Freethinkers often end up as dissident. The poet, writer, translator and diplomat, Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004) was a specific type of freethinker. He came from a country, Poland, which has had a long history of resistance: to the three powers which partitioned it at the end of the eighteenth century; to the Nazi invasion and war of conquest; and to Soviet domination in the long Cold War decades. Milosz himself was one of the last century’s great poets, as well as a thinker of great independence and originality – although his work remained almost totally unknown in the West until he received the Nobel Prize in 1981. He was not by temperament an activist, or a reflexive oppositionist; but his inability to accept any form of oppression, political falsity, group-think or received ideas, made him an intrinsically provocative writer and a dissenting – indeed, a dissident – voice. I recently attended a conference which took place in a manor house previously owned by the Milosz family. The geographical location of the conference – right on Poland’s eastern border, in a village set amidst bucolic landscapes and dark echoes of a turbulent past – reminded me once again how much that past had shaped Milosz, and his almost cussed stance of internal and external resistance.

Milosz was born in what was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but was then a multicultural, multi-religious region of Lithuania. He came from a Polish-speaking family, but was equally fluent in Polish and Lithuanian; later, he added Russian, French, English and Hebrew to his repertory – the latter acquired in middle age, so he could read the Bible in the original language. He grew up in a period when potent ideologies began to collide with religious faith, and when national allegiances and identities were becoming increasingly strident and divisive. Perhaps his first and formative act of dissidence was to refuse to ‘identify’ himself as either Lithuanian or Polish. He later wrote a beautiful book, Native Realm, in which he depicted Vilno, the capital of Lithuania, as a city where several groups and religions – Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish and others – co-existed in a fertile, if sometimes uneasy proximity. Milosz was also stubborn in his refusal to embrace either Catholicism, or Marxism – the two philosophical options presented to him in his education – unquestioningly or uncritically. Catholicism, at that point, seemed to him too morally idealist, and insufficiently aware of the stubbornly mixed ‘nature’ in human nature. For a while, he was involved in a Marxist group with fellow students in Vilno; but by sensibility and perhaps the quality of an inclusive, poetic intelligence, he seemed to be, from early on, inured to the reductive certainties of ideological systems. As the group became more set in their convictions, and more convinced that they represented History and Progress, he distanced himself from them and devoted himself to studying law, and the pursuit of poetry.

It was a crucial part of Milosz’s moral and intellectual development – as it was for all Polish intellectuals of that period – that during World War II, he experienced two totalitarianisms in ruthless close up, and in their full, murderous horror. In 1939, Poland was simultaneously invaded by Nazi Germany from the West, and by the Soviet Union from the East. (The pact between the two powers broke down in 1941, when the Nazi armies attacked the Soviet Union). Under the Nazi regime, there were really two wars in Poland: the war of conquest and eventual enslavement against the Poles, and the war of extermination against the Jews. Milosz spent most of the war in Warsaw, working with underground resistance journals, in what was – against impossible odds – the largest resistance movement against the Nazis mounted in wartime Europe. Earlier than most, he understood the enormity of the Holocaust, which was perpetrated largely on Polish territory; and in an act of prescient conscience, he wrote two poems on the extermination in the Warsaw Ghetto – ‘Campo dei Fiori,’ and ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ – while the destruction was still going on, and in what were perhaps the earliest literary responses to the terrible events by a non-Jewish writer.

After the war, like many artists and intellectuals, Milosz tried to get along with the new, Soviet-sponsored regime. After all, he had little choice. He was wedded to the Polish language – and he also had some initial hope that a new form of ‘socialism with a human face’ might be created in Poland. But this was not to be; and after working for several years as a diplomat, and a cultural attaché in Paris, he found that he could not accept – could not, to use his word, stomach – the mendacities and corruptions of public and private life, the persecutions of the former resistance members and the suppression of all intellectual freedom, within the new political order. He particularly could not bring himself to perpetrate the lies that were expected of him in his poetry, in the service of ‘socialist realism.’ In 1951, he defected to France – where, in a bitter twist, he was sabotaged by the pro-Communist leftist intelligentsia, who did not approve of the bad news Milosz delivered to them about the ‘socialist Utopia’. A few years later, to avoid penury and cultural censorship, he accepted a job at Berkeley, in far-flung and initially very alien California.

It was from those experiences that his most political book and what might be called his dissident manifesto – The Captive Mind – emerged. In that complex, subtle, and in a sense frightening text, Milosz anatomises the strategies and compromises adopted by Eastern European intellectuals in Communist times in order to persuade themselves to accept a destructive ideology and to cooperate with a terrible regime. There were those who hypnotised themselves into self-delusion and denial, which allowed them to accept the New Faith without questions and with serene acceptance. Those intellectuals, in Milosz’ formulation, figuratively swallowed a ‘Murti-Bing pill’ which banished all conflict or doubt – a fictional invention of another prophetic Polish writer, Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939). There were those who played the game of Ketman, which Milosz believed derived from a Persian tradition, in which people with heretical beliefs rigorously hid their true beliefs from the powers that be, and from inferior minds – until, in the Communist context, they could no longer distinguish between their own thoughts and those of their oppressors. There were those who convinced themselves that a higher morality inhered in serving ‘the people,’ even if this led to the people’s persecutions and widespread misery; and those whose need for power or popular success meant that their sense of morality slid imperceptibly and by degrees into collusion with the prevailing dogma. In a sense, Milosz describes in ‘Captive Mind’ techniques of self-censorship, or what Hannah Arendt later called the inability to think – a state of mind responsible, in her diagnosis, for many heinous crimes (for example, those of Eichmann), and for the willing embrace of mindless fanaticism.

Milosz himself was never able to persuade himself to believe in what he did not believe – or to go along with power for the sake of supposed ‘logic of History,’ or his own safety. In The Captive Mind, he was writing about the Communist archipelago; but in a Foreword to the 1981 English translation of the book, he wrote that ‘its subject is the vulnerability of the twentieth-century mind to seduction by sociopolitical doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future.’

The geopolitical situation has changed radically since Milosz wrote that fascinating book; but the seductions of ‘sociopolitical doctrines: and all-explanatory faiths are ever present; and the analysis Milosz offers of minds trapped and imprisoned by ideological blinders continues to be relevant and much needed. The fear of freedom is an underestimated force, especially in today’s democratic world, where freedom is too easily taken for granted; and the impulse to give over one’s mind and self to a cause, a group, or a supposedly salvational ideology, is ever powerful. Milosz’ form of resistance did not involve violence or physical protest; rather, it was moral and philosophical. In times when all incentives were to accept reigning dogmas, he kept his independence of mind, and his fidelity to the truth as he understood it. In his poetry, consciousness is inseparable from conscience, and his devotion is to the fullness of reality, and to human particulars, rather than to any supposedly all-explanatory ‘system’. He came from a country which had suffered a succession of tragedies and enormous losses; and his form of fidelity was to remember what was lost, and to cherish it through poetic beauty. He was, ultimately, a humanist, and what might be called a mindful (rather than a mindless) dissident. His difficult and inspiring body of work should be studied as an antidote to the temptations of all totalising beliefs – no matter how idealistic they pretend to be; and to the seemingly opposite, but actually convergent seductions of extremist protest, no matter what their attractions of certainty, supposed heroism or transcendence. Milosz reminds us that we live in a human world, and that a respect for the humanity of others (and of ourselves) is all that matters – and that it is enough.

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