I started reading this book somewhere in April last year, then abandoned it due to travel schedules, and have been reading it amidst different books since last month. A long drawn read sometimes hampers a reading experience, but not when the book has been written with as much clarity as Czeslaw Milosz has accorded the Captive Mind.
Milosz, a Polish writer, lived through the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and the Russian rule in Poland, and initially lent his cooperation to the Communist government by becoming the Government’s Literary attache to Paris. These were the initial times, when the Red Army was trying to win Intellectuals over by giving them some literary freedom, as long as they did not criticize Russia or its theories in their writing. Neutrality then, was acceptable. But soon, the noose tightened to swerve these intellectuals into praising the regime, and it was no longer possible to be a writer without contributing to the party’s agenda. Milosz struggled with this acceptance for a while, until his ideas of literary freedom won and he seeked political asylum in Paris. Captive Mind was completed during this phase, even though the seed had begun during his years of cooperation.
This background is essential to a book in which Milosz explains his initial cooperation and the cooperation of several Polish intellectuals. He does this through a couple of concepts, followed by 4 biographies of such writers. The concepts are interesting. Take for example the pill of Murti Bing. In a fantasy written by Witkievicz, an Eastern Invader Murti Bing defeats Poland, and offers a pill of happiness to its exhausted people. People take it willingly, because everyone inherently wants to move to a harmonious state. Milosz likens the pill to Communism – which offers a harmonious existence to all men, dissolving divides. People exhausted from the Nazi rule willingly accept it.
What takes the center-stage in the book are the four biographies of Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. All of these are Polish writers, and for different reasons are drawn to the idea of Communism. Alpha is drawn to purity and monumental tragedy, which a war-torn country gives him aplenty. Beta is a disappointed lover, a nihilist who has witnessed first hand the society that builds up in a concentration camp, and is a brutal narrator of it. The realism of Marxist regime appealed to his love for brutal truth, as did its materialism.
Gamma, a slave of history was a non-entity in the literary world before the war, but was elevated to a position of prominence & power with his embrace of the socialist regime.Lastly Delta, the troubadour was a jocose storyteller, who liked the regime because it paid him for his popular writing.
These portraits are tremendous, and each presents a different logic for embrace of a tyrannical regime. These writers, including Milosz are making some compromises, but considering the alternative – of not being able to write, or of exile to a nation where no can read your writing, their compromise does not warrant a harsh judgment. I would really like to know who these authors are that Milosz represents, and if possible read something from them – at least from Beta, whose writing seems a harsh portrayal of human nature under duress.
Milosz’ language is a little poetic, he is not a debater and he sometimes digresses from the argument into memory lanes, which makes the book a little charming,and melancholy despite the ideological theme.
Once the portraits have ended, the book has become a bit monotonous. Perhaps Milosz should have ended sooner.
An interesting term in the book: Ketman. Act of paying lip service to the authority while holding personal opposition. Wonder why it has not come up in my earlier Totalitarian reads.
Also posted in Project Dogeared