Czesław Miłosz and The Captive Mind

Andrew Wieteska 14 February 2014

Czesław Miłosz spoke with the musical timbre of the Eastern Borderlands, the Polish Kresy, his words falling with a stolid acoustic and a characteristic curl of an eastern dialect.

Born in 1911 in the Lithuanian part of the Russian Empire, he wrote from his university days in the 1930s through to the early 2000s. In The Captive Mind, the book which inspires this article, he describes tracking the width of central Poland in 1945 with a bag of manuscripts swung across his shoulder, from the smoking ruins of Warsaw to Krakow in the south.

An employee of the Stalinist government of the People’s Republic, he defected in 1953. He spent the following decade in France before emigrating to the United States as Professor of Literature at Berkeley. Milosz truly lived the twentieth century, as a dust-like figure of constancy in the tumult, experiencing the severe state of conflict in an acute and sharp way.

By 1980, when the Nobel Prize institutionalized his international standing, the Kresy had been annexed into the Soviet Union for over thirty years. The Polish population had been displaced and that identity, along with Miłosz, was haltingly lapsing into anachronism.

Miłosz did not help himself. He and his work fell under censorship following his 1953 defection, and the mere pronunciation of his name was declared illegal. He described the isolation of his Californian 1970s. ‘My ambition never extended beyond that of a poet unknown outside his village’. His verse was destined for an absent audience.

The poetry of Miłosz has acquired a penumbra of hermeticity and closeness in the West. It is well deserved: his poems are wound around Polish-Lithuanian references, which can be impenetrable to a reader outside that cultural stratum. Yet Miłosz was also an early pioneer of the essayistic form, which in Poland was in its larval stages in the 1930s. The Captive Mind, written in in 1953, immediately after his defection, is a significant early example of the genre.

To say that the first days as a defector were difficult is a gnawing understatement. By then hate figure in the Polish People’s Republic, "the main source of Miłosz’s problems [were] the Poles (I refer to the emigrants abroad, of course)", wrote James Burnham, the American philosopher and political theorist involved in Miłosz’s unsuccessful applications for a US visa. In 1953 Miłosz finally decided to stay in Paris. He nonetheless felt an all-expansive resentment against those whom he viewed as responsible for his predicament and separation from family.

"The Captive Mind, painful, under internal duress, begun with a prayer (…)", he reminisces. Its writing was a form of catharsis on the part of the author. Lauded as "an interpretation of the highest degree", it was a progenitor piece of social analysis of the Eastern psyche under post-war Stalinism. "A denizen of the West is entirely unaware that millions of his brethren (…) live in a world as alien to him as the surface of Mars", Miłosz says in motivation. A bestseller when first published, The Captive Mind has become a classic work on twentieth-century totalitarianism.

My connaissance of this story is largely thanks to a compendious biography of Miłosz. Excepting the enthusiast, this context will be washed down with the deluge of gone-by historical periods, only the skeleton – the text itself – might survive.

Of the eight chapters, four contain an accessible analysis and demolition of Stalin’s take on communism and its implementation in Eastern Europe. I addition, there are four character sketches, alluring for their subjectivity and the illusory sensation of totality. It feels like the essence of each of the four people is laid bare in front of the reader.

Consider reading The Captive Mind. It is a rare window into an obscure corner of not so distant past, and a superbly captivating piece of essayistic writing. For me, it also carries a universal message, and although in no way does it encapsulate the book, I intuit that it is an apt finish. Miłosz’s own front-page quote:

When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there is no use wrangling. (…)But what’s to be said of 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. (…) [And] whoever says he’s 100% right, is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.