Thursday, January 3, 2013

Milosz on "The Captive Mind"

The more I read the more I become convinced that Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest writers of all time. No clarifiers like “greatest Eastern European writer” or “greatest Polish writer of the mid-20th Century,” just greatest.

“The Captive Mind” was first published in the early 1950s. It casts a wide net over topics like the post-war Soviet regime’s tactics of control, how xenophobia is used to rouse a recalcitrant public to violence, the effects of hegemonic state power on the individual mind, art as tool for socio-political revolution, and so on… and so on.

So how is this 60-year-old book relevant today? Simple: it’s relevant because Milosz wrote it. Time shapes the written word like the incoming tide over sand, but this text shows no signs of erosion. The ideas are still radical, the insight still profound, and the use of language still divine. Writing about this book sometime before his death, the novelist Jerzy Kosinski is quoted on the back flap as saying: “A faultlessly perceptive analysis of the moral and historical dilemma we all face… As timely today as when it was first written.” Well, it’s 2013 now, and I can say with conviction that Jerzy Kosinski was — and still is — right.

Milosz starts off his masterpiece with a quote of warning: “Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” Basically, he’s saying, look for the person or the party or the state that claims to be absolutely right, and you’ll likely find that person or institution trying to assert control over others. That’s just the way it works.

During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Milosz joined up with the Polish underground. He then saw what the Soviet Union did to Ukraine, Hungary and Poland in the post-war period. Suffice it to say that Milosz has some insight into the mechanisms of totalitarian control. Milosz’ words were purified in the fires of tyranny and violence, until the written word became his weapon of choice in combating tyranny. On writing during Hitler’s occupation, Milosz puts it this way: “We had to write; it was our only defense against despair.”

In “The Captive Mind” Milosz tells the stories of other artists and writers and how they turned from freedom fighters during WWII into supporters of Soviet repression. Calling them Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, Milosz tries to understand how anti-fascist intellectuals morphed into apologists for (big-C) Communist control. In every time, in every war, in every society, there are members of the “intelligentsia” who turn their backs on civil liberties in favor of the wishes of the powerful. Milosz gives some great examples of how this works, how agitators surrender their greatest weapons to the service of power. “In rebelling,” he writes, “I believe I protect the fruits of tomorrow better than my friend who keeps silent.”

Milosz writes about complex socio-political issues with historical insight, but his writing flows like poetry. He doesn’t get weighed down in meaningless linguistic games or academic discussions. His prose is alive, and his zeal for freedom is contagious.

Czeslaw Milosz in 1986.
At his core, Milosz is an evangelist of true art. Like me, he believes art represents humankind’s greatest possible achievement, the graduation point of human potential. He defends intellectual and artistic freedom furiously, because he knows that the unchained mind is the best bulwark against repression.

Some of his quotes about the meaning and value of art jumped off the page at me. Here are a few:

“Modern art reflects the disequilibrium of modern society in that it so often springs from a blind passion vainly seeking to sate itself in form, color, or sound. An artist can contemplate sensual beauty only when he loves all that surrounds him on earth. But if all he feels is loathing at the discrepancy between what he would wish the world to be and what it is in reality, then he is incapable of standing still and beholding.”

“The creative man has no choice but to trust his inner command and place everything at stake in order to express what seems to him to be true.”

“Repressed feelings poison every work, giving it a tinsel varnish which warns everybody: this is a synthetic product.”

As a writer of fiction, this following quote really struck me: “A novelist often modifies the people he has known; he concentrates his colors, selects and stresses those psychological traits which are most characteristic. When a writer strives to present reality most faithfully he becomes convinced that untruth is at times the greatest truth. The world is so rich and so complex that the more one tries not to omit any part of the truth, the more one uncovers wonders that elude the pen.”

There are far too many other topics in this book to cover in a review like this. I’ll close by saying that “The Captive Mind” has to be one of the best defenses of liberalism and free expression I’ve read in a long time. If you believe in art, free speech and the inherent value of the common person, give this book a whirl. Then tell me you’re not moved.

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