Book Thoughts #1: „The Captive Mind” by Czesław Miłosz

One of the reasons why I started this blog is to keep myself motivated to write down my thoughts after reading various books. Although these posts will not be reviews in a strict sense, they will include a brief summary of the book and some reflections on it. I do not plan, however, to give (usually?) a comprehensive evaluation of the book. 

Czesław Miłosz, Zniewolony umysł [The Captive Mind], Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1999. 

Summary of the Book

From all of my readings in recent months undoubtedly The Captive Mind left a deepest impression on me. It is a collection of five theoretical essays and four biographical sketches that seeks to explain the influence of Stalinism on the minds of intellectuals in countries controlled by Soviets. Miłosz wrote it on the basis of his own experiences. As a poet and an intellectual he experienced the allure of Communism and even served as a cultural attaché of the People’s Republic of Poland in the United States of America. In 1951 he decided to ask for political asylum in France and subsequently in 1953 he published The Captive Mind.  

The book begins with three essays which explore various aspects of the intellectual life behind the Iron Curtain. In the first essay – The Pill of Murti-Bing – Miłosz analyses how the state of mind of 20th century intellectuals made them susceptible to the impact of the New Faith (as he calls the Communism). In the following essay – Looking to the West – he portrays the ambiguous attitude of intellectuals in the Central and Eastern Europe toward the West. On the one hand, he claims, they looked with contempt at Western consumerism, shallow popular culture and naivety in attempts to understand the world of Soviet countries. And yet there was also hope that the West may not be as stupid as it seemed to them and that perhaps its ideas can, after all, defeat the dialectical materialism. The third essay – Ketman – deals with an intellectual game that was, according to Miłosz, common in Soviet countries. Someone practicing the Ketman was paying a lip service to the ruling ideology but privately holding to some sort of heterodox beliefs. This practice was not only a necessity but also, argues Miłosz, it was giving its practitioners a peculiar intellectual satisfaction and pleasure. 

These essays are followed by four biographical sketches of Polish writers and poets contemporary to Miłosz. Although in the book they are called only with cryptonyms (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) it was easy to figure out their identity (Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament and Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński). Miłosz attempts to explain how each of them ended up becoming a communist writer. A reader quickly realises that there was no particular type of intellectual that was susceptible to the influence of the New Faith. These men were very different – even polar opposites of each other – and yet all of them in one way or another started using their pens in service of the communist regime. 

The Captive Mind is concluded with two more theoretical essays. One of them (Man, This Enemy) deals with the battle that is waged in each communist country „for mastery over human spirit”. Miłosz analyses the attitude of communist authorities toward various social groups and strategies that were followed to control them. In the final essay (The Lesson of the Balts) Miłosz describes the tragic history of Baltic countries conquered by the Soviet Union. Since he grew up in Vilnius – during his youth the territory of Poland –  he had a very personal and emotional attitude to this tragedy.  

Striking Religious Imagery

Much could be said about The Captive Mind. It can be analysed as a classical socio-political book about the life in Communist People’s Republics. One can also think about it from the literary and artistic point of view. It is, for instance, noteworthy that Miłosz uses literary means to portray the inner struggle of an intellectual in the communist country. He gives a voice to various arguments – both in favour and against subjecting to the Stalinism. His own choice to escape from the People’s Republic of Poland is presented as complex and by no means an obvious one. 

But there is one thing that captured my attention more than any other aspect of the book – the striking religious imagery which Miłosz consistently employs to describe the Communism. He speaks about the Stalinism as of the New Faith that is on its way to conquer the world and even draws parallels to the Christianity in the Roman Empire (quoting Gibbon!). Just like the  Christianity was slowly winning over the inhabitants of the Empire, so the New Faith was slowly gaining mastery over human spirits in its territories. Certain people, argues Miłosz, were treated by communists as useful heathens. Although they were not themselves accepting the new ideology in its entirety, they were useful in transitional phases. Non-communist writers and poets could be „useful heathens” in the early phase of communism in Poland if they focused on desired topics (eg. criticising nazis and encouraging people to rebuild the country after the war). Some people could retain their Roman Catholic faith and religious practices if they made other concessions to the ruling ideology. 

In The Pill of Murti-Bing Miłosz takes as a starting point the picture of 20th century society from Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s famous novel Insatiability. It was a society where religion ceased to have any force. Where once was a common system of beliefs now there was a void. In the past a learned theologian and village black-smith operated within the same worldview and employed similar terminology. Whatever intellectual difference existed between them, at least they had a shared foundation and the work of theologian (intellectual) was appreciated – unlike in the early 20th century. The New Faith, argues Miłosz, reunites this divided world. Intellectuals and blue collar workers again have same basic concepts (coming from dialectical materialism) and same authorities that they read and quote (Marx, Engels, Lenin). 

This is, I think, a very perceptive take on totalising ideologies such as marxism. They are deeply religious in that they seek to explain the reality in its entirety and they claim to have a solution to the problems of this world. In order to achieve it they must gain the „master over human spirit”. Even means employed in this struggle to win over people are quasi-religious (eg. political meetings in factories are compared by Miłosz to the liturgy). It seems to me, however, that there is one crucial difference between the New Faith and Christianity. Miłosz’ frames his experience of communism as enslaving – as a struggle to hold his mind captive. But Christ promises to set us free (John 8:32). While no doubt there were times and places where Christianity was enforced on people yet it can thrive only when it is followed freely.  

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