How do intelligent men learn to love stupidity? How do artists come to appreciate barbarism? These questions troubled Czesław Miłosz as he wrote The Captive Mind. A Polish poet, in exile for his dissident stance, he wanted to explore the attitudes of those of his peers who had embraced Stalinism.
These men were different from the Stalinists of the West. They did not tend to have been Marxists by inclination, but embraced the “New Faith” once the Red Army had arrived. At the centre of the book is a caustic analysis of four writers than Miłosz names as “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Gamma” and “Delta”; actually Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament and Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński.
Miłosz had always lived at a distance from his contemporaries. He was cosmopolitan and progressive – disdainful of national traditions – and had avoided the Warsaw Uprising to save himself from an insurrection that he thought was futile. Stalinist attempts to reshape man and his societies disgusted him, but he could appreciate how men were tempted to accept them. The young poets and novelists that he had grown up with were living in an age in which political and spiritual certainties had been abandoned. Many of them had been scarred by their experiences of the war, which had made everything seem far more urgent or absurd. The trivial thoughts and deeds of their compatriots repulsed them, and the threat of fascists often seemed to have endured. They swallowed the pill of communism as the Red Army occupied Poland.
Miłosz borrows the Islamic idea of “ketman” to describe their outward enthusiasm and internal conflict, before delving into the conflicts endured by his peers. Alpha, “the moralist”, is held to have sought purity in a strange, silent universe. He had embraced the right and the left, as well as Communism and the resistance, in his search for moral authority. (Miłosz blames him for inspiring young men to sacrifice themselves in a doomed uprising, though one would like to think that Krzysztof Baczyński and others could decide for themselves.) Miłosz seems to empathise with his longing but argues that in looking for great truths he obscured actual facts: seeing fascist atrocities, and capitalist ills, but not Soviet crimes. Ideological blinkers offer one a narrow view of that data which is consistent with the world one hopes to see. They are, however, not a worthwhile tool of the truth.
Beta, “the Disappointed Lover”, endured the concentration camps and is said to have emerged with resentment and fear towards mankind. Utopianism thrives in misanthropy. It inspires one to imagine a new form of man. Given the disgust that you and I – if we are honest – experience faced with the mean and tedious elements of our societies we should sympathise with those who felt disgusted after witnessing massacres. One must say, to begin with, that our cognitive programming is not easily adjusted. Man’s psychological habits are 0ld and unyielding, and cannot be changed as one might lose the habit of biting one’s nails. This is no defence of them. Miłosz suggests that his despair could have been tempered if he had “seen an individual man instead of a society. We have different impulses, which can be debased (or, indeed, ennobled) by torment, but should that lead us to define ourselves by our worst possibilities? Better, perhaps, to accept the conflict in our nature and strive to maintain conditions that support our better selves.
Gamma was a longtime communist who Miłosz portrays as a Soviet functionary, propagandising on behalf of the Stalinists in an attempt to expand their ranks and minimise “the number of internally free people who, by the mere fact of their existence, judged him”. He believes that Soviet triumph is inevitable, and that he is a slave to historical determinism, but Miłosz reflects that “the devil to whom men sell their souls owes his might to men themselves”. One makes a choice to empower him. Delta, meanwhile, was a stylist with little regard for the content of his work. He brought the same exuberant flair to prose and poems on behalf of crypto-fascists and communists alike. Once he had declared his loyalty to the Soviets, however, their evermore overbearing demands for ideological conformity throttled his style and ensured that “his poems no longer differed from prose ground out by second-rate rhymesters”. Isolated aestheticism is impossible.
With the exception of Borowski – author of the chilling This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, whose suicide might have shown the extent to which he was traumatised by his wartime experiences or the extent to which his soul dissented from his propaganda – I know little of the men whom Miłosz explored. Such is the man’s assurance in describing their psychologies that it might be that his diagnoses were presumptuous. They are grimly plausible, however, and one can appreciate the temptations that such men experienced. Ambition, horror, resignation and detachment can encourage us to accept idiocies and evil under less pressure than these men experienced and their portrayals should inspire not the smugness one can feel as one dismisses others as “useful idiots” but the caution one is imbued with upon acknowledging our potential for weakness.