Berfrois

Czesław Miłosz’s Century: Berfrois Interviews Andrzej Franaszek

Print


Czesław Miłosz. Image via.

by Russell Bennetts and Jessica Sequeira

Andrzej Franaszek is Assistant Professor of Polish Literature at Krakow’s Pedagogical University. Franaszek’s Miłosz: A Biography was published by Harvard University Press in 2017.We met him in a busy Bloomsbury café. It was rather noisy so we finished the interview in the Harvard University Press office.

Berfrois

How did you get so deeply interested in Czesław Miłosz’s work?

Franaszek

I was lucky enough to work at a weekly magazine, based in Kraków, where Miłosz was a contributor. I was very young, having just finished my studies. From time to time, I was asked to get in touch with him regarding a short interview or to ask him to write something. He was a certainly a hard worker.

Berfrois

He was your editor?

Franaszek

Rather, I was his editor. As you can imagine, there was no need to edit much in his articles. But I would ask him if he was sure about something. Miłosz was very willing to write and work. It was easy to ask him for a piece about anything — the Catholic Church, rational philosophers from the 19th century, Emmanuel Swedenborg — and he usually accepted. A week later, you’d have a piece that was well-written and interesting. This was his way of life, to work all day long.

Berfrois

You always assigned him the ideas?

Franaszek

You know how the newspapers work. A new book comes in and you discuss who should write about it. And we’d often think of Miłosz. Someone would get in touch with him. It was before email. It was the time of faxes. Do you remember faxes?

Berfrois

They still exist.

Franaszek

Really? Someone just showed me a few faxes sent from Harvard, from the 1990s, I believe. We’re moving away from such artefacts. The past just disappears.

Berfrois

Miłosz had a turbulent childhood with a few years of bliss .

Franaszek

It’s true that his early life was troubled. When he was three years old, World War One began. In 1915, his family escaped from Lithuania and headed east to Moscow. But even before this, young Miłosz had travelled across all of Russia, since his father was in Siberia as an engineer constructing bridges for trains. Miłosz’s infancy was focused on travel, change and adapting to difficult situations. There was war. And, of course, the Russian Revolution in 1917. While he may have been only six years old then, I’m sure he felt an atmosphere of fear and a sense of instability, of not being safe.

Berfrois

Is that when he became friends with some of the soldiers?

Franaszek

Perhaps. That is his story, at least, something he wrote about in a book called Native Realm. It’s an autobiographical diary. It’s very interesting, actually. In Polish, it’s called Rodzinna Europa, which means something like ‘Europe as part of a family’. He wanted to capture the life of an Eastern European intellectual and show it to a French audience. Naturally, he started with his childhood. Miłosz was a lonely child because his brother was too young to be good company for him. He spent his time exploring nature and became very fascinated by it. He was sure at that point he was going to be some kind of scientist, either a biologist or an ornithologist. There were torments, yes, but when he came back to his grandparents’ manor house in Lithuania, where he had previously lived for just under a year, it was a kind of blessing for him. This time came to be a source of strength which lasted him all his life, a feeling of happiness and being loved. He wrote that it was something like being in paradise.

This happiness was taken from him in later years, when he escaped from Poland and went to France. He always thought of this as a kind of suicidal decision, as a man, but especially as a poet. He experienced writer’s block.

Berfrois

When did he start writing poems? During his Arcadian childhood phase?

Franaszek

No, he began around age nineteen. I’d say that is a typical age for many poets. His publishing debut was in a small magazine based in Vilnius. He was actually law student at the time. Miłosz began studying Polish philology, but found it so boring he switched to law. He wasn’t only interested in literature. In the 1930s, law was a way of getting in touch with different areas of knowledge like philosophy and economics. He was interested in the social and political life of his age.

Miłosz wasn’t the kind of poet to spend all his time sat at a desk reading 19th century French poetry and translating Charles Baudelaire, or, even worse, Stéphane Mallarmé. In fact, he hated Mallarmé. Miłosz believed you should just write about what you know: yourself, your soul, your images. He wanted to be involved in the life of people, to always be in contact with what was going on. And there was a lot going on in politics over those years, of course. His first writings were dedicated to two areas — social and metaphysical. He was obviously a leftist, like many poets and writers. Leftist, yes, but not Communist or Stalinist, as some of his friends were.

Berfrois

When he was a young law student, writing his first poems, was he in contact with other writers?

Franaszek

Yes, he was part of a small circle of poets. Miłosz started writing in Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania. In those days it was a part of Poland, very close to the eastern border with the Soviet Union. It was a very small town, provincial really, somewhere not much changed from the 19th century. Vilnius was historically the heart of romanticism in Poland. There was a tradition of poets living there, most importantly, Adam Mickiewicz.

A century later, there came this other group. Miłosz was not considered one of the most brilliant or most gifted. But certainly, people read him. As usual, there were plenty of poets in their early 20s looking to find success, looking to be noticed, defining themselves in relation to other poets.

Berfrois

Miłosz wasn’t really a romantic like Mickiewicz, though. He didn’t pick up that tradition.

Franaszek

Not at all. I think Miłosz and others were trying to find their own way, by being somewhat avant-garde and trying to write in a modern style. Although, I’d say, Miłosz lacked the naïveté of a typical avant-garde leftist artist. He didn’t want to write about progress or new technology either. His poems were dedicated to the political and the metaphysical.

Berfrois

There were times in his life when Miłosz rejected the Catholic faith, although he later returned to the fold.

Franaszek

Well, it’s hard to say completely rejected. It was always there. But he was definitely against the Catholic Church as an institution. It largely came down to politics. In those times, the Catholic Church usually leaned towards the right. And Miłosz, crucially, was always against the right, against the anti-semitism of the right in particular. It was something that went deeper than politics in general, an abiding hatred for the right in all spheres of life.

Berfrois

And yet, he didn’t wish for the church to take a left-wing interventionist stance either. He just wanted it to stay out of politics.

Franaszek

I think that, in the beginning, as a young man thinking about religion, he was in fact thinking about losing religion. We can all sympathise with this from our own experience.

Berfrois

A crisis of faith.

Franaszek

Indeed. In the 1930s, Milosz travelled to Paris to meet his distant cousin, Oscar Miłosz. Oscar was a kind of mystic. In fact, only yesterday I passed the home of the Swedenborg Society in London, just around the corner from where we’re sat now. Oscar wrote a lot about Swedenborg. He was a diplomat and a poet writing in French. His work was quite popular. At the same time, he was writing about revelations, visions of paradise, the nature of the universe and so on. Czesław was truly impressed by Oscar. Many years later, he wrote that his cousin showed him the true religion, something different from the Catholic faith preached in churches.

When Milosz settled down in California, in the 1960s, Catholics were not the majority. Milosz liked to go to the Catholic church in Berkeley, the parish church of Mary Magdalene. In California, Catholics didn’t really have the opportunity to get involved in politics. Unlike in Poland, they didn’t have the power to dictate to people how they should live. The Californian Catholic community thus concentrated on faith, rather than politics.

Throughout his life, Milosz harboured doubts, but he couldn’t imagine a life without God.  He thought of himself as a sinner, not a saint.

Berfrois

When settling in America, did the majority of Poles move to Chicago?

Franaszek

Yes, I think so. When you travel to Chicago and wander through the old Polish neighbourhoods, you see these funny quasi-medieval landscapes with small buildings and quaint shops. In the very centre, there is always a huge cathedral. For those who moved from villages in Poland, the way to feel tradition and togetherness was attending church on Sunday. This was the core of their identity. Miłosz was different. He thought that emigré circles lacked an interest in culture, in literature etc.

Miłosz was in academia. This was his society, as it were. On the other hand, he wrote that it wasn’t easy for him to have a real conversation with Americans. If someone came from Eastern Europe, from Yugoslavia for example, to Berkeley, there was then a real understanding. Not just talking, but truly a deep connection, with profound feeling.

Berfrois

How did Miłosz feel when the Polish Communist Party began clamping down on religion?

Franaszek

Although Miłosz was on the left, he wasn’t a member of the Communist party. He did write some articles that were clearly leftist. This helped him to survive and, really, to find his way toward western countries, to put it as simply. I believe that he told his old friends he wanted to become a diplomat, not for the job itself, but in order to leave the country.

As Miłosz put it, and I believe his description is accurate, living in 1930s Europe put you in a very difficult position. If you were an intellectual willing to be part of something, you had to make a choice. On the one side, there were the fascists in Germany, in Italy and, yes, in Poland. Fortunately, there was never a Polish Hitler or suchlike, but there were many holding fast to the idea of a nationalistic state. Today’s multicultural society was something very hard to achieve. Even now there are people in Poland, but also the United States, who speak in far-right terms. On the other side, there was the Soviet Union and the idea of communism. Miłosz was definitely afraid of the Soviet Union. He even wrote that the worst thing on earth is to be a citizen living there. Living in Vilnius, close to the border, he was more or less aware of what was going on, not in an abstract way like Jean-Paul Sartre thinking about the ideal state of workers, but in a way that was very real.

Miłosz managed to get a job in the United States, which was important for a number of reasons. He was able to be in closer contact with western culture. He read Hemingway and all the other important American authors of the time. He succeeded in founding a chair at Columbia University, the first chair at an American university dedicated to Polish literature. This was obviously funded by the Polish government, essentially with communist money. However, Miłosz was writing about American culture. He was never simply a propagandist for the Polish state,  not at all.

At the same time, Miłosz slightly lost touch with the situation in Poland. Poland was changing very quickly. It was a very different place in 1949 than in 1945. Miłosz went back for a sort of holiday and discovered forms of state terror. He was scared and came back to the States. His wife really wanted them to stay there in California, but Miłosz saw it as soulless society. He was torn. At one point he even thought of joining a Christian community in Paraguay.

What is important, is that Miłosz considered himself first and foremost a poet. And he thought if he decided to stay in the west, he would cease to be a poet, that it would be impossible for him to write. To be artist you have to be somewhat self-concentred and Miłosz certainly was. He was afraid of losing the possibility of writing. He was afraid of losing readers. He tried to stay in America and managed for as long as possible, but the Polish government wanted him to come back. After some adventures he finally decided to go to Paris. From there he found shelter in a small village, Maison-Laffitte, where there was a magazine edited by an emigrant circle called Kultura. After this, it was impossible for him to come back to the States because the US government considered him a communist.

Berfrois

A terrible irony.

Franaszek

His wife with stayed with their two sons in the States and they were separated for a year or longer. Then there was their time in France, a chapter in European history. Most of those in Paris, the Left Bank intellectuals, were pro-Soviet, pro-communist, so they thought of him as maybe a traitor, maybe a madman, maybe a provocateur.

Berfrois

But he still got published in Kultura.

Franaszek

That was the only place in fact, just one magazine. I don’t know how many copies it sold, what kind of circulation. But you can imagine it was small, perhaps a thousand copies or so. Read mostly by Polish immigrants. However, Kultura can now be seen as the most important emigré monthly in the whole history of Polish literature.

Berfrois

And were they were publishing Miłosz’s poetry or his essays?

Franaszek

It was mainly polemic.

Berfrois

The letters pages were famous for hosting intense debate.

Franaszek

There were also a lot of articles on politics, the economy and so forth. Plentiful commentary on what was going on back in Poland. At the same, time two of the most important Polish emigrés, Miłosz and Witold Gombrowicz, were essentially working together, collaborating. In Poland, I think only a few people were able to read the magazine because, obviously, it was banned. Even if you were able to travel to Paris to buy it, or it was given to you, officials would take it from you at the border.

Berfrois

You get the sense he lost his way in California. In The Land of Ulro, he criticises most Buddhists and New Agers for being very superficial. He didn’t seem to like many people and didn’t think people had much respect for his work.

Franaszek

He was very lonely. For many years in the States, he was known only as the author of The Captive Mind, his analysis of communism.

Berfrois

He became famous for prose rather than poetry.

Franaszek

It was a very popular book, but he didn’t want to be a writer focused on communism. He didn’t want to be a Sovietologist.

Berfrois

Miłosz couldn’t find an outlet for his poetry in the States.

Franaszek

Even many of his colleagues on campus didn’t actually know he was a poet. Later on, he became more popular as a translator of Polish poetry. In the mid 1960s, I believe it was 1965, he published an anthology of postwar Polish poetry. Miłosz was the translator, editor and a few of his poems were featured. It was quite popular among American poets, but he wasn’t the most popular poet in the book. That was definitely Zbigniew Herbert.

Miłosz’s first (very short) volume of poetry was published in 1973, so that was thirteen years after he came to California. Thirteen! The moment that changed things was winning the Neustadt Prize in 1978. But, really, he only became truly popular after winning the Nobel Prize. Then he was truly part of the eastern literary milieu, a friend of Joseph Brodsky and Susan Sontag. Everything was fine. But before this? Solitude.

Miłosz wrote for hours and hours. He was truly a heavy worker, waking up early in the morning, writing some lines of poetry, then heading to campus for classes. He was a good professor, as far as I know, devoted to his students and well liked. At the end of the day, he would come home and have one or two glasses of vodka, just to have this feeling of a change. Writing, sitting in his studio working on articles, translating—this is how he spent his time until the very end of his life. Even in 1992, for example, when he had almost lost his vision, he dictated his words to his secretary, just to feel he was alive. This was his way of living. This secretary was his second wife, Carol. A very beautiful picture exists of her holding him like a Pietà.

Berfrois

How did he get on with Zbigniew Herbert and Witold Gombrowicz? And with his other Polish peers?

Franaszek

Wow. Jesus. Oh, Jesus. We’ve still got another hour, yes? Well…

Berfrois

They had some feuds, right?

Franaszek

Indeed.

Berfrois

In his later years, Miłosz went back and travelled in Eastern Europe, no?

Franaszek

He travelled extensively after winning the Nobel Prize, too.

Berfrois

Everybody wanted him.

Franaszek

Seemingly so. But he wrote he was better paid for writing poems while on American campuses than for winning the Nobel Prize. It was not a huge amount of money at that time.

Going back to your question about his relationships with other writers, I think with Gombrowicz it was easier because there was not the issue of competition.

Berfrois

They have a lot in common, don’t they? Both lived abroad for so long, Gombrowicz in Argentina for 26 years and Miłosz in California for 30. Both of them were far away from Poland.

Franaszek

Gombrowicz came to Argentina in 1939 and passed away in France in 1969. So for 30 years, more than half of his life, he lived abroad. In Buenos Aires, then for a while in Berlin and finally Paris. Gombrowicz and Miłosz had a lot in common. I would even say they kind of liked each other.

Berfrois

Only kind of?

Franaszek

You know, it’s not so easy for writers to become friends.

Berfrois

Maybe!

Franaszek

It was easier that Gombrowicz was a prose writer and Miłosz a poet, so there was no obvious competition between them. Things were more difficult with Herbert. Miłosz was about ten years older than Herbert. Herbert thought of himself as a kind of pupil of Miłosz.

Berfrois

It’s like the child who kills his father. He learns from the master and then betrays him to be famous.

Franaszek

I think it’s more complicated than this. It was all very, very complicated. There was also a lot of love. Herbert admired Miłosz’s poetry towards the end of his life, for sure, but they differed greatly in their attitude towards Poland and the Polish tradition. Miłosz was highly critical of the Polish tradition. There was no heresy. There was a lack of intellectual grappling with the Catholic faith. Herbert was closer to the mainstream of Polish tradition. He was devoted to that strain of romanticism from the 19th century. Yes, there were a lot of struggles and conflicts between Miłosz and Herbert. Or, rather, Herbert attacked Miłosz several times, writing against him. To complicate things Herbert also had issues with his mental health. He was either up or down.

Berfrois

Manic depression.

Franaszek

That’s it. There’s a nice booklet about it, written by William Styron, called Darkness Visible. The title is taken from Milton and it’s quite a good description of being depressed. Herbert discovered he was a manic depressive when he was about 14. He had a lot of stays in hospital and had to take various pills. His quarrels with Miłosz were partly caused by these difficulties, but also, as I mentioned, their fundamentally different views on patriotism and what it meant to be Polish. For example, Miłosz liked to say that, unfortunately, a lot of Polish people are anti-semitic.

Berfrois

Almost like the current Law and Justice party?

Franaszek

I would say that the ruling party now contemporary Poland is definitely right-wing. They are very traditional and very devoted to Catholic values, athough I wouldn’t say they are anti-semitic. There is indeed a lot of xenophobia right now in Poland and in many other countries unfortunately.

Berfrois

Does it seem to you that these poets felt they had a important social role in speaking out about various issues, in a way that doesn’t necessarily exist to the same extent today? It seems they took political questions very seriously. These conflicts were almost a matter of life and death.

Franaszek

I think that’s true, but I also think these battles among writers can be taken very seriously even nowadays, by the writers themselves. There was a whole different dimension in eastern Europe at that time, though, during those years of communism. It was impossible to express your feelings openly in newspapers. Poetry and certain forms of prose were the available forms.

Berfrois

If Miłosz had stayed in Poland, could he have been a more famous poet?

Franaszek

That’s the question. What would have happened if he had stayed? Because at that time the Polish Communist Party was pushing (nationalist) culture.

Berfrois

On the other hand, he won fame as the exiled intellectual.

Franaszek

He was afraid of becoming a kind of puppet, a poet who was officially celebrated by the Communists, but who did not have the freedom to write in his own way. In fact, I think he decided to stay in France to escape, not for explicitly political reasons, but because if he had stayed in Poland then, he would have been forced to write something against his own thoughts. For him, it was impossible to stomach such a perspective. In the early 1950s, a lot of poets wrote about Stalin, about an imagined paradise of poets in the Soviet Union. For Miłosz, this was impossible. Fortunately, he escaped. I don’t know what his life would have been. He also asked himself this: What if I had stayed?

Berfrois

The thought must have crossed his mind during those early years in California, when he didn’t feel part of a community.

Franaszek

Perhaps it was fortunate for him. He wrote that immigration, solitude and loneliness are a very painful burden, but that once you adapt, you get something back. A lot of writers spend many years drinking, being depressed, but also sitting in these literary cafeterias, talking and gossiping. To have a circle makes things easier, but Miłosz found his way through loneliness in California. Yes, he liked to drink bourbon, a lot of it, but he was strong enough not to become a drunkard. And he wrote a lot. I think you could fill two tool sheds with his writing. His collected poems in Polish comes to more than 1,500 pages. And then there are his novels and his essays. Miłosz wrote on Dostoevsky, Swedenborg and William Blake, for example. He exchanged a lot of letters, truly a lot of letters, with a vast array of people, like Thomas Merton. He translated a lot of poetry and some books from the Bible, including the Book of Jove. He just produced a lot. And I would say that almost everything he wrote is very good.

Berfrois

What were the sources for your biography, beyond his own writing?

Franaszek

Fortunately, there is a Miłosz archive at Yale’s Beinecke Library. I travelled to the States, I think it was back in 2001, and just asked for the first box of this archive, which they gave to me. Back then you had these big boxes with files inside that you had to open with both hands, and each file was full of handwritten and typed manuscripts, letters, notebooks and poems. They had about 300 boxes like this.

It was interesting because in the old days, living in Kraków, Miłosz didn’t want to talk about his private life. After being awarded the Nobel Prize, some publishing houses in Poland were allowed to publish some of his writings. He came to Poland for a short visit in 1981, I think for two weeks, and just after this so-called marshal law in Poland was called. The Party struck back, as it were. That’s how it was for a while, until 1989 and the end of the Communist era in eastern Europe. In the 1990s, Miłosz came to Poland many times. He bought an apartment there.

Miłosz never spoke openly about certain parts of his life. Yes, he liked to describe his childhood and so forth. Yet there were some moments that remained quite hidden. At the same time, while hiding all those details, he was keeping almost every page of paper it was possible to keep, even letters with very intimate, very delicate details. Letters from lovers, for example, but also what was even more delicate: letters about his youngest son.

He had two sons. It’s easy for me to say this now, but when I got to know him personally, I didn’t know he had this second one. He didn’t talk about it. He said there was just one son living in Oakland. But I discovered there was also a younger one living in Poland and that he was schizophrenic. Now he is living somewhere in California. I have never met him. To be honest, I had a kind of opportunity many years ago, but I missed out. In any case, it was a kind of revelation, something very strange to discover as I read letters from 1977 or 1978 by Miłosz to his close friends, describing his boy’s schizophrenia and their tortured relationship. He was not a devoted father. He was mostly concerned with his poetry and his own life.

Berfrois

When you wrote the biography, what was your focus? The texts, personal aspects, political events, religion?

Franaszek

To be quite honest, everything. The original version of my biography is much bigger. In fact, it is almost 1,000 pages long. In the very beginning, I thought it would be a more academic way of writing, with commentaries on his poems and so on. Then the book began to change.

Berfrois

There are so many anecdotes that it doesn’t come across as staid or overly academic.

Franaszek

I realised that his personal life, as a witness of the 20th century, was interesting and useful to write about. I love the poetry of Miłosz and like to write about it, but I was concerned with the man as well. It’s also true that many others have commented on his poetry. The American publisher Ecco Press has a recent edition of translations by Miłosz.

Berfrois

How do the translations of his work by American poets differ from those he translated himself?

Franaszek

That is a very tricky question. We all know the quotation by Robert Frost that poetry is what is lost in translation. This is partially true, I’m afraid. I was taught many times, for example, that W.H. Auden was one of the best poets of the 20th century. But when I read him in Polish translation, even by truly good writers, I’m not quite sure about this.

Berfrois

Maybe you just don’t like Auden. It’s possible.

Franaszek

I really would like to! Maybe there are differences in language. Polish poetry definitely sounds better in English or German translation than in French. Miłosz was translated well into English by himself, by his students and by other poets like Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass. But the translations into French are poor. I ask many people in the States if the poetry of Miłosz sounds good in English and everyone has their own opinion. But someone said Miłosz’s poetry is so powerful it still has an immense impact on people in translation. Maybe that is true.

Berfrois

As a translator himself, was Miłosz as skeptical towards translation as you seem to be?

Franaszek

No, he liked to translate. He translated a lot of French poetry. But he also liked to translate translations, as it were. For example, he translated quite a lot of Japanese haiku into Polish, but he used English translations. There is a good book by him, a kind of anthology, called A Book of Luminous Things. There is also a Polish edition with slightly different content. It has not only translations, but also essays on his way of thinking about poetry. He had very strong beliefs about poetry, the role of poetry. 19th-century French symbolism was for him dangerous to poetry.

Berfrois

That’s interesting, because it doesn’t seem so far from this idea of luminous things.

Franaszek

By luminous things, Miłosz was thinking about Buddhism and contemplating true reality. The poet sits and looks at a tree and tries to describe it. We can find this in Japanese haiku, but also in poems written by Jane Hirshfield, for example.

Berfrois

They begin with the real world, that’s the important thing.

Franaszek

Yes. He disliked Mallarmé-like poets, who wrote about ideas and not real things. This way of writing poetry, this French way, separates the poet from the rest of humanity. I like the kind of poetry Miłosz wrote and I agree with him on this.

Berfrois

You see Miłosz as a realist, then? Opposed to the supernatural, the mystical?

Franaszek

He liked Walt Whitman.

Berfrois

Very earthy.

Franaszek

Very fleshy. He wanted to grasp the world. He liked Robinson Jeffers for example, especially this one poem by Jeffers called ‘Love the Wild Swan’, in which the poet is a kind of a hunter trying to hunt something from the world. Miłosz felt that way exactly. He was trying to describe what is real. Obviously, it’s an almost impossible undertaking.

There is a poem by Miłosz about trying to recollect some fruits from his childhood. He tried to give specific local names, to the apple let’s say. In the end, he stated that it is impossible, that the real apple still goes away somehow, that it’s impossible to catch an impression. Still, he kept trying to show not an idea of an apple, but the real apple.

Berfrois

It’s curious to think about this approach, what with him being Catholic at the same. There are elements in conflict there. Focusing on the physical, while also believing in things that don’t, well, physically exist.

Franaszek

This is true. Miłosz even wrote about this. Many times, in fact. He was torn. At some point in my life, he wrote, I realised this is my true nature, that I’m conflicted inside, but I can live with it.

Berfrois

Between the material and spiritual realms.

Franaszek

I would say that Miłosz had an erotic attitude towards life and towards words. He was caught, captured, by the beauty of the world, the beauty of existence. Obviously, he had a lot of love affairs in his life. He wrote poems about the beauty of women, but there was also something deeper. It wasn’t just about having sex and being obsessed with it, certainly not. This was an erotic way of seeing the world. He liked eating beefsteaks. He liked eating strawberries. He liked drinking a lot of whisky. He liked flowers. Everything. He was able to remember the exact colour of a flower he had seen three years earlier. Miłosz wrote many poems about the beauty of nature. Rivers were especially important to him.

At the same time, Miłosz thought that this world is a devil’s playground. His way of thinking was like Manichaean gnosticism, in which the prince of this earth is a devil, not a god, because one animal eats another animal. There are endless fields of suffering around us. If we were able, we would hear a scream of suffering animals, suffering beings all around us. Robert Hass, in one of the documentaries about Miłosz, talks about the moment they were walking to Grizzly Peak, to Miłosz’s house, and they were having a conversation about the cruelty of nature. Hass points out that Miłosz wrote so many times about flowers and trees. Miłosz replies this is beauty, a different thing. There is a kind of contradiction between beauty and cruelty.

There is very popular late poem by Miłosz, called ‘An Honest Description of Myself with a Glass of Whiskey at An Airport, Let Us Say, in Minneapolis’. He is 85, sipping whiskey and still looking at young women in mini-skirts. He says, not only am I obsessed with this beauty, this eros in the world, but at the same time there is a second force, an opposing force telling me this is a cruel world. Why didn’t he become an ornithologist? The funny answer is that he got to know dark interiority in his childhood years. He realised then that the world is very beautiful, but also full of suffering. And this was always the most important contradiction within him.