The Captive Mind
by Czesław Miłosz
"During the thirty years I have spent abroad I have felt I was more privileged than my Western colleagues, whether writers or teachers of literature, for events both recent and long past took in my mind a sharply delineated, precise form. Western audiences confronted with poems or novels written in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, or with films produced there, possibly intuit a similarly sharpened consciousness, in a constant struggle against limitations imposed by censorship. Memory thus is our force, it protects us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall." - Czeslaw Milosz, from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911 in central Lithuania (then part of Russian empire). He wrote lovingly of his Lithuanian childhood in a novel, The Issa Valley, and also in his memoir Native Realm. In his twenties he traveled to Paris, where he was influenced by his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, a French poet of Lithuanian descent. The result, a volume of his own poetry, was published in 1934. After receiving his law degree that year, he again spent a year in Paris on a fellowship. Upon returning to Poland he worked as a commentator at Radio Wilno, but was dismissed for his leftist views.
Miłosz spent World War II in Warsaw, under Nazi Germany's "General Government," where, among other things, he attended underground lectures by Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz. He did not participate in the Warsaw Uprising due to his residence outside of Warsaw proper. After the war Miłosz served as cultural attaché of the communist People's Republic of Poland in Paris. However, in 1951 he defected and obtained political asylum in France. In 1953 he received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize).
In 1960 Miłosz emigrated to the United States, and in 1970 he became a U.S. citizen, and in 1980 receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature for a writer "who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts". Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him. When the Iron Curtain fell, Miłosz was able to return to Poland, at first to visit and later to live part-time in Kraków, while continuing to spend time each year in America. In 1989 Miłosz received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. Through the Cold War, his name was often invoked in the United States, particularly by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., usually in the context of Miłosz's 1953 book The Captive Mind. During the same time, his name was largely ignored by the government-censored media and publications in Poland.
The Captive Mind has been described as one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. In the preface Miłosz observed that "I lived through five years of Nazi occupation . . . I do not regret those years in Warsaw". But it is his analysis of Poland and her intellectuals under the heel of Soviet Communism that is the primary content of this book. Through the examples of four intellectuals Milosz is able to capture the psychological impact on the lives of his countrymen. The criticism is devastating and it has not lost its impact more than fifty years later. He even was prescient enough to speculate the the Soviet Dictatorship might fall at some future date, little did he know in 1953 that it would come to pass less than thirty years later. This reader found that Milosz' prose is as beautifully written as his poetry and he is an author to whom I will continue to return for inspiration.
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