Interview with Czeslaw Milosz by Professor Malgorzata Anna Packalén in Cracow, 10 December 2003.*
I came to Cracow on a foggy day just before Christmas 2003 to interview Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten. After having lived most of his life in exile, it is no surprise that Milosz chose to spend his final years in Cracow – no other Polish city offers such a fascinating fusion of culture, tradition and modernity.
Milosz was born in 1911 in Lithuania, at that time a part of Russia. He studied in Vilnius and made his debut as a poet in 1933. He was considered to be one of the most promising young Polish poets in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Shortly before the start of the Second World War he left his post as diplomat and sought political asylum in France. In 1961 he accepted an offer of a professorship at the University of California in Berkeley, where he lectured for over 20 years, devoting his time simultaneously to academic duties, writing and translating.
Although his works were banned in Poland during his exile in Europe and the US, they reached Polish readers by different clandestine routes, even long before he won the Nobel Prize. Winning the prize in 1980 however, made it possible for him to return to Poland after 30 years’ absence and it also made it possible for his works to be officially published in his home country again. In a formal ceremony in the middle of the 1990s Milosz was given a symbolic key to the city of Cracow and a newly renovated flat, which he accepted with gratitude. Having settled down in Poland, he spent his time between Cracow and Berkeley, two cities with great significance for his life and career.
Czeslaw Milosz received me with a somewhat old-fashioned yet graceful Polish chivalry. Warmed up by coffee and his charm, I began asking questions and very soon our conversation turned to Sweden, a country with a special relation to Milosz not only because of the Nobel Prize. This became apparent when I asked what books had influenced him most as a child. He gave me a broad smile and explained:
CM: One was actually Selma Lagerlöf‘s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. I’m still convinced that it formed my feeling for literature and taught me the double perspective, of being able to see things both from above and on a more earthly plane.
MAP: I suspect you must also have applied the double perspective when you taught the history of Polish literature at the University of California. My experience has taught me that you never see your own culture so clearly as when it’s reflected in another culture. How, in your opinion, does Polish literature differ from the literature of other cultures? What is its most distinctive feature?
CM: Without doubt Polish literature’s constant struggle with history. There is simply no other country in Europe that suddenly disappeared from the map for over 100 years as Poland did in 1795, when it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. After a brief respite between the First and Second World Wars, Poland lost its statehood again in 1939 when it was divided in an agreement between Hitler and Stalin. All of this is complicated, of course, and it isn’t easy to explain to foreigners the martyrdom of Polish literature and its struggle for liberation, especially if you want to avoid unnecessary pathos. But we Poles are all too aware of the heavy burden that history has forced upon us. Polish writers were thrown into all this against their will, and these historically difficult situations also meant that they were forced to take a political stand.
MAP: I can’t help thinking of one of your poems that became very well known due to its controversial Polish-Jewish theme. I mean “Campo dei Fiori”, which you wrote in Warsaw in 1943. You compare Giordano Bruno’s death on a pyre and the people’s indifference to it with the doomed Jews’ struggle in the Warsaw ghetto. Poles would like to think that this poem rescued the conscience of Polish war literature. What is your feeling about that?
CM: There are people who say that what I described was just a literary metaphor. But in fact, I passed the ghetto as I was riding the tram and saw all that horror with my own eyes… The main theme of the poem is the vulnerability and aloneness of the dying person, and for that reason the comparison with Giordano Bruno was appropriate; the death of each and every individual can be compared with this. The poem was born out of a sort of moral obligation, when you feel that you must react.
MAP: You said that Polish writers were often forced to take a political stand. You were also repeatedly forced to take such a stand, for instance in 1980 when you gave your undivided support to the Solidarity Movement. Even much earlier, in the 1950s, you described the spiritual oppression behind the Iron Curtain in your book The Captive Mind. People reacted very strongly to that book and it helped many readers in the Western world to understand the mechanisms of the totalitarian state. But isn’t it so that your having been on the safe side of the Iron Curtain was turned against you? …
CM: I wrote that book under great inner conflict, it was meant primarily for readers in the West. Today we face an entirely different problem: that the book – which deals with the dark sides of the communistic system, with propaganda, interrogations, censorship etc., is completely incomprehensible to the young generation in Poland. Probably because Marxism and the communistic ideology in Poland were forced upon the people from above. Their roots quite simply don’t go very deep. It was never taken very seriously in Polish intellectual circles. And, because of censorship, it was hardly widespread in the country. What’s interesting now about The Captive Mind is that it recently came out for the first time in Russia. Why, we can ask. Perhaps because it’s become topical again now, as we start again to see certain totalitarian tendencies in Russian society. The book is still also very widely read and discussed in American universities and colleges since it’s considered to portray an important part of the history of the 1900s. But that isn’t the case in Poland …
MAP: In other words, one of the Polish paradoxes… But let’s return to your writing: you often bring up the theme of living in exile and of not being able to step into the same river twice, and yet you returned to your native Lithuania after 52 years and described the experience in your autobiographical novel The Issa Valley. What were your feelings about that return?
CM: Writing about exile was a way for me to seek distance just exactly by that distance in time and space. My return to Lithuania was primarily a return to my maternal grandparents’ home in Szetejnie. I have to confess that it was a completely unexpected experience, the meeting with all that lush greenery, exactly as I remembered it from my childhood! Everything else was changed, though, of course, because I saw it then through the eyes of a small child, so that everything that surrounded me had completely different proportions. My return to my childhood home, or more accurately my non-home, because nothing of it remained, was in fact a kind of shock. But in Vilnius, where I spent my school and university years, I had a strange, almost physical, feeling of being surrounded by ghosts, naturally because none of the people I knew before were there any longer, not even their children or their grandchildren. The Jewish population had been murdered during the war and the Poles had largely been deported or had emigrated.
MAP: You once said that Lithuania’s spirit had never left you completely and – what at first surprised me – you compared the Poles in Lithuania with Finno-Swedes in Finland.
CM: Yes, with the difference that the concept “Lithuanian Pole” doesn’t exist in the general Polish consciousness. But if history had developed in another way we would surely have been able to create that label.
MAP: As it is now, there is hardly any environment or national and cultural kinship for people with a background like yours.
CM: That’s true. I feel that very strongly and look for soul mates, but it’s too late. I see myself as one of the last Lithuanian Poles, the “last Mohican”… [laughing]
MAP: How did it feel to come back to Poland after having being considered for so many years an exile writer? Did you identify yourself with that term?
CM: No, in fact I didn’t. Especially considering that I was not in any of the Polish emigrant environments, with the exception of those around the editor Jerzy Giedroyc and his journal/publishing company “Kultura” in Paris. My work was banned in Poland, and Giedroyc published many of my books, so it was in that sense that I was a writer in exile. However, I always felt a great affinity with the intellectual and literary group in Poland and saw myself as one of them, but one who paradoxically enough had wound up in the West.
MAP: What do you think will happen now to the Polish “free” culture? Will it be able to claim a place in the new Europe?
CM: In my youth I was thrown between two totalitarian ideologies: communism on the one hand and nationalism on the other. And I struggled desperately to be able to find a way to approach these two strong currents. Today Polish writers have no points of reference at all, that’s the great difference. It was without a doubt the political factor that characterised Polish literature, both in Poland and abroad. Replacing the old “Polish code” with the “European” is obviously not easy, especially since – which my Irish friend Seamus Heaney pointed out – what gave Polish poetry its special distinction was this unique connection between the political and the personal situation. It’s my opinion however that the most specific Polish factor is probably the Catholic religion. At the same time, Poland is an incomprehensible country to me: Poles worship the Pope but many also act as though the Catholic religion never existed. I believe nevertheless that it is exactly its religious thinking that is one of the most valuable Polish dimensions.
MAP: The “eternal values” that survive all other political events, in other words …?
MAP: You discussed the concept of “two Europes” – that is, Western and Eastern Europe – early on, in your autobiographical book Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition that was published in Paris in 1958. What are your thoughts on that now? Is Poland still a part of the second Europe or is it finally beginning to come closer to the first?
CM: That division probably still holds. I mean, that for many years in the general French, German or English consciousness there was a line on the map of Europe behind which no one expected to see anything other than white bears! [laughing] For that reason we have to let time go by, it’s still too early to be able to erase that line completely. I understand that writers today probably have a difficult time finding their way in the new “McDonaldised” reality. But they’re perhaps not aware of one important thing – that Poland is not a “normal” European state, not yet and not with so many historical knots. There are still altogether too many historical complications to take a stand on. That means that writers who now completely ignore political reality are perhaps making a false conclusion.
MAP: You said in your Nobel Lecture that we all, both those who speak and those who listen, are no more than links between the past and the future …
CM: Yes, and I can only add here something that my good friend Joseph Brodsky said – that it isn’t at all that we write for those who come after us. We write to gain the sanction of our forefathers!
MAP: Is there anything that you still carry inside you that for some reason you haven’t yet been able to write about?
CM: My poor vision unfortunately stops me from writing. I was forced to dictate my last books. It’s a burden that also makes certain literary projects impossible. So even if I do probably have a few thoughts it’s getting more and more difficult to accomplish anything …
He gave a melancholy laugh and I joined in. It was easy to do that in his company. Just then his housekeeper walked past the room with a scowl. “Yes, indeed, here you sit and talk and talk while your food gets cold,” she muttered with a displeased look in my direction. Milosz smiled, obviously amused at her words, but he looked tired and I began to pick up my things. I thought of what the Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist wrote about him in 1979: “His life holds many moments, /…/ they belong to very different times, to very different places. And his words look for and find them from the most different directions.”
Czeslaw Milosz passed away on August 14, 2004, at the age of 93. He was buried in Cracow, in the crypt of the Pauline Church, a place of high honour where some of the greatest Polish names rest. With his death Polish literature lost one of its most accomplished writers and most unique twentieth-century literary personalities.
Malgorzata Anna Packalén (neé Szulc) was born in Poznan, Poland. She obtained her Bachelor Degree in Polish and Swedish Philology at Adam-Mickiewicz University, Poznan, where she also received her Masters Degree in 1977. She was a recipient of the Swedish Institute’s scholarship program in Sweden in 1975-76.
Packalén has been affiliated to the Department of Modern Languages at Uppsala University since 1979. Here she did research studies in Slavic languages in 1982-87 and received her Ph.D. in Slavic languages in 1987. She was holder of Postdoctoral Fellowships at the Department of Slavic Languages at Uppsala University in 1989-91, Research Fellow at The Swedish Research Council (HSFR) in 1991-92 and has been a researcher and Senior Lecturer in Polish since 1993. She became an Associate Professor at Uppsala University in 1997 and Professor in Polish in 2000.
M.A. Packalén has published a monograph on contemporary Polish poetry Pokolenie 68. Studium o poezji polskiej lat siedemdziesiatych (The Generation of ’68, Studies in Polish Poetry of the 70s., 1987, second ed. 1997), a comparative study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish and Swedish literature Under två kulturers ok (Under the Yoke of Two Cultures, 2001). She is co-editor of an anthology Swedish-Polish Modernism. Literature – Language Culture (2003). Her publications include articles on Polish language, poetry and prose, as well as cultural and gender studies. She was also author of numerous articles on Polish literature for the Swedish National Encyclopedia, Nationalencyklopedin (1990-1999).
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.