The Captive mind revisited – Jerzy Krzyżanowski on Czeslaw Milosz

The Captive Mind (1953) has been compared to the two most revealing and penetrating works on the same subject previously published - Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. Read an interview with him in 2003, the year before he died. The poem Campo dei Fiorihis tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, was inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. 

In the first book- length interview given to a Polish journalist (Ewa Czarnecka), Czeslaw Milosz, when asked about the fame brought about by the publication of his Zniewolony umysl (The Captive Mind) in 1953, responded with a shrug: "What sort of fame?" (CCM, 145). In the original Polish version that statement comes across even stronger, with an almost sardonic dismissal of the issue: "Taka to i slawa" (Some fame, indeed). And yet it cannot be denied that this happened to be a book that launched a little-known Polish poet into the orbit of international reputation, the Neustadt Prize in 1978, and eventually the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980: "When I found myself an emigre and wrote The Captive Mind, my poetry was completely unknown; no one knew that I was a poet, but I became known to many readers as the author of The Captive Mind" (321-22). 

Thus, in spite of his own reservations ("I prefer a different sort of fame"), the book deserves a new, close look, particularly since the literary situation in that part of the world has changed dramatically in the last ten years, ever since communism was abolished and democracy restored there in 1989.

Milosz's poetic venture into politics had begun earlier, when the leading Polish literary monthly Tworczoa 3/4 published his long poem Traktat moralny (Moral Treatise) in 1948. Written in the tradition of the eighteenth-century didactic poem, it projects the image of the Polish literary scene on the eve of an unavoidable change: the introduction of the Soviet-type model of socialist realism, which meant a totalitarian control over the entire country, including its intellectual manifestations such as philosophy, literature, arts, and cultural life in general. The poem had been written in Washington, D.C., where Milosz resided as a Polish diplomat after the war, and from that comfortable vantage point he could see the forthcoming events much more clearly than could his friends confined within the limited perspective of postwar Poland dominated by the Soviets. Trying to assess the moral rather than political aspects of the present situation, Milosz ended his poem on an almost eschatological note:

There is no hope for you today,
Don't wait for any Treuga Dei,
That life of yours has no escape
Through any major magic gate.
You go ahead in daily harness.
In front of us there's - "Heart of Darkness."

That disturbing image sounded a familiar note to Polish readers, at least to those intellectuals familiar with their compatriot Joseph Conrad's dark vision of ruthless supremacy presented in his novella under the same title. Milosz, who had seen both the Soviet and the German occupation of Poland during World War II, did not have any illusions about the bright future projected by the advocates of the Soviet system, and he gradually became more and more aware of the dangers inherent in it. When his vision materialized in 1949, with the official proclamation of socialist realism as the only acceptable method in contemporary Polish literature, Milosz, in spite of his relatively safe position as a diplomat working abroad, realized that as soon as he returned home a trap would be set for him too, and he decided to break with the communist regime. On 1 February 1951 he asked for political asylum in France. At about the same time he started working on The Captive Mind, which was completed after a few months and was issued two years later by a leading Polish publisher, the Institut Litteraire in France, becoming an instant success and the harbinger of the international fame mentioned earlier.

The book was, as it were, a continuation of Milosz's "Moral Treatise," this time describing not only the perils of the communist system but also giving examples of how it worked in reality. In some respects it has been compared to the two most revealing and penetrating works on the same subject previously published-Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)-as studies written by people in the know, insiders of the system who had analyzed its ways and byways in and out. The difference, of course, was in the genre: while those two books were works of fiction, Milosz had written a penetrating document on the literary scene, illustrating it with portraits of four major writers who in his opinion represented four telltale cases.

In Milosz's theory, Marxist indoctrination worked like a slow, mind- altering drug envisaged in the novel Nienasycenie (1932; Eng. Insatiability) by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. The pill, allegedly invented by "Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher," worked wonders: "A man who used these pills changed completely. He became serene and happy" (CM, 4). "Today," writes Milosz, "Witkiewicz's vision is being fulfilled in the minutest detail throughout a large part of the European continent" (5). Calling Marxism "the New Faith," he develops his comparison even further, and in the next chapter adds another dimension of the indoctrination process, something he calls "Ketman," after a Muslim custom observed by the French writer Gobineau in nineteenth-century Persia: "He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and to maintain in error." "One must therefore," adds Milosz, "keep silent about one's true convictions if possible" (57). He goes on to explain various sorts of Ketman - a national one, the Ketman of Revolutionary Purity, Aesthetic Ketman, a professional variety, et cetera - concluding: "He who practices Ketman lies" (80).

Having established those two major premises, the mind-controlling system and the fine art of deception (often turning into self-deception), Milosz could now proceed to the main body of his study, the presentation of the four contemporary Polish writers he wished to single out, called simply Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma. In the preface to the original Polish edition, Milosz explains his decision to use pseudonyms rather than real names: "I did not use names assuming that the foreign reader could not care less about real persons, but using their example he could follow the process of submitting to the philosophy required in Poland today" (10). And indeed, in a conversation with Czarnecka, Milosz recalls an amusing encounter with a poet from Indonesia, where The Captive Mind had been received so enthusiastically that Indonesians considered the author one of their national heroes: "What adventures I've had in my life - a national hero of Indonesia!" (CCM, 145).

One can safely assume that for Indonesian readers it did not make any difference at all whether Alpha's real name happened to be Andrzejewski or an equally difficult Slavic name they could not pronounce anyway. And since The Captive Mind had been written basically for a foreign reader, Milosz added in the Polish preface, "What I am saying about those persons is well known in the literary circles in Warsaw" (CM, 10), while thirty years later, in conversation with Czarnecka in 1983, he explains his decision to use pseudonyms by saying simply: "Because I didn't want to be a gossipmonger. . . . Who knows them outside Poland!" (CCM, 147). Now, with the Polish literary scene changed completely, with all four protagonists dead and some of their works available in English, one can speak about their true characters and their identities more openly.

Alpha's real name, Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909- 83), has become well known outside Poland through the huge international success of his novel Popiol i diament (1948), mutilated almost beyond recognition in the English translation as Ashes and Diamonds (1962) but better known in its movie version under the same title, made by Andrzej Wajda in 1958. Milosz acknowledges Andrzejewski's success by saying: "The novel he wrote was a product of a mature talent. It made a great impression on its readers" (CM, 102). At the same time, however, he voices criticisms that are quite different from the almost unanimous chorus of praise (and prizes) bestowed upon both the novelist and the novel, which, impressively, soon appeared in more than twenty foreign translations. Milosz sees the book's usefulness to the Communist Party in the fact that it "was entirely dominated by a feeling of anger against the losers" (104-5)-i.e., the patriotic majority of the Polish people. That notion was rediscovered only in the 1990s, when some Polish critics were able to voice their free opinion on the heavily edited, "ideologically corrected" new version of the novel reprinted in mass editions over the last forty years of communist rule (see Krzyanowski, 1971).

In The Captive Mind  Milosz could clearly foresee the moral decline Andrzejewski experienced in the years to come. Only after the brief revival of freedom in 1956 was he able to free himself from the constraints of socialist realism, but he never fully recovered. His last major novel, Miazga (Pulp; 1979), bears testimony to that fact, being a compilation of political, social, and moral conflicts within a group of Polish intellectuals, but artistically a failure, as if confirming Milosz's opinion of his friend: "Only a passion for truth could have saved Alpha from developing into the person he became" (110).

Beta, Tadeusz Borowski (1922-51), represented a younger generation entering the literary scene only after World War II, with the most horrifying experiences of mass killings, concentration camps, gas chambers, and all the inhuman phenomena he witnessed during that period. "Here indeed was a wall of darkness," writes Milosz. "No hope of liberation, and no vision of tomorrow" (112-13). Thus, Borowski, upon his return from a world of death camps and postwar chaos to Poland, with a book about his experiences to his credit, decided to pursue a literary career at any cost, which in fact meant submission to the political dictates of the Communist Party. Thanks to his great talent, demonstrated in such prose collections as This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories (1967), he was pampered by the official critics and soon entered the slippery path of procommunist journalism which eventually led to his tragic suicidal end. "In spite of his talent and intelligence," remarks Milosz, "Beta did not perceive the dangers inherent in an exciting march" (133). His cynicism on the one hand, and his will to make a brilliant career on the other, made him an easy victim of the corrupting system.

Gamma was a pseudonym given by Milosz to Jerzy Putrament (1910-91), his fellow student before the war and, as it turned out, his nemesis in the postwar period. "Gamma became a Stalinist," recalls Milosz. "I think he felt uneasy writing his passionless poetry. He was not made for literature" (148). And indeed, Putrament made his career on politics alone, although he had produced innumerable volumes of poetry, prose, reminiscences, essays, and the like-today, only a few years after his death, all forgotten, and totally unknown in the West. Using Putrament's biography as a perfect example of a person whose collaboration with the system made him a prominent figure in postwar Poland, Milosz has no illusions as to Putrament's political convictions: "Loyal to the Center, he voiced official optimism, while in reality, after the years he had spent in Russia, he was convinced that History is the private preserve of the devil, and that whoever serves History signs a satanic pact" (168). It was that "satanic pact" that prompted Putrament to try to lure Milosz back from Paris to Poland, and eventually resulted in the poet's defection.

Finally, there was Delta, Konstanty Ildefons Galczy-ski (1905-53), one of Poland's most popular and favored poets, who "probably would have been happiest in the days when kings and nobles assured the poet a place at their table in exchange for a song or a jest" (175). Returning from a POW camp to Poland, he knew "he always needed a patron; now he found one who was really munificent, the state" (186). "Delta wanted to serve his lord," Milosz continues his metaphor: "In order to exist as a poet he needed a genial, amused seigneur who believed that neither his government nor anything in heaven or earth deserves to be taken too seriously, that song-half serious, half scoffing-matters more" (189). One should add that Galczy-ski shortly afterward fell out of grace with the Communist Party, and only recently has his position as an original poet been receiving due appreciation.

The choice of those four cases was not made haphazardly. With each of those writers Milosz had established a special kind of relationship, thus being able to develop either an analytic or a more personal presentation to use as an eloquent illustration of his thesis. "The man I call Alpha," he wrote, "is one of the best-known prose writers east of the Elbe. He was a close friend of mine, and memories of many difficult moments that we went through together tie us to each other" (82). Recalling many of those moments, he did not mention one instance in particular, artistically perhaps the most stimulating for both friends: their witnessing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, when they observed a carefree merry-go-round turning happily in front of the burning walls of the ghetto. Each of them used that memorable image in his own way. As a result, Andrzejewski wrote one of his best novellas, Wielki Tydzie - (Passion Week; 1945), while the same image inspired Milosz's famous poem Campo dei Fiori (1945), one of the most moving tributes to the Holocaust victims ever written.

There was an eleven-year age gap between Milosz and Borowski; either as poets or as writers they could not have had less in common, and yet they shared the same critical attitude toward the standard, patriotic vision of the war. Thus, Milosz quotes with appreciation a fragment from one of Borowski's most famous poems: "There will remain after us only scrap-iron and the hollow, jeering laughter of generations" (113). Calling him "the disappointed lover," Milosz equates Borowski's yearning for order as a communist with the obsession for Ordnung on the part of the Nazis who had incarcerated him in Auschwitz, hence making one of the bitterest comparisons ever between the two totalitarian systems, reflected in one man's biography.

Such a comparison is out of the question when one speaks of Jerzy Putrament, a man already possessing leftist sympathies in the 1930s and a cynical career-seeker during and after World War II. Having known him from the time they were schoolmates down to his recent appointment as ambassador of Communist Poland in the 1950s, Milosz was able to project many close, personal observations of the process that resulted in Putrament's securing of a high professional position despite his zero- value credit on the literary balance sheet. Today, such an assessment turns out to be quite correct: no one remembers Putrament's works any longer.

And finally there was the case of Galczy-ski, perhaps the most popular and beloved poet of postwar Poland, a man whose poetry represented everything Milosz's did not: captivating charm and serene beauty, humor and wit, imagination and fantasy, easy, down-to-earth poetic form appealing to the masses of readers. "Delta's poetry," remarks Milosz, "was an added source of legend. It was unlike anything written in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century" (177). And indeed, compared with the avant-garde, cerebral rather than emotional poetry created by Milosz, that mass appeal made Galczy-ski a favorite with readers who had scarcely heard of Milosz and his kind at all. Isn't there just a little bit of envy when Milosz writes about Galczy--ski's popularity and success?

The Captive Mind evoked a wide variety of opinions. Although originally written and published in Polish, it was, as Milosz indicated, intended for foreign reception, and as soon as translations into various European languages were available, "it created some opportunities for me at universities, but in sociology or political science," the author told Czarnecka (CCM, 144). In fact, its publication must have contributed to his obtaining an offer from the Slavics Department at the University of California at Berkeley, which he accepted in 1960, receiving an appointment at the professorial rank. The book's reception by Polish readers was much less favorable, in the emigre community as well as in Poland proper, and the matter deserves close examination as an example of Polish literary opinion highly motivated by political issues dominating not only the captive but also the free minds of that time.

The hostility of writers living and working under the communist system, partly sincere, partly dictated by the party authorities, was demonstrated in many ways. Among the best known was the publication of a story, "Nim b-dzie zapomniany" (Before He Will Be Forgotten), by Kazimierz Brandys, in the 1950s the leading writer of socialist realism in Poland and thus virtually an official spokesman of the establishment. In the original Polish text, Milosz remarks, "The title of Brandys's story is very strange indeed. 'May you be forgotten' happens to be a Jewish curse" (CM, 83). It was not a separate opinion, and quite a few prominent writers in Poland shared it. Much more interesting though was the reaction of Polish writers abroad, who represented the free voice of public opinion and were able to speak up with no restrictions. Czarnecka describes that reaction as "a real fury" (CCM, 82), trying to make Milosz respond to those attacks aimed at him quite vehemently.

In that respect, one must remember that the Polish emigre community happened to be deeply divided between the conservative "old guard" gathered around the London-based weekly Wiadomoaci and the adherents of the much more liberal monthly Kultura, published by the Institut Litteraire in Paris, with which Milosz associated himself from the time he decided to stay in the West. Thus, the polemics over The Captive Mind disclosed some basic political differences, once more coloring the book's reception. "Converted but Not Entirely?," "A Former Fellow- Traveler Milosz," "A Stakhanovite in Exile," "The Captive Mind or a Knocked-Around Character"-these were typical titles of the articles on Milosz published in the London-based emigre press. The Kultura writers Jerzy Giedroyc, Jozef Czapski, Konstanty Jele[acute accent]nski, and others came forward defending Milosz and his position.

Discussion of Milosz both as an individual and as a writer continued over the years, with each new publication adding some fresh arguments for the author's opponents as well as for his defenders. "I used to collect all those most horrible clippings," Milosz told Czarnecka (82). One of the key issues in that controversy was his admitted adherence to Hegelian philosophy as a basis for Marxism, particularly evident in Milosz's open admiration of his friend and mentor Tadeusz Kro-ski (1907-58), who actively promoted Marxism in Poland and thus became largely responsible for the predominance of that ideology over any other system of philosophical thought in the 1950s. Writing on Kro-ski in his autobiographical work Native Realm (1958), Milosz thinly disguised his friend under the code name "Tiger," openly admitting to Kro-ski's influence over his writing and calling it euphemistically "the Hegelian bug." Such an admission created a furor, and not only among the emigre writers. Zbigniew Herbert (1924-98), perhaps the most independent and incorruptible among Polish poets at home, exclaimed with disgust: "They say it was a Hegelian bug. Sorry, but Hegel had been resting under the turf for a century, while the bugging was done by Berman [the Communist Party official in charge of cultural affairs], Sokorski [Minister of Culture], Kro-ski [professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw]" ( JT, 192). 

Most of these and similar opinions were recalled at a Milosz session titled "Thirty Years Ago and After," organized at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences by Roman Zimand on 31 December 1980, and were later discussed by Kro--ski's younger colleague Andrzej Walicki in his reminiscences, Zniewolony umysl po latach (The Captive Mind Years After; 1993).

Milosz's personal and political situation has changed dramatically since the collapse of the communist regime. He has been totally reaccepted in Poland, has made Cracow his place of residence for half of each year, and enjoys great popularity, even as Polish emigre circles have ceased to play any significant role in shaping public opinion. One can quote here Maria Danilewicz Zieli-ska, a prominent historian of Polish emigre literature, who voiced her opinion long before those events took place: "The time flows by quickly. Milosz has become a winner of prizes, the author of 'books of the year published in exile,' and finally was nominated by the readers to be a jury member of the Wiadomoaci prizes." Quoting a declaration of emigre writers concerning the freedom of opinion, published in Kultura in 1951, she concludes: "The declaration closed 'the Milosz case.' Recalling it after twenty-five years is only a constructive history lesson" (MDZ, 194-95).

Almost half a century has passed since the publication of The Captive Mind, and the international situation has changed completely. Thus it is quite natural that a question emerges: is the book still relevant today? The answer can be only in the affirmative. When one recalls Milosz's Indonesian incident, one can well understand why his book enjoyed such a huge success even in a country dominated by a rightist regime: "Your book is against absolutism," as his Indonesian admirer told him (CCM, 145), and as long as totalitarian regimes exist anywhere, relevant it will remain.

Ohio State University

Works cited 
Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksander Fiut. Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz. San Diego, Ca. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1987. (CCM)
Krzyanowski, Jerzy R. "On the History of 'Ashes and Diamonds'." Slavic and East European Journal, 15:3 (1971).
Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. New York. Knopf. 1953. (CM) ---. Zniewolony umysl [The Captive Mind]. Paris. Instytut Literacki. 1953.
Trznadel, Jacek. Ha-ba domowa [Domestic Disgrace]. Warsaw. Niezalezna Oficyna Wydawnicza. 1986. ( JT)
Walicki, Andrzej. Zniewolony umysl po latach [The Captive Mind Years After]. Warsaw. Czytelnik. 1993.
Zieli-ska, Maria Danilewicz. Szkice o literaturze emigracyjnej [Sketches on Emigre Literature]. Paris. Instytut Literacki. 1978. (MDZ)

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