Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Stamp-Collectors, Tulip-Growers, and Poets

John Wilson



June 10, 2011
by John Wilson

June 30 marks the centenary of Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet whose life, willy-nilly, was shaped by politics. “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century,”  Milosz wrote in The Captive Mind, “that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

This was a shock. After all, the “average human being, even if he had once been exposed to it, had written philosophy off as utterly impractical and useless. Therefore the great intellectual work of the Marxists could easily be passed off as just one more variation on a sterile pastime.” Milosz wrote these words after breaking with the postwar communist government in Poland. Defecting to France in 1951, he found himself in literary circles where communism was fashionable. When The Captive Mind was published in 1953, French intellectuals held their noses.

I wonder how many of them actually read the book. It offers a penetrating look at the way Milosz’s fellow Polish writers suffocated themselves by accommodating to the demands of “dialectical materialism,” yet his loathing for applied Marxism and his pity for the victims of its false promises are matched by a pervasive sense of irony. This irony—hardly a standard ingredient in exposés of communism—does not undermine the indictment but rather is held in tension with it.

The concluding chapter of The Captive Mind is called “The Lesson of the Baltics.” Milosz, born in a part of Poland that had been annexed from Lithuania, was keenly aware of the fate of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia under Soviet hands. Yet he begins this chapter by quoting a friend who reproaches him for dwelling on “the Baltics and the camps.” When Milosz presents himself to Zeus, his friend warns, the god will point an admonitory finger: “Idiot! You ruined your life by worrying about trifles.” And it’s true, Milosz concedes, that “worry over the fate of nations trampled down by History—that Elephant—leads nowhere, and is a proof of sentimentality.”

Nevetheless, the bulk of the chapter is devoted to those trifles, including the forced transportation of hundreds of thousands of people from their Baltic homelands to remote regions in the Soviet Union, while Russians were imported to take their place. At the end of the chapter—the last paragraph of the book—Milosz returns to that conversation with his philosopher friend.

“Many people spend their entire lives collecting stamps or old coins, or growing tulips,” Milosz writes. “I am sure that Zeus will be merciful toward people who have given themselves entirely to these hobbies, even though they are only amusing and pointless diversions. I shall say to him, ‘It is not my fault that you made me a poet, and that you gave me the gift of seeing simultaneously what was happening in Omaha and Prague, in the Baltic states and on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I felt that if I did not use that gift my poetry would be tasteless to me and fame detestable. Forgive me.’ And perhaps Zeus, who does not call stamp-collectors and tulip-growers silly, will forgive.”

Maybe if poetry is nothing but stamp-collecting, on the one hand, or nothing but “bearing witness,” on the other, it loses something essential. Many American poets in 2011 appear to be intoxicated with the spirit of judgment. They are going to record atrocities, reveal the sins of the high and mighty, tell uncomfortable truths, look unflinching into the heart of darkness—and force us to look too. The notion that they might need to ask forgiveness for this presumption would strike them as bizarre. They should read Milosz.

And the stamp collectors and tulip-growers? Leave them be for now.  

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”