Review | ‘The Captive Mind’ by Czesław Miłosz

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'Our fiction writing' / CC
Photograph: 'Our fiction writing' / CC

Those who have not read George Orwell’s 1984 likely understand terms like ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink’ and ‘Orwellian.’ This is because writers continue to find echoes of 1984 in recent Russian media, in fictional works like The Hunger Games, or in the increasing security measures carried out by several nations in the name of national security. In short, its presence in popular culture is manifold. Lesser known, but no less profound or timeless, is Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. Often placed alongside 1984 for its force and insight, it was published just four years later and examines the vulnerability and attraction of the mind to totalitarian ideology and Stalinism in particular. It launched the young Polish poet onto the international literary scene, where he was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. And yet, praise for The Captive Mind is confined to academic circles, a favourite to place on university syllabi, but infrequent on a bestsellers table at chain bookstores.

The book begins with a description of the pill of Murti Bing, a reference to Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s utopian novel Insatiability. Written in 1931, Witkiewicz’s novel imagines a Sino-Mongol invasion of Western Europe and a pill, which offered to the conquered and willingly taken, delivers solace. The citizens of Europe thus happily welcomed the invaders and were no longer plagued by metaphysical problems. Meant as an analogy for the Soviet invasion and the submission of Poland’s intellectuals, Miłosz indicates that his novel will concern itself with the spiritual rather than physical threats that structured the indoctrination process. Conversion, however, was not always sincere. Miłosz goes on to describe a Muslim custom termed ‘Ketman,’ which was witnessed and described by the French writer Arthur Gobineau in the 19th century Persia. Essentially, the premise is that one can hide their true beliefs from a state that values conformity and, in so doing, derives a sense of pride from this accomplishment. Miłosz then enumerates the types of Ketman exhibited in Poland. With the framework of seduction and internal resistance established, Miłosz provides four portraits of former friends, all writers, who adapted to Stalinism.

Despite his use of pseudonyms, Miłosz’s subjects have been identified as Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament and Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski. Miłosz paints their personalities, traces their inspirations and ambitions, describes how they slowly succumb to political compromises, and finally depicts the complete submission of their art to the State. It is through these intimate portraits that Miłosz captures and transmits the lived reality of Stalinism in Poland. It is my opinion that these chapters are also the most beautifully conceived and written. As Miłosz guides the reader through the story of each writer he subtly imposes upon the reader the same reasoning, dialectical materialism, which was used against the writer. Thus, the reader is, if only briefly and superficially, exposed to the frightening and disturbing reasoning used by the Polish State to claim the minds of its citizens. In challenging the reader this way, Miłosz succeeds in connecting the reader to the plight of distant and past people. After all, while the pseudonyms protect the identity of the writers, they also function as character moulds for Polish society.

Given the pull of the Murti Bing pill, one must ask: How did Miłosz evade captivity when others did not? Miłosz writes that it was a revolt of the stomach, which had endured too much. Miłosz had deluded himself during the first years of Communist rule. As ‘socialist realism’ was declared in Poland, however, Miłosz realized that his mind was entering captivity. Miłosz explains what awaited him:

Human sufferings are drowned in the trumpet-blare: the orchestra in the concentration camp; and I, as a poet, had my place already marked out for me among the first violins.

Miłosz emigrated and his mind remained unchained. The Captive Mind, however, is not only profound for it’s account of one man’s escape and many others’ demise in the face of totalitarian culture and Communist ideology. Rather, its concepts and warnings remain relevant today. Indeed, for Tony Judt, the Western world has become prisoners of a different ideology: ‘the market.’ Despite the economic crash, the pill of Murti Bing assures us that an unregulated market is still the way forward. Put simply, the concepts borrowed and refined by Miłosz, such as ‘Murti Bing’ and ‘Ketman,’ should exist as universal shorthand, just like Orwell’s terms listed at the start of the review. They have much to offer in the way of conceptualizing modern tyranny and resistance as well as challenges how we define it. Ultimately, The Captive Mind is a classic; I fear, however, that it does not possess the readership it needs and deserves.

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About Sam Black 3 Articles
Samantha Black recently completed her MA in Modern British and European History from Oxford University. Her field of interest is memory theory, intercultural dialogue and the history of international relations with a focus on Europe in the mid-20th century.

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