The Captive Mind – Czesław Miłosz

I had this book from one of those collections of 20th century classics that at some point were sold together with daily newspapers in Poland. I’ve had it for years and finally I decided it is shameful that I haven’t read it yet, especially that I also only read a few poems by Miłosz, so there was some catching up to do.

It is a collection of nine essays on the totalitarian system in Eastern Europe after the WWII. The book was published in 1953, the year Stalin died, simultaneously in Polish, English, French and German. It is called a political book, but not in our current vulgarized understanding of politics. What Miłosz tries to do is to show and understand the mechanism used by the socialist states, governed from USSR, to captivate, terrorize and imprison human minds. He writes for foreign audience and makes it very clear in his preface for the Polish edition, he wants the West to have at least a chance of understanding what is going on in the Socialist Republics and how it all happened. Another important thing to keep in mind is that Miłosz sticks to what he knows, he writes about the writers and artists falling in the trap of the ‘brand new world’, he does not pretend to know what other social groups thought or how they dealt with the system.

The core of the book is formed by four essays about specific writers, Miłosz calls the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, they have been identified and if you are interested in their real names feel free to find them here. However for me it was not about the specific writers, what he shows is four different mentalities, four different motivations that led those writers to conform with socialist realism. There probably were as many motivations as people succumbing to the system, but Miłosz’s analysis of those four already builds a compelling picture of a generation that emerged from WWII, split, broken and lost, desperately looking for certainties.

Alpha craves fame and acceptance, he craves being a thought leader. Beta is furious and desperately disappointed in humanity. Gamma is after power and change, but he has limited talent to say the least, this is in fact the only essay where it feels Miłosz despises his subject, in others he is more focused on understanding than judging. Delta, a hopeless alcoholic, seems to live in a completely different world, his dream to be a poet at a king’s court. Those essays, interesting as they are, are also quite specific examples. The remaining five essays is where we get to see the terrifying, bigger picture.

They show the demoralizing power of the communist system. Miłosz writes about the easy solutions it proposes; in time of horrible uncertainty, communism offers a comfort of certainty. As a system it may be illogical, but somehow it is irrefutable. He writes about the difference between the East and the West of Europe, about the state having no problem with uprooting hundreds of thousands of people to make it easier to incorporate Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the USSR. He writes how the ‘New Faith’ aimed to replace the Church, to replace God with History and inevitably to replace individual guilt with the historical guilt.

For me the most interesting was the essay ‘Ketman’, where Miłosz describes the schizophrenic mindset created by the life in totalitarian state. Where people are forced to constantly pretend, to watch every word, where the only place where the self can be free is in one’s mind. This culture of permanent lies, cheating, playing the system and complete distrust is the most lasting legacy of the communist state in my opinion. It damaged whole generations in all of the ex-socialist countries, this is what now makes it so difficult to create a civil society, what makes democracy in those countries so weak and easy to derail. The communist state robbed people of their sense of control over their own lives, of the sense of responsibility, but also of being empowered, if anything the socialist doctrine depowered at all cost.

It is a fascinating book, both as a historic document and as a warning.

Do you read political books? Was there one that opened your eyes to something you didn’t think about before?

5 thoughts on “The Captive Mind – Czesław Miłosz

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