Captive Minds, Then and Now

Milosz_czeslaw-19810625.2_gif_230x479_q85 Tony Judt in the NYRB blog:

[Czeslaw] Milosz was born in 1911 in what was then Russian Lithuania. Indeed, like many great Polish literary figures, he was not strictly “Polish” by geographical measure. Adam Zagajewski, one of the country’s most important living poets, was born in Ukraine; Jerzy Giedroyc—a major figure in the twentieth-century literary exile—was born in Belarus, like Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century icon of the Polish literary revival. Lithuanian Vilna in particular was a cosmopolitan blend of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, and Jews, among others (Isaiah Berlin, like the Harvard political philosopher Judith Shklar, was born in nearby Riga).

Raised in the interwar Polish republic, Milosz survived the occupation and was already a poet of some standing when he was sent to Paris as the cultural attaché of the new People’s Republic. But in 1951 he defected to the West and two years later he published his most influential work, The Captive Mind. Never out of print, it is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.

Milosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for “a feeling of belonging.” Two of his subjects—Jerzy Andrzejewski and Tadeusz Borowski—may be familiar to English readers, Andrzejewski as the author of Ashes and Diamonds (adapted for the cinema by Andrzej Wajda) and Borowski as the author of a searing memoir of Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

But the book is most memorable for two images.