Eva Hoffman

ISBN 978-0-691-21269-2

Princeton Ł18.99


“Between the ages of seven and ten I lived in perfect happiness on the farm of my grandparents in Lithuania”, wrote Milosz. Childhood ought to be a time of perfect happiness, but children have parents to deal with, not to mention teachers. Why did Milosz’s happiness begin only at the age of seven? He was born in Vilnius in 1911, a member of the minor nobility. He was raised a Catholic. Hoffman points out his awareness of the Jewish culture in his country and cites his brave intervention to defend Jewish students from attack. This early event suggests the poet’s awareness that only universal rights keep us safe. Hoffman writes “his conviction that we need a basic morality..never abandoned him.” “Need” suggests we don’t have it. It’s a curious notion that we have to invent a basic morality. If we aren’t moral creatures by nature, how would we have any moral sense at all? Our moral faculty, like our linguistic, has all the appearance of a biological endowment. Hence the fact that dictators, tyrants, gangsters always find some flimsy moral screen to hide behind. At this moment,  the US and Israel are inflicting genocide on the people of Gaza while taking a high moral tone. We have much more than a basic morality as part of our nature: the problem is we try to circumvent it to gain advantage.  

His education in the classics helped him understand “what one says changes, depending on how one says it”, as well as instilling a sense that good writing requires hard work and “perfection is worth the effort”. The first insight is more or less vacuous. It isn’t that there is “what one says” which is separate from the way it’s said. “The feline was couched on the pile” is different from “The cat sat on the mat”. The interesting matter is the relationship between internal and externalised language. Syntax and semantics are extraneous, as Chomsky’s famous sentence reveals. Milosz was more pertinent in his dislike of bureaucracy, ignited by a short spell of office work. He saw bureaucrats as unproductive. No one has grasped the nightmarish nature of bureaucracy more fully than Kafka. Some office work, of course, is rational and necessary; what Kafka twigged was bureaucracy can be made to serve totalitarianism by concealing control behind endlessly byzantine procedures, so opacity becomes the norm, no one is sure how decisions are made or who they emanate from and an atmosphere of intense paranoia is generated.  

Hoffman cites an early poem (1936), Encounter, as an example of Milosz’s preoccupation with the passage of time: 

Oh my love, where are they, where are they


The flash of hand, streak of movement,

            rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.


Milosz wrote an essay about “the river of time” as a school student and received a high mark. Hoffman believes his youthful speculations “prescient”, adumbrating science’s present-day investigations. The poem is readable, but not out of the ordinary. Time is a very old theme, of course, and the mystery of how the universe was born as old as humanity. Milosz was revisiting well-worked ideas and sentiments. 

A brief flirtation with Marxism (whatever that might mean) left Milosz disillusioned with ranting speech-making and the inauthenticity of having to spout a line. He’s right, of course, that acceptance of any orthodoxy is the death of thought, but he appears to have been more comfortable with the received wisdom of Catholicism. Hoffman stressed his attraction to Jewish culture and writes of “Jewish non-nationalist sensibility”. It’s not clear if she means a particular strand of Jewish feeling or that Jews by definition are not nationalistic. The latter would be to fall into the trap of attributing a shared way of thinking and feeling to all Jews and is hardly consonant with the view of Ben-Gvir.  

Milosz  was attracted to what he termed “the immense call of the particular”. It’s a good rule for writers to pay attention to the particular, but the particular is always universal: fish come in many sizes and colours but they’re subsumed into a category; nothing, after all can fall outside the rules which govern the universe and they are probably few and simple. One particularity he ran up against was prejudice. Travelling Europe with friends in the early 1930s, they came across a sign on the French border forbidding entry to Gypsies, Poles, Rumanians and Bulgarians. Hoffman ponders if this was reaction to a large influx of foreigners. It never is a question of numbers, always irrational fear. Psychologists talk about “protective devaluation”: putting others down is a good way to make yourself feel big. We all do it to a degree. When it reaches mass proportions, it’s a collective delusion. Europe is the birthplace of supremacism and the French, like everyone else (except the Irish who didn’t get the chance) were obsessed by ludicrous notion of higher and lower “races”. 

Milosz didn’t participate in the Warsaw Uprising, feeling himself not cut out for heroism. Hoffman is interested in his response to the Nazi genocide (which she calls the Holocaust in keeping with the post-1967 designation): 

Of those at the table in the café

where on winter noons a garden of frost

            glittered on window panes

I alone survived. 

She perceives in his attitude a form of denial. He saw the uprising as a “blameworthy, lightheaded” enterprise. He may have a point: movements whose motivation is laudable aren’t necessarily wise. On the other hand, what else could the Polish Jews of the ghetto have done? Sometimes there is nothing for it but to engage in an action you know may almost certainly fail but which, in the long run, may have a positive impact. Perhaps the Warsaw Uprising is a good reminder of what people will do if they are pushed to the limit, a lesson worth thinking about in the light of the current events in Gaza. 

Milosz had an interesting take on America: he thought it lacked a sense of tragedy because of its condensed history. Orientated to the future, to “progress”, possessed of the conviction of “Manifest Destiny”, it was sterile behind its façade of huge wealth and aggressive go-getting. Hoffman takes the opportunity to intercalate her own experience and response to the USA. There’s a little too much of this. The book is supposed to be about the poet, but Hoffman can’t resist elbowing a bit of space to talk about herself. Milosz, however, wasn’t sufficiently inimical to the USA to turn down a university post in California. Perfectly understandable, of course, given the attitude of the Polish communists and having been denied entry the  USA because of the McCarthyite madness. Milosz called exile “the worst of misfortunes”. His life in the US must have been a kind of exile. Yet he seems to have flourished as a university teacher. 

Camus backed Milosz during his time in Paris, where Sartre, who Orwell dismissed as a “wind-bag”, was the apparently intellectual star of the post-war years. Hoffman says he was “a thinker who wrote some of the key works of the twentieth century”. It’s hard to think which. He wrote a lot of pretentious drivel. Maybe his study of Flaubert has some worth, but it’s overblown and more about Sartre than the novelist.  

America, Milosz. Commented was the place where the century “attains its full insanity.” Reasonable enough. Since John Jay, after all, it has been axiomatic that, as he wrote “those who own the country should govern it” and those who own it are very few. He saw the Indian Wars as actions against “criminals whose guilt was proven in advance”, once again worth thinking about in relation to Gaza. Kafka is the touchstone again: as Kundera has remarked, he recognised that in the modern world “the punishment seeks the fault”. Native American, coloured, Asian, Arab, you are guilty by definition. Hence the right of the Angelic Nations to inflict on you what they like.  

The US student rebellions of the 1960s he disdained somewhat as “costless”, as though only if you end up in prison or a with a bullet in your head in a ditch is opposition worthy. There was flummery in the culture of the 1960’s, but there was also serious questioning, getting close to those issues we are not supposed to raise. In particular, who owns and who decides? Civil rights, feminism, gay rights, workers’ rights, these were not superficial or peripheral. There’s a hint of the ivory tower about Milosz’s attitudes. In an essay on “virtue” he defined it not in the usual sense but as “courage, resolve, perseverance” and saw, therefore, the US as a country of virtue. This has the feel sophistry. Tyrants can be endowed with resolve and perseverance. In fact, the world might be a more just and happier place if these qualities were less present, at least among the rich and powerful. 

He saw Europe as the past and the US as the future. The problem is, the future the US is making is inherited from Europe which for centuries was a place of extreme violence. Violence was the way the European States were established and violence is Europe’s greatest export. Europeans think of their continent as a place of light, by contrast to, say, the Dark Continent ; but two world wars began in Europe, as did fascism. By comparison, Africa is a place of astonishing peace.  

Milosz was uncomplimentary to poetry which “does not save nations or people”, a comment which received the rebuke from David Orr of “pompous nonsense.” There isn’t much in this little study about the poetry, no detailed analysis of the poems or an attempt to typify the essence of his way of writing. There’s some hagiography: “impressive”, “astonishing”, “surprisingly astute”, but Hoffman asserts rather than establishes. There’ s plenty of information, especially for those who know little about the poet, but the assumption that Milosz is a great writer and Hoffman’s willingness to use the study to promote herself rob it of sharpness. Milosz wanted to be a more or less esoteric poet and there are good reasons to question that, but they aren’t explored here.