The Captive Mind

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

7 thoughts on “The Captive Mind

  1. Milosz sounds a lot like Kundera. I just started reading “The Joke” and was wondering who would be to capitalist societies what Kundera was to a communist regime. I thought Murakami is probably the closest, what do you think ?

    On the other hand I clicked on the tag of Kundera and you seem to have written about the movie adaptation of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, would love to read your views on his novels as well.


  2. Nightwatchmen, actually this work from Milosz is very different from any Kundera that I have read, though of course I have not read The Curtain and it has been a long time since I read The Joke – the two works in which he is likely to deal with the leanings and freedom of a writer.His later works, which I quite like, have nothing more than a hint of politics in them.
    I also would like to read what I thought of Kundera's books, because at one time he touched my life mildly with an unsettling book called Identity – perhaps I would have to reread him one of these days and see how affected I feel.
    I can't answer your question on who will replace Kundera in the capitalist sphere – he was a pro-communist, but also saw the trappings of a totalitarian state – so I do not know quite how to place him in the communist regime.
    But I am curious to know why you think Murakami can be his equivalent.


  3. Madhuri,

    For the Murakami question even though I have only read a couple of his books, the theme that seems to be recurrent is about a sense of alienation [A Wild Sheep Chase] in a capitalistic society.

    To draw a further parallel, while in “The Joke” a letter written in jest changes the life of one of the protagonists irrevocably in the communist regime, Murakami's “A Wild Sheep Chase” on the other hand has a theme of a very powerful conglomerate taking over a whole section of a town except for one old time hotel owner who holds out which going by some recent developments in Bangalore, the city I live bear an eerie resemblance to what Murakami wrote about 30 years back.

    I have read a bit of Kundera and I think the Joke is the most overtly political so far though “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” does have a lot of takes on the Russian occupation in one of the sections.

    Kundera also introduces the Czech word “Litost” in one of the sections of “The Book….” which is also what led me to compare Milosz to Kundera


  4. Interesting.The theme of alienation is something that figures heavily even in totalitarian writing. Communism, while seeking harmony in its philosophy, alienated people by their absolute power. Saramago's Cave, or Coetzee's Life & times of Michael K, not to say all of Kafka's work point to this alienation which happened in a communist regime.
    On the other hand, all modern and post-modern (I am still not clear what that genre means), writers have been characterizing this alienation of capitalist society. Japanese writers stand ahead in this theme, be it Kawabata, Mishima, or as you mention Murakami. But there are many European writers who I find better narrators of this theme: Alberto Moravia is one, Frisch is another, Saramago yet one more. Sebald writes of this alienation in a wholly novel way. And amongst the classics, there is Invisible Man, American Psycho and The Outsider – all perfect examples of marginalization in a capital world.
    I can't think of one writer who could take the mantle.


  5. If anyone's still reading this: Beta's name was Tadeusz Borowski. He's one of my favorite writers, despite the starkness of his writing, and I highly recommend him.


  6. Discounting the stuff he wrote after he turned to Communism, he didn't have that big of an oeuvre. The traditional starting point is “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”. (In that book, the story that affected me most was “The People Who Walked By”.)


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