Life & Culture

On Czesław Miłosz - Visions from the Other Europe review: Piercing insights into being an outsider

Timely reflections on the Jewish condition are unsettlingly relevant to our own times


On Czesław Miłosz: Visions from the Other Europe
By Eva Hoffman.
Princeton University Press

Born in 1911 to minor Polish nobility, the poet Czesław Miłosz grew up in the heterogeneous cultural milieu of Vilnius in Lithuania, known as the Jerusalem of the North. There he was attracted to Jews for their secularity and non-conformism and stood with them against antisemites at university.

His two Holocaust poems, Campo dei Fiori and A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto, are likely the first non-Jewish literary responses to the Holocaust. In Campo dei Fiori, Miłosz sees the nonchalance of Romans at the burning of Giordano Bruno as akin to the indifference of Gentile Poles to the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto uprising taking place a few feet away behind a wall.

Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow in 1946. Her Polish-Jewish parents survived the war with the help of Gentile neighbours.

She expresses gratitude to Miłosz, a Gentile fellow-Pole, for acknowledging “the extent and dreadful nature of the Jewish tragedy.... Recognition is perhaps the only form of reparation — the only redress possible — after enormous and irreversible wrongs have been committed”.

Miłosz, meanwhile, suffered the guilt of the survivor. In the 1944 poem Cafe he is haunted by the mocking ghosts of an institution where all perished except him. “One clear stanza,” he wrote, “can take more weight than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.”

Only in poetry could he come to terms with “the unimaginable and unspeakable” he had witnessed. And even then, believes Hoffman, only by virtue of a “cold heart, which perhaps allowed him… to maintain the detachment enabling much of his vision”.

Milosz found asylum from Poland in early 1950s France.

Yet he was rejected by a Sartrean intelligentsia in thrall to the very communist ideology he was fleeing. Hoffman argues that Sartre’s pro-communist positions “emerged from ideas and their transposition into ideology, while Miłosz’s choices were propelled by head-on collisions with hard, consequence-bearing realities”, a position she compares to the experimental music of the Polish composers Lutosławski and Panufnik, which was grounded in lived, tragic experience.

Hoffman is outraged by the pro-communist sympathies she herself witnessed at Harvard, “the naive idealisation of the workers, who would have much rather fought my Harvard friends down to the ground than launched their hoped-for revolution”.

This marvellous short book, shot through with insights into the poetic process and the ambivalent position of the outsider, one of a number of afflictions common to Hoffman and Miłosz, is unsettlingly relevant to our own times. Essential reading.

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