When a writer-in-exile gets the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award inevitably draws attention not only to him but to what he is exiled from. This year's honor to Czeslaw Milosz resonates with the courage of the Polish workers who are now seeking change in the Soviet- dominated communist system that he found he could no longer serve three decades ago.
It was just after the East German workers revolted in another part of Moscow's empire that Western critics were impressed by a book with "the bite of Milosz's teeth in every word," as Britain's Stephen Spender put it. It was "The Captive Mind," describing the dilemma of Eastern European intellectuals torn between love of country, revulsion at Stalinist pressures, and doubts about Western alternatives. For Milosz the impossibility of staying in Poland became clear: "Knowing there is crime in man, I could never have pointed it out," and "knowing there is a light in man, I could never have dared seek it."
So the poet-critic-novelist, born in Lithuania, left the Poland whose language had become his own, where he had fought in the underground against the Nazis, and whose postwar regime he had represented as a diplomat. Now Milosz hears of the Nobel prize in California, where he has long been a professor, and describes himself as a private, non- political person. He agrees that his poetry "reflects many of the horrors of the 20th century." Yet his works are known, too, for a durable thread of humor.
It would be welcome if, as some speculate, the world honor of the prize were to nudge the new movement against censorship in Poland. But in a broader sense it calls for the release of minds that are captive for any reason wherever they may be. The poet "has learned that the human heart/ Holds more than speech does." The exile has learned that "here and everywhere/ is my homeland, wherever I turn/ and in whatever language I would hear/ the song of a child. . . ."