I wanted to read this biography because I had just finished Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953), and I wanted to know how the book was received by the people who are described in it.
You’ll need a little background. Miłosz’s poetry was more or less unknown in the US until the 1970s. The book that was known was The Captive Mind—Miłosz’s analysis of the way Polish intellectuals dealt with life under the thumb, boot, and buttocks of the Soviet regime. The most famous part of the book is a set of four chapters wherein Miłosz dissects four types of artist-intellectual who sold-out to the Soviets. He calls them “Alpha” “Beta” “Gamma” and “Delta,” but apparently that was mere fig-leafage; everybody in Poland knew whom Miłosz meant. Two of ’em are well-enough-known outside of Poland: Jerzy Andrzejewski (“Alpha”) (author of Ashes and Diamonds), and Tadeusz Borowski (“Beta”) (author of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen).
Anyhow, Miłosz had known all these people personally, went to school with ’em, was friends with them, whatever, and indeed went right on exchanging letters with “Alpha” for years after Captive Mind came out. My question was: How did Alpha feel about being presented in such a negative light? Did lots of Poles apply the construction “betrayal of friendship” to the book? Or what.
The biography doesn’t tell you. There’s no “reaction shot.” And, in general, this is one of those biographies that reserve 97% of their imaginative sympathies for their subjects. Everyone else—wives, kids, friends, enemies—they’re all shadows.
One thing particularly annoying to me: the way Miłosz’s many extramarital affairs are handled. My sense was that the biographer shares Miłosz’s old-school sense of eros. When love interests are introduced, their qualifications in terms of beauty are neatly and efficiently evaluated. Also, the biographer takes quite seriously the idea that the thirty-five-year-old woman with whom Miłosz had a three-year affair when he was in his late 60s was his “muse.” Let me clarify: his “muse.” I remember at one point Miłosz’s testosterone count being cited.
The reader of these present notes should not, however, simply conclude “Well, so much for that book.” One learns a great deal from its 500 pages; reading them was hardly a waste of my time. But neither was the book satisfactory. Not for my purposes. I wanted to know a lot more about his effect on others. I already had enough about his existential heroism from his own poems.
Interesting case. There’s got to be quite a few people whose deal is just like mine: “I don’t remember if I’ve ever read Kathy Acker. If I did, it made no impression. On the other hand, I remember I Love Dick very well. And what I’m dying to know is: How will the groveling, narcissistic author of that boundaryless trainwreck deal with an actual sociopath like Acker—?”
ANSWER: With excellent poise and intelligence!
This is a good biography. It has just what you want: a tour guide who has been around the block a bunch of times, is not shocked by anything, but has a decent appreciation for what’s certain to shock you. Also, she is powerfully ambivalent.
Kraus’s Acker is smart, stupid, magnetic, repulsive, coldly shrewd and sickeningly naïve. Everything, in a word, that I would have said Kraus herself is (or was at the time she wrote I Love Dick). But Kathy Acker could never in a billion years have written a book like this. So Kraus simply cannot be what I thought she was. (Indeed, if you need me, I’ll be back at the drawing board . . . )
One other little thing. On page 78, we learn something surprising. Did you know Fanny Howe started her writing career producing soft-porn romance crap for Avon Books—? Out there in the world somewhere is a paperback from 1964 called West Coast Nurse. It was, I learned, part of a popular “nurse” series. There’s a copy online for $40 (original price: 32¢). Somebody needs to buy that and review it for the Agni blog. Also I bet you didn’t know that Kathy Acker fucked Ron Silliman.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book, just out from Canarium (February 2017), is called TRY NEVER.