24 September 2006

Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz

The Polish title of this book is Rodzinna Europa, which translates to something like Native Europe. The title of the English translation, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, is deceptive, for it implies that the quest of the book is the self understood in the American sense, and the quest a process of psychological probing. But Milosz makes it very clear in the introduction that this is not his purpose. Rather, he wants to explain who he is as a representative of the part of Eastern Europe that he hails from, to write against the prevailing view of Eastern Europeans. As he writes, "Undoubtedly I would call Europe my home, but it was a home that refused to acknowledge itself as a whole; instead, as if on the strength of some self-imposed taboo, it classified its population into two categories: members of the family (quarrelsome but respectable) and poor relations" (2). This is a problematic process in that he both claims his homeland as a part of Europe but also stakes out for it an exclusive position, an insistent difference. And this insistent difference often takes the form of moral highground: "While the countries that bordered the Atlantic were acquiring colonies across the seas and setting up manufactures, no such foolhardy ventures interested the Eastern Europeans, who were engaged exclusively in agriculture; and their consciences today are not burdened with the sufferings of black slaves or the first proletarians". Leaving aside the question of how justified such a view is, it's curious to me that Milosz both glorifies Poland as the site of a potential alternate vision of nation, crushed by its ruthless neighbors, but likewise indicts Poles, and particularly Polish nationalists, for their messianic visions of Poland. As though his version of Eastern Europeans being sacrificed for the good of civilization is free from vainglorious delusions of the more typical form...

But despite having this clear ideological agenda, the book is also a memoir. It doesn't strike the Western reader as such because it lacks the confessional urge, the desire to uncover the most intimate parts of the self. Rather, it's a calm reflection on the ways in which the writer was shaped by the intellectual and political milieus he has inhabited. It gets more personal at the end, when Milosz discusses his new life in the U.S, but still, we don't read much about his emotional life. We never learn how he met his first wife, or hear about the birth of his children. The self is approached obliquely, as it emerges through descriptions of encounters with others, or with the outside world. The gaze is not directed inwards, but rather out, and finds itself by examining the ways in which it views the world. And in fact, despite the controlled, distanced tone, the work does manage to seem incredibly intimate. The descriptions are not particularly detailed, but are nonetheless poignant in their economy. Patricia Hampl, in her essay on the book (which can be found in her book entitled I Could Tell You Stories), points out that idiosyncracy is the proof of authenticity in the work; the particular observations that Milosz makes, that he notes the gold watch on a man's wrist, or the way his friend's pants are always falling down, are the indelible stamp of his own consciousness. Milosz is a master of conjuring up a strong mental image on the basis of a scant few details.

The book is thus fascinating not simply as the account of a place, or of one man's life, but rather, as an exploration of the relationship between the two. This, more than anything, is the search of the text; an attempt to understand how a man interacts with the world, how it shapes him and how, or if, he can shape it. Milosz refuses to give up on human agency, despite having witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Second World War and experienced in terrifying ways the whimsy of fate. At the same time, he is weighed down by the past, and bothered by what he perceives as American amnesia. The book is thus at attempt to find a kind of balance, a way to live a moral, responsible life in relation to the past. He clearly feels that this process is a universal moral imperative, but speculates that Eastern Europeans have been "given the lead" by virtue of their experiences. This book, then, is an attempt to share those experiences with others, to give them some insight into a shadowy corner of the world and the lessons it holds. This message is made all the more urgent because of the cost at which those lessons were learned, and in this sense, the book is a sort of plea for memory itself.


Sarah Sarai said...

Culture Vulture,
I chanced on your blog when I searched for Native Realm, which I read during jury duty, or waiting to be called questioned and dismissed. Really smart insights. Thanks. I'm at my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com

Oh. I am sending this link to a friend who loves all things Russian and would, I thought, be interested in Milosz' chapter on same. (Hence I searched the web for background to make myself sound smarter. One click and I found you. Now I AM smarter.)


culture_vulture said...

Thanks for the comment!
I think there's a lot of scattered observations on Russian culture throughout Miłosz's work. It's sort of an anguished love-hate relationship, understandably. It's interesting that you recommend it on those grounds to someone who loves Russian stuff though.
Oh! but thinking of all things Russian, you might point your friend to a book called Russia and Soul, by Dale Pesmen. It's sort of neat. Also, Lenin's Tomb, by David Remnick, is a really well written book on the end of Communism.

Sarah Sarai said...

I wouldn't say love-hate. His insights are pretty solidly negative or at least questioning. Interesting for those of us (me) far more aware of Russian than Polish lit. Yes Remnick is all about Russia. I'm not passing on more titles; my friend's Egyptian. I'm a poet so our connection is poetry. He's far more cosmopolitan and versed in world lit than most Americans. I'm suggesting Czeslaw (who I saw read in a packed and properly adulatory auditorium) because it's was I was reading. Best.

Oh. The Future Is Happy. My collection.

culture_vulture said...

Love-hate in that he actually values certain Russian authors and even thinks they're geniuses, and recognizes that they _have_ been influential. That might seem minor, but it's a lot further than many Polish intellectuals might be willing to go.
But you see why it would seem odd to recommend to someone who loves Russian stuff - it's not exactly a glowing review.
So I would guess you are familiar with Miłosz's poetry then? Even if you are, you may not know this anthology he put together of poetry from all over the world, A Book of Luminous Things. It's lovely, much recommended.