The poet who tried to see people like Jesus did
Review: Milosz: A Biography
Author: Andrzej Franaszek
The idea of literature as a counter to totalitarianism and war may seem a quaint notion to some. In saying this, it’s the exact reason why the Lithuanian/Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize, as this new biography details.
As a young man Milosz witnessed first the Nazis then the Soviets rolling through Poland during WWII. He was criticised in Poland for his defection to France and then the US after the war, as communism took over in Eastern Europe. He became famous for The Captive Mind, a critique of Stalinism, though he was also disgusted by the survival-of-the-fittest materialism of capitalism. As his friend the monk and writer Thomas Merton noted, Milosz tried to tread a narrow but necessary path between competing ideologies, in order to affirm the worth of the individual.
Milosz was a man of faith who had a cautious relationship with the Church, wary as he was of the Polish entanglement of church and state. Although he welcomed reform of the Church, he found the American modernisation of faith shallow and naïve about darker forces at work in the world. This is due to Milosz having lived through the evils of war and communist surveillance.
What is inspiring about his poetry is his insistence that human beings are not just flotsam in the currents of history, a sentiment reinforced by his faith. His poetry acknowledges the darker historical forces at work and in its deliberate attention to small instances of beauty celebrates the individual life, much as Jesus did in his ministry. Jesus’ disciples wanted to fight oppression the same manner, but Jesus recognised, as does Milosz, that combatting injustice involves attending to people not as abstractions but as individuals with their own unique stories to tell.