Czes?aw Mi?osz, 1999
30 June 1911|
Szetejnie, Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||14 August 2004
|Occupation||Poet, prose writer, essayist|
|Nationality||Polish / Lithuanian|
|Notable awards||Nike Award (1998)
Nobel Prize in Literature (1980)
Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1978)
Czes?aw Mi?osz (['tswaf 'miw]; 30 June 1911 - 14 August 2004) was a Polishpoet, prose writer, translator and diplomat. His World War II-era sequence The World is a collection of twenty "naïve" poems. Following the war, he served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C., then in 1951 defected to the West. His nonfiction book The Captive Mind (1953) became a classic of anti-Stalinism. From 1961 to 1998 he was a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley.
He became a U.S. citizen in 1970. In 1978 he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and in 1980 the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1999 he was named a Puterbaugh Fellow. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he divided his time between Berkeley, California, and Kraków, Poland.
Czes?aw Mi?osz was born in the village of Szetejnie (Lithuanian: ?eteniai), Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire (now K?dainiai district, Kaunas County, Lithuania) on the border between two Lithuanian historical regions, Samogitia and Auk?taitija, in central Lithuania. As the son of Aleksander Mi?osz (died 1959), a Polish civil engineer of Lithuanian origin, and Weronika (née Kunat; 1887-1945), a descendant of the Syru? noble family (her grandfather was Szymon Syru?).
Mi?osz was fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, and French. His brother, Andrzej Mi?osz (1917-2002), a Polish journalist, translator of literature and of film subtitles into Polish, was a documentary-film producer who created Polish documentaries about his brother.
Mi?osz was raised Catholic in rural Lithuania and emphasized his identity with the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a stance that led to ongoing controversies. He refused to categorically identify himself as either a Pole or a Lithuanian. He said of himself: "I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian", and "My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me".
He employed a Lithuanian-language tutor late in life to improve the skills acquired in his childhood. His explanation was that it might be the language spoken in heaven.
In his youth, Mi?osz came to adopt, as he put it, a "scientific, atheistic position mostly", although he was later to return to the Catholic faith. After graduation from Sigismund Augustus Gymnasium in Wilno (then in Poland, now Vilnius in Lithuania), he studied law at Stefan Batory University. In 1931 he traveled to Paris, where he was influenced by his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, a French poet of Lithuanian descent and a Swedenborgian. In 1931, he formed the poetic group ?agary with the young poets Jerzy Zagórski, Teodor Bujnicki, Aleksander Rymkiewicz, Jerzy Putrament and Józef Ma?li?ski.
Mi?osz's first volume of poetry was published in 1934. After receiving his law degree that year, he again spent a year in Paris on a fellowship. Upon returning, he worked as a commentator at Radio Wilno, but was dismissed, an action described as stemming from either his leftist views or for views overly sympathetic to Lithuania. Mi?osz wrote all his poetry, fiction and essays in Polish and translated the Old Testament Psalms into Polish.
Mi?osz spent World War II in Warsaw, under Nazi Germany's "General Government". Here he attended underground lectures by W?adys?aw Tatarkiewicz, the Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics. He did not join the Polish Home Army's resistance or participate in the Warsaw Uprising, partly from an instinct for self-preservation and partly because he saw its leadership as right-wing and dictatorial.
In his 1953 book The Captive Mind, however, Mi?osz would later sharply criticize the Soviet military for remaining in their positions and making no effort to assist the Home Army's fighters. He accused them of watching through binoculars as the Polish Resistance was slaughtered and as the city was razed by Hitler's orders. Only then did the Soviets enter the city.
During the Holocaust in Poland, Mi?osz was active in the work of Organizacja Socjalistyczno-Niepodleg?o?ciowa "Wolno" ("The 'Freedom' Socialist Pro-Independence Organisation"). Among other activities for "Wolno", Mi?osz aided Warsaw Jews. His brother, Andrzej, was also active in helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, and, in 1943, Andrzej transported the Polish Jew Seweryn Tross and his wife from Vilnius to Warsaw. Czes?aw Mi?osz took in the Trosses, found them a hiding place, and supported them financially. The Trosses ultimately died during the Warsaw Uprising. Mi?osz helped at least three other Jews -- Felicja Wo?komi?ska and her brother and sister. For these efforts, Mi?osz received the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem, Israel in 1989.
Conversely, he was attacked and censored in Poland when, in 1951, he defected and obtained political asylum in France. He described his life in Paris as difficult -- there was still considerable intellectual sympathy for Communism. Albert Camus was supportive, but Pablo Neruda denounced him as "The Man Who Ran Away." His attempts to seek asylum in the US were denied for several years, due to the climate of McCarthyism.
Mi?osz's 1953 book, The Captive Mind, is a study of how intellectuals behave under a repressive regime. Mi?osz observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily those with the strongest minds but rather those with the weakest stomachs; the mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much. Throughout the Cold War, the book was cited by conservatives and has been a staple in political science courses on totalitarianism. He received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize) for his second book The Seizure of Power, which drew on his experience in Warsaw during World War II.
In 1960 Mi?osz emigrated to the United States, and in 1970 he became a U.S. citizen. In 1961 he began a professorship in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1978 he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He retired the same year but continued teaching at Berkeley. His attitude about living in Berkeley is sensitively portrayed in his poem, "A Magic Mountain," contained in a collection of translated poems, Bells in Winter (Ecco Press, 1985).
In 1980 Mi?osz received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him. After the Iron Curtain fell, he was able to return to Poland, at first to visit, later to live part-time in Kraków. He divided his time between his home in Berkeley and an apartment in Kraków.
In 1977 he had been given an honorary doctorate by the University of Michigan; two weeks after he received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, he returned to Michigan to lecture, and in 1983 he became the Visiting Walgreen Professor of Human Understanding. In 1989 he received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
In a 1994 interview, Mi?osz spoke of the difficulty of writing religious poetry in a largely post-religious world. He reported a recent conversation with his compatriot Pope John Paul II; the latter, commenting upon some of Mi?osz's work, in particular Six Lectures in Verse, said to him: "You make one step forward, one step back." The poet answered: "Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?" The Pope smiled. A few years later, in 2000, Mi?osz dedicated a rather straightforward ode to John Paul II, on the occasion of the pope's eightieth birthday.
Protesters threatened to disrupt the proceedings on the grounds that he was anti-Polish, anti-Catholic, and had signed a petition supporting gay and lesbian freedom of speech and assembly.
Mi?osz's first wife, Janina (née D?uska, 1909-1986), whom he married in 1944, predeceased him, in 1986; they had two sons, Anthony (b. 1947) and John Peter (b. 1951). His second wife, Carol Thigpen (b. 1944), an American-born historian, died in 2002.
Mi?osz is honoured at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust, as one of the "Righteous among the Nations". A poem by Mi?osz appears on a Gda?sk memorial to protesting shipyard workers who had been killed by government security forces in 1970. His books and poems have been translated by many hands, including Jane Zielonko, Peter Dale Scott, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass.
In November 2011, Yale University hosted a conference on Mi?osz's relationship with America.
Mi?osz often emphasized his Lithuanian origins
...The "true" Poles reminded the nation of Milosz's Lithuanian origin, his religious unorthodoxy, and his leftist past
Mi?osz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance -- not Polish enough for some, not Lithuanian to others -- would give rise to controversies that have not ceased with his death in either country.
In pre-war Poland Mr Milosz felt stifled by the prevailing Catholic-nationalist ethos; he was sacked from a Polish radio station for being too pro-Lithuanian.