Miłosz’s Magic Mountain

From The Babbler:

AT THE EDGE OF BERKELEY’S CAMPUS, where concrete meets traffic, Euclid Avenue stretches up and north into the hills beyond. I usually stopped on the first block for pizza and beer at La Val’s. But occasionally, on the way to a professor’s house or a graduate student party, I continued the climb on my creaky French bike, purchased in a misguided act of aspirational hipsterdom. Along Euclid’s curves, the ascent begins to level out, opening up a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. At the top, around the corner on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, stands a dark wooden house. For almost twenty years, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz lived here in obscurity, descending to teach Slavic literature to long-haired students he didn’t understand—until one day in 1980, when the Nobel committee called to inform him that he’d won their prize for literature.

Born in 1911 to Polish nobility in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), Miłosz personally witnessed many of the major events of the twentieth century: World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the rise of the Cold War. In Nazi-occupied Poland, he wrote poems including “Campo dei Fiori,” a haunting meditation on bystander apathy in which revelers ride a carousel outside the walls of the Warsaw ghetto as it goes up in flames: “That same hot wind/blew open the skirts of the girls/and the crowds were laughing/on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.” After moving to California in 1960, however, Miłosz largely turned away from history and politics to reflect on more internal questions. In a poem, he compared Berkeley to the setting of The Magic Mountain, the favorite novel of his youth. Thomas Mann’s hero, Hans Castorp, arrives at a Swiss sanatorium for a brief visit but invents an illness that allows him to stay for seven years, far from the war that will soon break out below. 

Miłosz is best known outside Poland for The Captive Mind (1953), his study of how Eastern European intellectuals were seduced by Stalinism. Through several character portraits, he showed how a combination of opportunism, exhaustion, and hope led Polish writers to swallow the pill of contentment in exchange for compliance. Some prospered, like “Alpha, the Moralist” (based on Jerzy Andrzejewski), a pious Catholic who became a celebrated Marxist. Others choked on their mixed feelings, like “Beta, the Disappointed Lover” (Tadeusz Borowski), an Auschwitz survivor and author of sardonic stories about life in the camp, who briefly wrote in a “socialist realist” mode before gassing himself to death at age twenty-eight. 

The Captive Mind became a classic study of “totalitarianism,” a framework bound up in Cold War narratives about the civilized West versus the backward East. I first read it in a PhD seminar in fall 2014, with little patience for a writer who seemed like a reactionary. My specialty was Soviet history, and I thought that Miłosz’s profile of Communist double-think—exemplified by the “Ketman,” who wears a mask that conceals his inner doubts—overlooked how the “free world” also ran on hypocritical conformity. We were living in a post-Fukuyama age, when trust in liberal democracy had dwindled while its slogans lived on. With President Obama deep into his second term and both parties unable to confront inequality or climate change, Miłosz’s warnings about fervent conviction felt far away. 

. . . .

With the Bay Area housing bubble reserving hillside real estate for senior scholars and the new tech elite, graduate students paid exorbitant sums to rent rooms on the city’s lower-altitude south side, which came with the earthbound awareness that we were preparing to enter a severely contracting profession. Thanks to our excellent health insurance, steady if inadequate stipends, and free food hoarded from campus events, we, too, found a degree of insular security in academia, if only for a while. 

. . . .

Recently, I returned to [The Captive Mind] in search of answers for why so many believe in systems that they know to be destructive—and how some decide to break ranks. Instead of an artist who saw himself as above the fray, I discovered a thinker who constantly grappled with the tension between engagement and resignation, certainty and doubt. The Captive Mind does not speak with the confidence of the unconverted. Miłosz wrote it to dispel his continued attachment to Communism and to his friends who remained within its fold.

From his student days, Miłosz expressed both pride and shame over his inability to commit. In his 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (translated into English as Native Realm), he writes that a sense of otherness as a Lithuanian-born Pole and instinctive “allergy to everything that smacks of the ‘national’” drew him toward the left. While reading The Magic Mountain, he identified with Castorp as well as Naphta, the Mephistophelean voice of ideological orthodoxy (Jesuit and Marxist alike) who faces off against the Enlightenment humanist Settembrini. Yet Miłosz’s self-styling as a revolutionary was short-lived: “Completely incapable of action, unfit for organizing or leadership or even blind obedience, I compared myself to my colleagues: they were drawing conclusions from their reading of Lenin; they were courageous and purehearted.” Convinced of the need for a more equal society but reluctant to back the Soviet Union or the aesthetics of its artists, Miłosz compared his discomfort with taking a clear position to Castorp’s retreat to the Berghof: “Did not Hans Castorp fabricate his fever so that he could stay in Davos on the Magic Mountain, far removed from the world, because the world terrified him?”  

After World War I, Vilnius had been incorporated into newly independent Poland. Miłosz attended university and worked at a radio station in this city of “narrow cobblestone streets and an orgy of baroque.” In September 1939, however, Stalin invaded Vilnius and transferred it to Lithuania, which belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence under the terms of his pact with Hitler. The following year, when the entire country was annexed into the Soviet Union, Miłosz fled Vilnius for Warsaw. There, he participated in the remarkably rich cultural life of Nazi-occupied Poland, translating plays for the Underground Theater Council and publishing illegal literature. According to Nazi ideology, Poles were racial inferiors who were destined either for enslavement or execution. Yet they were not subject to total extermination like the country’s Jews, three million of whom died in the Holocaust. In “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” Miłosz expressed his sense of complicity as one of “the helpers of death:/The uncircumcised.” He wrote elegies for friends who died during the war, including in the suicidal Warsaw Uprising of summer 1944, when the Red Army stood on the other side of Vistula River and watched as the Wehrmacht razed the city to the ground. In a 1945 poem, Miłosz addressed the fallen as “You whom I could not save.”

After the war, the new Polish nation established at Yalta fell under Soviet dominion. At the time, Miłosz believed that only Communism could abolish the country’s semi-feudal social structure and rebuild the region. Yet disheartened by seeing his home turned into a “Stalinist province,” he found a middle ground by working abroad as a diplomat, serving as a cultural attaché for the Polish embassy in the United States and France. The culture of loyalty and subservience grew to be too much for him, however, and he defected to France in 1953. There, while struggling with “the corroding effects of isolation”—according to biographer Andrzej Franaszek, he repeatedly considered suicide—Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind. He had misgivings about the book’s international success, which alienated him from both the left and members of the right who still saw him as a Communist lackey. In 1960, he received an invitation to teach at Berkeley and bid farewell to Paris for a new life in the Golden State.

Link to the rest at The Babbler