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Miłosz, Czesław
(1911–2004)
1980

Biography

Czesław Miłosz (June 30, 1911 – August 14, 2004), was a Polish poet, writer, academic, and translator. In 1961 he became a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1980 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.Czesław Miłosz was born at Šeteniai (Polish: Szetejnie), Lithuania, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, into a Polonized Lithuanian family of the Lubicz coat-of-arms. He emphasized — as had Adam Mickiewicz and Józef Piłsudski — his family connections with the ancient Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He spent some of his childhood in Russia around the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He later studied law at Vilnius University, which was then part of Poland.

He spent World War II in Warsaw, Poland, where, among other things, he attended underground lectures by philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz.
After World War II he served as cultural attaché of the communist People's Republic of Poland in Paris. In 1951 Miłosz broke with his government and obtained political asylum in France. In 1953 he received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize).
In 1960 Miłosz moved to the United States and took U.S. citizenship in 1970. In 1961 he began a professorship in Polish literature in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978 Miłosz received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He retired that same year, but continued teaching at Berkeley. In 1980 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since his works had been officially prohibited in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that most Poles became aware of him and his writings.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Miłosz was able to return to Poland, at first to visit and later to live there part-time.
In 1989 Miłosz received the National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
His book The Captive Mind (1953) is considered one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. He observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily the ones with the strongest minds but rather those with the weakest stomachs. The mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much. He also claimed that, as a poet, he avoided touching his nation's wounds for fear of making them holy.
Czesław Miłosz is honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust, as one of the "Righteous among the Nations." Some of his poems were placed on a monument to fallen shipyard workers in Gdańsk.
His books and poems have been translated into English by many hands, including Jane Zielonko (The Captive Mind), Miłosz himself, his Berkeley students, and his friends and Berkeley colleagues, Peter Dale Scott, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass.
Miłosz spoke English with a Polish accent. Once, during a 1966 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley he startled students with a reference to "the Juice in Poland" (he had meant "the Jews in Poland").
Miłosz took pleasure in occasionally deflating academic pomposity, as when he recounted the stir he had caused at a literary conference by referring to "turpism" (same root as the English "turpitude"), which some at the conference had taken to be a new literary movement.
Though somewhat reserved in manner, in the 1960s he would playfully greet a Polish-Argentinian-American coed with "How's your sex life?"
Miłosz died in 2004, at his home in Kraków, aged 93. His first wife, Janina, had died in 1986; and his second wife, Carol, a U.S.-born historian, in 2002. Miłosz was buried at Kraków's Skałka Church.

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