TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS IV: DESPAIR

Despair, inseparable from the first stage of exile, can be analyzed, and then it would probably appear as resulting more from one’s personal shortcomings than from external circumstances.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

To maintain a conception of the past in “a sharply delineated, precise form” was a kind of privilege for Miłosz. As he describes in “The Nobel Lecture,” as memory became a “force” in the creative and social struggles of writers in post-war Central and Eastern Europe, it served to protect “us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall.” It follows that the more a regime attempted to repress the writer who then proceeds to forcefully connect literature, memory, and reality lived in exile, the more the writer, as Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” “blurts out his dammed-up feelings of anger, his observations and reflections, considering this as his duty and mission.”

Of course, the writer also enters a host of new problems in exile, not least of which is a consequence of destierro and destiempo (i.e., Józef  Wittlin’s concepts of temporal and spatial displacement, as explored in the second part of this essay series) in that “knowledge of everyday life in the country of his origin changes from the tangible to theoretical.” The tangible may remain in memory, but it is pinned to a certain stasis, almost fossilized. Through acts of memory-work, a dynamic element can be injected into the spatial determinants of the memory, and social frameworks can be pursued towards deeper and more oblique references. Theoretical abstraction may result due to the unavoidable distance of real exile, but this result conflicts with the atmosphere of Miłosz’s adopted country of the United States, in which, as he explains in “On Censorship”: “Bluntness, brevity, and brutality of expression, as well as simplified ideas, are prized because they can be conveyed by the most obvious and tangible ‘facts’ without involving any complicated reasoning.”

Accordingly, the other half of the “Paradigm” Miłosz constructs in “Notes on Exile” involves the understanding that, “Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.” Coming up against the many obstacles of exile, which ultimately force energy inwards towards the theoretical, the exiled writer must not only battle the threat of his own forgetting, but also the willed (even violent) forgetting born of the disinterest and disinheritance that Miłosz saw plaguing the United States and the West. For in the exile’s experience, “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.”

These experiences lead the exiled writer to several modes of despair, all of which are based in relations with the writer’s native land and the collective, and of which there are three main causes: “loss of name, fear of failure, and moral torment.” Loss of name again reflects a perspective Wittlin outlines in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile”: “The fact that not only our ambition but our creativity itself has in exile no wide field of radiation and must give up the aura in the past surrounding our names may be favorable for our work, but more often it hampers us.”

As Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” this despair over loss of name is only one of many results of displacement from a specific community, where a “writer acquires a name through a complex interchange with his readers, whether he appeals to a large audience or to a narrow circle of sympathizers.” The soft borders that delineate his professional and institutional relationships have now shifted into a painful anonymity. For according to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, such writers in exile “carry the memory of oppression but also of their social significance that they could hardly match in the more ‘developed’ West.” Alleviation of the weight of such memories is achieved partially for the exile through the view that such fresh humiliations are “proportionate to his pride, and that is perhaps a just punishment,” thus reflecting again Miłosz’s mandate that exile accepted as a destiny necessitates the debasement of self-delusions. Indeed, engaging in personal memory-work along social and religious frameworks, there is quite a bit of exploration of pride in Miłosz’s essays. In “Saligia,” for example, he examines writerly pride and literary background in parallel to a concern over moral torment as regards name, and states, “I had enough superbia in me for it to carry me beyond nay mere authorship.” Further exploration of this concern for loss of name will be featured in the next essay in this series.

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

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:

LIKE PEOPLE WHO ARE AFRAID TO GO TO SLEEP

Throughout My Dinner with Andre you doze on and off, providing rest to an upper-back muscle strained and inflamed from cycling and stupidity.

You awaken to various memories.

Andre relays many of his recollections of doing experimental theater with Jerzy Grotowski in Poland. Immediately you recall how you do not like theater, do not believe an interest in theater is at all something you need. That understanding is always accompanied by the memory of falling asleep during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 2001. Then, for whatever reason, you recall your cycling route past the Teatr Groteska in Kraków – which has nothing to do with Grotowski, in fact, as it is a puppet theater for children – on your way to class to study Czechoslovakian architecture (e.g., Zlín) and Tadeusz Kantor’s stage sets.

And you fall asleep for a little while.

When you wake up, Andre relates a memory of being in the Polish forest and sobbing in a woman’s arms during an acting exercise with Grotowski’s group. You remember all the walks and bike rides with M in the woods around Borek Wielki: cutting through the small village cemetery and into the birches; the new highway to Rzeszów that runs right through the further woods and fields; the church nearby tolling its bleak bells and that time you stumbled into a funeral procession upon exiting the woods; the small, random, disturbing piles of garbage next to some of the paths; passing village residents leading horses to the fields or pushing 40 year-old bicycles down the dirt road, how you would say good day and they would just stare blankly, unreplying. You think: this is what the Polish forests do to people.

Return to the doze.

You wake up and as Andre says “we’re all bored now,” you hear Frank O’Hara’s words: “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.” You remember reading Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara when you were around 13 years-old, which you had chosen randomly as you developed an interest in poetry. You remember reading that sitting next to Preston in his mother’s car as she drove you all to the Ubatuba beach.

Andre discusses how people talk about leaving New York and never do. A recent memory is accessed of hearing Andre’s spiel, in which living in New York is compared to feeling like you have built your own prison, on a Beats in Space radio set (you forget which one) and emailing A about it. Virtually every friend you have ever had in New York has talked to you about leaving, but they never do. You recall that friends who live in Ohio never talk about leaving.

Andre goes on to cite various theories based around “islands of safety where history can be remembered and the human being can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a dark age.”At this no memories at all come to the fore, and at best your reaction is ambivalent.

Andre speaks again of his memories of the Polish forests and of trying to communicate without words. And this is what Poland does to you: makes you want to communicate without and outside language, inhabit sullen Slavic silences in order to hear the forgottenness wafting through the eastern woods, to pay attention to the memories that cannot be voiced, cannot even be said good day to.

You drift off again.

When you wake up, Andre’s talk has turned to oblivion: “We’re afraid to stay in that place of forgetting, because that again is close to death – like people who are afraid to go to sleep.” You think of your sleep problems, of your parents’ sleep problems, everyone’s sleep problems. Can you remember when your sleep problems developed?

Andre talks of parents, children, aging: “Where is that son?” A wave of what feels like memory comes on, but it is nothing determinate: instead, it is some emotion, it is forgetting as an emotion.

The outro music starts: Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1.” Of course you recall first hearing this in The Royal Tenenbaums and how taken aback you were by that scene in Eli Cash’s apartment. Eli Cash was played by Owen Wilson, brother of Luke Wilson, who is also in the scene soundtracked by Satie and who several people have said you resemble. You bought a CD of Satie’s music soon after this first encounter: at Paul’s CDs in Pittsburgh, that’s what you want to say, but no, it may have been at Quonset Hut in Canton or even Borders. A shared recollection is that Satie’s work has become rather trite and overused by now, but his music still moves you, breaks down your defenses. You actually prefer the “Gnossiennes,” especially the first one as it always reminds you of Henry and June, though it was actually the thirdGnossienne” that was used in that film. You remember listening to the “Gymnopédies”and “Gnossiennes” on a bus from the Kraków airport, staring out the window, how you realized the interminable compositional power at work, that those pieces sound best while moving through a familiar landscape made strange by acts of memory.

Wallace finds space and time to enter his own memories as he takes a taxi home: “There wasn’t a street, there wasn’t a building, that wasn’t connected to some memory in my mind.” Can you say that about everywhere you have lived? Or perhaps the better question is: have you lived somewhere about which you cannot say that?

As Wallace looks out the cab windows, eager then stunned, he closes by mentioning his conversation with his girlfriend: “And I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.” You wonder what he told her, how carried off into his own realms of memory he would have been as the dinner conversation flickered through his mind. What more can we say about such experiences and recollections, especially when the ultimate conversation is with one’s forgetting?

The city passes, Satie plays in the background, and you suddenly realize that, in your experience – besides Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó – this is one of the best films to doze off and on to ever. After Andre ventures “where is that son?” and Wallace calls upon his memory, the dark city, the graceful shots, and the “Gymnopédie” all push you gently through a hypnapompic state out of forgetting and into memory, towards the desire to remember these ending scenes and think about them tomorrow, and finally towards the desire for more forgetting and more sleep.

LETHES II

Your forgetting is nothing but a series of actions always far from painstakingly described.

Your forgetting is the most affordable return to nature.

Your forgetting will be an unearthed media projected against your skin, your dark eyes silent with new notions of flesh and bone.

Your forgetting always will be.

Your forgetting is written plain and simple with remembered ends, remembered beginnings, and as few points as possible in between.

Your forgetting is all exerted from your cleft center.

Your forgetting is a mistake without discovery, not unlike motion sickness.

Your forgetting is the game you were made for, the one that proposes we meet once a year until one of us “cannot.”

Your forgetting has had enough and hits Send.

Your forgetting steps out the way of the army jacket and long white hair of a swerving dziadek with eyes somewhere between shocked and joyful: “We were children, we fought to save Poland.”

Your forgetting is sustainable.

Your forgetting knows Portuguese hoje e ontem.

Your forgetting is positive theft, a behavior emerging when you see their smiles no more.

bike

Your forgetting is a childhood spent in the plains, your only prideful offering in the negotiation.

Your forgetting is woven around your preference for valleys over mountains.

Your forgetting maneuvers in a frictionless space as you struggle to understand their versus your outrage.

Your forgetting is not denatured, is nothing but the inverse of the plague of hindsight.

Your forgetting is – let us say it together, “soi-distant…” – soi-distant remembering.

Your forgetting knows all sorts of precursors you will never need to.

Your forgetting is somehow pacific, the opposite of what memory conceals.

Your forgetting has never modified the past or the future and never will.

Your forgetting is pullulating unseen

Your forgetting watches them drop like insect-infected pears.

Your forgetting is the latest stage of a search for attention and praise, your impetus for exclaiming “cause you deserve it” whenever possible.

Your forgetting allows you to be remembered for something you have never known.

Your forgetting at this point demands only the barest of consideration.

Your forgetting is nowhere near as spurious as your memory, actually.

Your forgetting desires, every second.

THE MORE YOU KNOW

The art of forgetting would have to rest on a rhetoric of extinction: writing to extinguish – the contrary of making an archive.

– Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting

You are nostalgic for very little beyond the birches of eastern Polish forests, how they scrape your shoulders as you dash through them, minor wounds you refuse to clean.

You had early only certain understandings of discomfort, paradise, animals, and heroes.

Your memory remains an embarrassment of fruits soon to be fermented, soft peaches to leave in the sun and watermelons to slice up tenderly.

Tracing laps around this decay marks an inquiry only too happy to never be resolved.

You blunt the edges of your tool against your bookshelves soon to splinter.

Who ever built more miniature cities that lasted only till the rain?

You set gently any recollections of your first employment deep in the Stark County water table, hoping to imbibe them in some eventual form that will wash your organs.

You were known for devouring plenty of blueberry muffins in the back corner by the freezer.

Recently you look forward to tomato soup, a bicycle ride, and going to bed early on a Saturday night.

This, over recalling Saturday mornings when your knowledge of light and of war ran somehow parallel.

For now you need enough sleep to trust no other archive but your own, the one that disobliges anyone of caring about its maintenance and/or disintegration.

Halfway there you knew you would recall walking down Overbrook Drive to the corner store for candy with Randon, Donny, and Nick.

And while you fear the daily dismantling of your archive, you can laugh at such extinction in the form of hiccups that last for hours.

That quick, acrid smoke after the tiny explosion on your cousin’s driveway still surrounds you.

You exhaust yourself writing, recording, liking, and linking but you share few finds with anyone, nor do you ever need to sleep due to this particular reciprocation.

You read all of the books you received from B.D. Lee Elementary’s Scholastic Book Club twice once everyone began telling you how good your hand was.

You pay no attention to her eyes.

Natalie and Tiffany, maybe Ashley and Joy as well, had plenty of these.

When you write to produce and not to extinguish, to substantiate and not extricate, you ultimately recognize no difference in the impetus.

There were always a few games you could beat, and the one you always played upon feeling too little imaginative to go down the gully.

You wonder over breakfast about unfollowing him, and then unfollow him.

You traded something nearly every day with Matt in Mrs. Ford’s class.

You see no need to stop writing about those books, and then put them back on the shelf.

The only book you read repeatedly is the first one you never wanted to finish.

You see no need to stop posting quotes, and then delete each worthy as soon as you copy and paste it.

You have never worn a more appropriate outfit.

And you see no need to stop assuming their writing is comprised of only fragments to be repackaged with the blunt tool of your memory, until one morning you can assume this no longer.

A desire for air can only be described in so many ways.

You are now unwilling to gesture through a day of liking and following and repeating, unable to stomach any more hours spent clicking amidst the tired loathing in your skull.

It does not matter if you ever tried this, you may as well say you know the experience dearly.

Your memory has stopped seeking out those who used to know what you still do.

An afternoon across the street at Casey’s was never the same inside and out.

To complete the game of wrapping text around text is not an option, however much sleep you lose.

The stakes have certainly become much higher.

For it is only through crafting your tongue in that supposed rhetoric of extinction that you realize you ever had a memory in the first place.

Hasn’t the point always been the more you know, the more you treat yourself?

WHO IS GOING TO REPROACH CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ?

Who is going to reproach me for lack of precision, who would recognize the places or the people? My power is absolute, everything there belongs to one man now, who once, a student from Wilno, arrived there in a dogcart.

– Czesław Miłosz, “The Wormwood Star”

JERZY KOSIŃSKI

No bookkeeper is as false and fraudulent as collective memory. It’s best to be forgotten.

Kosiński’s  view here is far from an anomaly and is probably more popular than we suspect. Whether it is collective memory considered as concept, tool of power, field of discourse, or social frameworks of memory competing against each other (e.g., right after Margaret Thatcher’s death), such conflicts in the name of Truth are encountered from the get-go. But even though seeming falsity and fraud can have imperative functions in mnemonic processes as junctures, pivots, and schisms between any supposed narrative totality, collective response, and individual variant, it’s difficult to equate what is false and fraudulent with forgetting. That is, except where forgetting may signify some kind of relief from and alleviation of falsity and fraudulence, which might very well have been implicit in the author’s declaration here.

For Kosiński’s statement determines forgetting as a positive, an alternative, a silencing of the logorrhea of memory, something truer and more honest – not to mention less controversial – than attempts to recount, critique, and take stock in anything nearing a tidy, united, “collective” sense. To be forgotten, to be the object of substantive acts of forgetting, is the best thing that can happen when the individual is confronted with a collective appraisal. Does this qualification, then, lend itself to an ethics of forgetting? If being forgotten is best, what are the benefits, and can these be identified not only for individual desire but collective acknowledgement? And do these benefits exist only before the inevitability of all total forgetting, or can they somehow exist successfully beyond it – as in, does the acceleration of forgetting through will, desire, or other means (e.g., technological)  come to better grips with (or even fool or evade) ultimate oblivion somehow? (This last point could be approached in terms of emptiness, cosmic jokes, eternal recurrence, a “stupid metaphysical question” – there are a million spin-off points here.)

Kosiński’s personal history should be considered in light of his statement. The author had Jewish-Polish roots, and thus had two heavy, interweaving collective mnemonic traditions behind him. His pursuit of emigration (i.e., self-imposed exile), his eventual scandals – his use of forgeries to immigrate from communist Poland, his skirting the line between autobiography and fiction in The Painted Bird before that blur was quite popular in literary debate, his being accused of plagiarism and of having certain books ghost-written – and his suicide all locate him on the side of certain active dynamics – meaning, conscious and/or manipulative acts – of forgetting.

If Kosiński was indeed pro-forgetting in certain respects, did he qualify it as an ethical stance? It is obviously impossible to say, and I do not know enough about the author and man to even attempt a vague assessment. This may shed some light, however – and it is a sad light, to be sure – from D.G. Myers’ review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:

This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. “There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,” Sloan writes, “and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.” On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.

The more general question must be asked, how difficult is it to consider a pro-forgetting stance ethical? And would such a stance place one opposite or parallel to an ethics of memory? For while memory and forgetting are indeed dialectical, it is also possible to envision them as kinds of clouds or ether, and to see forgetting as larger than memory – forgetting as encompassing memory, not the other way around, due to its sheer inevitability as it envelops physical decay and conscious oblivion. Could that mean that somehow an ethics of memory can only stem from an ethics of forgetting?

What do you think, do you agree with Kosiński, is it best to be forgotten? Or is this an inane question, when knowledge of inevitable forgetting and forgottenness strike a balance we continually negotiate with a life-long search for presence?