Comments by Bob Corbett
There is a certain irony of in the order of my reading this autobiographical “hunt” of Czeslaw Milosz. This is the third book of his I have read. The first two, his last two books, Provinces and Second Space were written late in his life, the later of the two written after he was 90 and some of the poems even as late as his last year, at age 94.
However, A YEAR OF THE HUNTER is written as a diary of 1 year – August 1987 – August 1988 and begins when he is 77 years old. He is fairly convinced this is likely to be his last book. He is ill and has had a bit of a run of bad health. He talks often in the diary of his poor health and approaching death, indicating at least once that he is fairly sure he will be dead within the next year to year and half. Yet here I am reading the book knowing quite well that he will live another 17 years and write a great deal more poetry. Knowing this made a significant difference in my reading the diary.
He wrote HUNTER while living in his lovely home overlooking Berkeley, California where he seems to have loved to tend his plants and trees and enjoy his spectacular view of the bay, cities of Berkeley and San Francisco and the ocean. However, he also made many trips in that year to do poetry readings and wrote many of the entries in this diary while on airplanes.
He says “alas” the book is his hunting of the meaning of life but it is “. . . Reflections on the incommensurability of aspirations and accomplishments.”
That aim may well have been his intent, however, this reader found it to be much more like an autobiography than a hunt, and his trying to deal with justifying to himself his decision to leave Poland after the Russians took over, and to live his life in exile until he could live in Poland under his own terms. It wasn’t long after this book was written that the Soviet Union collapsed and he was free to come and go to Poland fairly much as he wished.
He lives alone as this diary opens. His wife had recently died after 10 years of a terrible death suffering both physically and with impaired mind all those years. He is satisfied with his care for his wife, foregoing the easier road of putting her into some sort of home and cared for her himself as much as he possibly could and he is very happy that he has done this.
However, what seems to dominate his reflection is not what he called the “incommensurability of aspirations and accomplishments,” but his own dissatisfaction with how his self-imposed exile worked in relation to the intellectual and literary life of those who remained in Poland and did what they could under Soviet rule. Their protest had to be tempered to the times and power relationships and they weren’t as free as Milosz to say what they wished, but, even on Milosz’s own criterion, they accomplished much and he has not only has a hard time accepting that, but seems to be completely consumed with the intellectual lives of dissident resident Poles and dissatisfied with the path that he himself took.
In any case he left Poland and came to New York in 1946. He was in an odd position. He didn’t like capitalism at all, but wasn’t convinced Poland could survive Russian occupation and that Stalinist Communism would dominate. Most Poles in the intellectual class which he so admired wanted to stay on as a voice of integrity and fight as best they could. He just didn’t see that as a reasonable alternative. But, while he was IN American, and gratefully so, he was never a part of America.
My indifference to capitalist temptations was appropriately noted down and that’s the main reason why I was assumed to be reliable. Another reason as well: the intensity of my experiences in Poland had erected something like an armored wall around me. What was here was unreal, and the minds of Americans were unreal; I belonged to another planet, and I could only observe their planet while shrugging my shoulders, and wishing them well or not.
While he seems to have done quite a number of poetry readings at various universities around the world, he was not very well known outside relatively esoteric circles in literature. He says that his books of poetry appeared in editions of only 100 to 300 copies, and even then he notes “. . . that doesn’t mean they had that many buyers.” Even the fact that he had already received his Nobel Prize in 1980, didn’t send his book sales on their way.
Given the journal or diary nature of the book I will simply comment here and there as I read through, making notes and comments about what he is talking about as he goes from topic to topic and his responses to his “hunt” that the title refers to.
I was fortunate to have had a 10 day visit to Warsaw about a year after he finished his book, but before the Polish liberation from the Soviet Union occurred. Since I was the guest of a working class Pole I was able to experience the materially difficult world of this one Polish family. Ironically, despite his own status as exile, Milosz seems to have known little of the everyday lives of underclass and working class Poles.
While he loves his trees, gardens, even the deer and other animals which eat his plants, he views nature as overall unpleasant, reflecting a violent struggle of the fittest, which, despite human civilization’s attempts to mitigate this pattern in human society, is still the dominant model of all living beings, including the humans.
He also dwells on his understanding of capitalism as an economic system which is representative of this brutal struggle-for-existence manner of life.
This is a journal. It is purposely piecemeal thoughts and memories, his wrestling with this or that contemporary experience, of trying to make sense of his strange life and, at the same time, trying to justify and explain his life choices. I will simply comment here and there on what he is talking about and some of my own responses to his “hunt.”
Aug. 9, 1987. On the end of the countryside: Short pieces such as the quote below, are often revealing of his love of nature, but sadness in the modern destruction of the environment. Yet, he seems to love city life as much as any other person and more than most.
Well then, it has been given to me to see in one lifetime the end of the countryside. What happened here is a pattern for the entire planet, not that it has to look the same everywhere, but a clear pattern is developing, if only with regard to population density. So, housing tracts are scattered over a great distance, preserving relics of the countryside, but already maintained artificially: irrigation, trees, space set aside for sports. Farming is kept separate, but there are no more hamlets.
He writes a great deal about his Polish roots and the intellectual and political struggles he’s witnessed. Along the way he talks of many writers and intellectuals, especially Poles, of whom I have never heard.
On the end of the war in Warsaw:
July 1944. Hot. Warsaw, after almost five years of occupation, wears a smile as carefree as only it can be; the walls of its apartment houses are pocked where hostages were executed on street corners; its central districts no longer exist, transformed into the wasteland of the ghetto destroyed by the Germans. What a cheerful city, observing with a stifled giggle the hurried evacuation of the enemy’s offices, the loading onto trucks of wardrobes, trunks, suitcases. Swallows in the pure blue sky, the women’s flowered outfits, the laughter and shouts of boys in courtyards, hosing each other down, leaping into improvised swimming pools. So, the end of the war is in sight. After so many deaths, let the living enjoy the sun, the greenery, straining their ears to catch the rumbling of the approaching front.
There is a constant professed humility about his own writing. He seems to believe that he has very few readers. He also acts as though he is a bit isolated in Berkeley, a place he loves physically, but virtually every person he speaks of meeting or speaking with or wanting to be around or hear from are NOT in Berkeley, or even in some European capital. Rather, they are in Poland.
Later finding myself in America I noticed that I had absolutely nothing to do there, in any case at all. Aside from earning my living, along with ‘eating, defecating, and sleeping.’
I am not writing down my memories in general, because access to memory is often blocked, images won’t appear, they are censored by us. So, only fragments.
In this work he says relatively little about his poetry. He does, however, regard himself first and foremost as a poet, and a Polish poet at that.
He is also quite humble about his position in literature. There is a confidence that he is, indeed, a good, even great, poet. However, he is extremely blunt in holding that he has very few READERS.
A major theme which runs through the book and even of his other volumes of poetry I’ve read is his difficulty with his Catholic religion and his tendency toward atheism. Nature strongly suggests atheism to him, but his human spirit suggests some notion of a divine presence.
His personal history of growing up in Poland and Lithuania and his family’s way of life give him a solid frame of Roman Catholicism. But he himself realizes his “theology” is fairly incoherent, yet seemingly sincere, atheistic Catholicism. Very odd, yet I understand his position quite well. I, too, grew up in a Catholic environment which I very much loved, but became an atheist in my early 20s. Yet I consistently “name” myself as an atheist, and he just can’t bring himself to do that.
The essence of the twentieth century is the triumph of science, and religious efforts to escape from the clutches of science have not yet been successful. There is no reason to delude ourselves: the methodology of science carries atheism within it and defines the context of philosophy as well as literature and art.
He is also a demanding perfectionist in his writing and living and demanding on his friends.
To be demanding. After all, one of the causes of inequality among people is that only a minority are conscientious and competent. Pains-taking artisans, farmers attentive to custom and the soil’s needs, proofreaders who never let a single error slip by, musicians who practice endlessly in pursuit of perfection. The majority pretend that they are capable, that they are doing something, and they sneak past.
Milosz went into exile in 1946. Many writers and intellectuals who remained in Poland regarded him as a traitor to the cause of (intellectual) resistance. He is clearly very sensitive to those charges. From 1946 to 1950 was in the U.S. He was in an odd position. He didn’t like capitalism at all, but wasn’t convinced that Poland could survive Russian occupation. Most Poles in the intellectual class whom he admired, wanted to stay on as voices of integrity and fight as they could. He just didn’t see that as a reasonable alternative. However, while he was IN the U.S., and grateful that he was, he wasn’t a part of America.
By the late 1940s the U.S. was no longer possible for him:
Not only was I no one here, which is humiliating enough, but I would have had to become someone outside my true estate – Polish poetry.
In 1950 he sailed back to Europe. Paris. Janka, his wife, pregnant with 2nd child. They had two sons, Tony and Peter. However, there is almost no mention of them at all.
In December 1950, he was detained in Warsaw. He announces this but never returns to the theme to tell us how he got out. Curious.
Between 1951-1953 he wrote The Captive Mind. It was an analysis of the nature of Communism and got him into trouble with virtually all sides:
The book trailed after me for a long time. It elicited denunciations by Poles to the American Embassy in Paris (for being crypto-Communist), which meant it wrecked my chances for a visa to America for nine years; it earned me the ‘mark of a traitor’ among progressives; and also, something I didn’t like at all, it meant I was considered a prose writer, a scholar in the field of political science. Nota bene It did not help me obtain a position as professor of literature; on the contrary.
Throughout this whole diary asthma plagues him. He is convinced it will soon kill him, but he struggles on, especially wanting to continue the diary. I think he viewed it as his last will and testament of his life’s work. How ironic!
The diary is not an easy read. He jumps about, mixing reflections about life and poetry with the history of his own struggle and that of his nation, Poland, not the U.S., his place of comfortable exile. Despite the struggles to manage the quickly shifting topics and concerns, I found it to be a worthwhile read, challenging, eye-opening and enjoyable. I would recommend it to all serious readers, and especially any who would have an interest in understanding more about Poland from WWII to the present day.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com