"The Captive Mind" by Czeslaw Milosz
With Russia’s reemergence as a major actor on the world stage, this year’s Portland Seminar turns to great literature for a wider perspective on Russia’s past and the legacy of its Soviet era on the present.
Though nonfiction, The Captive Mind is clearly the work of a poet. Passionately analytical and compassionately judgmental, Milosz’s book starts from his understanding of human nature and of “profound human longings,” and seeks to explain how totalitarianism relates to these existential longings. It is also the work of a Pole, someone located between East and West and belonging fully to neither. This is another source of the book’s power—while unsparingly critical of the Soviet Imperium, Milosz also measures the West and America with critical perspective, wondering about the capacities of their system to satisfy profound human longings.
While not always easy sledding, the writing is elegant, personal, and timeless in its anatomy of the thinking mind under totalitarian conditions. It is also fascinating to read this work of the early 1950s with the hindsight of subsequent history, especially in light of the collapse of Soviet communism and the advance of global capitalism.