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Miłosz’s Magic Mountain

Czesław Miłosz in California

At the edge of Berkeley’s campus, where concrete meets traffic, Euclid Avenue stretches up and north into the hills beyond. I usually stopped on the first block for pizza and beer at La Val’s. But occasionally, on the way to a professor’s house or a graduate student party, I continued the climb on my creaky French bike, purchased in a misguided act of aspirational hipsterdom. Along Euclid’s curves, the ascent begins to level out, opening up a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. At the top, around the corner on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, stands a dark wooden house. For almost twenty years, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz lived here in obscurity, descending to teach Slavic literature to long-haired students he didn’t understand—until one day in 1980, when the Nobel committee called to inform him that he’d won their prize for literature.

Born in 1911 to Polish nobility in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), Miłosz personally witnessed many of the major events of the twentieth century: World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the rise of the Cold War. In Nazi-occupied Poland, he wrote poems including “Campo dei Fiori,” a haunting meditation on bystander apathy in which revelers ride a carousel outside the walls of the Warsaw ghetto as it goes up in flames: “That same hot wind/blew open the skirts of the girls/and the crowds were laughing/on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.” After moving to California in 1960, however, Miłosz largely turned away from history and politics to reflect on more internal questions. In a poem, he compared Berkeley to the setting of The Magic Mountain, the favorite novel of his youth. Thomas Mann’s hero, Hans Castorp, arrives at a Swiss sanatorium for a brief visit but invents an illness that allows him to stay for seven years, far from the war that will soon break out below. 

Miłosz is best known outside Poland for The Captive Mind (1953), his study of how Eastern European intellectuals were seduced by Stalinism. Through several character portraits, he showed how a combination of opportunism, exhaustion, and hope led Polish writers to swallow the pill of contentment in exchange for compliance. Some prospered, like “Alpha, the Moralist” (based on Jerzy Andrzejewski), a pious Catholic who became a celebrated Marxist. Others choked on their mixed feelings, like “Beta, the Disappointed Lover” (Tadeusz Borowski), an Auschwitz survivor and author of sardonic stories about life in the camp, who briefly wrote in a “socialist realist” mode before gassing himself to death at age twenty-eight. 

The Captive Mind became a classic study of “totalitarianism,” a framework bound up in Cold War narratives about the civilized West versus the backward East. I first read it in a PhD seminar in fall 2014, with little patience for a writer who seemed like a reactionary. My specialty was Soviet history, and I thought that Miłosz’s profile of Communist double-think—exemplified by the “Ketman,” who wears a mask that conceals his inner doubts—overlooked how the “free world” also ran on hypocritical conformity. We were living in a post-Fukuyama age, when trust in liberal democracy had dwindled while its slogans lived on. With President Obama deep into his second term and both parties unable to confront inequality or climate change, Miłosz’s warnings about fervent conviction felt far away. 

The Captive Mind does not speak with the confidence of the unconverted.

The Berkeley I knew was similarly remote from the university where the poet worked. In the decades after Miłosz formally retired in 1978, state funding for public education in California plummeted. The number of tenured faculty remained stagnant as the ranks of highly paid administrators grew, while the university poured funds into vanity projects like a new aquatics center. In 2011, students affiliated with the Occupy movement staged a sit-in to protest a tuition hike and layoffs. But the corporatization of Berkeley, like that of other universities in the United States, was largely a fait accompli. With the Bay Area housing bubble reserving hillside real estate for senior scholars and the new tech elite, graduate students paid exorbitant sums to rent rooms on the city’s lower-altitude south side, which came with the earthbound awareness that we were preparing to enter a severely contracting profession. Thanks to our excellent health insurance, steady if inadequate stipends, and free food hoarded from campus events, we, too, found a degree of insular security in academia, if only for a while. In my case, the bubble popped when I started dating a PhD student who turned out to be violent, which ultimately led me to move across the country, pursue a Title IX case, and reconsider what I thought I knew about other people and myself. 

After finishing my PhD, as I applied for the same one or two jobs in my field that attracted hundreds of other perfectly qualified candidates, I published an essay about domestic violence and narrative. Interlacing my experience with examples from Soviet history, I explored how abusive authority establishes control through an ideology of total submission, or at least its simulation (for as Miłosz knew, the person and the mask can be hard to separate). Though I didn’t think of The Captive Mind while writing the piece, in hindsight, I have realized how closely related Miłosz’s concerns were to mine.

Recently, I returned to his work in search of answers for why so many believe in systems that they know to be destructive—and how some decide to break ranks. Instead of an artist who saw himself as above the fray, I discovered a thinker who constantly grappled with the tension between engagement and resignation, certainty and doubt. The Captive Mind does not speak with the confidence of the unconverted. Miłosz wrote it to dispel his continued attachment to Communism and to his friends who remained within its fold. 

Miłosz with Pope John Paul II, circa 1980. | University of Berkeley

From his student days, Miłosz expressed both pride and shame over his inability to commit. In his 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (translated into English as Native Realm), he writes that a sense of otherness as a Lithuanian-born Pole and instinctive “allergy to everything that smacks of the ‘national’” drew him toward the left. While reading The Magic Mountain, he identified with Castorp as well as Naphta, the Mephistophelean voice of ideological orthodoxy (Jesuit and Marxist alike) who faces off against the Enlightenment humanist Settembrini. Yet Miłosz’s self-styling as a revolutionary was short-lived: “Completely incapable of action, unfit for organizing or leadership or even blind obedience, I compared myself to my colleagues: they were drawing conclusions from their reading of Lenin; they were courageous and purehearted.” Convinced of the need for a more equal society but reluctant to back the Soviet Union or the aesthetics of its artists, Miłosz compared his discomfort with taking a clear position to Castorp’s retreat to the Berghof: “Did not Hans Castorp fabricate his fever so that he could stay in Davos on the Magic Mountain, far removed from the world, because the world terrified him?”  

After World War I, Vilnius had been incorporated into newly independent Poland. Miłosz attended university and worked at a radio station in this city of “narrow cobblestone streets and an orgy of baroque.” In September 1939, however, Stalin invaded Vilnius and transferred it to Lithuania, which belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence under the terms of his pact with Hitler. The following year, when the entire country was annexed into the Soviet Union, Miłosz fled Vilnius for Warsaw. There, he participated in the remarkably rich cultural life of Nazi-occupied Poland, translating plays for the Underground Theater Council and publishing illegal literature. According to Nazi ideology, Poles were racial inferiors who were destined either for enslavement or execution. Yet they were not subject to total extermination like the country’s Jews, three million of whom died in the Holocaust. In “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” Miłosz expressed his sense of complicity as one of “the helpers of death:/The uncircumcised.” He wrote elegies for friends who died during the war, including in the suicidal Warsaw Uprising of summer 1944, when the Red Army stood on the other side of Vistula River and watched as the Wehrmacht razed the city to the ground. In a 1945 poem, Miłosz addressed the fallen as “You whom I could not save.”

After the war, the new Polish nation established at Yalta fell under Soviet dominion. At the time, Miłosz believed that only Communism could abolish the country’s semi-feudal social structure and rebuild the region. Yet disheartened by seeing his home turned into a “Stalinist province,” he found a middle ground by working abroad as a diplomat, serving as a cultural attaché for the Polish embassy in the United States and France. The culture of loyalty and subservience grew to be too much for him, however, and he defected to France in 1953. There, while struggling with “the corroding effects of isolation”—according to biographer Andrzej Franaszek, he repeatedly considered suicide—Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind. He had misgivings about the book’s international success, which alienated him from both the left and members of the right who still saw him as a Communist lackey. In 1960, he received an invitation to teach at Berkeley and bid farewell to Paris for a new life in the Golden State.

In her recent book Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, Cynthia L. Haven suggests that Miłosz gradually assimilated to the new climate and culture in Berkeley, a transformation which made his work more universal in scope. Yet it seems to me that his residence there was something different from the monasticism cultivated by his friend Joseph Brodsky, who elevated detachment from worldly affairs into a calling. Miłosz never relinquished the desire to be a man of his time—not just like his contemporary Zbigniew Herbert (the classically-minded poet whose work he translated), but also Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic author and national hero who died in Constantinople while organizing Polish forces to fight against Russia in the Crimean War. His stance was distinct from the anti-Communism shared by many Russian dissidents: for Poles, the conflict with the Soviets was romantic and national, compatible with the struggle for a more democratic socialism. As I read Haven’s book, I wondered whether the poet’s time in Berkeley led him toward thinking that withdrawal was not the way, or at least not only. After all, at the end of The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp leaves the sanatorium for the trenches. 

Fame eventually came for Miłosz, and with it, a chance to descend from the ivory tower.

“Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated,” Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. The Frankfurt School theorist complained that the émigré is stripped of his language and “the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge.” Miłosz was similarly afraid of deracination. “No, I will never imitate those who rub out their traces, disown the past and are dead, although they pretend they are alive with the help of mental acrobatics,” he wrote in Native Realm. “My roots are in the East; that is certain.” Miłosz continued to write poems in Polish after moving to Berkeley; for his first thirteen years in the United States, he was not translated into English. Unlike members of the Frankfurt School, who dwelled in what Thomas Mann called “German California” during their wartime exile in Los Angeles, Miłosz did not belong to a tight-knit diaspora. His courses on Polish culture attracted little interest, while his class on Dostoevsky drew large crowds. He wrote a history of Polish literature, entertained a coterie of admiring students, and led a quiet life at home, planting flowers in his garden and growing frustrated when they were eaten by deer. In “A Magic Mountain” (1975), Berkeley’s aura of seclusion leads the poet to contemplate his insignificance: “So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?/Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?” Embracing his position as an anonymous foreigner who writes poetry in “some unheard-of tongue,” he joins an eternal procession of life and death that is rendered as a graduation ceremony, in which professors take their place alongside “generations of hummingbirds.”

While Berkeley’s hills remained a serene retreat, life grew rowdier down below. Bewildered by the succession of Zen Buddhists, Merry Pranksters, and Black Panthers circulating through the East Bay, Miłosz played the ornery grandpa to their unseasoned radicals. In the essay collection Visions from San Francisco Bay (1969), he expressed disdain for “youth brought up in affluence, masquerading in beggars’ clothing and revolutionary ideas.” Like Adorno, he was suspicious of some protesters’ proclivity to violence, and he dismissed Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement as “trivial.”When a student asked him how Sacramento differed from a concentration camp, he declared the speaker was “unable to distinguish between a pinprick and the rack.” At the same time, Miłosz wrote critically about the country’s racialized inequality and compared the war in Vietnam to the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. Once again, he felt the bystander’s shameful cringe: “If we are capable of compassion and at the same time are powerless, then we live in a state of desperate exasperation.” 

Fame eventually came for Miłosz, and with it, a chance to descend from the ivory tower. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland was at its height. Combined with the papacy of the Polish John Paul II, whose 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland inspired national pride, Solidarity’s massive alliance of workers and intellectuals posed a formidable challenge to the Soviet Union’s rule over its largest satellite. In his Nobel lecture of December 1980, Miłosz focused on the tension between “being and action, or, on another level, a contradiction between art and solidarity with one’s fellow men.” Though he deemed this conflict “insoluble,” he tried to adapt his voice to collective ends by speaking about events that were still repressed in the Eastern Bloc, including Stalin’s execution of twenty-two thousand Polish officers and prisoners of war in the Katyń massacre of 1940. The following summer, Miłosz made a return trip to Poland, where he met with Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa (who noted that one of his arrests had been for distributing The Captive Mind) and laid flowers at the Solidarity monument to shipyard workers killed while striking in Gdańsk in 1970. The monument was inscribed with lines from “You Who Wronged,” his poem on the fate of tyrants: “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.” 

Postwar America tended to exert a centripetal force on European leftists. In The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora argue that the French philosopher’s desert acid trips prompted the neoliberal turn in his thought. Miłosz, however, never moved to the right, or even very far toward the center. His writings criticized America’s ethic of individualism, which led workers to see unemployment as a personal failing. In a 1991 interview, he said the left still carried the vital message that “one should not be indifferent to human suffering, because it cries out for vengeance from heaven.” With the Soviet collapse, he predicted a period of “terrible disorientation . . . when people take the leftovers of the West and imitate everything American.” He spent his final years in Kraków, where he gave interviews, wrote articles, and served as a moral authority for Poland’s liberal-left intelligentsia. He died there in 2004 at age ninety-three.

Tony Judt described faith in the market as a new form of mental captivity in a 2010 essay for The New York Review of Books. Neoliberalism brings its own damned choices of accommodation and resistance that play out in individual lives. When I was at Berkeley, PhD students belonged to a union that fought for better working conditions, but after graduating, we came up against a bigger system for which our education left us ill-prepared. A handful of us won the academic lottery and got tenure-track jobs; some became adjuncts on short-term contracts; and still more sought work with the government or corporations that hardly valued their PhDs. We commiserated over the cruelties of the market but dealt with its corroding effects on our own. 

For all his suspicion of collective causes, Miłosz combined self-creation with solidarity.

I left California and am currently trying to make a living as a writer in Warsaw; Miłosz and I have traded places. Despite the decidedly lower stakes of my defection, I wonder whether forsaking a system that promises stability and belonging (in exchange for an unknown degree of compromise) is really the wisest move. In The Captive Mind, Miłosz wrote that breaking with communal pressures to build one’s own world is “an act of faith” with no guarantees. But the scholarly precariat offers fewer positions or privileges than the Communist bureaucracy, so in truth, my path was dictated less by choice than historical necessity. Whether or not I’m employed as an academic, I’ll always be an observer who vacillates between past and present, participation and retreat, and relies on writing to navigate the divide. For I have learned that what emerges inside a cocoon can create a deeper connection to the world beyond it. 

As I was finishing this essay, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine—a threat that had been widely forecasted but which few had taken seriously. In Native Realm, Miłosz recalled how in his youth, the prospect of conflict with Russia seemed “obscure and far away”: “It was unforeseeable then that the martyrology, which had been put to rest in the museum, would soon begin all over again.” He didn’t look to the past for teachable moments. In “A Treatise on Poetry,” he depicts the spirit of history as a bloodthirsty god who wears a chain of severed heads. Yet in his writing he left room for the individual’s ability to assert “the lever of a conscious act.” For all his suspicion of collective causes, Miłosz combined self-creation with solidarity. While the tension between engagement and withdrawal might be irreconcilable, his life and work show how it can also be productive. Across shifting landscapes, his imagination remained dialectical, journeying up the mountain even as he left it for the world below. “To believe you are magnificent,” he wrote in a late set of essays, Road-side Dog (1997). “And gradually to discover you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”