Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Dictatorship of the Intellect

Miłosz's mistrust of the literature and art of his age began to grow, and the mature poet is less dictatorial as regards the intellect. In The Land of Ulro he comes out on the side of William Blake and imagination. Scientific tools have plunged us into Ulro, the name Blake gave to the land to which rationalists were consigned. But Miłosz does not entirely abandon the intellect:

“Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it…”

[from Incantation, translated by Robert Pinsky and Czesław Miłosz]

In discussing this poem Seamus Heaney draws our attention to the title: “This is a spell, uttered to bring about a desirable state of affairs, rather than a declaration that such a state of affairs truly exists – for nobody knows better than the author how long and how invincibly the enemies of human reason can prevail.” Thus, here there is a blend of reason and magic. Elsewhere too the dictatorship of the intellect starts to give ground. In his novel, The Valley of Issa, set in Lithuania, Miłosz calmly informs us that a peculiarity of the valley was the large amount of devils there. The matter-of-fact introduction of supernatural elements is reminiscent of Mickiewicz, the great nineteenth century Romantic poet.

Miłosz survived the war in Warsaw and afterwards worked with the communist regime. He was a diplomat for some years but broke with communist Poland and lived in Paris from 1951 to 1961 before moving to California. This, and his relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland, has coloured Polish reaction to him and his work. His poetry was suppressed in his home country and many Poles first heard of him when he won the Nobel prize in 1980. On the other hand, many remembered that he had for a time been a part of the communist establishment and held this against him. His funeral arrangements were accompanied by controversy although in the end they passed of without incident, attended by a crowd of 7,000.

Paris was not the most congenial home for a defector from the eastern bloc in the 1950s. The French left, still enamoured of Stalin, did not welcome him with open arms and his book The Captive Mind, about the attraction that Marxism has for twentieth century intellectuals, cannot have made him many friends in France. Indeed, even in Poland there were those who accused him of trying to justify his own attraction to Marxism: in Poland it was fear, not philosophy, that swelled the numbers of the communist party. Gustav Herling-Grudziński, whose Another World is a harrowing account of his experience in the Gulags, said of The Captive Mind that it was beautifully written, but invented from behind a desk.

Miłosz's relationship with the Church was also turbulent. He was inclined to Manicheanism, and once declared that he did not want to have anything to do with Polish Catholicism. A taboo in Polish literature, he wrote, was to discuss religion seriously: it led to accusations of slipping into mysticism. Also, to be a Catholic writer is similar to being labelled a writer of genre novels. Comments such as these, and his distaste for Catholic links with the right, cannot have endeared him to the more reactionary elements of Polish society. Nonetheless, the Catholic University of Lublin awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1981, and in his acceptance speech he aimed a blow at dogmatists of all creeds and none:

“But I am not a Catholic poet. To use this word implies the existence of poets who are not Catholic, which seems doubtful to me and contradicto
ry of the meaning of the word katholikos, universal.” Both believers and non-believers, he maintained, belonged to the same meeting of minds if they had respect for the “labyrinth of contradictions that is our life…. Whatever they call each other, they are all friends of man because their attitude of respect is the opposite of the contempt in which the world is held by self-satisfied disciples of theories and doctrines, who have answers to everything.”


Donald Davie, Czesław Miłosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, 1986
Heaney, Seamus, The Government of the Tongue, 1988
Leonard, Nathan & Arthur Quinn, The Poet's Work: An Introduction to Czesław Miłosz, 1991
Miłosz, Czesław, Ziemia Ulro (The Land of Ulro)
Miłosz, Czesław, Ogród nauk (The Garden of Learning)
Miłosz, Czesław, Zaczynając od moich ulic (Starting from my Streets)
Miłosz, Czesław, Dolina Issy (The Valley of Issa)
Miłosz, Czesław, Zniewolony umysł (The Captive Mind)

Czeslaw Milosz Site

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