an eternal language which the years of the captive mind had not managed to corrupt. There were many among the faithless who were glad to be reminded too.

Evelyn Waugh’s correspondence teems with bitter complaints at the time when the Church adopted a vernacular liturgy. He hadn’t, he said, become a Catholic in order to applaud the Church’s clumsy adaptation to the modern world. He wanted it not to adapt. He wanted, that is, a refuge. Those of us brought up as Protestants, but who later lapsed, found out, when the doors closed behind us, that we hadn’t lapsed quite as far as we thought. We had lapsed into unbelief, but not into stupidity, and the spectacle of our one-time cradle rocking to the clappy-happy rhythms of half-witted populism was a betrayal of something that had once impressed us at least enough to invite rebellion. I don’t want the teachings of Jesus taken from me. He might no longer be my redeemer, but he is still my master. If I no longer know that my redeemer liveth, I know that he speaketh not like Tony Blair. It is true that Jesus never spoke the language of the King James Version of the New Testament. But the language of the King James Version is of a poetic intensity congruent with the impact Jesus must once have made on simple souls, of whom I am still one: simple enough, anyway, to need my sins forgiven. Now that there is nobody to do that for me, I must try to do it myself. Like most men with a conscience, I find that very hard, and spend much time feeling absurd. But without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality, to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torments of Jesus in his passion, if, on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well. Exiled in California, Miłosz saw enough of America’s culture of personal fulfilment to wonder what he had got himself into. But he never forgot what he had got himself out of—a repression so arid that it left him thirsty for a language he could respect, even though it came from a book he couldn’t believe.