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Czesaw Miosz was born of Polish parents in Russian Lithuania, an area annexed by Poland after that country’s restoration to independence in 1918. Trained in law and literature, he was a member of an avant-garde circle of Polish poets dubbed the Second Vanguard from the early 1930’s until the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. During World War II he was active in the Polish Underground. After the war, although never a Communist, he became a member of the postwar government, serving as cultural attache to the Polish embassies in Washington, D.C., and Paris from 1946 to 1950. Disillusioned by the destruction of Polish intellectual life under the Stalinist regime, he defected to the West in 1951 and spent the next ten years as a free-lance writer in Paris. The Captive Mind was written during this period, as was a novel about the Lithuania of his childhood, Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley, 1981). In 1961, he accepted an appointment as professor of Slavic Literatures at the University of California at Berkeley, a position he held for two decades until his retirement. While at Berkeley, in addition to several collections of poetry and a history of Polish literature, he wrote several works of literary interpretation and introspection, including a spiritual self-portrait, Ziemia Ulro (1977; The Land of Ulro, 1984). In 1980, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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The Captive Mind, 240 pages in length, is divided into nine chapters. It is a series of essays united by an underlying theme—the dilemma of the Eastern European intellectual in post-World War II Europe. It was the first of Miosz’s works to be translated into English. The first chapter, “The Pill of Murti Bing,” appeared in Partisan Review in 1951 as “The Happiness Pill.”

In 1930, the Polish playwright and novelist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz wrote a prophetic fantasy, Nienasycenie (1930; Insatiability: A Novel in Two Parts, 1977), in which Poland is threatened by a Chinese army moving inexorably westward across the Eurasian land mass. There is no resistance because before the invading army reaches the frontier, Poland is inundated by peddlers hawking Murti Bing pills, which, when consumed, eliminate both anxiety and the will to resist. Miosz used the metaphor of Murti Bing to explain why so many Eastern European intellectuals succumbed so readily to the crude doctrines of their Soviet conquerors. Like the pills, communism, if swallowed whole, provided a welcome antidote for those whose ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity had been destroyed during the long night of Nazi occupation.

Yet this was not the whole story. Miosz turns, in his second chapter, “Looking to the West,” to the complicated attitude of the Eastern European intellectual community toward the prosperous, materialistic society of Western Europe and the United States. Before the war, members of this community had been ignored or patronized by their Western peers, even though Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest had been home to extremely sophisticated and innovative work in philosophy, literature, and poetry. Even worse, in the opinion of these intellectuals, Eastern Europeans had been abandoned after the war as if their culture and history were of no importance. As a result, many Poles, Czechs, and Magyars took an understandable delight in anticipating the rude awakening in store for France, Great Britain, and the United States when the Soviet tide washed over them as well.

Even so, to the more sophisticated intellectuals of Eastern Europe, the New Faith from the East was too crude to be embraced completely. To preserve some artistic integrity and to protect themselves from persecution by their new masters, many engaged in the Muslim strategy of Ketman. This was a form of protective schizophrenia which allowed them outwardly to profess complete allegiance to the doctrines of Socialist Realism while retaining inward reservations as to their truth and relevance. Ketman was not, however, without its perils. This Miosz demonstrates in four case studies of Polish intellectuals—“Alpha, the Moralist,” “Beta, the Disappointed Lover,” “Gamma, the Slave of History,” and “Delta, the Troubador”— who were either physically or morally destroyed by playing such a dangerous game.

In his concluding chapters, “Man, This Enemy,” and “The Lesson of the Baltics,” Miosz asserts that the totalitarianism which engulfed Eastern Europe after the war, whatever its allure, was soul-destroying. If living in the materialistic and self-indulgent societies of the West produced anxiety over status and economic position, existence in the East was much worse. Here one faced a life of fear, poverty, and conformism. The future of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Balkan countries could be anticipated by looking at the fate of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940. In these unfortunate countries not only had freedom of any kind been eliminated, but the very sense of nationhood had been virtually eradicated through the use of terror and mass deportations.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Allen, Walter. “Encounter—with What?” in The New Statesman and Nation. XLVI (October 17, 1953), p. 464.

Clancy, W. P. “The Fatal Payment,” in Commonweal. LVIII (July 3, 1953), pp. 328-330.

Czarnecka, Ewa, and Aleksandr Fiut. Conversations with Czesaw Miosz, 1987. Translated by Richard Lourie.

Davie, Donald. Czesaw Miosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, 1984.

MacDonald, Dwight. “In the Land of Diamat,” in The New Yorker. XXIX (November 7, 1953), p. 173.

Miosz, Czesaw. Interview in The New York Review of Books. XXXIII (February 27, 1986).

Parkes, H. B. “The Intellectual Devil,” in The New Republic. CXXVIII (June 22, 1953), p. 18.

Spender, Stephen. “The Predatory Jailer,” in The New Republic. CXXVIII (June 22, 1953), pp. 18, 21.

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