A few days ago I received a request to review an advance copy of An Invisible Rope: A Portrait of Czeslaw Milosz, edited by my friend and Stanford colleague Cynthia L. Haven (Ohio University Press, to be released shortly). Among other recollections of Milosz (he left an indelible mark in those hwo knew him), there was “Spring in Berkeley,” by Tomas Venclova. It contains Venclova's account of the same evening that he and I spent with Bella Akhmadulina and her husband, as it turns out, at Cheshire Cat, a Berkeley pub that is no longer in existence. Having read Tomas' recollections, I now realize that I must have left the party shortly after Milosz joined it and, fool that I am, missed the rest of the conversation that, unbeknownst to me, continued well into the small hours of the morning.
I shall not attempt to retell Venclova's story here and preempt the publications (it is a great piece about Milosz and a fine snapshot of Berkeley, as seen by one who has just landed ffrom Mars!), except to note that among the subjects discussed by these three poets was one dear to Milosz’s heart and at the core of his The Captive Mind: the compromising position of intellectuals who publicly cooperate with a communist regime while limiting their criticism to private consumption (what Milosz referred to as ketman). Tomas, who had freed himself from any ambiguity vis-à-vis the Soviet regime by joining the Helsinki Group, which led to his de facto expulsion, was the one to raise the subject. Akhmadulina, still on the leash, took the subject personally, assuming that ketman had something to do with the ambiguity of her position in the Soviet Union. Milosz, it seems, did too. Akhmadulina was about to go to pieces and would have there and then had Milosz not intervened and absolved her of any such sins after she declared her admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
Those were the days! Or as Osip Mandelstam put it in his 1916 poem about a Petrograd performance of Racine's Phaedre, "if only the Greeks could see our games!" Когда бы грек увидел наши игры!