Iceland is a Prosperous American Suburb

If there is one thing the world has enough of, it's "why can't we all be like Iceland?" articles. Here's the latest:

I wanted to know about the kind of society Iceland had cultivated and- what its outlooks were. How did women and men see each other and themselves? What was their character like compared to other countries I had lived in? Were women more confident, men more open-minded, children better cared for? Was life there, in any way, more balanced?

I suspected I would find enlightened ideas that benefit society, not just business, although I found that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I spoke to innovators across genders in education, health, industry, science and the arts whose ideas exceeded my imagination.

And guess what? The author's gee-whiz tour of Iceland finds all sorts of wonderfully progressive policies. Paid family leave for daddies! Mandatory quotas for women! The world's first openly gay female head of state! Great schools filled with sensitive, caring social-pedagogues! And so on, and so on.

Many will remember probably the most stomach-turning piece of virtue-signaling the world has ever seen — the Facebook campaign in which 11,000 Icelanders volunteered their homes to Syrian refugees, under the founder's motto: "They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children's band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman, a television host. People of whom we'll never be able to say in the future: 'Your life is worth less than my life.'"

Are you dabbing the second tear of kitsch from your eyes yet?

But guess what? None of those 11,000 virtue-signalers ever had to make good on their promise, and of course they knew that full well, since the government has a cap of a whopping 500 refugees a year.

Whoops! Did I just write 500? Sorry, the actual number is 50. Fifty. Per year.

But the empty promises of all those smug Icelanders earned Iceland yet another round of fawning publicity. The article continues the typical litany of the nauseatingly goody-two-shoes oh-so-gentle progressive paradise:

Icelandic society is proactively striving for gender equality, which sits at the centre of progress, and there are policies in place to promote gender equality in all spheres of society. Many stepping stones have led to the current gender equality legislation, including the use of gender quotas. As proven by the need for affirmative action policies in the USA, we are not yet evolved enough to choose fairly of our own volition.

After this rather sinister aside, the author does point to some of the more gloomy facts about Iceland, including this: "Iceland recently outranked the US in adult obesity (67.1 percent of Icelandic adults are overweight or obese compared to 66.3 percent of US adults)." Ha! Take that, Icelandic self-image!

You know what Iceland is? Iceland is a rich American suburb. (Or a German suburb, for that matter.) The population of Iceland is a laughably miniscule 330,000 people. And Iceland is 93% Icelandic, and 98% Northern European. Further, Iceland's median national IQ is 101, placing it 6th in the world. If you go to any large well-off suburb of the United States, you will see Icelandic living conditions: orderly homes, quiet evenings, honest officials, clean schools, smart students, modern gender roles, almost no violence, nice people, organic food, wooden toys, recycling, wine importers, futuristic espresso machines, tasteful earth-toned natural-fiber clothing, clean-lined architecture, yoga studios, women earning more than men, soccer, the whole nine yards. The one difference will be that the American suburb, although majority white, will still be more ethnically diverse than the Nordic purist's fantasy of Iceland.

Iceland is a fine place. I plan to visit one day, and I'm sure I'll be as enchanted as everyone else seems to be. But the world should stop looking at Iceland for lessons, because Iceland is a suburb, not a model society than can be replicated at will anywhere else.

More Peppy/Doom-Drenched Japanese Signage

First of all, a huge thank-you to all the people who responded to the last post. Whenever I think 'blogging is so 2007, why bother anymore?', something like that last comment thread happens. Although I have to say, I do a lot more on Facebook than I do here. You can always sign up with a fake name and follow me without becoming my 'friend'.

In any case, like most travelers to Japan, I found the omnipresent signs more than amusing. Of course, Germany is also full of signs telling you what to do and not do, but they're always generic and uniform. Japan boasts an artisanal underground of graphic designers hired to make instruction of the populace as amusing as possible, generally by creating yet another animated mascot (yuru-chara). They often come with poetic English translations: 'An Important Thing is Protected.' 'No! Drug!' 'Water Can Not Drink'.

So here's a whole contingent of other signs, slogans and mascots from Japan. My attempts at an explanation are in the hover text, but feel free to correct me. The first is actually a poem, posted at Saisho-in temple. Anyone know who wrote and/or translated it?

Saisho in summer poem Woman on tracks signGinza Woman Holding Christian Repent PlacardHardened Japanese CriminalsKyoto main station sign with terrified salarymanMr Funtime and Mr BadassNanzen ji warning sign someone stole my fucking bikeNanzenji fire control yuru-chara (animal mascots)
Nara sign with deer and disabled childrenNo Depositing Carefully Wrapped Packages on StreetShelter for People Who Cannot Go Back HomeShibuya an important thing is protectedShibuya drunken salarymen about to dieShibuya italian slow food lifeShibuya whale meat restaurantTokyo rainbow kitchen special night for boozeYanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovelYanaka no smoking gingko leavesYanaka no smoking signYanaka no! drug! sign
Yanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovel Arashiyama water can not drink Harajuku maple lake vfw girl Kyoto main station what you cannot store in lockers Shibuya donky boulange-001 Shibuya twits the americana hat Yanaka body identification poster outside police station Yanaka stagecoach western 'pub' yeehaw

Hellbahnhof Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe

Hi there, folks. Back to blogging after a hiatus during which I traipsed through Germany with a friend, spending a few days at Documenta 13, er, dOCUMENTA (13). Traveling to Kassel means stopping at the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station. For some boring reason having to do with train scheduling or something, you have to stop at this station on the outkirts of the city and then take a train into the central station.

The main feature of the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe Bahnhof (g) as it's called, is that IT SUCKS. More to the point, there are no elevators or escalators in the station. To reach the main station from the train tracks, you have to drag your luggage up a gradual, seemingly endless ramp. There are also stairs available, but these are cleverly hidden behind the ramps. But either way, you're going to have to schlep yourself, your screaming kids, and your heavy luggage. In this era of wheeled luggage, I can only imagine how many Eisenstein-esque scenes have played out on those giant ramps, with giant luggage, wheelchairs, or baby strollers barreling down the ramp, taking out hapless passengers right and left.

Another wonderful feature of the giant ramps is that they block out most of the central part of the platform, so that the only way to find out where your train car is positioned on the train is to walk all the way to one fucking end of the platform, inspect the train-car diagram, and then walk all the way back to where your car will be. During every Documenta, hundreds of thousands of foreign guests arrive at this train station and curse the stupidity and self-indulgence of the architect, while snorting at the storied 'efficiency' of Germans.

When I got home, I vowed to find out what pretentious little twit had designed those giant ramps, so as to publicly execrate him. The Wikipedia entry for the train station informs me that one 'Büro Dietrich, Waning, Guggenberger' was responsible for the ramp design. But, it turns out, they had no choice. Apparently the Deutsche Bundesbahn, back in the 1980s, ordered the creation of these giant ramps to make it possible to drive cars and trucks to the trains. Why they required this feature in a train station that would mainly be used by humans is beyond me. Don't they have fucking freight yards for that?!

In any event, the Bundesbahn's design has created what has to be the ugliest, most inconvenient train station in Western Europe. If I were a killin' man, I would tie the faceless bureaucrat who ordered those ramps to a brakeless wheelchair and push him down them again and again and again, while cackling gleefully. 

There, now I feel better.

The Perils of Denglish, or Ass Love Deluxe for the Whole Ass Family

Ass Golf

Ever played 'Ass Golf'? In the mood for some 'Ass Love Deluxe'? Does your family deserve to become an 'Ass Family'?

If you answered 'Jawohl!', and I'm sure you did, have I got a hotel for you. It's called the Saalbacher Hof, in Saalbach, Austria, and its summer vacation packages include:

The theme here, as German-speakers will have immediately noticed, is playing cards: Trumpf = trump, and Ass = ace. But then the oily-haired marketing types pepped up the stodgy hotel's image with some of that sickeningly hip English. Today's Austrian 'Familys' deserve no less!

One simple rule for ad-men, delivered free of charge: If you start a phrase or sentence in German, for G$d's sake finish it in German.

A Writer’s Greatest Compliment

Strolling through Istanbul is the sort of book you continue reading after you've left Istanbul, because you stumble upon gems like the following, during the book's leisurely description of Dolmabahce Palace (p. 422):

Evliya [Turkish chronicler Evliya Celebi] goes on to tell one of his astonishing stories about his unpredictable friend, Murat IV: "Sultan Murat IV happened once to be reading at Dolmabahce the satirical word Sohami of Nefii Efendi, when the lightning struck the ground near him: being terrified he threw the book into the sea, and then gave orders to Bayram Pasha to strangle the author Nefii Efendi."

Paris: Leprechauns, Mannequins, Giant Machines, Disappearing Museums

I was in Paris last week, part bidness, part personal. I stayed at the B & B le 7 near the Place de Clichy, which I recommend. The room is reasonably-sized (by Paris standards), spotless and furnished with whimsy and good taste. The bookshelves have plenty of art books in many languages, plus Lonely Planets and Guide du Routard guides, which are like French-language Lonely Planets, but cooler. Private shower and bathroom, and very friendly and patient owners. It's in the 9th arrondissement, which is one of my favorites. It's a real neighborhood, with sandwich shops, hardware stores, and ordinary-people clothes outlets. This means no tourist-trap prices: you can buy a coffee, or a liter bottle of water to carry along with you, or normal stuff like toothpaste, without feeling raped. Yet you're still in the city, and only a short metro or bus ride from anywhere. Plus, the ninth is still French enough to feature excellent cheese and wine places and boulangeries, including the outstanding Maison Landemaine (f), which is worth a detour.

I didn't do much sightseeing, except for the giant Monet exhibition in the Grand Palais. Stunning, if only because it featured an enormous collection of Monets in one place. The winter paintings were the big revelation to me; I didn't know he'd done so many and such fine ones. The exhibition space itself is miserable: blocked off from natural light, cramped, and crowded. The great water lily cycles weren't shipped in, and there's no space that would have done them justice anyway. Still, there are many other large late canvases, and it's more Monets than you'll ever see in one place again. Buy your ticket in advance and go during the afternoon. I also attempted to visit the  Musee des Lunettes and Lorgnettes Pierre Marly (f), only to find that it's gone, having been replaced by an Audemars Piguet shop.

But mostly I strolled around. Here are a few pictures; the hover text has more info for the curious:

Square Moncey Army of One
Store Mannequin Rue de Clichy
Emerging from Metro Place de Clichy
Psycho Knife Rack

Scaffolding Rue de Clichy
Storefront Fumisterie Cavallari, Faubourg St. Denis
Man Smoking Cigar and Typing on Laptop Rue St. Honore
"Oh No -- You Again!"
Leprechaun Man Entering Olympia Theatre
Two Men on Subway
Boo Night Evening Dress Store

Escalator Repair Gare du Nord

View down Street Grate Place de Clichy

Saarbruecken is for Drunken Punks

One of GJ's roving correspondents writes from Saarbrücken:

Just back from a few days
in Saarbrücken, which is a very strange mix of very posh and very run-down. Saw
a shop with a handbag on sale for €1,000 near the main square…which was full
of beggars (and, yes, sturdy beggars, as they used to be known in England…,
though rather few of them in those days had orange hair). The Innenstadt is the
sort of place where you're very likely to encounter any number of people
wandering around drunk at 9:30am.

It's at moments like that
that my inner CSU voter begins to stir.

Fortunately, after elevating its stiffly-coiffed blond head and muttering some indecipherable phrases about Armenhäuser, it then sinks back into the giant Maßkrug where it lives.

The Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables

No, it's not the title of a cloyingly cute independent film, but a neutral description of this post.

I just returned from a second short visit to Vienna (Thanks, UM, for putting me up!). I will post much more on the weekend, but as a teaser, this is what I found at a flea market in Hietzing:

Gypsy Dreambook Cover-1

It's the "Complete Gypsy Woman's Dreambook — With Lotto Numbers and Many Illustrations." Published by Gustav Swoboda Brothers, Vienna, District XII, no date (1920s?).

The book contains 90 pages of explanations of what various images and ideas in dreams signify, drawn from "the oldest Babylonian, Assyrian, and Arabic-Egyptian manuscripts, and revised according to the experiences of old Gypsy women." I'll translate a few entries and post them later.

In the back of the book, there is a table of lucky numbers and days, and then 10 pages of eerie "picture tables" illustrating various types of dreams. Here's an example (click to enlarge):

Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables 3

The full set is here.

An interesting sidenote: the German edition of this book was banned (g) by the Nazis.

I'm not sure how these picture tables are supposed to be used. Do we have any experts on Central European folk culture here? If so, enlighten us please in comments.

Swiss Men Use Butt Sticks in Public Parks

If you've always wondered what a European 'butt stick' looks like, wonder no more. Draw the blinds, pour yourself a stiff drink, call your lawyer, then click here, if you dare.

The picture is part of a set was taken by an American student in Europe. It would seem to be his first trip to Europe, judging by his ability to be excited by such things as Lift cola, ivy-covered houses, two-part toilet flush buttons, and packages of tea labeled in German!! Okay, he might be a little wet behind the ears, but he's obviously getting a hell of a lot of travel and 'tang lately…

Toxophily and Dunghill Cogk

Sure, the foreign countries are full of pretty churches and mountains. But what brings me the most inspiration is their uninhibited use of English. A few examples from Greece:


The ‘Super Toxophily Set’. Perhaps your children can use it to create poisoned arrows. Since they’re too young for jail, what better way to eliminate your enemies?  Which would explain the slogan at the bottom of the package:


It turns out, though, that Toxophily is just an obscure word for archery. I picture a toy factory owner calling up Stavros, who has a bunch of old English books back from his student days at Birmingham in the 30s, and asking him "Stavros, my brother, what is the English word for the making-moving of the arrows with the bow?"

And now to a picture I like to call "Hold the Dunghill — But bring on the Cogk": 


Klaus Pfeiffer, born in Germany, citizen of Naxos, artist with the FluxusNaxos movement, with a poster for his Youtube project, "Water is Life":


Watch Klaus make shoes from water bottles, and ‘kinetic sculptures’ from beer cans here:

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.