OLD BOOKS, Part I: The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

In this series on Old Books, I’m choosing books with these questions in mind:

What questions do they answer?

What problems do they correctly diagnose?

What wisdom do they provide that is lacking in today’s discourse?

What metaphysics do they propose or expose?

Every book I’m examining may not necessarily answer each of those questions, but they generally raise questions and propose arguments that I think we need to consider today. (At the risk of being cheeky, I’m considering an “old book” to be any one that was written before I was born —or around that time.) For the sake of orientation, I begin with a short introduction to the work, then list a number of important quotes from it, and conclude with my response to the work. 

This book, written by Polish exile and poet Czeslaw Milosz in 1953, illustrates how the pressures of living in a totalitarian state cause people—even intelligent, thoughtful people—either to abandon their core beliefs and fall into line or to rebel (and therefore suffer and/or die in the state’s hands). Many who read it see it primarily as an indictment against Soviet Communism, which it certainly is, but Milosz knew from experience (living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw) and from understanding human nature that totalitarianism can thrive under both the left and the right.

This is a book for our times, especially here in the US, where on the right, which has been largely taken over by Trumpism, we see alarming parallels to Germany in the 1930s and an eagerness to undermine democracy altogether to remain in power; and on the left, we see a “soft totalitarianism” growing and already turning into something harder in pockets around the country where the left has more political power, and resulting in individuals’ lives and livelihoods being ruined by one verbal “misstep” or a genuine question related to new norms (read: orthodoxies). 

But Milosz offers us more than just political analysis. In this book and in his other writings, he digs deeper, exposing the thoughts and ideas that lie beneath politics and ideologies.

Quotes from the book

Milosz on Conformism in Literature/Art:

“‘Social realism’ depends on an identification of the ‘new’ with the proletariat and the proletariat with the Party. It presents model citizens, i.e., Communists, and class enemies. Between these two categories come the men who vacillate. Eventually, they must—according to which tendencies are stronger in them—land in one camp or the other. When literature is not dealing with prefabricated figures of friends and foes, it studies the process of metamorphosis by which men arrive at total salvation or absolute damnation in Party terms.

This way of treating literature (and ever art) leads to absolute conformism. Is such conformism favorable to serious artistic work? That is doubtful.” (217)

On cognitive dissonance and self-censoring:

“The split between words and reality takes its revenge, even though the author be of good faith…. I know a poet who found himself in a city occupied by the Red Army after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He was terrified by the mass arrests in which every day some friend or acquaintance disappeared. In panic, he sat down to work, and from his pen flowed gentle poems about the blessings of peace and the beauties of socialist society.” (237)

On humanity vs. “the new man” created by the Left:

“It may well be that the fondness with which Baltic women tended their little gardens, the superstition of Polish women gathering herbs to make charms, the custom of setting an empty plate for a traveler on Christmas Eve betoken inherent good that can be developed. In the [Communist] circles in which my friend lives, to call man a mystery is to insult him. They have set out to carve a new man much as a sculptor carves his statue out of a block of stone, by chipping away at what is unwanted. I think they are wrong, that their knowledge in all its perfection is insufficient, and their power over life and death is usurped.” (249)

On Western “freedom”:

“Westerners, and especially Western intellectuals, suffer from a special variety of taedium vitae; their emotional and intellectual life is too dispersed. Everything they think and feel evaporates like steam in an open expanse. Freedom is a burden to them. No conclusions they arrive at are binding: it may be so, then again it may not. The result is a constant uneasiness. The happiest of them seem to be those who become Communists. They live within a wall which they batter themselves against, but which provides them with a resistance that helps them to define themselves.”

On Nazi totalitarian rule:

“German rule in Eu­rope was ruthless, but nowhere so ruthless as in the East, for the East was populated by races which, according to the doctrines of National Socialism, were either to be utterly eradicated or else used for heavy physical labor. The events we were forced to partici­pate in resulted from the effort to put these doctrines into practice. 

Still we lived; and since we were writers, we tried to write. True, from time to time one of us dropped out, shipped off to a concentration camp or shot. There was no help for this. We were like people marooned on a dissolving floe of ice; we dared not think of the moment when it would melt away.” 

On internal pressure of totalitarianism:

“The pressure of an all-powerful totalitarian state creates an emotional tension in its citizens that determines their acts. When people are divided into ‘loyalists’ and ‘criminals’ a premium is placed on every type of conformist, coward, and hireling; whereas among the ‘criminals’ one finds a singularly high percentage of people who are di­rect, sincere, and true to themselves.”

“All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New Faith [i.e., Communism]. At the same time, Stalinism attacks him from within, saying his opposition is caused by his ‘class consciousness’, just as psychoanalysts accuse their foes of wanting to preserve their complexes.” 

On societal atmosphere of suspicion:

“Work in the office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labour required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. After work one goes to political meetings or special lectures, thus lengthening a day that is without a moment of relaxation or spontaneity. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.” 

My Response

In totalitarianism, everything becomes political. Keeping even a sphere of life unassailed by totalitarianism becomes next to impossible. We censor our own speech, even our own thoughts; we wonder if our tweets and posts are “orthodox” enough, if they strike the right note of enthusiasm for the cause; we wonder if our choice of clothing or podcasts or hobbies mark us as the “right” kind of political citizen; we worry that a misunderstood remark will end our careers. 

This is an inhuman, reductionist way to live. Milosz saw this clearly, even prior to the German occupation and the subsequent establishing of Soviet Communism in Poland. He saw it as his intellectual friends chose sides early on and he found himself virtually alone intellectually and politically. Milosz recognized differences in the lived consequences of a rightist totalitarianism versus a leftist totalitarianism, but he also saw how they were two heads of the same monster. In his writings, Milosz expresses the isolation and sense of “homelessness” he felt as most of his friends and associates were swept up into one ideological camp or the other. He witnessed the horrors of both far-right and far-left totalitarianism soak the twentieth century in blood the world over. As I read his writings (The Captive Mind as well as his poetry), they feel eerily contemporary.

Is everything already political? Are we there yet? Yes and no. Fundamentally, everything is metaphysical. Even when we think that everything is political, underneath our politics are our metaphysics. Each of the old books I feature in this series asks metaphysical questions that go deeper than politics. But the metaphysical gets worked out through politics, and politics can become ultimate for people who have lost a more comprehensive and foundational narrative.

Recognizing the dangers of both sides’ totalitarian leanings does not necessarily mean that the two scenarios are equally likely. From my vantage point, especially with the specter of Trump’s return to power in 2024 (or widespread violence stemming from his defeat), I am currently more fearful of a political totalitarianism on the right. Trumpists have shown and are currently showing us that they are willing to dismantle democracy itself to hold onto power. If one party is willing to do that and the other is not (yet), there is no equivalency.

However, that is not to say that there is nothing to fear from the far left, which culturally holds more sway at the moment than the far right. One must prove oneself to be “pure” ideologically. There is no tolerance for “sins” of thought, speech, or action in one’s past, let alone the present. The only acceptable posture for someone with an “impure” past is shame, humility, and regular confession (some see parallels with the Chinese Cultural Revolution).

Remember when President Obama weighed in on this? “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…You should get over that quickly…The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

My current stance? Prep for both, pray for neither, and try to keep my head about me.

For more on my interest in Milosz, read my essay “On Milosz, Exile, and Humane Art,” published by Front Porch Republic. An excerpt from the essay: “Milosz realized that an “ethics based on scientific principles is an impossibility”—that science is impotent to answer fundamental human questions of meaning and purpose, of telos. He believed poetry ought to deal with those essential questions. He encourages me not to cede the ground of poetry to those who would deny its imperative to speak to issues of human life, faith, and the order and meaning of the cosmos.”

OLD BOOKS, Part II: Small Is Beautiful

What do you think?

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