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“I will oppress you with my strange love”:  Andrzej Franaszek discusses the friendship of Zbigniew

By The Editors

Andrzej Franaszek is a literary critic and cultural editor of the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. He is the author of Ciemne źródło (Dark Spring), which discusses the subject of suffering in the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert (the second edition will be published later in 2008). He is also working on a biography of Czesław Miłosz. He lives in Kraków.

CYNTHIA HAVEN: First of all, thank you for your insightful talk at Columbia University on November 26: "'I will oppress you with my strange love…' The Friendship of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert: fascination, disillusionment, and bitterness." That's quite a title. Could you summarize briefly the relationship of these two poetry giants?

ANDRZEJ FRANASZEK: I'm afraid it's rather a long story. Herbert and Miłosz got to known each other during Herbert's first trip to the West in 1958. They met in Montgeron near Paris, where Miłosz had been living with his family. Miłosz broke with Communist Poland in 1951, choosing an émigré status in France.

Miłosz was 13 years older, and at that time, his intellectual biography was richer—as a young man he identified himself with the pre-war leftist radicalism but soon was disappointed in utopian ideologies. These positions did not annihilate his antipathy to the capitalist way of life and his strong criticism of pre-war Poland. After WW II, he had a sort-of romance with the new government, but in 1951 broke with it. For Herbert pre-war Poland was almost the Arcadia of his youth, which was deluged by historical cataclysm. Unlike Miłosz, he judged the postwar reality completely, or almost completely, negatively. By the end of the 1950s, Miłosz is a "big absentee" in Poland's domestic literature. Herbert, a late debutant, was the author of two books of poetry by that time.

Despite these differences, their acquaintance very quickly became a close and important friendship for both of them. In the lecture at Columbia, I quoted fragments from their letters: Miłosz writes to "Dear Herbert" and "Dear Zbyszek," who is kissed "tenderly and strongly." Herbert demands new photographs of his friend, misses him "like a man—which means in a dry and passionate way—Your house, you personally, sheesh kebabs, our nocturnal rambles, place de la Contrescarpe." Depressed, he cries to Miłosz for help: "I drink white wine, Czesław. So in a while you will appear and I'll be able to complain. Do miss you."

Miłosz was solicitous of his younger colleague. He encourages Herbert to write articles more regularly and extends his journalistic collaboration on the Polish weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny. He advises and critiques Herbert's The Barbarian in the Garden as "a very good tactical move": "You have cut out a domain for yourself and ascended the throne keeping an eye on the frontiers," he wrote. What was probably most important, he translates Herbert's poems into English—first single poems in magazines, then in his well-known Polish Postwar Poetry anthology in 1965, and finally Herbert's Selected Poems in 1968. He built Herbert's position in the Anglo-Saxon world, even at his own expense, because for many years spent in the U.S. he was known as a translator rather than a poet. For Herbert, he is a poetical model. The Master–Apprentice relationship is underscored in Herbert's letters many times: "I learn from you, but I'm rather dull," "you are a precursor," and so forth.

HAVEN: They shared an artistic affinity as well?

FRANASZEK: What is important here is the closeness in their understanding of artistic aims: they both felt a disinclination to art concentrated on itself, which cannot describe the matter of the world, the true man with his pain, despair and hope. They both felt a disinclination to self-pity, an aspiration to clarity. When they write about such topics, Herbert acts as an equal partner in the dialogue: they both describe in a similar way their contacts with Western poets—John Berryman, Charles Olson, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Lowell—in which they accuse the poets of self-absorption, spiritual weakness, and using avant-garde traditions to narrow the poetical idiom. They both are sure that the task of a poet cannot be reduced to learning the craft or working out an individual language; at root are spiritual values, such as "unselfishness, an ability to contemplate, a vision of lost paradise, courage, kindness, compassion, a kind of a mix of despair and humor." When these values are lacking, poetry becomes a joy involving only its creator. For both these Polish writers, however, a poem is still a game for the highest stakes. Herbert, reporting in a letter his reading of Miłosz's "On Trumpets and Zither," said, "I read aloud with my heart in my mouth. My landlady who is used to me reading loudly in German asked if I prayed. Well, I pray in a sense…"

HAVEN: Herbert wrote and dedicated one of his most famous poems to Miłosz, "Elegy of Fortinbras," first published in a volume The Study of an Object in 1961. It begins and ends with the title he used to address Miłosz in his letters: "prince." "You chose the easier part," he writes, and "you believed in crystal notions and not human clay." Can you describe Herbert's relationship to Miłosz at this early date—or am I reading too many connections into a dedication and the word "prince"?

FRANASZEK: I don't think we can use this excellent poem as a description of Herbert and Miłosz. The word "prince" refers obviously to Hamlet. As I remember, Herbert, in his correspondence with Miłosz, uses it only once, in an interesting and at the same time very funny letter. Herbert's poem "A Study of the Object" begins, "The most beautiful / is the object which does not exist" and describes the process of reduction—cleaning the canvas to the empty space, "a white paradise of all possibilities." It provoked Miłosz to place a polemical fragment in his "Bobo's Metamorphosis," in praise of an artist who still tries to reach, to write down, the essence of real things—the real tree and not the idea of a tree. Miłosz apparently doesn't notice that his friend's poem uses a voice which is not identical with the voice of an author, and takes this piece as a "blasphemous poem," a sign of a peculiar nihilism. Herbert answered with a letter in August 1963, addressing Miłosz as "His Highness":


"Forgive me, my Prince, but I'm afraid that Your Highness didn't understand a piece entitled èA Study of the Object.' It's not a denial of an existing matter at all. Treating faith as a subject of a prose of èsavants' is for me as disgusting as for the Prince. My poem describes an adventure of a reason which seeks purity by negation. It's a mask-poem. In Your school, Your Highness, I had been learning this form and it's unpleasant beyond words for me that Prince deigned to identify the voice of the poem with the author. Following Your Highness's suit, I am also on the side of trees and whales. Constantly, although inefficiently, I was expressing in my pieces the faith in the concrete. Not as a materialist but as somebody who knows that only the full acceptance of the sensual world may lead to recognizing the Essence. Disgusting as the Greek under-world—full of wet shadows—is for me this little frenchman malarmée, who is justly named by Prince—I would say, a little bit in Russian style—a rabble."


But getting back to "Elegy," I think it is just a poem about a conflict of two life and moral attitudes, about all complications of thoughts of such persons like Fortinbras—for example, many twentieth-century tyrants. Certainly we cannot think that Miłosz "believed in crystal notions and not human clay."

HAVEN: So far you've described the "fascination" part of the title of your Columbia lecture. But eventually the friendship descended to the "disillusionment" and "bitterness." Was Herbert perhaps overcompensating for his earlier deference to the senior poet?

FRANASZEK: Obviously, over a period of years, all matters become more complicated, and their relationship became more complex in the 1960s and 1970s. Herbert's position in Polish literature had been getting more and more important. By the 1980s, he became probably the most important poet for Polish readers. He was also well known in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., thanks to Selected Poems, translated by Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott in 1968. Miłosz was forced to put up with the fact that his apprentice had become a serious competitor. On the other hand, especially after 1989, Herbert had to manage living somehow in the shadow of Miłosz. It is complicated for a small country to have two such preeminent poets at the same time. Obviously, like every artist, they both had vast ambitions, a huge sensibility, an acute fear of failure—all those traps of an oppressed "ego" which accompany literature and make it, as Miłosz wrote, "a tournament of hunchbacks."

But there were also more important differences, which we can understand reading their letters from the late 1960s. Living in Berkeley, Miłosz looked with a growing distance not only at Polish matters but also at Europe, which he thought was a bit provincial. He feels that in the Californian melting pot one could observe processes which may determine the future of Western civilization: the loneliness of an individual in a modern society, alienation, race problems, students' rebellion against conservative values, the meeting of the West and the Far East. The conversation about the condition of the West, about its cultural transformations, leads to a fundamental conflict in the autumn of 1967. "I cannot accept America, it is like an automatic cybernetic beast," wrote Miłosz, describing the dramatic position of Western civilization, where superb technological progress brings with it the pauperization of spirituality. As he did many years earlier, when he considered joining a Christian community in Paraguay, he seeks the third way between the totalitarian East and the materialistic West.

Herbert represents the position which could be described as "commonsense," with its advantages but also its limitations, and it is a bit too easy for him to formulate a sociological diagnosis. Although he points at the weaknesses of the West, he shows a surprising face of a "prawdziwy mężczyzna"—in Polish, a "real man," who is closer to a cowboy than an intellectual—and maybe also a provincial mentality, for which distant problems have no meaning and could be the object of a rather inconsiderate joke: "I don't understand why you revolt against the fact that Poles beat Blacks," he wrote in 1967. "Blacks are racists, just as are Arabs and some Jews. Most probably Blacks should not be beaten and oppressed, but shipped to their native Africa, where their tribesmen would end with them quickly and quietly. I don't understand at all why the white man feels today such remorse that he [the white man] rather will allow himself to be killed than just say what he thinks." Miłosz's reaction is firm: he accuses his correspondent of a typical Polish belief that the country on the Vistula River is the hub of the universe and its historical experience and sufferings are incomparable to anything. He adds strongly: the Blacks "cannot be sent to Africa just as the Jews from pre-war Poland could not be sent to Madagascar."

Soon after this exchange of letters, Miłosz and Herbert were visiting the California home of Bogdana and John Carpenter. The drunken Herbert finally showed his long-suppressed frustrations. In a very unpleasant way, he expressed hidden resentments, attacking Miłosz for a lack of patriotism, and not being part of the underground movement during the years of Nazi occupation. In fact, Miłosz was a part of the underground literary life, and Herbert was rather uninvolved during the war.

HAVEN: Was it the end of their friendship?

FRANASZEK: No. In December 1968, Herbert sends an apology from Berlin: "Whether you want it or not, I will oppress you with my strange love till the end of life or even some time later … Please, be generous and forgive me." In letters to friends in London, Herbert fears that Miłosz considers him a fascist, adding that in fact he, Herbert, "got more reactionary in his senility." Their correspondence still testifies to mutual closeness and trust. In the end, Herbert turns to Miłosz when he wants to tell how he was interrogated by agents of political police in 1969. Surely he would not do that if he thought his older friend felt hostility towards him.

In fact, the crucial moment of their conflict was the publication of Miłosz's A Year of the Hunter and the beginning of 1990. In his book, Miłosz writes about Herbert and finds in him "a blind attachment to only one imponderabilium: the fatherland," Poland, which is elevated to a mystical "absolute." This accusation is not completely fair, as can be seen in Herbert's statements about Poland. What is worse, Herbert interprets it as an attack on his spiritual master—philosopher Henryk Elzenberg [1887-1967]. He reacted by writing an emotional essay about patriotism, which "on a natural level is almost identical with love of your mother," on a higher level it becomes "a command to work and even to die for the fatherland." Then he accuses the older poet, saying that, mindful of his international reputation, Miłosz "consciously relinquishes his patriotism, and finally his homeland. He has made lack of identity the engine of his poetry—but in fact this is only coquetry, cheap cosmopolitism, the pose of an exile, the romantic posture of a rejected prophet." Herbert will repeat more or less the same allegations in the poem "Khodasevich," and in some 1994 interviews as well, coloring the latter with the story about how Miłosz wanted to attach Poland to the Soviet Union.

HAVEN: Let's discuss "Khodasevich," from Herbert's penultimate 1992 collection, six years before his death. It's ostensibly about Russian émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), but actually attacks Miłosz, right down to his interest in Swedenborg and his devotion to Oscar Miłosz, his cosmopolitan kinsman and fellow-writer in Paris. It ends: "from behind the clouds his rhyming frog-croaks." Can you explain a little Herbert's apparent animosity, and how it scandalized Poland in the 1990s?

FRANASZEK: Well, what I can say is that personally for me—and surely for many other readers—it was a kind of shock. When I read "Khodasevich" for the first time, I couldn't believe that it was Herbert's poem. Not only because of all accusations which could be found in it, but mostly because of a huge dose of hostility and scorn, because of its language, tone, the poetics of a lampoon—it's extremely different from Herbert's normal poetical idiom. But what is really interesting, after writing "Khodasevich," Herbert sent to Miłosz, his painfully mocked friend, a postcard with a leg of an elephant suspended upon a defenseless chicken and with a three-word note: "Don't tread upon"…

HAVEN: Strange. I would have thought Miłosz was the one who had been underfoot. What on earth did he mean by that?

FRANASZEK: Well, what can I say? Maybe Herbert felt himself to be the weaker party in this relationship.

HAVEN: How much of their conflict was rooted in the usual tension between the émigré and those who chose to remain in their native land?

FRANASZEK: Very little. You must remember that Miłosz was not a typical émigré. He was very close to many aspects of life in Poland and in the early 1990s, when the real conflict with Herbert exploded, Miłosz was able to spend a part of a year in his homeland.

HAVEN: And, after all, Herbert spent much of his time abroad…

FRANASZEK: We are talking instead about an elementary controversy about the shape of national identity, two visions of patriotism. This one which Herbert's describes as "child love" surely was not typical for Miłosz, whose relation with Poland was a kind of difficult love, which makes us ask difficult questions and criticize. Miłosz wrote, for example: "Poles are a race not capable of any kind of creativity, in politics, trade, industry, religion, philosophy; they can only farm the land and practice a mathematical logic, as well as express the feeling of being second-rate by beating Jews and Blacks. […] Somebody asked me if such a religious country as Poland has brought forth mystics—I said that contrary to the Orthodox Church not a single one." Well—it's not a fair judgment. But maybe not so unfair… And Herbert answered: "Poland is a 1,000-year-old infant—without features, without form, with only a potential metaphysics (neither heretics, nor inquisitors), a potential mission and an experience undigested," but added significantly: "What do I think about Poland? I think like you, because I am not connected with this country (even less than you) by bonds of blood. [Herbert's father was half Armenian, and the Herbert family has English roots.] But this Erde (ohne Blut) is mine, like a plague or a venereal disease and I am not able to free myself from it." Somewhere here there is a line which Herbert never crosses. A fundamental difference of sensibility, which deepens with years. Herbert tells his wife, "He said that those Polish uniforms had been ridiculous, and I answered that people in those uniforms had died." Can we mock the uniform of a soldier not denying his courage? Obviously, yes. But making the distinction is not so easy; sometimes a joke reveals a deeper mental attitude. In this small exchange of opinions we can see the basis of the intellectual difference between the writers. The author of "Rovigo" had a set of imponderables which he never questions. They didn't have to be justified; they just existed. Miłosz was more flexible, capable of perpetually calling in question of all opinions, even his own, of perpetually revising all his values.

HAVEN: In your lecture, you note that, in a moment of accumulated anger and bitterness, Herbert wrote at the end of his life: "I assume Miłosz as a literary useful person, I just want him not to write essays because he can't write Polish in prose." Wasn't he rather forgetting about Captive Mind, the book that overwhelmed Miłosz's poetic reputation, at least in the West, for many years.

FRANASZEK: Don't fall for it. Of course Herbert read Captive Mind and many other essays of Miłosz. He just wanted to criticize Miłosz. His opinion at this point is very far from objective.

By the way, we should remember that at the end of Herbert's life, a phone conversation between two poets leads to a reconciliation.

HAVEN: Tell us about that phone call.

FRANASZEK: Knowing that Herbert was very ill, Miłosz phoned him in 1998. According to Herbert's wife, it was a very friendly talk.

HAVEN: Any predictions about when their correspondence will be published in English?

FRANASZEK: Unfortunately, I don't have any information. At the same time, I'm sure that it is really worth translating. Those letters are one of the most important dialogues in Polish literature of the second half of the 20th century, a conversation about the shape of poetry, Polish nationality, and patriotism. The poetry of both Miłosz and Herbert is known in American intellectual and literary circles, so probably also their correspondence, which also shows those artists from a more private point of view, would have an audience.

Published Feb 10, 2008   Copyright 2008 The Editors

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