The Nobel Prize in Literature 1980
Presentation Speech by Professor Lars
Gyllensten, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies
Czeslaw Milosz was born in Lithuania and grew up in an environment in which primitive folk traditions lived on together with a complex historical heritage. Industrialization had not made itself felt in earnest. People lived in close contact with a still unspoilt nature. This culture and most of its people no longer exist. The Nazi terror and genocide, war and oppression have wreaked devastation.
Milosz took an early interest in literature and became one of the leading writers in the young generation who wanted to renew poetry and who took an active part in underground freedom movements against the Nazi tyranny. As a socialist he was attached to the new Poland's intellectual elite, becoming in time a trusted cultural person who represented his country abroad. However, the political climate changed during the cold war in a Stalinistic direction. With his uncompromising demand for artistic integrity and human freedom Milosz could no longer support the regime. In 1951 he left Poland and settled in Paris as a "free writer" - a term not without ironic overtones. In 1960 he moved to USA as a lecturer on Polish literature at Berkeley University. His roots in Poland and his connections with its intellectual life have, however, never been broken.
Disruption and breaking up have marked Milosz's life from the very beginning. In both an outward and an inward sense he is an exiled writer - a stranger for whom the physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical or even religious exile applying to humanity in general. The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry and prose, works and essays is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of paradise. But the paradise from which he has been banished is not any bleating idyll but a genuine Old Testament Eden for better or worse, with the Serpent as a rival for supremacy. The destructive and treacherous forces are mingled with the good and creative ones - both are equally true and present.
The tensions and contrasts are typical of Milosz's art and outlook on life. According to him one of the writer's most important tasks is "ouvrir à celui qui le lit une dimension qui rend l'affaire de vivre plus passionnante" - "from galactic silence protect us" and show us "how difficult it is to remain just one person." There is much of the Preacher's or Pascal's fervour in him - a passionate striving to make us intensely aware that we are living scattered abroad and that there is no paradise but that evil and havoc are forces to combat. To look reality in the face is not to see everything in darkness and give up in gloom and despair, nor is it to see everything in light and to lapse into escapism and delusion. Still less is it to blur the contours and the focus in favour of convenience or compromise. The tensions, the passion, the contrasts - the diaspora at once freely acknowledged and enforced - are the true meaning of our human condition.
Milosz is a very intellectual writer, trained in philosophy and literature. His writing is full of voices and references, pastiches and ironies, breaches of style and roles. It is polyphonic in its structure.
But he is also a very sensual writer. One cannot hope to find the rhythmical qualities and the linguistic sensuousness justly reproduced in translation. But the inherent sensuality is there in full measure. His imagery has the character of surprise that only experience can give - that which is experienced in the empirical world, the imagination or memory. The intellectual trait in Milosz has a direct counterpart in this talent for lucidity and this requited love of the sensuous. In proximity to concrete reality and in human traditions and fellowship he seeks a defence against the destructive forces that hold sway in the world to which we are delivered against our will. Distance and presence characterize him in like degree. The same applies to his relationship to his new country, where he is a writer who must be translated to be understood and who is understood and valued, though perhaps in a roundabout way and in incomplete reproductions. He holds that in fact this is something that concerns us all, writers or not.
Strong passions but also strict discipline and unerring perspicacity mark Milosz's work. An implacable fervour never lets him reconcile himself to man's powerlessness, to the tendency of language towards tricks of illusion and the failures of sympathy, to "remorse that we did not love the poor ashes in Sachsenhausen with absolute love, beyond human power." This fervour of his combines with a mature and sorely tried man's broadmindedness and with a striving for self-control and a stoic or even Epicurean heroism. One comes across outbursts of defiance and rage - almost Nietzschean in their frenzy against the conditions of creation which compel man to be nothing but a man, unable - as the gods can - to change what is mean and cruel. Against this are contrasted moments of calmly clarified repose in what is merely simple and present - miraculously present. His writing is many-voiced and dramatic, insistent and provocative, changing between different moods and levels, from the elegiac to the furious and from the abstract to the extremely concrete.
Czeslaw Milosz is a difficult writer, in the best sense of the word-challenging and demanding, captivating not least because of his complications.
Dear Mr. Milosz! You have sometimes spoken of your language, Polish, as a small language of a rather small people, unknown to most of the world. I have tried to comment upon your life, views and experiences, documented in Polish and nourished on Polish traditions and culture. I have spoken in a still smaller language, still less known to the rest of the world and rather alien from Polish traditions. And I have had a very short time at my disposal to try to describe some of the experiences when reading you. Now I will conclude in English - a language which is neither yours nor mine - and in a still shorter time. Of course I am not able to do justice to you - not at all.
There is a certain irony in the situation - an irony not out of place in this connection. You have often pictured human conditions as basically alienated - we are foreigners in this world and foreigners to one another. But not only foreigners. The Nobel Prize to you is also a token and a proof of the fact that borders may be crossed, understanding and sympathy fostered, and animating, living contacts or correspondences created. To read your writings and be confronted with their challenges, means to become enriched with important, new experiences - in spite of all alienation.
It is my great pleasure to express the heartfelt congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive this year's Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture AllÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1980