Monday, May 1, 2017

1953 book: The Captive Mind

The Captive Mind (Polish: Zniewolony umysł) is a 1953 work of nonfiction by Polish writer, academic and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, published in the English translation originally by Secker and Warburg. The work was written in Polish soon after the author received political asylum in Paris following his break with Poland's Communist government. It draws upon his experiences as an underground writer during World War II, and his position within the political and cultural elite of Poland in the immediate post-war years. The book attempts to explain both the intellectual allure of Stalinism and the temptation of collaboration with the Stalinist regime among intellectuals in post-war Central and Eastern Europe. Miłosz describes the book as having been written "under great inner conflict.”



The Captive Mind begins with a discussion of the novel Insatiability by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and its plot device of Murti-Bing pills, which are used as a metaphor for dialectical materialism, but also for the deadening of the intellect caused by consumerism in Western society. The second chapter considers the way in which the West was seen at the time by residents of Central and Eastern Europe, while the third outlines the practice of Ketman, the act of paying lip service to authority while concealing personal opposition, describing seven forms applied in the people's democracies of mid-20th century Europe.

The four chapters at the heart of the book then follow, each a portrayal of one of four gifted Polish men who capitulated, in some fashion, to the demands of the Communist state. They are identified only as Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, The Disappointed Lover; Gamma, the Slave of History; and Delta, the Troubadour. However, each of the four portraits is easily identifiable: Alpha is Jerzy Andrzejewski, Beta is Tadeusz Borowski, Gamma is Jerzy Putrament and Delta is Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński.

The book elaborates the idea of "enslavement through consciousness" in the penultimate chapter, and closes with a pained and personal assessment of the fate of the Baltic nations in particular. Its list of chapters includes: 1. The Pill of Murti-Bing, 2. Looking to the West, 3. Ketman, 4. Alpha, the Moralist, 5. Beta the Disappointed Lover, 6. Gamma, the Slave of History, 7. Delta, the Troubadour, 8. Man, This Enemy, and 9. The Lesson of the Baltics.


The Captive Mind was an immediate success which was to bring its author international renown. While banned in Poland, it circulated underground there, Miłosz being among those authors whose name could not be mentioned even in order to denounce. The book is described by historian Norman Davies as a "devastating study" which "totally discredited the cultural and psychological machinery of Communism". In that the book represents the view of an insider and draws on extensive analysis, it has been compared to Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

Miłosz has said of the book "It was considered by anti-communists as suspect because I didn't attack strongly enough the communists. I tried to understand the processes and they didn't like that. And it also created the idea, particularly in the West, that I was a political writer. This was a misunderstanding because my poetry was unknown. I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself

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