Against the Devil: The Tormented Life of Czesław Miłosz

By Maria RybakovaSeptember 9, 2017

Against the Devil: The Tormented Life of Czesław Miłosz

Miłosz: A Biography by Andrzej Franaszek

AS A CHILD, he could have died from a grenade thrown into his home. He could have become separated from his parents during the family’s journey through Russia and become a Russian poet. He could have ended his days in a labor camp in Kolyma. As a love-sick adolescent, he took a revolver and played a potentially suicidal game of Russian roulette. When World War II broke out, he could have remained in Lithuania, where he would have probably been incarcerated or killed. In occupied Warsaw, he could have been executed by the Nazis. Seduced by ideology, he could have become a functionary in the postwar communist Poland. At one point, he considered going to Paraguay to become a farmer in a Christian community. As Andrzej Franaszek points out in his masterful biography of Czesław Miłosz, during these and “many subsequent moments […] it must have seemed that some benign divine protector was indeed watching over” the poet.

In his own words, Miłosz “was not made to live anywhere except in Paradise. Such, simply, was my genetic inadaptation. Here on earth every prick of a rose-thorn changed into a wound, whenever sun hid behind a cloud, I grieved.” Even in earliest childhood, in the paradisiacal village of Szetejnie (now Šeteniai, Lithuania), the uncommonly sensitive boy was attuned to the cruelty of the natural world, the suffering and death of living beings. Nature, so beautiful that it could be perceived as divine, was, at the same time, so violent that it might have seemed the work of the devil. The tension between the world’s beauty and cruelty, the unanswerable question of whether the world was essentially good or evil, would inform much of Czesław Miłosz’s mature poetry.

Among the possible answers to this eternal question is Manichaeism, another is atheism, or even nihilism — a resounding “no.” Yet another is Marxism, the utopian ideal of a society that has rejected the “survival of the fittest” and is premised on solidarity. Young Miłosz, whose sense of wonder and beauty made him impervious to the temptations of nihilism (“I lived in a state of constant wonder, as if before a curtain which I knew had to rise someday”), felt an attraction to Marxism, which was born of his twinned aversion to capitalism and nature; “the reason,” he wrote, was “the feeling of threat that both create, [his] aversion to brutality, and [his] sense of pity, which are mixed together, and difficult to separate.”

In 1937, at the age of 26, he visited the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy. Those who enter it and then walk over to the Cappella Nuova, attracted by the figure of Christ on the fresco, are often shocked to discover that the figure is not, in fact, that of Christ, but of the Antichrist, looking very similar to the usual Renaissance depictions of Jesus. This Pseudo-Jesus with his hand raised in a Satanic benediction, has Satan whispering into his ear. The bodies of Satan and Antichrist are coiled together so closely that it’s not easy to understand where one ends and the other begins.

Sometimes a man and a location come together in a mysterious accord that determines, or at least foreshadows, the subsequent path that person takes: Simone Weil in Assisi, Paul Claudel behind that pillar in the Notre Dame, young Dostoyevsky’s “vision on the Neva,” when he understood that “nothing [was] more fantastic than reality.” The fresco in Orvieto came to stand for Czesław Miłosz’s main adversary: evil donning the clothes of good. The false messiah was about to tempt and destroy many intellectuals to whom Miłosz was close. Moreover, Miłosz himself would have to enter a temporary pact with the devil.

Few who have, even for a moment, been deceived by the Orvieto fresco can ever completely trust their instincts in the face of evil. For Miłosz, the implications were even more profound: he could no longer rest assured that he himself was free of evil. Although he would be recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the poet struggled with survivor’s guilt after the Nazi suppression of the Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw in the spring of 1943: “There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously. We did not look each other in the eye.” Later, in the poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” he lamented: “And he will count me among the helpers of death: / The uncircumcised.” After the war, when the victorious Soviet Union imposed a communist regime on liberated Poland, Miłosz entered the diplomatic service, hoping for an eventual escape: “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen. Anything but being strangled.” He defected in Paris in 1951.

The pact with the devil was broken, and the Prince of Lies immediately launched an attack. Czesław Miłosz was vilified at home by those who were loyal to the new regime and abroad by the right-wing Polish émigrés who accused him of being a Marxist. A feeling of almost suicidal despair, of being “a wounded animal,” engulfed Miłosz. To exorcise it, he began writing The Captive Mind, a meditation on the Faustian bargain struck by many Polish intellectuals, who surrendered to communist ideology while maintaining the illusion that they could preserve their inner freedom; Miłosz called this strategy “Ketman.” The author’s sympathy for and insights into his subjects, his eschewing of any simplistic denunciations, set the text apart from countless vehement anticommunist screeds. For a time, this brilliant essay, which was translated into many languages, overshadowed Miłosz’s achievements in poetry. As a result, readers in the West came to regard him as a “political writer,” a title to which he neither aspired nor considered appropriate.

As Franaszek’s biography shows, Czesław Miłosz felt that he was doomed to failure in his fight against the Prince of Lies. It is all the more remarkable, then, that Miłosz started this battle, accepting that it would mark the end of his literary career. In 1951, he wrote to a friend: “I think that I truly deserve what had happened to me and that I will pay even more, because I stood up against the historical Zeus.” He immigrated to the United States in 1960, taking a position at Berkeley the following year. For almost 30 years, he lived a quiet but frustrating life in California (“the land of most complete alienation”), and had almost no readers; he likened himself to a “ghost in a spiritualist séance […] who cannot tell whether his knocking is picked up by anyone.” But he never stopped writing poems in Polish, nor did he lay down his arms in his battle against the Antichrist. Indeed, he saw both as the same vocation, since “[p]oems are always written against death.” Slowly, the world began to recognize his achievements. In 1978, he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and in 1980, at 69, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, it had been a long and torturous road. Why had he persisted?

When Miłosz first came to Paris in 1931, he met his uncle (or, to be more precise, his distant cousin), the French Symbolist poet Oscar Milosz, who would, along with the more famous mystic visionaries Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake, exert a lasting influence on the younger man. “Each of them,” writes Franaszek, “rebelled against the post-Renaissance demythologisation of the world, and mankind’s total submission to the forces of biology and physics.” Czesław Miłosz admired their doomed fight. Perhaps he found the strength to rebel against the “Historical Zeus” in their example. He himself was ambivalent about mysticism, but he refused to accept the purely biological vision of the world, which would entail accepting cruelty: “[W]hoever considers as normal the order of things in which the strong triumph, and the weak fail, and life ends with death, accepts the devil’s rule.”

As the 20th century progressed, St. Augustine’s assertion that evil was just the absence of good — one of the cornerstones of humanism — made less and less sense to Miłosz. Although he was brought up in a traditionally humanistic milieu, he was extremely sensitive to the viciousness of the natural world and of his fellow man; the extermination of the Ghetto forced him to acknowledge that evil was an independent and powerful substance. But a traditionally Manichean view of the world was also problematic; it forced one to accept the evil in oneself as ineradicable. According to this philosophy, to perform an evil act was simply to bow to the iron law of necessity. At the end of the war, Miłosz saw Russian soldiers first extolling the brotherhood of men, then indifferently killing a German prisoner for his coat.

What of philosophies that aimed to eradicate evil? The Marxist vision of utopia had led to the deaths of millions who happened to stand in the way. Miłosz remained unsatisfied, but he refused to surrender to nihilism. He first reacted with indignation to Philip Larkin’s masterpiece of despair, “Aubade” (1977), reproaching the poet, whose talent he greatly admired, for robbing men of hope. Yet later he admitted that Larkin’s poetry corresponds to the new religious attitude of our times, “based on a via negativa[;] Larkin, an agnostic, shakes readers to the core.” But Miłosz was never as far as Simone Weil, who proclaimed that the very absence of God from this world testified, paradoxically, to His reality (since God could only make space for creation by withdrawing). Miłosz was looking for another way.

Franaszek does an excellent job of dramatizing Miłosz’s oscillation between belief and unbelief, as well as his recognition of the daimonic — or perhaps demonic — drive within himself. The poet, whose compassion made him “a defender of belief in the existence of a higher order, in the hope that the world we know is not the only one, that billions of unique human lives do not simply sink into the dark waters of nothingness, that their immortal elements dwell on the other side of time, waiting for an ultimate return,” was also aware that his “ecstatic praise of being” might “just have been exercises in high style,” and that the daimon dictating verses to a poet may turn out to be an evil spirit. It is this highest pitch of self-doubt that turns Miłosz’s verse, paradoxically, into a metaphysical and wholly modern affirmation of being.

It shall come to completion in the sixth millennium, or next Tuesday.
The demiurge’s workshop will suddenly be stilled. Unimaginable silence.
And the form of every single grain will be restored in glory.
I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.

(“From the Rising of the Sun”)


Maria Rybakova is a Russian writer.

LARB Contributor

Maria Rybakova teaches literature and creative writing in Astana, Kazakhstan. Her collection Quaternity: Four Novellas from the Carpathians was published by Ibidem Press in 2021. She is currently working on a travel memoir.


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