The Captive Mind revisited

First posted January 24, 2017

Jerzy Krzyżanowski

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….