Commentary Magazine

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

Coercion From Within
The Captive Mind.
by Czeslaw Milosz.
Knopf. 288 pp. $3.50.


One of the basic ideas put forward in Czeslaw Milosz’ extraordinary, noble, and frightening book is that even the best-informed Westerners in reality know nothing about what goes on behind the Iron Curtain. They are fundamentally ignorant, not because of lack of factual data—on the contrary, there is a great abundance of such data—but due to failure of imagination. All the isolated facts we know would add up to worthwhile knowledge only if we were to perceive the unifying pattern behind them. For this, however, imagination would be needed, and nobody is able to imagine a reality totally different from the one in which he has lived all his life. Thus, being informed about some stark and salient facts about life in the East, the Westerner blunderingly tries to explain them with the help of concepts and categories familiar to him. The result is a naively distorted picture, and, above all, total inability to guess why and how the Eastern despotism succeeds in its projects of regimentation. This inability to pierce the secret of the enemy’s strength is, of course, one of the most important ingredients of that strength.

Mr. Milosz, who combines the talent of a superb analyst of social forces with that of poetic imagination, performs an invaluable service for the West. He helps our imagination escape from the bounds within which our happily limited experience has kept it confined. He tells us, in effect: “You know that intellectual terror and regimentation exist in the East. But you can imagine it only by trying to visualize what would happen if some people in the West, operating within the framework of your own culture, were trying to introduce terror and regimentation. All this, however, has nothing to do with what actually happened in the East. That is something you would never expect. Neither did we; and the fact that we were so utterly unprepared was what rendered us so completely powerless and defenseless in the face of the new reality.”

What, in fact, did the normal, Westerntype intellectuals (artists and writers) of Poland expect when the Communists took power? What would any Westerner expect? Basically, a struggle between “free minds” on the one hand, and brute force on the other. The intellectual would have his own thoughts and ideas; he would try to express them. Then, the official censorship would try to hinder free expression. The intellectual would protest nobly. Finally, he would be crushed by brute force, a martyr to the cause of liberty.

But what happened in reality? What happened was that this noble gesture of protest and martyrdom became impossible. The enemy did not observe the rules of the game. The neat line separating the community of the intellect from the apparatus of brute power never came into existence. Rather, the “free minds” themselves found that they were being transformed from within. The intellectual was put in the position where he no longer thought “his own” thoughts but those of someone else: a “system of symbols,” a mental, intellectual force invaded his own private being and established itself as master within his own head. Neither brute coercion nor “narcotics,” but this invasion of an all-powerful mental, intellectual force achieved the subjugation of the intellectual community.

The process is described in Milosz’ book with extraordinary evocative power. He uses the technique of poetic metaphor: the invading intellectual force is likened to “the pill of Murti-Bing,” a stultifying drug described in a Polish philosophical-allegorical novel. Then he proceeds to historical analogy, comparing the sly secret attitudes of protest of the captive intellectual to the medieval Islamic heresy of “Ketman.” Finally, he presents vignettes, individual case studies of writers caught up in and swallowed by the process. The picture that emerges is concrete, sharply etched, unforgettable. It demonstrates the utter inadequacy of our traditional clichés of the “free” spirit struggling against external oppression.



No Attempt can be made here to retrace the lines of Milosz’ rich analysis. I shall mention only a few of the unforeseen things that happened to Polish intellectuals.

At first, nobody was “persecuted” or subjected to any high degree of pressure. On the contrary, all professional writers and artists, regardless of their political past, were invited to produce. The new state showed an extraordinary interest in, and solicitude for, creative work. This was no longer a hit-and-miss affair of individual effort, or of coteries and conventicles. Creative work was suddenly organized as a big industry with the might of the whole empire behind it. The artists found themselves in the wholly fantastic, unexpected, and unaccustomed position of big executives. They were suddenly part of the machine—and they discovered that they could go on doing creative work only by adapting themselves to the rhythm of the machine. The artists’ own creative impulse (which the earlier bourgeois culture half despised, half respected, but in any case left alone) was now psychologically combined with the type of responsibility which the executive of a big state-owned industry must assume for the acceptability of the output in terms of specifications worked out on the highest levels of policy-making. Obviously, noble, individualistic gestures are impossible in this kind of situation; it is ridiculous for the individual executive to insist that the production plan must take his personal ideas or tastes into account. It is his problem how he can square the ineluctable requirements of his exalted, responsible position with his own personal idiosyncrasies. This could be done only by learning to think the thoughts of the system; but it had to be done, for otherwise creative work itself became impossible. And so, confronted with the choice of either working according to specifications or not creating at all, the intellectuals destroyed themselves.

On a practical level, this strategy of regimentation was successful; as Lincoln Steffens would say, “it works.” The intellectuals do have the feeling that “falseness exists in the very core of the method,” dialectical materialism, within the framework of which they are are expected to work. But they cannot reject the method wholesale, in radical fashion. For one thing, no alternative system of ideas of an equally rounded, integrated, and comprehensive nature is available. For another, dialectical materialism purports to spell out all the moral, humanitarian, progressive, and rational ideals that are dear to the true intellectual’s heart. If, however, this identification between the “method” and moralistic progressivism is accepted, what is the use of caviling at details in the name of personal imponderables?

And yet, Milosz insists, the personal imponderables, while impotent in the face of the massive pressure of art as big industry, could not be completely silenced and eliminated. Some writers, after having succeeded in the work of self-transformation, suddenly could not go on and committed suicide. Others, like himself, fled into emigration, knowing full well what it means for a poet to be cut off from the people who speak his language. The rest, those who carry on, “work devotedly for the triumph of the imperium” and wait secretly for its downfall. Outwardly, the system of regimented intellect shows imposing strength; it is invincible because it recognizes no unsolved problems, no uncharted mysteries, no searching, no fragmentariness. The intellectuals who do rebel (either by putting a bullet through their head, or, like Milosz, by becoming pariahs in the West) can do so only in the name of the glorious uncertainty of the spiritual quest, of the fragmentariness of truth, of things imponderable and inexpressible. It is easy for the primitive totalitarian type to dismiss such opposition as utterly impotent and inconsequential. To the primitive mind, strength is where no problems exist. But we believe that strength which is achieved by recognizing no unsolved problems is illusory; the seemingly impotent and inconsequential voice of searching and dreaming man, a voice that can neither move nor stop machines, will still be heard when the machines grind themselves to death. This is the ultimate message of Milosz’ magnificent book.



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