Posts by tag: Czeslaw Milosz

“Are Americans really stupid?” (Milosz)

From Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1951):

“Are Americans really stupid?” I was asked in Warsaw. In the voice of the man who posed the question, there was despair, as well as the hope that I would contradict him. This question reveals the attitude of the average person in the people’s democracies toward the West: it is despair mixed with a residue of hope.

During the last few years, the West has given these people a number of reasons to despair politically. In the case of the inteIlectual, other, more complicated reasons come into play. Before the countries of Central and Eastern Europe entered the sphere of the Imperium, they lived through the Second World War. That war was much more devastating there than in the countries of Western Europe. It destroyed not only their economies, also but a great many vaIues which had seemed till then unshakeable.

Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactIy what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariousIy on the edge of a cliff.

His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes — the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds — cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bathtub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.

He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse in the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have been executing an Underground sentence.”

Translated from Polish by Jane Zielonko. (Pp. 24-26 in the Vintage, 1990, edition)

Milosz on hailing from a backwater

How true- this quote, a favorite of mine:

“I see an injustice: a Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it. A wealth of allusions lies at his disposal, for his city exists in works of word, brush, and chisel; even if it were to vanish from the face of the earth, one would still be able to recreate it in the imagination. But I, returning in thought to the streets where the most important part of my life unfolded, am obliged to invent the most utilitarian sort of symbols and am forced to condense my material, as is usual when everything, from geography and architecture to the color of the air, has to be squeezed into a few sentences. A certain number of engravings, photographs, and memoirs do exist, of course, but these are generally little known beyond the narrow confines of the region itself. Moreover, the natives lacked perspective and most of the time paid no attention to what now seems to me worth thinking about.”

– Czeslaw Milosz, beginning paragraph from “City of My Youth” (Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. C.S. Leach, Doubleday, 1968)