In this morning’s local newspaper, two pieces reminded me of the book I introduced last time. They also connect me to Milosz’s poetry. For some time I have admired the freedom of his original phrasing. He finds metaphors and surprises in his lines, or I find them there. In a future post, I may offer an example or two from his Collected Poems. For now, the two pieces printed in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
First is an article by Helene Bienvenu and Marc Santora originally published by The New York Times. It describes recent protests by Hungarian citizens who oppose the re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both Hungary and Poland have received attention for their movement towards authoritarianism and away from “liberal Western values.” Among those values is “freedom of expression,” according to a “draft report issued by the European Parliament Thursday [that] accused Hungary of undermining” this freedom, among other basic values of liberal democracies. One method of undermining free expression is to publish “a list of 200 Orban critics,” which is what a “pro-government magazine Figyelo” did. Some see such publication as an attempt to intimidate people who raise their voices, who express themselves on topics related to government authorities.
The second piece from today’s paper that caught my eye is the announcement of ten nominees for a state-wide Georgia literary prize, The Townsend Prize. Among the nominees is a friend and colleague, Chris Swann. His debut novel, Shadow of the Lions, has earned a growing list of strong reviews. His book tours of the Southeast region continue to attract enthusiastic readers. In today’s article, the nominees each have a brief word about their novels. Chris caught my attention with his comment that the adage ” ‘ write what you know’ can be incredibly freeing.” Here again the idea of freedom emerges. Chris sees freedom of expression coming from an ability to write what’s closest to him. That proximity has power to propel his imagination as a fiction writer.
And now back to Milosz, whom I admire for the freedom I find in his poetic lines. Those spots do not so much jar me as they surprise me. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, those lines do not take the top of my head off, but they do turn my head, a bit like a dog’s head is turned when he tries to understand human speech or human behavior. I tilt my head while trying to unravel the full source of my surprise at Milosz’s metaphors. This typically happens with successful poetry, but the freedom of Milosz’s expression catches me in new ways, ways I have not yet categorized. Maybe I won’t ever categorize them, or won’t want to find handy labels.
A few excerpts from Part One of To Begin Where I Am opens a window onto the dynamics of Milosz’s free expression, and the high value he places on being himself, writing as himself, writing what he knows, and writing free from intimidation by government or other censors. From personal experience, he knows Poland of the mid-twentieth century, which was caught between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, which is to say he knows intimidation and unfree expression. As writer and citizen, he sees the need to write (and make public) what you know, what you see in others and in yourself.
Some excerpts: “We are born on earth only once and we indulge in much mimicking and posing, dimly aware of the truth, but with pen in hand it is difficult to escape that awareness: then, at least, one wants to keep one’s self-respect” (9); “A writer living among people who speak a language different from his own [as Milosz did in France] discovers after a while that he senses his native tongue in a new manner” (19); “The extreme vividness and intensity of my experience [as a young person] forces me to believe in its authenticity” (21); “Alpha’s [one of Milosz’s friend’s] hero [in Alpha’s novel] was not a man of deeds; on the contrary, he was a silent, immovable rock whose stony exterior covered all that was most human–personal suffering and longing for good” (135).
Another excerpt deserving its own paragraph because it best captures Milosz’s desire to write most genuinely and respectfully what he knows: “Perhaps the difference in our (Milosz’s and his friend Alpha’s] destinies lay in a minute disparity in our reactions when we visited the ruins of Warsaw or gazed out the window at the prisoners. I felt that I could not write of these things unless I wrote the whole truth, not just a part. I had the same feeling about the events that took place in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, namely that every form of literature could be applied to them except fiction. We used to feel strangely ashamed, I remember, whenever Alpha read us his stories in that war-contaminated city. He exploited his subject matter too soon, his composition was too smooth. Thousands of people were dying in torture all about us; to transform their sufferings immediately into tragic theater seemed to us indecent. It is sometimes better to stammer [emphasis added] from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases. The inner voice that stops us when we might say too much is wise. It is not improbable that he [Alpha] did not know this voice” (140).
So, freedom of expression, freedom from intellectual suppression is important, is vital. But this freedom is not free of responsibility. In fact, Milosz shows me, as has Ralph Ellison, among others, that writers who work hard to tell their truth, who lift their voices, who raise their voices at times against the current winds and at times in the face of danger, these writers are not entirely free. They have an obligation–that is, a constraint, a discipline– to remember “all that [is] most human–personal suffering and longing for good.”
Protesters in Budapest against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit Bernadett Szabo/Reuters