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A SEARCH FOR SELF-DEFINITION
By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated from the Polish by Catherine S. Leach
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
Copyright © 1968 Doubleday & Company, Inc..
All rights reserved.
Place of Birth
FOR MANY CENTURIES, while kingdoms rose and fell along the shores of the Mediterranean and countless generations handed down their refined pleasures and vices, my native land was a virgin forest whose only visitors were the few Viking ships that landed on the coast. Situated beyond the compass of maps, it was more legendary than real. For that matter, chroniclers have never given much attention to the tiny peninsula that can be found today by running one's finger along the map from Copenhagen across the northernmost edge of Germany and Poland. Its distance from the beaten track helped to keep it one of the most isolated enclaves, where time flowed more slowly than elsewhere. Surely, though, by the time Plato was writing his dialogues, my country had joined the round of international trading. Pieces of transparent amber with a petrified insect inside came from there. The amber passed from hand to hand as an article of barter among primitive tribes, and traveled a long way by landalong the Dnieper as far as the Black Seabefore reaching the Greek archipelago. Its discovery at excavation sites has enabled us to reconstruct the main vertical linesfrom south to northalong which certain of our acquisitions from the Bronze and Iron Ages moved.
This was the only sign of habitation that came from the wooded region on the Baltic until the end of the Middle Ages, when the forest dwellers became a scandal for Christianity. As long as all minds were preoccupied with the spread of the True Faith, and the main theme of chivalric songs and legends was the struggle with the infidel, it is no wonder that those provinces, which the light of the Gospel had never penetrated, stirred up fears and reminded men of their unfulfilled duty. Europe, too, had her redskins, who served notice of their presence in constant armed attacks, appearing unexpectedly and just as suddenly withdrawing to their inaccessible retreats. To the neighboring Slavs, their language was incomprehensible; the level of their technical knowledge, if measured by their armaments, was inferior to that of their adversaries. Their bows, spears, and leather-covered shields had to stand up against suits of armor and the lance, but their swiftness of maneuver made up for this shortcoming. It was during this epoch that the generic name for these tribes first made its appearance: "Litwa," or Lithuanians. To what extent they could be called barbarians or savages it is hard to determine, owing to the inadequacies of written sources and the biased judgments of the Christians. They had a rather complicated religious organization supported by a hierarchy of priests. Gradually, as they extended the boundaries of their possessions, they organized themselves into a state. In the year 1226, the Polish prince of Mazovia, as a defense measure against the Lithuanian raids, called in the Teutonic Order of the Knights of the Cross and allowed them to settle in the territory later known as East Prussia. From that moment, the Lithuanians' main enemies were knights from various Western countries, who looked something like tanks and who wore over their armor white capes emblazoned with a black cross.
All that happened a long time ago, but Europe has retained the memory of her struggle with the last pagans of the Western world in her collective consciousnesstrue, the memory is hazy, but it is conspicuous enough in certain modern Catholic catechisms. For example, in Christenfibel, the work of Pieper and Raskop, two German theologians, we read: "But during this second period, new peoples entered the Church's orbit: beginning with the thirteenth century, Teutonic Knights conducted battles and skirmishes on the frontiers of the West in the name of the Church and the Empire. They subdued the Prussians, battled with the Lithuanians, penetrated to Latvia and Estonia, and pushed on as far as Peipus Lake."
How much the accident of our birthplace can separate us from the set of opinions held elsewhere may be worth noting here. Even the most primeval tragedies of a people endure because they are given permanence by proverbs, folk songs, whatever is handed down by word of mouth, and later they become the stuff of a nation's literature. The image of an exterior darkness, of peripheries, where only zealous missionaries ventured, was so firmly rooted in the minds of the two German theologians that they thought it fitting to set it forth along with the truths of the Faith. But in my childhood I was shown a completely different picture. The epic of the Christian mission was, in effect, an epic of murder, violence, and banditry, and for a long time the black cross remained the symbol of an evil worse than the plague. All my sympathies, therefore, went out to the "noble savages" who defended their freedom and knew why they defended it: because wherever the Teutonic Knights were victorious, there they bulk their castles and transformed the local population into a herd of slaves toiling for the profit of the Order.
The books that recounted the heroism of these pagans and described places with familiar-sounding names fell into the hands of my companions and myself at an age when our initial reactions were being formed and they must have left a deep psychic imprint. The consequence of such reading was surely an instinctive loathing for violence disguised as ideology and a skeptical attitude toward the apologetics of all "civilizers."
The ability of certain ethnic groups to organize themselves into states is something of an enigma. Under the sign of their black crosses, the Order subjugated Prussians and Letts, but it could not put down the Lithuanians, who were linguistically akin to these two groups. Pressured on their western flank by the Roman Christians (Poles and the Knights of the Cross), the Lithuanians sought only to uphold the status quo, while all their expansionist thrust was directed toward the East, toward the domains of those Christians who had accepted their religion from Byzantiumthe princes of Novgorod, Tver, Moscow, and Kiev. The gods worshiped under sacred oaks proved to be more powerful than the Byzantine deity, and thus arose one of Europe's strangest political organisms: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the zenith of its development, it reached as far as the environs of Moscow; on one side it touched the Baltic, on the other the Black Sea, it even made a vassal state out of Bessarabia, but the small Baltic tribe that lent its name to the Duchy did not attempt to impose its own ways on those who recognized its suzerainty. On the contrary, it practiced a deference so great that, as a consequence of marriages with Ruthenian princesses, the court of the Grand Duke oscillated between fidelity to the ancient pagan rite and acceptance of the Gospel copied down by the Kievan monks.
The greatest danger was from the Order of the Knights of the Cross; and Poland, which also felt threatened because of the increasing power of its protégés, was the only possible ally against it. The intricate strategy of Polish and Lithuanian diplomatsthe former searching for access to the East, the latter submitting to necessitybrought about the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania with the Polish Queen Hedwig (Jadwiga) and, little by little, prepared the two states for unification. Hedwig, daughter of the ruling house of Anjou, entered history as a special kind of saint: by espousing the pagan leader she sacrificed her personal happiness to the higher cause of Catholicism. What the sword of the Order could not achieve was accomplished through marriage: a mass baptism of the Lithuanians took place on the riverbanks in the year 1386 by decree of the Grand Duke. The last pagans in Europe had ceased to be a scandal for the Faithful.
For young nations, facts pertaining to such a distant era are merely dates in a textbook. In the milieu where I grew up, the "problem of the Union" was not only talked about frequently, it could even provoke passionate controversy. Supporters of the Union would point out the exceptional character of such a peaceful march of civilization and would contrast Polish methods with the brutal tactics of the Teutons. Their adversaries saw in the Union an exceptionally guileful commercial transaction because the Grand Duchy of Lithuania brought to the Commonwealth an area three times larger than the Polish kingdom. And, if we compare it to the union between England and Scotland, for Lithuanians as for Scotsmen it meant the gradual dying out of their language. Lithuanian patriots, whose animated discussions I remember, more often than not were ignorant of the language of their ancestors.
At any rate, the Commonwealth was immense, and for a long time neither the Germans nor the Muscovites could compete with it. In 1410, the united forces of Poland and Lithuania routed the Teutonic Knights during the Battle of Grunwald and Tannenberg. And later, when Ivan the Terrible ruled in the Kremlin, his army suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the king of the "Republic" (as it was called then). But in the eighteenth century the internal decay of the double state, which occupied the whole middle of Europe, opened the way for Russian encroachments and thus radically affected the balance of power in Europe.
The Commonwealth was not a national state. The projection of nationalism, which was a relatively late concept, into the past leads to such absurdities as the quarrel over whether Copernicus was a German or a Pole. The language of the enlightened was Latin, which, in written literature, began to give way to Polish at the time of the Reformation. But the Statutes of the Grand Duchy were set down in an Eastern Slavic dialect, which proves that its ethnic core had fused with the mass of peoples subordinate to it. A considerable number of city dwellers used German in everyday life, even though colonists usually underwent assimilation in the course of a couple of generations. The Jews brought with them a deformed German, and Caucasian merchants Armenian. In this melting pot, a gradual settling of elements took place: Polish became more and more synonymous with the "language of culture," that is, the language of the ruling class; Lithuanian and the dialects that later came to be classified as Ukrainian and Byelorussian passed into the category of "folk speech." The idea of nation, however, was not connected with language. Loyalties were based on regional attachments.
The Commonwealth could not claim religious homogeneity. It was cut in two by the line between Catholicism and Orthodoxynot, thanks to one of the Vatican's largest undertakings, a very neat line. The undertaking, which was only partially successful, attempted to mend the schism by a policy of mutual concessions. The Byzantine Christians were to retain the Greek ritual, and so were not obliged to introduce Latin. They were required, however, to accept the ecclesiastical hierarchy with the Pope in Rome as its head. This was the origin of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, established in the year 1596. It was to become a church of martyrs from the moment the territory where it had implanted itself was taken over by Russia. The czar saw it as a greater threat than Catholicism and suppressed it by police methods.
The Catholic half of the Commonwealth remained faithful to Rome, though not without rebellions or internal splits. For a few decades, the teachings of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin seemed to have gained the upper hand over the Papacy. The Protestant movement tended to be more radical here than elsewhere, giving rise to numerous groups of Anti-Trinitarians. In addition, the Commonwealth possessed the greatest concentration of Jews on the continent of Europe; so great, in fact, that the majority of Jews today, no matter where they may be living, can say that their fathers or grandfathers once had their home on the banks of the Vistula, the Neman, or the Dnieper.
I am trying to keep historical details to a minimum. They are necessary, however, if I am to place my native province in a wider framework. While reading Shakespeare, I have to ask myself how the ethnically Lithuanian part of the Commonwealth, which touched the Baltic, looked at the time Queen Elizabeth was ruling England.
I can presume that the masts of the nimble ships chasing after Spanish galleons around Jamaica and Barbados were mostly from my country. Records kept by shipping firms in the port of Danzig show that England was well supplied with a certain commodity that also came from the region where I was born; namely, live bears. Today this sounds like strange cargo. The fate of these cousins of mine, forced into the role of gladiators at "bear gardens" or torturers for mangling criminals, appears to have been no more enviable than that of the bulls in the corridas. If overseas trade consisted of natural products of this kind, the Lithuanian forests must have been scarcely touched by the axe, and the changeover from a system of simple farming to an export economy must have only just begun. As for the local population, testimonies left by contemporaries reveal that a sincere Christianity did not deter the Lithuanians from offering sacrifices to numerous gods and goddesses (just in case).
To be truthful, I must admit that my region did not produce a single figure who swayed the world's destiny or won recognition for an important discovery. Only historians of the Reformation know the name of the capital of that province, Kiejdany, where many Protestant books were printed and where the Princes Radziwitt, powerful protectors of heresy; resided. If my country ever received the notice of educated men from various countries, it was only after German scholars discovered that its peasants speak the oldest Indo-European language, which is in many respects akin to Sanskrit. In the nineteenth century, several German universities introduced courses in Lithuanian as an auxiliary discipline for the study of Sanskrit.
My province shared the fate of not only the Commonwealth but the whole of that part of Europe. The rhythm of development, at first similar to Western Europe's, showed ever-widening disparities. While the countries that bordered the Atlantic were acquiring colonies across the seas and setting up manufactures, no such foolhardy ventures interested the Eastern Europeans, who were engaged exclusively in agriculture; and their consciences today are not burdened with the sufferings of black slaves or the first proletarians.
As if to counterbalance this inequality, a phenomenon came into being that is sometimes defined as "recurrent feudalism"; in reality it was only a form of internal colonization. Bigger opportunities for exporting grain prompted landowners to adopt the system of intensive farming and do away with the practice of accepting tribute from their peasants either in coin or in kind. While the tribute was not very burdensome for the peasants, it was not profitable enough for the masters. Only plantations, which were a kind of agricultural factory, could respond to the new demand and assure the supply of money that enabled wines, fabrics, spices, and luxury articles to be imported from abroad. A working force was available on the spot; one had only to constrain it; that is, undo laws made sacred by custom, a proceeding carried on not without struggle and resistance. The process was gradual; it began with the requirement that a peasant work for one day, later for two days, and so on, in his master's fields. The end result was the virtual disappearance of the "free" peasant, and if his fate was a little less bitter than that of the black slave on American plantations, it was because the organic ties of the village remained intact, together with a kind of semiprivate property. The peasant's real refuge was in certain local patriarchal traditions rather than in any law. Except on estates that belonged directly to the monarch, his misery was proportional to the splendor with which his exploiters, cut off from their human chattels by a whole hierarchy of stewards and servants, surrounded themselves. The outcome of these economic developments was a much more firmly entrenched caste system than in the West. Actually, only two castes existed: peasants and masters, the latter containing many gradations, from wealthy magnates to their numerous, often very poor "clients." The crippling of urban growth, and consequently of the rise of the "third estate" which follows from it, was both cause and effect of this whole process.
Excerpted from NATIVE REALM by Czeslaw Milosz. Copyright © 1968 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.