Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
The picture presented in The Captive Mind is a dark one, but very characteristic of the time in which it was written. Miosz wrote in the early 1950’s, during the last years of Joseph Stalin’s rule. Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had been laid waste by the most destructive war in...
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The picture presented in The Captive Mind is a dark one, but very characteristic of the time in which it was written. Miosz wrote in the early 1950’s, during the last years of Joseph Stalin’s rule. Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had been laid waste by the most destructive war in history. Except for Yugoslavia, where a home-grown police state had triumphed over Stalinism, every state east of the Elbe, with the exception of Greece, had been transformed into a totalitarian monolith with institutions modeled on those of the Soviet Union. Democratic and socialist political parties had been crushed or absorbed by the Communists. Land had been collectivized, economic infrastructures destroyed, churches dismantled, and ordinary citizens terrorized. Even Communists who had stayed home during the war found themselves purged, often in the most brutal fashion, by those who had spent the war in Russia and returned to their homelands in the baggage trains of conquering Soviet armies. At the time of writing, it was assumed by many Europeans, from all parts of the continent, that it would be only a matter of a few years before the fiction of Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Romanian independence was brought to an end and these countries, like their Baltic counterparts before them, would be absorbed directly into the Soviet Union.
The Captive Mind, Miosz tells the reader, was written primarily for the still-free populations of Western Europe and the United States and was both an explanation and a warning. Many Americans and others had been critical of the seemingly indecent haste with which non-Communist intellectuals in Eastern Europe and the Balkans had collaborated with their newly constituted puppet dictatorships after the war. Miosz rejected assertions that these men were simply quislings and attempted to explain their dilemma to those who would cast the first stone. The United States and Great Britain, he reminded his readers, had never had to undergo the agony of occupation. Even in France and the rest of Western Europe, the Nazis exerted some measure of restraint in their dealings with civilian populations. Not so east of the Elbe. Here, whole areas plunged into a kind of Hobbesian jungle, a world of all against all, in which basic rules of civilized behavior ceased to apply. In one of his most striking passages, Miosz recounts walking through the ruins of Warsaw, stepping over bodies of the dead and watching top-secret papers from a government ministry blowing forlornly in the wind, paper symbols of the collapse of the old order. Granting such unprecedented conditions, he asks, was it any wonder that many men of goodwill, drowning in despair, grasped at the only straws available to them?
Still, to explain is not to exonerate. The practice of Ketman and the consumption of Murti Bing were not without cost. Alpha, the Moralist (Jerzy Andrzejewski), for example, was a novelist and playwright who, step by step, in the years after the war, sold his soul to the Devil. Little read before 1945, Alpha catapulted to fame with the publication in 1948 of his Popiol i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1962). The novel, later turned into a film by Andrzej Wajda, examined the agony of Poland at the moment of liberation from Nazi Germany. The twin heroes, an idealistic old Communist and a young member of the anti-Communist underground, both treated with compassion and understanding, die violently, victims of the time in which they lived. Although Alpha’s sympathetic treatment of class enemies was unorthodox by party standards, his novel was written just before the regime consolidated its hold over Poland, when its leaders were still looking for support among uncommitted intellectuals. Since Ashes and Diamonds was sympathetic to the postwar regime and critical of the excesses of the underground, it was passed by the censorship and became a runaway best-seller. The author was lionized and at first allowed to write as he wished. Gradually, however, as the grip of Stalinism tightened over the arts, Alpha reached a point at which he had to choose. Was it to be personal and artistic integrity or a luxury apartment and a privileged position in People’s Poland? Opting for the latter, Alpha wrote a confession, recanted his bourgeois past, and embraced a new career as an engineer of human souls, guided by the tenets of Marxism and Socialist Realism. Similarly, Beta, Gamma, and Delta made a series of step-by-step, carefully rationalized compromises and eventually ceased to be artists in any real sense. Beta, realizing what he had done, put his head in an oven and turned on the gas. Gamma and Delta survived as pampered hacks of the regime. Miosz, commenting on the corruption of Alpha, could be speaking of any of the four:One compromise leads to a second and a third until at last, though everything one says may be perfectly logical, it no longer has anything in common with the flesh and blood of living people. This is the reverse side of the medal of dialectics. This is the price one pays for the mental comfort dialectics affords.
Miosz did not write only to explain and expose the failures of his colleagues in Poland. The work was also a rebuke and a warning to those Western intellectuals who, after the war, developed a dual standard of criticism for “imperialist” America and Great Britain on the one hand and the “progressive” Soviet Union on the other. Although he singled out the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda for criticism, Miosz’s comments were meant to apply equally to fashionable fellow travelers in England, France, and the United States who remained stubbornly blind to the brutal reality of Stalinist totalitarianism.
Although Miosz does offer some hope that, in the long run, the resiliency of the human spirit might prevail over the darkness from the East, the overall mood of the book is pessimistic. The small states of Eastern Europe, for all of their faults, were largely victims of geography and circumstance. Petty and corrupt as they might have been during their two decades of freedom between the world wars, they ultimately succumbed not to internal weakness but to the overwhelming military force of the flanking totalitarian regimes in Germany and Russia. If the Western democracies succumbed, a distinct possibility in Miosz’s opinion, it would be for different reasons. Clearly, however, it would not be the logic of history, the intrinsic superiority of the New Faith, or even Soviet arms that would ultimately cause their downfall. They would perish from internal weaknesses, including hedonism, a failure of nerve, indifference to civic responsibility, and an increasing temptation on the part of those who should know better than to swallow the pill of Murti Bing.