The Captive Mind Essay - Critical Context

Czesław Miłosz

Critical Context

The Captive Mind is the best survey of political-cultural life in early postwar Eastern Europe available in English and is an invaluable and moving record of the mood of many intellectuals in the early Cold War period. It is also Miosz’s most overtly political work. As such, it is grounded in the time in which it is written and there is much about it that is dated. Eastern Europe has, after all, managed to escape the worst of the fate to which many had consigned it in the early 1950’s. Rather than being absorbed into the Soviet Union, the small countries of this region have, in spite of the tragedies of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, managed to gain considerable autonomy within the Soviet imperium. As for the Soviet threat to the West, few continued to take it seriously in the age of glasnost and perestroika that followed the Cold War and detente eras. In this sense, Miosz’s work has much in common with other gloomy period pieces of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, including W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (1947), Arthur Koestler’s The Age of Longing (1951), and Whittaker Chambers’ Witness (1952).

Nevertheless, there are significant themes in The Captive Mind that transcend the time in which it was written. Miosz, through the skillful use of irony, anecdote, and understatement, has launched a skillful and convincing attack on the advocates of historical necessity, a doctrine which would sacrifice the present for an unattainable future. He also exposes contradictions in the logic of that kind of political realism which would justify the use of any means toward a supposedly good end. The work remains a warning to those who would forget that a society, however imperfect, that is dedicated to personal freedom and civil liberty is worth defending. For these reasons, The Captive Mind escapes being simply a period piece and becomes fit company for some of the best writing of Milovan Djilas, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and other contemporaries of Miosz who tried, in their writing, to make sense of the catastrophe that overcame Europe during the second quarter of the twentieth century.