Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

I wonder how many books got sold or thrown out the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. My friend told me that his public library had shelves and shelves of books for sale written by political scientists during the Cold War, all trying to puzzle out what the Soviets were thinking. Most of them are temporary in the way that all such books are temporary, but I’m sure there is a great deal of intelligence there that is perhaps never going to see the light of day again, except by the occasional historian.

Among the books that have already started to gather dust are the most distinguished works related to communism. I doubt many people will read Koestler in another fifty years. I don’t know a single person that’s read John Reed, or Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky (unless you count Tony Blair; it’s apparently one of his favorites). All those novels about nuclear anxiety will probably soon be forgotten too: On the Beach, etc. Even Faulkner’s famous Nobel lecture seems so dated. None of my friends who studied philosophy care much about Karl Popper or Alexander Herzen.

The obvious exception is 1984, which survives even as Animal Farm, deservedly, disappears along with the memory of its historical originals. Another book that deserves to survive, and I fear will not, is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I am a little embarrassed about why I picked it up. The book is a study of the capitulation of artists to the demands of Communism, and I was looking for some insight into the bad state of political affairs in this country—the fact that so many people who seem bright enough are willing to accept what they must know are lies for the sake of their political affiliation.

The book’s epigram appeared to prepare me for getting what I wanted; it is a quote from “an old Jew of Galicia”:
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 say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Hooray, I thought! Take that, Dubya! Because what I wanted out of this book was to be told things I already knew, with a dash of wit, from someone with some moral authority. Basically, I was looking for another one of the political cheerleading books that work their way, within a year, from the central display case to the $1 section at the back of the store. I was a symptom of the bad situation I was describing.

In any case, as I started reading, I realized I wasn’t going to get what I was looking for. Milosz describes the attractions of Communism; the hard questions that any all-embracing philosophy spares a person from answering for herself; and the strange sort of dissembling life produced in a society of informants. There were oblique analogies here to American life, but nothing direct. Everything was beautifully written, and clearly the product of an incisive mind, but it felt like a book that no one would much care to read fifty years from now.

And then, a few chapters in, Milosz starts writing a different sort of book. He produces four character sketches of artists known to him who, in some form of another, decided to bend their art to the demands of the state. He doesn’t name any of these people, but each can be said to conform to a certain artistic type; the names of the chapters are Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, the Disappointed Lover, and so on. Each one is enthralling. It is one of the most beautiful acts of identification I have ever come across. Novelists are continually writing about artists – painters, musicians, other writers – but I have never come across another book that I felt had such insight into the different varieties of the artistic temperament.

Milosz does not attempt any generalizations; the sketches, in addition to being a history of life in Poland during the Nazi years, are attempts to see what made these specific writers decide to alter their art to the dictates of socialist realism. Milosz describes their life and temperament, he reads everything they have written; and slowly, he brings out some element of their outlook that keeps emerging through their life and work, something that makes them willing to settle, in the end, for untruth.

Most Western artists no longer have to worry about the demands of the state, but the traits that make a person susceptible to one capitulation will always leave him open to others, and modern society has no end of compromises that it encourages artists to make. Forget modern society—life encourages compromises. It is always easier to take your cues from convention, give up before something is quite right—or, for that matter, just leave the damn page blank and go to bed.

There are a few books that I feel like I need to read every few years to steady myself somehow. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one; I think this will become another. I encourage everyone to read it.


Anonymous said...

Reading this book was certainly worthwhile for a number of reasons, some of which you have elucidated. But why did you spend half your review describing your feelings/emotions/intentions about approaching this book? Why are readers of literature and worse yet critics so often plagued by their egocentrism? Baffles me, and Milosz fantastic a writer but the "I" factor seems to enter his writings to some small extent as so many of the literary works of intellectuals.

Nevertheless The Captive Mind really becomes interesting when Milosz pens portaits of his contemporaries alpha - delta and the concluding chapters he reveals his clairvoyance, his deeper understanding of the human creature and thus the possible outcome of soviet communism.... this book is priceless particularly because it presents the reality of communism in a society where at the time (~1952) it seemed like a promising albeit untested social order....another Polish author with brilliant insight and magical descriptive abilites, who doesn't seemed as distracted by intellectual pride, is Kapuscinski....strongly recommended author!


Anonymous said...

A great book to hilight. Captive Mind and particularly the portraits of Alpha, Beta etc are possibly the best writing I have ever seen. Although describing events of 60 years ago it is still useful and relevant to read it today.

Anonymous said...

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Deborah said...

Thank you 'anonymous' (meddoreddo). I have just been reading Milosz & Kapuscinski and wondering about the differences between them. You have enlightened me a bit.

And take heart. Unlike the commenter who was helped in doing an assignment, I picked up Milosz to reread from my bookshelf because I'm going on a short visit to Poland. I was introduced to Milosz by my daughter about 2 decades ago; she studied him in a course. I was introduced to Kapuscinski in my book club. I'm no student of literature; I'm just a retiree who likes to read.