An amazing memoir from the late Czesław Miłosz

I’m definitely not a scholar of Polish Studies, but I’m learning as time passes. One source besides Wikipedia that’s helped me tremendously is Czesław Miłosz’s 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (“Native Europe”, later translated to English in 1968 as Native Realm). By the way, that’s “Cheh’-swaf Mee’-wosh”. Yeah, that’s right.

Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet most famous for receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. The era of his life witnessed an amazing progression of events. He was raised in a Polish-speaking home, near present-day Siauliai, Lithuania. Although he didn’t know Lithuanian, he identified with Lithuania – a fact which may seem strange until considering the multitudes in Ireland who don’t quite identify ethnically on the basis of their everyday language.

Following are some short excerpts. Some comments might seem harsh, but I think they begin to show how complicated the politics and traditions of Eastern Europe could be. It’s also important to note that he had a fantastic education for his time, and a somewhat aristocratic, if not wealthy, background.

Western Europeans’ view of the East:
“In Western Europe, it is enough to have come from the largely untraveled territories in the East or North to be regarded as a visitor from Septentrion, about which only one thing is known: it is cold… The first germ of this book, then, was the desire to bring Europe closer to the Europeans.”

On a Pole reaching Paris:

Pre-WWII:
“An ambition to reach a heart that seems difficult to get at sometimes turns into love; it is similar with Eastern Europeans. Their snobbery seasons their experience of this storied city. They have a sense of personal achievement: “I, Stash or Jack, have finally made it” they say to themselves, and tap their foot on the sidewalk to make sure they are not dreaming”.

Post-WWII:
“When I arrived in Paris after the Second World War, it seemed small to me, as if the rush of history had pushed it aside: an Alexandrian town, drawing its reason for existence from the preservation of its treasures, preparing for its new function of a city-monument. A Soviet diplomat, assuming my solidarity as a Slav, said to me then: “We’ll teach them to work!”

On visiting his distant cousin Oscar, a scholar and diplomat in Paris (a signet ring commonly denoted someone who was titled, and held aristocratic meaning):
“I noticed a signet ring on his finger, and said that I did not wear a signet because it would have gone against my democratic convictions. (In Poland, that mania was characteristic of people I despised.) ‘That’s bad. You should remember that you are a seigneur de Labunava.'”

His cousin Oscar again:
‘Vous, les Slaves, vous êtes des fainéants! Fainéants!’ (You Slavs, you are idlers! Idlers!)… Who was right? Does virtue express itself in the patient shaping of the landscape over the centuries, in the carving of Louis XIII and Louis XV wardrobes… or is it expressed by sudden thrusts of will capable or raising a St. Petersburg out of the swamps on the Neva, and of releasing interplanetary rockets from the empty steppes?”

On his cousin Oscar, breaking the landowning tradition of Poland:
“The Polish gentry liked to bring in the idea of treason at every step. Treason meant not only an improper marriage but also the act Oscar committed when he came of age – selling his immense, hereditary forest lands. The code of patriotism in those provinces by the Dnieper was oddly bound up with the code of ownership. Whoever sold his family estate diminished, thereby, the “possessions” of his national group and facilitated Russian penetration. Oscar sold his – to Russian merchants.”

Paris, circa 1935 – The Lithuanian Legation vs. the Polish Embassy:
“The Lithuanian legation – quiet, peaceful, and democratic – was, despite the different language spoken there, somehow more pleasant than the Polish Embassy, where, even as you entered the lobby, your nostrils were assailed by an odor of contempt for anyone deprived of social prestige… it was peopled by magnificent specimens of titled fools, ingratiating to foreigners but impolite, even downright boorish, to their own citizens.”

Just a sampling… but overall, an incredible read.

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