The Captive Mind – by Czeslaw Milosz: A Book Review

“All over the world people are now sleeping in their beds, or perhaps they are engaged in some idiotic pastime; and one might easily believe that each in his own way is doing his best to deserve destruction. But that destruction will bring no freedom.”

I had dinner with a friend the other night. We shared stories, exchanged ideas and grumbled a lot about the current political climate and our disappointment in what could have been – what should have been. Towards the end of dinner he gifted me a copy of “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz. My friend is somewhat older than myself, and life’s paths have taught him a thing or two. He is an intellectual – that special breed of person who seeks to know for knowledge sake and is always on the lookout for a fertile mind to share their understanding, right and wrong, without imposition or obligation. As all good intellectuals, my friend does this by carefully selecting books; depositing them before me sort of like stepping stones across a river which has become turbulent. My friend knows I am a writer; and that we share concern for issues of liberty – of the fight against tyranny – as a motivator. All this to say, what he gives me I read. In this case – jetlagged from a recent overseas trip – I used the solitude of early mountain mornings to finish this latest book.  

“The Captive Mind” did not disappoint. Milosz is, of course, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate who lived in Warsaw during that singular time in history when Poland was beset by two great evils; first Nazism and then communism. An avid anti-fascist, Milosz – like so many intellectuals – made common cause for a time with communist totalitarianism. Unlike so many others, he made the difficult and dangerous decision to break with the regime when the “socialist realism” imposed by the censors became too much for his poet’s fingers to bear.

This book is a study on totalitarianism through the presentation of four mini-biographies of writers – friends of Milosz’s – who decided to surrender to the “Method”, as the soviet system of written art was called. It is not an indictment, nor is it a justification, of their decisions. It is an explanation of what goes on in the mind of a writer that makes him vulnerable to the overtures of totalitarianism – and how he often builds walls around himself that he is then unable to climb. But it is also a story of resistance – of how writers are often able to find in subservience to a great power a modicum of liberty; going beyond cognitive dissonance (which is a tool of the totalitarians) to mine their work with a tense deferential rebellion. For me, it was immensely helpful – as I have often struggled to understand why men who should be of sensitive spirit so often make common cause with the violence.

As Milosz so eloquently explains, the Soviet thought masters used the control of art to present a unified vision of the struggle for the “New Man” through the “New Faith”. To those within their dominion, they used art to demonstrate that the light would come on the other side of the (tremendously brutal) horizon. To those without they used their artists to paint a picture of internal harmony.

Of course, we see this movie still; from North Korea to Venezuela to Cuba and even the Islamic State – and it always has the same ending. Nevertheless, these failed ideas incredibly still find disciples in the modern thought police who are so quick to make exceptions and excuses for those engaged in totalitarian behaviors – falling back upon ideas of social justice and theories of victimization as excuses.

Defense of things like seizure of private property, politically motivated trials, blasphemy laws, the massacre of Christians, acid attacks, hijab laws and the flogging of bloggers is met closer to home with discussions of “micro-aggression” and a strange new political correctness – a new “socialist realism” allows no honest exploration.

This is perilous.

Free speech is essential, as Milosz explained, because it is uncomfortable. Because we are insulted. Because we disagree. It is only through free speech that we defy the totalitarians – because against our pens they are left naked, and they know it.

Czeslaw Milosz died in 2004 in California. The irony is not lost on me that this is the same year that I began my own fight against totalitarianism (first against communism and then Islamism). And it is the year I began to toy with the idea of also writing down what I was seeing. Life is a cycle, the struggle of one generation to be free is rewarded; just as another is plunged into darkness. Thankfully we have the stories of those who have gone before us – written down – to show us the way as they lead with example and nourish our own resistance. And isn’t that what the totalitarians fear the most?   

**Correction, provided by Joanna Milosz via twitter @JoannaMilosz (I love the digital age – connecting with amazing people is easier than ever before), Milosz passed away in Krakow, not California.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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7 Responses to The Captive Mind – by Czeslaw Milosz: A Book Review

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