Sunday, December 28, 2014

Czeslaw Milosz and the Case of Brognart

Born in 1911, Milosz lived to his early 90s and his life covered the span of the 20th Century. He's a poet and writer who has never been not relevant, but given the direction of many events happening around the world, he remains essential reading in the 21st Century.

Much of what I like about Milosz, even when I'm not sure I agree with him on some point, is the way he thinks and follows through on specific issues. There's a clarity to his writing I don't often see, though I am at times left with many questions, but there is hunger in those questions, a need for more.

In his book, To Begin Where I Am, he writes about a young man named Gilbert Brognart, a Frenchman swept up by the events of WWII while vacationing in Poland with a friend at the outbreak of the war. Brognart was eighteen and had just finished technical school and was entering a mining college in the fall.

I'm not entirely sure why Milosz chose to write about Brognart. But Milosz had been a government official in Poland in the late forties and he either had something to do with Brognart's case or heard about it from others. The problem is that Brognart managed to avoid the German army as it invaded Poland but couldn't find a route of escape back to France. At one point, he crossed the border to Russia, realized that too was a mistake and then decided to try his luck in Lithuania. But, unknown to him, Lithuania had fallen under the control of Soviet Russia.

When the German Nazis came in 1941 with their own deadly intent, Brognart was pulled deeper into the Soviet system. Despite initially being neutral as far as France was concerned, the Soviets were mindlessly rounding up people and Brognart eventually ended up in indefinite detention and eventually prison. He became one of the millions who were lost in one way or another during the war for no crime or action the Soviets could ever justify. He was simply a random person who wasn't vouched for. But detention camps and prisons in Russia were never good for one's health and Brognart died in prison in 1951.

Brognart was one of those people who write on the walls of his cell. He said who he was, where he was from, and asked that people carry the message however possible back to France. Eventually, word got through and machinery began to move. But it moved slowly and years passed. From 1939 on, he was trapped by the machinery of war and the mindlessness of a rigid system.

After Brognart's death, Milosz eventually went to the man's hometown in France. There's a kind of 19th century sensibility to this, the fact that Milosz would go to such trouble. Milosz talks about this aspect of himself in other places. I've seen this aspect, this need to follow a story to its end. I knew a man once named Gilbert King. He was largely 20th Century in his sensibility but his roots were very much in the 19th century (curious that Brognart and King had the same first name; being someone I knew, I'll use the name Gilbert.)

Born in 1895, Gilbert was the child of an American banker and an American missionary who lived in China. I believe Gilbert was still somewhat religious to the end of his days. But his life took many odd turns, and despite being born to modest wealth, and having made two modest fortunes for himself, he was poor at the end of his life. His adopted children would have gladly helped him out, but in most years he said no to their help, though he visited them more often as he aged. In his early 90s, I lost touch with him and was reluctant to inquire. Gilbert was not a poet like Milosz but he had a similar philosophical temperament and although he was a businessman in China in the first part of his adult life (primarily in Peking — yes, old spelling, to maintain the flavor), he volunteered to travel extensively, sometimes with his wife and sometimes alone to various places in Asia on related banking business. But his interest was talking to Europeans to some degree while he had a greater interest in seeking out local people from Hong Kong to Tokyo and talking about who they were and what they believed. He had a way of returning to old conversations and continuing them, and asking for more explanation of points he had thought about. He also wanted to know how things turned out. And he was a good storyteller (he reminded me a little of Joseph Conrad's Marlowe, though he had the skill to talk to just about anybody with ease. It never took him long to get a person's story.

His habit of revisiting things included a trip to China in the late 1970s when he was in his early 80s. He was still fluent in Chinese and while visiting places he knew, people were intrigued by this elderly American who seemed to know more than the average tourist. They did double takes when they realized how fluent he was.

This business of revisiting things is common in Milosz's work. It's a 19th Century sensibility to some extent, when magazines and books had a slower pace. I'm not sure what Milosz's position was on religion, maybe agnostic like myself, but not particularly cynical about it. Revisiting things, looking deeper into an issue, could also be called the peeling back of further layers, something that Samuel Beckett was good at, particularly in his books. One doesn't see much peeling back on TV, the Internet, or in newspapers these days. One is even embarrassed by reporters who seem to give some background and it's largely irrelevant, hardly to the point. What we often get these days, not always just from the right, is propaganda, or sometimes just the drill sergeant screaming in our faces (Fox News engages in both.)

Peeling back, seeing our flaws, our mistakes is the missing ingredient in American culture in this era, particularly on the right, but no group is exempt. When we jump from abbreviated stories to the even the more ridiculous twitter blurbs — that is, from farce to farce in terms of commentary — what do we learn?

 I still think the United States is the one essential country. Why? Because there is no other. These days, particularly after the fiasco of the George W. years, that concept is challenged. I know that. The right wingers have lost their way and the politicians and operators simply line up for their share of the booty. It's a shame because many people were at one time able to look a little deeper, to stop and reconsider, to recognize their neighbors as not all that different from themselves, to recognize that we often have a similar fate when those who fail us lead us down a mistaken road.

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