TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS III: THE PARADIGMS

He was aware of his task and people were waiting for his words, but he was forbidden to speak. Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

In The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz qualifies the persistence of motifs of suffering and martyrdom after the war by pointing out that, “Polish writers . . . had come a long way from Romantic concepts of ‘holy martyrdom’; they resented those patterns, the strength of which they felt themselves, and reacted with devastating self-ridicule.” This “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 perspective by explaining that in his homeland, the willed exchange between the writer who understands his “task” and an eager audience was blocked by the state; and now, in the new country, the freedom the exiled writer can utilize is offset by a lack of audience and a forgetting that exerts a stronger influence than memory.

The professional symbolism, responsibility, and status of the writer in exile can be considered within these two different situations. Because the first situation (in the homeland) fostered the writer’s responsibility while prohibiting free expression, a reciprocal process of identification was at work between the writer and the state that imbued the writer’s position with responsibility, worth, and threat in the eyes of both his audience and the state itself. This occurred regardless of whether the state was sponsoring the writer or instead considered him a necessary part of the system but still weakened his social importance through censorship and other modes of manipulation and discourse.

Yet that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.

As Miłosz continues his sparse explication of being “forbidden to speak” in the section entitled “Commentary on the Above,” questions arise as to what can be defined as “reality” within the bounds of literature written under regime pressure. Certainly an attention to the present that somehow delves beneath ideology and propaganda is necessary (if not already ambitious enough). But what about attention to the past, to an exploration of memory, however tenuous and problematic the truth value thereof may be? If a certain mode of memory can constitute a common level of “reality,” when considering the bounds of censorship at work that chased Miłosz even in exile, it is necessary to cite some of the Communist regime’s abuses of memory, beginning with a point from another of Miłosz’s essays called “Speaking of a Mammal”: “The successes of Communism among the intellectuals were due mainly to their desire to have Value guaranteed, if not by God, at least by history.” This resulted in a situation in which writers, “With resistance, but at the same time with relief . . . subjected themselves to a discipline which liberated them from themselves.”

Part of this “liberation” was from the realm of collective memory and social frameworks of memory that had been infused with centuries of literary texts. However restrictive this realm might have been – indeed exemplified by Miłosz’s criticism of a persistent Polish Romanticism – this collective memory entailed a freedom to explore the past that was manipulated by the regime through its maintenance of official historical discourse and its ideological insistence on Socialist Realism.

An oppressive political regime’s awareness of the social power of memory and its accompanying abuse spurs from an understanding that memory, according to Misztal in Theories of Social Remembering, “functioning as organized practices designed to ensure the reproduction of social and political order, is a source of ‘factual’ material for propaganda.” In the Polish case under Communism, it also spurred from an awareness of the depth of Polish memory culture that necessitated manipulation. For as Ricoeur formulates in Memory, History, Forgetting, “too much memory, in a certain region of the world, hence an abuse of memory; not enough memory elsewhere, hence an abuse of forgetting.” And thus certain layers of collective memory were abused and manipulated, the end result being that, for instance, according to Miłosz in The History of Polish Literature, “critics had to avoid the too intricate problems raised by [the Romantic authors’] thought and their art.”

There may have been a certain amount of relief in not having to confront such problems, but that in turn affected the opportunity (and obligation) of authors to deal with then-recent Polish history, as the newly crystallized narratives of collective memory were in turn obviously affected by this ideological manipulation. As the Communist regime set up its own official historical and contemporaneous narratives – about the Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army, for instance, or the glory of the state’s workers – it sought to legitimize itself and dominate the national and collective modes of memory. As Ricoeur makes clear, “it is on the level where ideology operates a discourse justifying power, domination, that the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized.” In such attempts at legitimization, narratives are manifested through what Ricoeur identifies as “enforced memory” and take the form of “stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, [while they] feed the discourse of flattery or of fear.”

Such ideologization of memory, narrative, and identity compromises both literature and the purpose of the text itself, but in exile the writer is able to search for other means of freely exploring collective memory. This can be seen in Miłosz’s ABC’s, which utilizes the traditional Polish genre form of alphabetical order as a framework for short prose pieces on various details and memories. This exploration can especially be seen in “Notes on Exile,” which both feeds off and contributes to a paradigm of exile while serving as a model for the author’s covert memory work (as well as for further contemplation by a reader “in exile”). The fragmentary semi-narratives of “Notes on Exile” thus become the centerpiece of a negotiation of memory in the exile paradigm, which challenges the regime and the groups from which the author has been exiled as well as the mnemonic communities encountered in the new land with whom the exile must interact.

Previous essays in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

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