the captive mind24 Jul 2007
It was in February, actually, that I first picked up The Captive Mind, while in Thomas, WV with Aaron and Claire. I’d imagine it’d be hard not to enjoy a book in that cozy little coffee shop while snow slowly covered the hills, but I think that this one would stand the test nonetheless. It took me a while, though, to finally finish it – coming back to it in my characteristically roundabout way, as I read 6 other books simultaneously.
It is one of the more beautiful books I’ve read in a while. Czeslaw Milosz broke with the Polish communist government in 1953 and wrote this book upon his arrival in Paris. In it, he lays the groundwork for his analysis of the psychological breakdown that occurs in the face of Stalinism. But the bulk of the book is spent demonstrating it in a less weighty and more accessible way: via portraits of his friends and comrades in their turn from poetry and art to outright propaganda in the name of the regime. Alpha (Jerzy Andrzejewski), Beta (Tadeusz Borowski), Gamma (Jerzy Putrament), and Delta (Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński).
What makes his portrait of each so affective is the extent to which he provides a genuine and loving representation of the writer’s gifts and personality. This is no ascerbic rant by a slighted dissident – these people really were his friends. In the introduction, he discusses briefly how he came to his break with the government:
The actual moment of my decision to break with the Eastern bloc could be understood, from the psychological point of view, in more ways than one. From outside, it is easy to think of such a decision as an elementary consequence of one’s hatred of tyranny. But in fact, it may spring from a number of motives, not all of them equally high-minded. My own decision proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach. A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.
And so he begins by discussing the intellectual process of rationalizing Stalinism, and then proceeds to present and dissect his relationships with these four writers. Although this (Stalinism) is his focus, some autobiographical elements from Milosz’ own experiences with the Nazi occupation of Warsaw are inevitable. I found this bit particularly compelling:
To write of the tragedy of the Warsaw ghetto, to which I was an eyewitness, is hard for me. The vision of the burning ghetto is too welded into all I lived through in my adult years for me to speak of it quietly. But I should like to describe one incident. Often, as I am sitting on the terrace of a Paris cafe or walking through the streets of a large city, I succumb to a certain obsession. I look at the women who pass, at their luxuriant hair, their proudly lifted chins, their slender throats whose lines awaken delight and desire – and then I see before my eyes always the same young Jewish girl. She was probably about twenty years old. Her body was full, splendid, exultant. She was running down the street, her hands raised, her chest thrust forward. She cried piercingly, “No! No! No!” The necessity to die was beyond her comprehension – a necessity that came from outside, having nothing in common with her unprepared body. The bullets of the SS guards’ automatic pistols reached her in cry.
The moment when bullets pierce the flesh is a moment of amazement for the body. Life and death mingle for a second, before a bloody rag falls to the pavement and is kicked aside by an SS boot. This girl was not the first nor the last of the millions who were killed in the period when the life-force within them was at its height. But the obstinacy with which this image returns – and always when I am drunk with the beauty of being alive amidst living human beings – merits some reflection.
A real pick-me-up, I know. I’ve since been inspired to finally start reading The Gulag Archipelago for a more testimonial and less sentimental take on what Stalinism meant for the non-intellectual existence in the gulags, and I’m trying to dig up a copy of Borowski’s We were in Auschwitz, which based on Milosz’ description alone, sounds fascinating.