It would be difficult to find two less kindred twentieth-century cultural figures than Roland Barthes and Czesław Milosz. The first, a cigar-clutching Frenchmen for whom his own country’s literature was the center of the intellectual universe, shared the better part of a lifetime with the Polish-speaking Lithuanian for whom nearly all of experience was an act of translation. Barthes was killed by a laundry truck on the streets of his beloved Paris, neither physically nor theoretically far from where he began his popular career as a critic. Milosz did not die in his bed in Krakow until he had completed a tour of the globe that included stops at the epicenters of nearly every western Western cultural crisis in the 1900s, from the German invasion of Poland to the free love movement in Berkley, California in the ’60s. Yet though the two were divided by their heritage, experience, and attitudes, they shared a compulsion to identify the role of the author in a century whose violent conflicts had spilled confusion and fragmentation into its literature. While Milosz restlessly engaged these issues from the inside, writing poetry and teaching Slavic Literature in California, Barthes solidified his early career as a literary critic with the compact treatise Writing Degree Zero, which ambitiously attempted to map the writer’s relationship to history in two hundred words or less.
Writing Degree Zero defines the author’s identity using three sweeping categories. The first two, language and style, were by no means revolutionary. The last term, écriture, is difficult to translate properly into English, but in it lies the meat of his critique. The question Barthes sought to answer in his book is demoralizingly simple: Can an author exercise any meaningful influence on history? Cautiously, the essay hopes to venture a yes, but not before Barthes thoroughly defines his terms. Yet at precisely the moment when those terms seem to usefully describe an author’s role, they devalue something that, for Milosz, is close to the soul of the author’s role: choice of language.
“A language and a style are objects;” Barthes writes, “[while] a mode of writing [écriture] is a function…[it is] form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crisis of History.” Barthes posits that an author does not start to exercise historical influence until she, taking language and style for granted as her playing field and physique, develops a strategy with which to play the game. This strategy is her écriture, or “mode of writing,” the outworking of her intentions in literature. A particular language and style have come to the writer by nature. It is how she chooses to wield them in her own historical situation that determines her historical efficacy. Écriture, then, is Barthes’s name for the influence, no matter how frail or robust, a writer can exercise with her art on the lived-in world.
Barthes’s terminology is theoretical in the extreme, but it provided contemporary writers with a way of describing their relationship to the historical situation they inhabited. Recalling the bombed-out streets of Warsaw and the sound of the blitz over central Europe, Milosz would probably shrug his shoulders at the chilly aestheticism that Barthes’s level of abstraction implies. Fully capable of splicing literary theories with the best minds in Europe, Milosz would be dumbfounded with Barthes for expending so much ink and air to articulate a historical theory of literature which evidenced such a dim concept of what history feels like when you’re living through it. Barthes is trying to describe what great writers do. Milosz would say that such a description is impossible if we assume that language is nothing but a playing field. For Milosz, it is the battleground, still littered with casualties.
To Milosz’s eyes, the choice of what language to write in is a choice between histories with a lowercase h. History is never actually experienced as a monolithic Hegelian force, but rather as an intimate atmosphere. While Barthes assumes that language “functions negatively,” that it does nothing but set the limits of what a writer might possibly say, Milosz knows that a history can be lost, if the people who remember it are scattered or their language silenced. Each country has its own linguistic “texture;” every subculture, niche, and village conducts each linguistic exchange in a unique historical context, and those contexts can be murdered. This is exactly the crisis which Milosz feels he has survived in Poland. The circle of poets and writers he frequented as a teenager in Wilno was reduced by the Nazi occupation and the Warsaw uprising to a handful of refugees, who began to see their literary role less in terms of interpretation or beautification than of testimony. Many of these poets, even after their readership became predominantly English-speaking, continued to write in Polish, enduring the isolation of the linguistic refugee in the name loyalty. To the uninformed, this decision might seem hubristic, but for Milosz and his peers, the stakes could not have been higher: if Barthes’s theories were to be accepted, then in historical terms the almost total loss of Polish-speaking writers in the middle of the twentieth century didn’t matter much. Language being neutral, we have lost only those writers’ écritures. But to the few Polish poets who survived the near-eradication of their entire literary context, language itself is the last and best witness to a lost world.
In his late career essay “Who Was I?” Milosz reflected on this ethical quality of language choice while pondering the writer he once was:
As a young man I was struck by the magnitude of what was occurring in my century, a magnitude equaling, perhaps even surpassing the decline and fall of antiquity…How, then, at a later date, as a witness to what was underway, could I seriously pursue a literary career…as if nothing had happened? To whom, about what, was I to speak?
The “about what?” was to become increasingly clear to Milosz as his own, remarkably optimistic, poetic form was refined: His poetry would take its own isolation, as well as the transient nature of all human culture, as its subject. It is full of the haunting observations of a literary refugee, as in “On Pilgrimage,” one of the many highly reflective poems from his years as a professor of Slavic Literatures at UC Berkeley:
May the gentle mountains and the bells of the flocks
Remind us of everything we have lost,
For we have seen on our way and fallen in love
With the world that will pass in a twinkling.
Such poems grew gradually into an answer for the young Milosz’s “about what?” but the “to whom?” elicited a far readier response. “I belong,” he wrote only a few lines later in his essay, “to the estate of Polish literature and no other,” and to belong to the estate of Polish literature meant loyalty to the Polish language. To guarantee his poetry’s historical witness, Milosz sentenced his work to a lifetime of translation. Only a strict ethic could move a writer to such a troublesome aesthetic decision, but this was the ground on which Milosz built his oeuvre; a territory where the heady, self-congratulating concept of the écriture was swapped for the patient isolation of the archeologist, digging up the ruins of dead cities, and demanding that we value what was lost, and what remains.