Translated by Madeline G. Levine
The past is inaccurate, because we cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. We must rely on people’s memory, which is treacherous, because memory is constantly juggling and revising the data of experience. Even when people say they were present when something happened, one cannot trust them, but usually they simply repeat as a fact what they heard from other people. In telling about an event, we ourselves cannot avoid revising it, because our narrative simplifies and composes a whole out of selected components, while omitting others. It suffices to compare our knowledge of facts with their depiction in chronicles, journalistic accounts, memoirs, to understand the need for fantasizing, which is somehow inscribed in the language itself and which draws us into the forest of fiction.
Certainly, when I was writing my “Abecadlo Milosza,” I wanted to present real people and problems, without falsifying anything. My good intentions weren’t sufficient, however, because my mistakes keep being revealed by news that reaches me: of course, it was probably like this, but not exactly. And this has happened even in connection with the experiences of individuals whom I knew well, such as my friends from school. I wrote, for example, that Jurek Zawadzki served in the cavalry and died in the September Campaign of 1939. As another of our friends, Tadeusz Kasprzycki, informs me, however, Zawadzki never served in the military. In accordance with his profession as a graduate of the Warsaw Polytechnic, he was engaged in building fortifications and was sent to the Eastern border in 1939 where, after the Soviet invasion, he joined a unit in the forests that was attempting to mount resistance. The circumstances of his death are unclear.
The picturesque character from Young Wilno, Tadeusz Bulsiewicz, was, in fact, deported and then fought in Italy, but he does not rest on Monte Cassino. Sergeant Bulsiewicz, a cultural officer, was the favorite of his brigade. “I had heard him innumerable times. That day, however, he gave a real concert of wit and humor. The audience was simply howling with joy, and tears rolled down my face from laughter,” his army colleague writes in his memoir. “He must be a very talented man. He was the author and director of a splendid spectacle performed behind the front lines in Gazala.
The writer continues, “He was so upset by the bloody losses of our division in the battle of Monte Cassino that he reported to his superiors with a request that he be attached to one of the infantry battalions on front-line duty. No attempts at persuasion from his superiors, friends and colleagues had an effect. He insisted. Bulsiewicz was a journalist by profession. Before the war he worked as an announcer for Polish Radio’s Wilno station. In addition, he was not so young that he could bear the difficulties of service in the front lines without suffering harm. Furthermore, it had been a long time since he had line experience.”
On patrol along the Chieti River, he separated from his colleagues and decided to launch a grenade attack on his own at the rear of the German position. Gravely wounded in the mouth by a German mortar shell, he survived but was disfigured. He could barely speak. “Then he was evacuated to England, where he underwent some kind of special operation. There is information that he died after the unsuccessful operation. Others insist that, unable to make his peace with such a severe disability, he broke down psychologically and committed suicide.”
People from Wilno were certain that Henryk Dembinski loaded the Wilno archives onto a truck in the autumn of 1939 and drove them to Minsk. They are so certain that they swore, “We were there; we saw him.” This is an example of why one cannot believe eyewitnesses. As Waclaw Zagórski reports, “I saw Henryk Dembinski for the first time this year. He is in despair. In the best faith he took over the directorship of the State Archive in Wilno. He was mistaken in his belief that he could save those precious collections from devastation. When he went to work yesterday morning, he noticed Soviet trucks outside the archives. Soldiers were throwing folders of laws into the street through the windows. Some packets, which had been carelessly tied with string, spilled out onto the pavement. He stood to the side and, with impotent rage, watched this barbarous vandalism.”
In order to think about the world relatively accurately one should avoid prejudices, or preconceptions about the traits of certain people and things. For example, that red-headed women are untrustworthy, that bathing is injurious to one’s health, or that washing down certain dishes with milk leads to twisting of one’s intestines. It is possible that preconceptions are related to superstitious rules, which themselves are rooted in conventional beliefs. From my childhood in Lithuania, I know what is forbidden: it is forbidden to spit on a fire; it is forbidden to place a loaf of bread upside down; it is forbidden to throw bread into the garbage; it is forbidden to walk backward, because that means you are measuring your mother’s grave.
Prejudices are necessary and positive, however, because they simply save energy. It is impossible to race about with one’s tongue hanging out, checking out the countless bits of information that surround us. Prejudices permit us to bypass some of them. I don’t want to conceal the fact that I have an almost fanatical tendency to prejudices. Thus, I was prejudiced’ against Poles from the Kingdom of Poland, seeing them as lacking in seriousness; against National Democrats as people who were obsessed; against “The Literary News” because of their gentility, in contrast to my lack of breeding; against the poet Jan Lechoń for his snobbery; against the poet Julian Przybos for his invariably progressive views. And so on. Stefan Kisielewski tried in vain to get me to read the works of Roman Dmowski, against whom I was intensely prejudiced. I put aside certain types of literature without reading them. That was the case, for example, with a famous best-seller in France in 1954, where I was living at the time—”Bonjour Tristesse,” by the very young writer Françoise Sagan. (Years later I read it with very mixed feelings.) The same thing happened when everyone around me was reading “The Painted Bird,” by Jerzy Kosiński. We met in Palo Alto, and Kosinski asked me what I thought of “The Painted Bird.” When I answered, “I have an advantage over others in that I haven’t read the book,” he nearly choked.
It would have been better had I not deserved to be labeled a man of obsessions and prejudices, but no doubt I do.
Despite the attacks on the very concept of truth, such that faith in the possibility of an objective discovery of the past has been destroyed, people continue to write memoirs fervently to demonstrate how it was, in truth. This poignant need bears witness to our attachment to accounts that are not subject to changing opinion but reside in so-called facts. It is well known that the same fact observed by two witnesses is not the same thing, and yet the honest chronicler is convinced that his description is exact. His good faith is decisive here, and we should respect it, even if despite his wishes he has shaped events to serve his own interests. Modifying events in order to beautify past events or conceal ugly ones is the most frequent cause of distorted perspective. We often are surprised at the blindness of the storyteller who does not realize this; a classic example is Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his “Confessions.” The least believable are the memoirs of politicians, because they lie so much that it is difficult to trust their good faith.
When talking about my twentieth century, I try to be honest and am helped in this by my flaws and not my virtues. It was always hard for me to choose, to announce myself as categorically on one side, to stubbornly stick to my own views. Reconciled to my own place, always on the outside in relation to my contemporaries, I tried to intuit the reasoning of those on the other side. Had I been an incorporeal spirit, I would have been more successful, from which one can deduce that spirits encounter considerable difficulty when they wish to proclaim unambiguous moral judgments.
We work at knowing the truth about our lifetime even if its images, derived from various people, are not consistent with each other. We exist as separate beings, but at the same time, each of us acts as a medium propelled by a power we do not know well, a current of the great river, as it were, through which we resemble each other in our common style or form. The truth about us will remind us of a mosaic composed of littlestones of different value and colors.
Madeline G. Levine, Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has translated two earlier books by Czeslaw Milosz: “Beginning With My Streets: Essays and Recollections” (1992) and “A Year of the Hunter” (1994), both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.