I’m mostly through Czesław Miłosz’s (1911 – 2004) memoir Native Realm, which he published in 1959. I will probably write additional posts about this book. No fear though, I have no desire to alienate readers with my interest in obscure literature, or even to alienate myself from the contemporary era by escapism in relics from another. Instead, my intention here is to connect this extraordinary book with the events of our time.
I first read it in 1999 while aggrandizing myself in my own mind as a history-burdened stranger in a post-historic Boston. Earnestly, given my youth, I wondered during my autumn walks along the Charles River if Miłosz thought of things, during his own walks along the Seine seventy years earlier, that were for me to keep.
On with “Native Realm.” The following is, in my judgment, the only thing remotely approaching triteness in that book. And maybe because of it, this paragraph feels like it is the most appropriate bridge between the memoir and our era:
Our knowledge does not develop at an equal pace in all areas; it progresses in some, drags its feet in others, or even retreats. The current fear of generalizing about racial and territorial groups is an honorable impulse because it protects us from falling into the service of people interested not so much in truth as in an expedient argument for a political battle. Only after the reasons for such a fear have disappeared will minds skilled in tracking down interdependencies penetrate what for wise men today is an embarrassing subject, fit only for table talk in a country tavern. They will not disappear until the appraisal of any civilization ceases to be a weapon against those human beings brought up within it — in other words, not soon.
That passage shows up at the end of one of the book’s chapters, titled “Russia,” an insightful meditation on that nation’s character. It also points me toward a habit that principled thinkers tend toward — a devotion to the purity of an idea. More specifically, their unwillingness to reconcile ideal ontological forms with the material imperfection of life.
Miłosz’s visceral disgust with (as he repeatedly mentioned this) and hatred he felt toward defensive nationalism, for example. To me, such a posture represents the mind’s disgust with the heart, which clings to our life here on Earth and not always elegantly. The untethered mind aspires to truth, and when ascending to higher altitudes it becomes drained of blood and impatient with the heart that weighs it down like wet ballast. Deeming oneself capable of reaching that high and remaining human is an acute form of pride and it had led to Western intellectuals’ share of responsibility for inhuman acts such as the engineered starvation of seven million people in Ukraine.
And the result of the mind’s hatred of the heart today: our own civilization now facing the abyss, enabled by Western peoples’ collective, uninformed, and hypocritically granted consent to reject that, which Miłosz condemned as “appraisal of any civilization [becoming] a weapon against those human beings brought up within it.”
(None of this is to be misread that Miłosz’s writing is arid. Quite to the contrary, this is one of the most engrossing and evocative books I have ever read. It required maturity on my part to appreciate it; two decades ago I was too impatient for it. “Native Realm” is a reminder that the Nobel Prize in Literature, while not entirely decoupled from politics given the timing of Miłosz’s recognition, once meant something.)
The occupational hazard of the intellectual is a fatigue with life and the sublimation of this fatigue into a wish for history to end. The solipsism of this attitude creates postures of hatred for those who are, for their part, not willing to let go of life. The illusion of history’s end is one that revisits recurrently. Certainly, fin de siècle Boston felt that way to me. But imagining yourself as the last man is hubristic nonsense. The image below, along with its caption, expresses history’s waking state:
There are people, many of them are Hungarian, who do not want to snuff out their own lives in the name of suspending judgment against human beings brought up within other civilizations. Ramzpaul captions his photo of youths in Budapest: Kids hanging out on a Friday night. No diversity. No violence. He reminds us of what we’ve lost. Not just in the claim on our public space and not just in the form of harrowing images streaming from places like Rotherham, Cologne, Nice, Malmö — but also in the injury to language itself, wartime’s casualty. How many of you hear the innately upbeat words “kids,” “teens,” or “youths” through the filter of cynicism and shit?
Nobody asks to be born in his own era. A few years ago my mother-in-law was returning to Poland after a few-months’ stay with us. I drove her to a major U.S. airport and walked with her up to the point past which non-ticketed public may not go. My then-toddler son was going to miss her. As we began saying our goodbyes, a female security agent who was posted at that location, a dark wraith in a headscarf-modified uniform ordered me, the effect of her imperious voice compounded by her grating accent, to hurry up. “Just a moment,” I told her, suppressing my irritation. We continued saying our goodbyes and cobra-face, hovering by us and clearly with nothing else to do as we were the only ones at that checkpoint, once again hissed “hurry up.” An atrocity flashed through my mind as I then understood why soldiers commit war crimes.
Had she and I instead crossed paths in an era of history’s rest between its spasms — for example, had I for some reason seen her on my hypothetical visit to the Horn of Africa — I may have even been fascinated with her coy smile and wonder-filled eyes.
It’s fall and there is nothing like a walk along Charles River this time of year. History, right here in the West seventeen years later, is wide awake.