Stating claims

7 August 2011

I’ve just been on holiday to the Baltic states, and when I left Vilnius at the end of July there were posters of the poet Czeslaw Miłosz everywhere. (And I mean everywhere; it was if someone had bought up the city’s outdoor advertising inventory for a product launch). Miłosz won the Nobel Prize for Literarature in 1980, and this year marks the centenary of his birth. There is also a newly unveiled plaque to Miłosz in the University in Vilnius, also to mark his centenary.

Now, normally, I’d have written ‘Polish’ in front of the word ‘poet’ in the first sentence of this post, but in the complex 20th century history of central Europe, with its shifting borders, it seems that things are not exactly as they appear.

Miłosz wrote in Polish, and lived and worked in what is now Poland for nearly twenty years, but he was raised in what is now Lithuania – but was at the time of his birth still part of Tsarist Russia. He also attended university in Vilnius. Researching this post, I discovered that he identified himself as both Polish and Lithuanian. A couple of quotes in his entry in Wikipedia capture this ambiguity:

“I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian.”.

“My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me”.

These multiple identities, of course, are common across many parts of the world, especially those marked by wars and migration. In the second half of his life, Miłosz lived in France and then the United States. And if you’re one of Europe’s newest states, it is important to make these claims: Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, first became independent in 1918, only to be invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, regaining its independence only in 1990. The advertising is working; for I’d have known none of this had the city not been decked in posters advertising the country’s most famous poet.

The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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One Response to “Stating claims”

  1. Stefan Says:

    Such complex identities are, as you say, not uncommon. The greatest epic poem by the man widely seen as Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, begins, ‘O Lithuania, my motherland’.

    But the complexities are many-layered. As you say, Milosz was born in tsarist Russia. He could not have been born in Poland, because there was then no Poland to be born in (nor an independent Lithuania, for that matter). At the time he studied there, Wilno (as they knew it) was a predominantly Polish speaking city in Poland. The university at which the plaque was unveiled is not, intellectually, a continuation of the one at which Milosz studied: that was forcibly closed in 1939 precisely because it was a Polish institution, to be replaced by entirely new faculty and students in 1940. To the extent that the pre-war university has any continuity at all, it is with the university of Torun, where surviving academics reassembled after the war.

    Unavoidably at that time, language was a stronger marker for national identity than geography – and Milosz always wrote in Polish rather than Lithuanian. When he had the freedom to do so after the fall of communism, it was to Krakow that he returned, not Vilnius. But stronger marker is not the same as absolute determinant, and Milosz’s self-identification as Lithuanian cannot be ignored, though some have argued that his avowal of Lithuanian identity had as much to do with his dislike (for very different reasons) of both pre- and post-war Polish governments as any intrinsic sense of being Lithuanian (as opposed to being from Lithuania).

    So I am not sure one can say, as in the last line of your post, that he is the country’s most famous poet (even leaving aside Mickiewicz’s arguably stronger claim): he is not the most famous poet of Lithuania, even if he is considered the most famous Lithuanian poet.

    All of which makes your post more rather than less interesting: the layers of reasons behind the decision to make so much of the centenary are fascinating to reflect on.


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