Polish Books II: The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz

A few notes about another Polish book I read recently. The book was rather good, so the post is rather long.

Miłosz, a Polish poet and 1980 Nobel laureate in literature, was born in Lithuania, in 1911 (Lithuania was then a part of Russia, after 1918 a part of Poland). By the time the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Miłosz was a promising avant-garde poet. He stayed in Poland during the war, working in the “cultural wing” of the underground. Poles have a long history of preserving local culture as a means of resisting an equally long history of foreign domination. Spiritual resistance to Nazi rule was just as important as the practical sort – poets risked their lives to publish in underground newspapers, theatres staged secret plays, there was even an underground university.

Miłosz watched as the 1944 Warsaw Uprising was crushed after a few weeks and the Nazis razed Warsaw in retribution. Only after the destruction of Warsaw did the Red Army, which was encamped nearby, "liberate" the smoldering ruin. This culpable delay, which Poles attribute to Stalin’s calculation, was only the most recent reason for Poles to view the advancing Russians with apprehension. At war’s end, some Poles hoped that the West might be able to cajole Poland from of Moscow’s orbit, but these hopes were gradually dashed; by the early 1950s, it was clear Poland would become a Soviet satellite.

In the uncertain post-war years, Miłosz cooperated with the new Polish government. When he began writing The Captive Mind in 1951, Miłosz was cultural attaché to the Polish Embassy in Paris. Poland’s new commissars had hoped to burnish the new government’s image by detailing a worldly young poet to captivate Paris’ intellectual circles, but things didn’t go according to plan. As Moscow’s interference became clearer, Miłosz rebelled. As he writes, his rejection of Stalinism proceeded "not from the functioning of the reasoning mind" – which reminded him of the ease and fame awaiting politically-reliable artists – but from the "revolt of the stomach," the feeling that he would soon no longer be able to carry out "the writer’s essential task – to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole." Miłosz applied for political asylum in Paris in 1951 and lived there until 1960, when he took up a professorship in Slavic Languages at Berkeley.

The Captive Mind is part Miłosz’ justification of these decisions and part intellectual biography; but primarily it is an account of the ideological temptation of Communism. He describes the book as a "battlefield[] in which I have given shape to my combats with the doctrine I have rejected." The book may be a battlefield, but it is no demonizing polemic; Miłosz had met too many brilliant, idealistic Communists to permit that. Out of respect for them, Miłosz promises, when discussing Marxism, to "give the enemy his arms" and even to "copy the way of reasoning" when necessary, before attacking it.

Anti-Communists hailed the book as a lucid attack of enforced ideological conformity, but Miłosz kept his distance from all political camps, wary of being instrumentalized. Years later, he wrote that his failure to unreservedly join the anti-Communist cause led "[t]hose few people who were against current political fashions and saw me as a valuable ally [to make] dour faces, because the world is divided into two blocs, and if you are in one you must beat the hell out of the other." Instead, after writing The Captive Mind, Miłosz withdrew from direct political disputation.

Miłosz is a poet, not a lawyer. Rather than stitching together a precise, linear argument, the book strolls leisurely here and there in Miłosz fashion, favoring the reader with asides on the countryside around Vilnius, 19th-century French colonial officials, and the appeal (for one growing used to the gray uniformity of Socialist-bloc architecture) of Western cities, in which the "exciting and invigorating power of … participation in mass life springs from the feeling of potentiality, of constant unexpectedness, of a mystery one ever pursues."

However, Miłosz never wanders far form his theme: how Moscow (which Miłosz calls the “Center”) brought writers in the newly-annexed Eastern European nations into line. Brute force or open threats were rarely necessary. For Miłosz, this acquiescence is the interesting psychological question: why did intellectuals who bravely defied one dictatorial regime collude with another one, especially one originating in Russia – a former imperial master and, for centuries, an object of Polish scorn and distrust?

Never one to pass up an opportunity showcase Polish literary talent, Miłosz constructs an analogy to a 1931 futurist fantasy written by the anarchically inventive poet, novelist, painter and playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz. In Insatiability, Witkiewicz writes of an Eastern invader who conquers a dissolute, exhausted Polish nation and offer his new subjects the greatest gift to mankind ever devised: happiness in pill-form, concocted by the great Mongolian philosopher Murti-Bing. Whoever took the Murti-Bing pill "became serene and happy"; the problems against which he had struggled to that time "appeared to be superficial and unimportant," and he was no longer plagued by metaphysical concerns.

Everyone takes the pill. Not because they are forced to, but, to quote Miłosz, because "[t]here is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire the escape misery or physical destruction." The "New Faith," as Miłosz calls Communism, attracts intellectuals for several reasons.

First, by taking the pill like everyone else (including those who had no choice), the intellectual undoes his typical alienation. He now shares a language, a thought-world, and a set of daily concerns with people whom he once thought impossibly remote from him: "The truck driver and elevator operator employed by a publishing firm now read the same Marxist classics as its director or staff writers."

Second, the intellectual joins the socialist community in a noble cause – the redemption of humanity from the real evils of nationalist excess, economic exploitation, and ruthless class privilege. He may even be offered the chance to "throw himself into the flame for the glory of mankind”; Miłosz cautions the reader not to underestimate the appeal of martyrdom to intellectuals.

Third, the pedigree. Communism was founded by intellectuals, who built its doctrine not on cloudy metaphysical appeals but on the coolly rational ‘dialectical’ method. Even moderately clever functionaries can bewilder reactionary opponents with dialectical reasoning, and in the hands of a genuine thinker, it’s almost unstoppable. The dialectic destroys liberal-bourgeois prejudices not directly, by confronting them, but indirectly – by enfolding them like a canny spider and sucking the life out of them.

Finally, even if the intellectual and ethical appeal of the New Faith weren’t enough, the practical appeal could hardly be ignored, especially for those with long-suffering wives and children in tow: a writer, composer, or painter who proved himself politically reliable got a privileged social position, a secure income, time to think, paint or compose, and license to publish and lecture.

Cultural commissars enticed the convert with reassurances that the Party tolerates independent views, but he soon realizes this is a lie; the New Faith’s "only friend will be the man who accepts the doctrine 100 per cent. If he accepts only 99 per cent, he will necessarily have to be considered a foe, for from that remaining 1 per cent a new church can arise." He soon spots flaws and gaps in Communist doctrine, wonders at the miles of empty store shelves, and flinches at the lifeless stupidity of Party art and propaganda.

The intellectual must master a form of Ketman: techniques of subtle dissimulation cultivated by Islamic free-thinkers under the rule of absolute monarchs and mullahs. First described in the West by the French diplomat Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Ketman is necessary because silent complicity is not enough — the intellectual is always suspect, and must openly profess absolute loyalty in an atmosphere in which “[e]ven one’s gestures, tone of voice, or preference for certain kinds of neckties are interpreted as signs of one’s political tendencies.” A well-timed denunciation here and there is key, since "those who are most helpful in detecting deviations are those who themselves practice a similar form of Ketman…. Thus they protect themselves; and the measure of dexterity is to anticipate by at least one day the similar accusation which could be leveled against them by the man they denounce."

Ketman eats at the soul and conscience. The heart of the book is Miłosz’ portrait of four writers – called Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta — and what the New Faith did to them. “Alpha the Moralist,” is a Catholic fascinated by "tragic moral conflicts" and "tormented by the enigma of purity." He made his reputation, before the war, by exploring these conflicts in Graham-Greene-like novels. Alpha accepts the New Faith after a long inner struggle. At first, his new role delights him; he is sent through the country to lecture to attentive and worshipful audiences of simple workers. However, his former religious faith is a mark of Cain. To expunge it, he realizes he will have to publish a thorough, humiliating self-criticism. To twist the knife further, the Party assigns him to represent its generally hostile line towards the Catholic Church. His writing, formerly alive with anguish and nobility, becomes contrived: "One compromise leads to a second and third until at last, though everything one says may be perfectly logical, it no longer has anything in common with the flesh and blood of living people."

Although the essay on Alpha is most often anthologized, the one on Beta is even more revealing. Beta was only twenty in 1942, but already had the "exaggerated shyness” that “usually bespeaks immense ambition." Beta published his poems in the underground press, but, as a nihilist, scoffed at the more pious and nationalistic wings of the resistance. He was arrested one day and ended up in Auschwitz, where he survived for two years by sheer wit. On his return, he wrote a book about his experiences which Miłosz called “terrifying,” terrifying because the author "never moralizes, he relates."

Cooly and precisely, Beta describes scenes from the platform where transports arrived at Auschwitz: a Jewish mother pushes away her own child in an attempt to be classified as single and "work-capable," instead of being immediately gassed with the rest of the mothers; two deportees copulate in front of a gawking crowd during the last moments of their lives; a girl with an amputated leg, still alive and with "tears streaking down her face," is tossed onto a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium. Although other witnesses recounted Beta’s acts of charity, he never mentions them himself. Instead, he emphasizes how proud he was to have "succeed[ed], when others, less clever, perish[ed]."

Beta found much to admire in the New Faith: "He absorbed dialectical materialism as a sponge soaks up water. Its materialistic side appeased his hunger for brutal truth, its dialectical side permitted a sudden leap above the human species, to a vision of humanity as the material of history." His book about Auschwitz, however, was no longer politically correct; books about concentration camps had to separate the actors by political persuasion and portray the "moral strength and heroic behavior" of Soviet prisoners. In any case, Beta quickly understood that literary books of any sort were of no use to the movement, it needed propaganda pure and simple: "Loud, violent, clear, biased." He joined the party, and set to work on a series of "poisonous articles about America."

Miłosz’s psychological insight comes into sharpest focus in these biographical essays. Here, to illustrate the conversion of gifted writers into rigid fanatics, he imagines how Beta steeled himself to excrete one of his "poisonous articles":

"[T]o present the event honestly, he would have to penetrate the motives of the opposing forces and the necessities which govern them – in short, to analyze it from every side. Then anger comes to his rescue, introducing order into the tangle of interdependencies and releasing him from the obligation to analyze. This anger against the self-deception that anything at all depends on man’s will is, simultaneously, a fear of falling prey to one’s own naïveness. Since the world is brutal, one must reduce everything to the simplest and most brutal factors. The author understands that what he is doing is far from accurate; people’s stupidity or people’s good intentions influence events no less than do the necessities of the economic struggle. But he takes his vengeance upon mankind (upon others and upon himself) by demonstrating that man is dominated by a few elementary laws; at the same time, he feeds his own sense of superiority and proves himself acute and strong enough to dispense with ‘prejudices.’"

A few months after Miłosz wrote the portrait, Beta committed suicide in his Warsaw apartment. Those who observed him in his last months, Miłosz reports, attributed his suicide to the fact that "the discrepancy between what he said in his public statements and what his quick mind could perceive was increasing daily."

Next comes Gamma, the “Slave of History,” who turns into an obedient Communist cultural functionary, and is rewarded with postings in foreign lands, where he was expected to make new converts: “He knew too much to retain any illusions and despised those naïve enough to nourish them. To bring new damned into the fold was his one means of reducing the number of internally free people, who, by the mere fact of their existence, judged him.” Before the war, Delta, a childlike, always-drunk “troubadour,” delighted Poles with his poetry, a “kaleidoscope of chubby baroque angels, magicians carried off through the window by some unknown power (they are retained, at the last moment by a wifely bite on the ear), falconry, [and] astrologists prophesying the end of the world.” In exile in Brussels, he mourns the loss of his audience, and decides to return to Poland – to general acclaim and a warm welcome from the cultural bureaucracy. A mind this wayward needed to be kept on a short leash. Thus, Delta began cycling in and out of favor with the authorities, a terrifying process his lyrical mind could not begin to fathom.

After the portraits of individual writers, Miłosz concludes the book with an appeal for moral clarity; or at what passes for an appeal in a man of Miłosz’ circumspection. Communism is a “stupefying and loathsome phenomenon” which must be condemned and opposed, without regard to the less menacing weaknesses of Western capitalist democracies: “Fear is well known as a cement of societies. In a liberal-capitalist economy fear of lack of money, fear of losing one’s job, fear of slipping down one rung on the social ladder all spurred the individual to greater effort. But what exists in the Imperium is naked fear," fear of being deported to a place "where polar bears thrive but people do not." Western Communists and fellow-travelers, who blur this distinction with cheap distractions and spurious moral equivalencies, incite Miłosz to the only expression of rage in the book: “Nothing can compare to the contempt he [a "writer from the East," clearly Miłosz] feels for these sentimental fools."

Although the specific battle which occasioned The Captive Mind belongs to the past, the book does not. Miłosz cared little about the intricacies of contemporary ideological fights, so the book spares us details about long-forgotten factional strife. His exploration of the psychological mechanism of collaboration is timeless and profound. But even if the subject doesn’t interest you, Miłosz’s writing should – his serene, melancholy, appealingly idiosyncratic prose survives Jane Zielonko’s stylish translation trailing clouds of glory.

2 thoughts on “Polish Books II: The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz

  1. On a historical note, in 1911, Lithuania was not part of Poland. They were both parts of Imperial Russia. In 1918, after World War I, an independant Poland was created from pieces of Germany (West Prussia), Austria-Hungary (Galicia), and Russia. Also in 1918, Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, were granted independance from Russia (i.e. the USSR) until they were all re-annexed by Stalin in 1940.


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