Czesław Miłosz was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Prize committee distinguished Miłosz as someone “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts”. Miłosz’s role as a translator and popularizer of Polish poetry cannot be overestimated. In his Nobel lecture, Miłosz described his view of the role of the poet and lamented the tragedies of the 20th century.
Czesław Miłosz translated, inter alia, “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, the writings of Simone Weil and parts of the Bible. Since 2000, thanks to the joint initiative of the Polish publishing houses “Wydawnictwo Znak” and “Wydawnictwo Literackie”, subsequent volumes of Miłosz’s “Collected Works” have been published.
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He was born in Lithuania, where his Polish parents fled to escape the turmoil in their native country. After the end of World War I, the family returned to Poland. When World War II broke out in 1939, Milosz became involved in the resistance movement in Warsaw. After the war Milosz joined the newly formed Communist Party and was stationed as a cultural attaché in Paris. Disappointed with the Communist regime, he sought political asylum in France in 1951. He took up residence in the United States in 1960 and lived there until the 1990s. After the fall of communism in Poland, he split his time between Berkeley and Kraków, and he began to publish his writing in Polish with a publisher based in Kraków. When Lithuania broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991, Miłosz visited for the first time since 1939. In 2000, he moved to Kraków and spent his last years in Poland.
Miłosz was born into a Polish-speaking family in Lithuania, and was therefore very aware of the subtleties of national identity in Europe throughout the twentieth century. His strong ties to the Polish tongue anchored him to Poland, but having worked as a literary translator also gave him some insight into the emotional magnitude of language, explored in detail in his autobiography Native Realm. (culture.pl)
Though Miłosz was primarily a poet, his best-known work became his collection of essays “Zniewolony umysł” (1953; “The Captive Mind”), in which he condemned the accommodation of many Polish intellectuals to communism.
“Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactly what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariously on the edge of a cliff.
His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes-the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds-cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bath tub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”
― Czesław Miłosz, “The Captive Mind”
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