The best known prose work by the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature examines the moral and intellectual conflicts faced by men and women living under totalitarianism of the left or right.
About the Author
Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet, author, and diplomat. His book The Captive Mind became a classic of anti-Stalinism. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978 and the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2004.
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Captive Mind based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
An excellent read and justifiably a classic. It's certainly a dated piece, as political works usually are, and yet Milosz's instance on confining his commentary to his own experience and epoch (i.e., Nazi and Soviet occupation) makes it a timeless work of intellectual history. Particularly salient are his observations about the function and psychology of the artist in society. Just read it.
"There are occasions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. Then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one's true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses to deceive one's adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith that can please him, one performs all the rites one recognizes to be the most vain, one falsifies one's own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit." - Arthur Gobineau, from `Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia'"The Captive Mind," written in the early 1950s immediately after Milosz was awarded political asylum in France, is one of the first attempts to articulate the appeal of Communism (or, more broadly, dialectical materialism) to the intellectuals all over Eastern Europe.Central to the novel are four characters identified by Milosz only as Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma (but who we know enough about to identify as the very real authors Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament, and Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski.) Each of the four has uniquely different relationships to writing, and thinks differently about the way dialectical materialism affects their writing. In Alpha's youth, his far-right politics calls him into writing with the force of "moral authority." He later eschews these politics and becomes a Catholic who speaks out against anti-Semitism. After World War II ends, Alpha's writing ideologically aligns itself with the puppet governments that set themselves up on Eastern Europe, and he is later seen only seen as a literary prostitute by his former friends. Beta, a poet who spent two years in Auschwitz and Dachau only to later be released by American soldiers, later swallows the pill of Murti-Bing and writes hard-line ideological defenses of Leninism and Stalinism. The experiences of Delta and Gamma are equally typical accounts of when the mind of an intellectual bumps into an intractable ideological system which inevitably evolves into "ketman," meaning an outward acceptance of an idea while still holding on to unspoken reservations. In fact, this word, originally from the Arabic, was imported into English by Arthur Gobineau himself (see the quotation above).The first two chapters are incisive in evoking the spirit of the Communism-addled writer who struggles to balance his "priorities." But the middle chapters on the writers seem as untrue - not false in the strict sense, but lacking the clarity of the moral-political-aesthetic themes with which he was trying to deal - as the ideology with which they are struggling. While they are presented as individuated, personal characters, the reader gets the feeling that Milosz is to turn them into archetypes while at other times working deliberately against this, which has an odd way of turning them into alienating abstractions for the reader.Perhaps most of all, this book serves as a tocsin. By now, an entire generation of Europeans has had the ability to write, think, and speak publicly about whatever they wish, the very fact of which possibly renders Milosz's book a peculiar curio from the doldrums of intellectual history. For many Americans, whose questions of freedom are restricted to whether or not one is allowed to burn their draft card or a Koran, or utter a prayer in school, reading "The Captive Mind" may very well have a stultifying effect. If that happens, the book runs the risk - we all run the risk - of it becoming still even more relevant than it is now.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine anyone supporting the Communist rule of Eastern Europe, and yet, at the time, there was a lot of support for Russia amongst Western Europe's intelligentsia. If you ever had a feeling of fondness towards the hammer and sickle, then this book will surely rid you of it.Milosz, a Polish poet and novelist, lived through the harshest periods of the twentieth century, and here explains to the rest of us what life in a Communist regime is really like for the people who have to suffer it.He takes four examples to illustrate his case - four poets and politicians who, for varying reasons, allowed themselves to bend and fall into line inside the Party. Theirs are the saddest stories, the bright lights of a generation needlessly, one would say now, dimmed.Some of Milosz's writing is difficult to work through without a firm grounding in the vernacular of the Communist theory, so be warned. Keep a dictionary to hand, or better yet, an encyclopedia, but if you work through to the end, you will be pleased you did.