The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Reviewed by Gillian Valladares Castellino

Set in Eastern Europe in the period just before and after the Second World War, Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind probes the effect that Stalinism on the minds of people affected by it. The book was written in the early 1950s and translated into English by Jane Zielonko.

Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and educated in Wilno (the Polish name of what is now called the city of Vilnius) and Paris. Wilno was a Polish city between 1920 and 1939 and Milosz studied there during this period. He was already a published writer when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and became active in the Resistance. Later, he became a diplomat in post-war Poland and was stationed in Washington and Paris. In 1951 he defected to the West, living briefly in Paris before emigrating to the US where he became a Professor of Slavic languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and died in 2004.

The book itself, is made up of nine chapters. The first three set out the structure against which the book can be understood by readers who are physically and culturally situated outside Eastern Europe. The next four chapters describe the coping mechanisms that four different intellectuals (writers specifically) used to deal with the ethical dilemmas that they faced on a daily basis when living in the "people's democracies" in Eastern Europe. The next chapter concerns the framework within which life developed in the Eastern Bloc and the final chapter focuses on the unique case of the Baltic states including Milosz's childhood home of Lithuania.

The Captive Mind is not an easy or entertaining book. The tone and style is dry, heavy, humorless, replete with convoluted thought structures - a tad like life in the "people's democracies". It is clear that Milosz intended it to be that way, he suggests as much in his preface, but that doesn't make it any easier for a reader who is tempted to turn away, after all the situation is now history, the book is a slog and life is short. Well, it is worth resisting that urge.

The book begins with a quotation: When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.  - An Old Jew of Galacia

If this summarizes Milosz's point of view, the book's preface sets out his rationale for writing it: Despite being aware of the dismantling of personal freedom in his homeland he rejected the push to emigrate, as that represented exile, sterility and inaction to him. Consequently he had to live through five years of Nazi occupation and the establishment of the Stalinist Russian regime in Poland. As a writer he experienced first-hand the moral challenges that "Socialist Realism" posed. To him, it came with the demand that he "cease 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 of society as a whole." Instead, it required him to make "all judgement of values dependent on the interest of the dictatorship." This was not a benign dictatorship but one in which "human sufferings are drowned in the trumpet-blare: the orchestra in the concentration camp, and.." the narrator "as a poet, had a place already marked [for him] among the first violins" provided that he paid the price - obedience.

Notwithstanding the desire to continue to live among his own people and write in his own language, he could not capitulate and so "won his freedom" by defecting. When cushioned by safety, the drive to tell his story and explain the thought processes of his people, resulted in the book. He is very well aware that a reader who operates in a society where the pressure to conform is not accompanied by the threat of liquidation, torture and death, cannot begin to understand the mindscapes that develop when people are forced to accept bizarre and terrifying circumstances in the 'normal' course of their daily lives. The book was intended to be a "battlefield" in which Milosz would describe his enemy, follow the enemy's logic and copy his reasoning, so that in doing so, he could demonstrate how the mind slowly "gives way to complusion from without".

In 1932, an almost prophetic book entitled Insatiability was published in Warsaw. Though fictional, it envisaged a situation very similar to that which occurred in Eastern Europe after the Red Army crossed into Poland. As the event was occurring in September 1939, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, the book's author slit his wrists. Milosz borrowed the central plot device from Insatiability. This was a "pill" called "Murti Bing". It was used as a metaphor for both (1) the conformist thinking people adopted to survive the imposition of Stalinist "dialectical materialism" and also for (2) the mind-numbing effects of consumerism in the West.

So what is "Dialectical materialism"? It is a term coined in 1887 by Joseph Dietzgen a German Marxist and was adopted as the official philosophy of the Soviet communists. In essence it states that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces and can be interpreted as a series of contradictions and their solutions. The conflict is seen as caused by material needs.

Milosz's issue was not with the concept itself, but with the way in which it was interpreted and implemented by Stalinists, specifically that it "creates social and political conditions in which man ceases to think and write otherwise than is necessary". What this really means is that any work of art, that did not support the socialist system was viewed as worthless and its creator as untrustworthy ie as a threat that had to be removed. Since survival itself was at stake in these circumstances, how did the intelligentsia cope under the system?

To tease out the array of camouflage masks used to endure the situation, Milosz borrows the concept of "Ketman" (a term described by Gobineau in his book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia). The word "Ketman" is a corruption of kitman, a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to refer to secrecy or concealment and is a sub-field ofhiyal (the science of deception or legal trickery). The premise of "Ketman" is that one must "keep silent about one's true convictions if possible" and to derive a sense of satisfaction or pride from having deceived others of one's true thoughts and inclinations. There are seven different types of "Ketman" described by Milosz and these are: national ketman, the ketman of revolutionary purity, aesthetic ketman, professional ketman, sceptical ketman, metaphysical ketman and ethical ketman - all variations on the same theme. Though the person practising ketman realises that he lies, for certain types of intellectuals living under constant tension and watchfulness, practising ketman and the mind games that implied, provided a "masochistic pleasure", a form of "self-realisation against something".

To further explain how "real" people adapted, Milosz described four different writers with differing histories. Though he called them Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, their identities were so thinly disguised that have been established to be:

  • Alpha, the Moralist : Jerzy Andrezejewski
  • Beta, the Disappointed Lover : Tadeusz Borowski
  • Gamma the Slave of History: Jerzy Putrament
  • Delta the Troubadour: Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski

In the penultimate chapter, Milosz analysed the regime's judgement of the different classes in society, the strategy to be used to deal with them and the institutions they revered, particularly the Church which was a force to be reckoned with in Catholic Poland.

In the final chapter, Milosz detailed the fate of the Baltic people, the systematic brutalisation that reduced them from being members of self-sustaining rural communities to depleted "eternal slaves" in the Gulag.

Emigration gave Milosz the gift of penetrating dual vision, ie, the capacity to see and understand simultaneously, the inner workings of two widely disparate cultures, the Communist East and the democratic West. Inspite of this, The Captive Mind is a sobering read. The experience of living in a besieged nation and the consequent mental trauma that entailed seemed to suggest to Milosz that a chasm existed between him (the Eastern Bloc intellectual and poet) and his (presumably Western reader). This can be summed up in his closing remarks.. "Many people spend their entire lives collecting stamps or old coins, or growing tulips. I am sure that Zeus will be merciful towards people who have given themselves entirely to these...pointless diversions. I shall say to him: 'It is not my fault that you ... gave me the gift of seeing simultaneously what was happening in Omaha and Prague, in the Baltic states and on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I felt that if I did not use that gift my poetry would be tasteless to me and fame detestable. Forgive me."

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Edith LaGraziana said...

Thanks for bringing this author to my attention! Of course, I came across his name in the winner list of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but otherwise I never heard of him. The book you reviewed sounds like a pretty difficult and demanding read, very philosophical too. Usually, this is just my line... let's see if I can find one of his books in German translation and if I'll get round reading it. At any rate - great review!

Gillian Valladares Castellino said...

Thank you Edith. If you find any more English translations of his books please let me know.

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