TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS I: THE (POLISH) ESSAY FORM

He did not find happiness, for there
was no happiness in his country.

– Adam Mickiewicz

There is a tremendous human presence in Miłosz’s essay collections such as Visions of San Francisco Bay, Beginning With My Streets, and To Begin Where I Am, and diverse characters bolster the author’s reflections on the uses of space for memory. You read of friends, family, anecdotal protagonists, other writers, nearly all long gone: Gilbert Brognart, Grandmother Miłosz, Pranas Ancewicz, Robespierre, Nicola Chiaromonte, Zygmunt Hertz, Marek Hłasko, Robinson Jeffers, Lev Shestov, Sorana Gurian, Meister Eckhart, Ortega y Gasset, Kazimierz Wyka, Aleksander Wat, Anna Świrszczyńska, Buster Keaton, Herbert Marcuse, and Cyprian Norwid all rub shoulders in the social frameworks of memory found in these essays. Such figures guide the exiled author’s contemplation of space back to the streets of Vilnius, the libraries and living rooms of Warsaw, the rocky shores of California, and the specific pages of favored books before ultimately returning him to the pages of the text at hand.

Miłosz constructed a specific milieu with its own accompanying mode of collective memory in certain of his essays, employing a strategy based on the creative dilemmas of exilic experience as well as on engagement with Polish historical experience through memory. As he determined his own multilayered exilic displacement, Miłosz negotiated how spatial understanding in his memory had been skewed, and there is thus an attempt at reconciliation through a literary turn to collective memory. The author in absence, in exile, traverses borders, identifies centers and peripheries, and enacts return in order to create his own and others’ presence in the essays.

Miłosz in the Planty Park, Kraków

The tension between his public recognition as a renowned poet and as the author of The Captive Mind, for instance, or even The History of Polish Literature, is something Miłosz struggled with at various points of his career. Analysis of his poetry is generally more common with treatments of Miłosz’s writing, but the intersections of exile and memory are most numerous in the essays, where the autobiographical and biographical, memory and history, tradition and criticism generate a dense, analytic dynamism. Yet these essays are full of openings, contradictions, and opportunities to explore the borders between memory and imagination, the personal and collective, and the spatial and temporal.

It is these openings that prove most fascinating when looking at any author’s essays. In “The Essay as Form,” Adorno points out the “intellectual freedom” exemplified in the essay, which “does not let its domain be proscribed for it” and “reflects the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him.” The latter point is especially relevant in view of Miłosz’s use of biographical sketches in his ABC’s, for example, not to mention his many essays that focus on the writers important to him (such as Simone Weil and Dostoevsky). For Adorno, the essay form inspires both utility and resistance, and “reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creatio ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic.” There is a mnemonic understanding supporting the essay form here that reflects the core of Miłosz’s style, which interweaves recollection with sensory localization, the local and universal, and the function of literature and art in a world perpetually in the throes of crisis. At the same time, this essayistic “intellectual freedom” is, according to Adorno, fundamental to the form, which feeds off chance and play and stops when it feels its own context has finished.

The indeterminacy of the essay form accommodates the fragmentation of exilic experience, which it uses to its advantage in order to project a degree of coherency while remaining open. The essay, as Adorno identifies, “is radical in its non-radicalism, in refraining from any reduction to a principle in its accentuation of the partial against the total, in its fragmentary character.” Tension between partiality and totality lends itself to this openness, and the essay as Adorno promotes it does not aim at a closed system, but instead takes up the cause that what is fleeting is indeed deserving of study. This potential thematic frivolity in turn reflects the nature of memory appearing with a trigger and disappearing without a recognizable trace, and thus the form marks as forgetting not only everything that has been left out, but also the origins and routes of the mnemonic elements chosen for inclusion. As the essay brings disparate materials of recollection together, according to Adorno it “does not try to seek the eternal in the transient and distill it out; it tries to render the transient eternal.”

The essay’s formal openness and transient tension can be traced back to the very root of the word, according to Jan Kott, who writes in his Introduction to Four Decades of Polish Essays (a collection more intriguing than it sounds): “The French word essais comes from the verb essayer, to assay, to test, to try.” The essay-as-test uses its author’s memory to generate energy, a personal basis of extreme import. Kott continues: “In this testing of the world the touchstone…is one’s own destiny, one’s own skin, like a hand that refuses to trust the eyes and feels the irregular surface of the wall.” Essayistic “testing” thus encourages the author to engage his or her surroundings, often with a primacy given to sensory interpretations balanced with larger trajectories of experience wherein, for instance, the dynamics of memory and contemplation of exile may be fleshed out. Similarly, Józef Wittlin points out in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile” that, “an essay is nothing but an attempt, and an essayist is a writer who only tries to do something…And we know that the distance from the attempt to the final execution of an idea is very long.”

This conception is the basis for the style of the “Polish essay,” which, according to Halina Filipowicz in “Fission and Fusion: Polish Émigré Literature,” resembles more an “intellectual diary” that melds the autobiographical with the intellectual. Indeed, historical experience has solidified the functions of the essay in the Polish canon, as Kott points out, writing in 1989 that, “it is in poetry and the essay that the experience of the last decades has found the most Polish and at the same time the most universal image and reflection.” Kott goes on to explain that, “it is not by accident that so many Polish poets of the period have cultivated the essay as a genre of equal importance in their creative work.” This perspective is surely referencing Miłosz as well as other noteworthy poets with intriguing essayistic output such as Zbigniew Herbert, Stanisław Barańczak, and Adam Zagajewski.

The essay form was appropriately flexible yet durable enough to give strong voice to the Polish experience of the 20th century, and with so many Polish essays portraying, for instance, the reality endured under partitions and totalitarian systems (however coded those portrayals may be), the form has been determined capable of providing “testimony about this world through a personal story, inscribed just as the blows of a whip make marks on the skin.” The encounter of the individual with such specific history produces the certain density as well as the dark modes of humor typically found in the Polish essay, and the individual-collective confrontation contributes to the importance placed on memory in the form. As Kott posits, in such texts, “the memory of history makes itself felt perhaps more often and certainly more clearly than it does in the reflections of writers from happier countries.”

All of these elements of the essay form can be found in Miłosz’s texts, and one can pick up on his thinking as regards both the form and the melding of exilic experience with memory in his “Notes on Exile.” Here Miłosz writes that a literature of nostalgia, which entails the writer revisiting his childhood by which “a distance in space often serves as a disguise for a Proustian distance in time,” is only one method of coping with exilic experience and its accompanying threats of despair. He clarifies his formal aim by initiating a move away from a literature of nostalgia and sentimentality, the genre of the realistic novel, and “certain styles” that he does not venture to name. Miłosz continues honing in on an affirmation of the essay (and poetry), writing that, “the condition of exile, by enforcing upon a writer several perspectives, favors other genres and styles, especially those which are related to a symbolic transposition of reality.” This aim of a “symbolic transposition of reality” situates the essay as an apt form for dealing with the challenging experiences of exile as well as the detailed yet always distanced substances of memory in both “happy” and “unhappy” countries.

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4 thoughts on “TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS I: THE (POLISH) ESSAY FORM

  1. […] “self-ridicule” can be seen in the sections of “Notes on Exile” examined in the first and second parts of this essay series. In “Paradigm,” Miłosz utilizes a similarly ironic […]

  2. […] “self-ridicule” can be seen in the sections of “Notes on Exile” examined in the first and second parts of this essay series. In “Paradigm,” Miłosz utilizes a similarly ironic […]

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