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The Captive Mind

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Captive Mind
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz.jpg
First US edition
AuthorCzesław Miłosz
Original titleZniewolony umysł
TranslatorJane Zielonko
PublisherInstytut Literacki
Publication date
Published in English
1953 Knopf (US)
Secker & Warburg (UK)
Followed byZdobycie władzy 

The Captive Mind (Polish: Zniewolony umysł) is a 1953 work of nonfiction by Polish writer, poet, academic and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz. It was first published in English translation by Secker and Warburg in 1953.[1] The work was written soon after the author's defection from Stalinist Poland in 1951. While writing The Captive Mind Milosz drew upon his experiences as an illegal author during the Nazi Occupation and of being a member of the ruling class of the postwar People's Republic of Poland. The book attempts to explain the allure of Stalinism to intellectuals, the thought processes of those who believe in it, and the existence of both dissent and collaboration within the post-war Soviet Bloc. Miłosz describes the book as having been written "under great inner conflict".[2]


Chapter I

The Pill of Murti-Bing

The Captive Mind begins with a discussion of the dystopian novel Insatiability by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. In the novel, a new Mongol Empire conquers Poland and introduces Murti-Bing pills as a cure for independent thought. At first, Murti-Bing pills create widespread content and blind obedience, but ultimately lead those taking them to develop split personalities. Milosz then compares Murti-Bing pills with the intellectually deadening effects of Marxist-Leninism in the USSR and the Soviet Bloc.

Chapter II

Looking to the West

The second chapter analyzes how Western democracies were perceived by Stalinist intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe. He describes them as feeling a mixture of contempt and fascination. The constraints placed on politicians and policemen by the rule of law struck them as incomprehensible and inferior to the police states of the Communist world. Milosz wrote, however, that the same intellectuals who denounced Western consumerism in print would often read Western literature in search of something more worthy that the books published behind the Iron Curtain.

Chapter III


The third chapter draws upon the writings of Gobineau, a 19th-century French diplomat assigned to present day Iran. In his book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, Gobineau describes the practice of Ketman, the act of paying lip service to Islam while concealing secret opposition. Describing the practice as widespread throughout the Islamic World, Gobineau quotes one of his informants as saying, "There is not a single true Moslem in Persia."[3] Gobineau further describes the use of Ketman to secretly spread heterodox views to people who believe that they are being taught Islamic orthodoxy.[4]

Milosz then describes seven forms of Ketman applied in the People's Republics of the 20th century:

  1. National Ketman, the practice of publicly carrying Russian books and humming Russian songs while privately believing, "Socialism-yes, Russia-no." Milosz described this form of Ketman as extremely widespread among Polish intellectuals who sprang from working-class families. Such beliefs, however, were considered Titoism by the Polish Government and were therefore kept hidden.[5]
  2. The Ketman of Revolutionary Purity, the secret belief that Joseph Stalin betrayed the teachings of Vladimir Lenin by instituting mass terror, forced collectivisation, the concentration camps of the GULAG, and the smothering of literature and the arts by tolerating only Socialist Realism. Followers of this Ketman believed that, a new literary and artistic flowering would follow the end of World War II and, until then, Stalin must be not only tolerated, but supported. Milosz writes, "This variety of Ketman was widespread if not universal in Russia during the Second World War, and its present form is a rebirth of an already once-deceived hope."[6]
  3. Aesthetic Ketman, the practice of escaping from Socialist Realism by secretly filling one's life with the art, literature, and music of past ages. Milosz writes, "In these conditions, aesthetic Ketman has every possibility of spreading. It is expressed in that unconscious longing for strangeness which is channeled toward controlled amusements like theater, film, and folk festivals, but also into various forms of escapism. Writers burrow into ancient texts, comment on and re-edit ancient authors. They write children's books so that their fancy may have slightly freer play. Many choose university careers because research into literary history offers a safe pretext for plunging into the past and for converse with works of great aesthetic value. The number of translators of former prose and poetry multiplies. Painters seek an outlet for their interests in illustrations for children's books, where the choice of gaudy colors can be justified by an appeal to the naive imaginations of children. Stage managers, doing their duty by presenting bad contemporary works, endeavor to introduce into their repertoires the plays of Lope de Vega or Shakespeare-that is, those of their plays that are approved by the Center."[7]

Chapter IV

Alpha, the Moralist

The fourth chapter describes, under the pseudonym Alpha, the life of Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski[8] and how he came to collaborate with Stalinism in Poland. Before the Second World War, Andrzejewski had been widely admired as the author of Catholic novels and considered himself a follower of Jacques Maritain. Milosz expresses a belief, however, that Andrzejewski's Catholic Faith went only skin deep.

During the Nazi Occupation of Poland, Andrzejewski was one of the leaders of the literary wing of the Polish underground state. In this capacity, he wrote many short stories and gave many underground literary readings that won many recruits and strengthened the morale of the Polish Home Army. Milosz also describes how, upon returning to Poland's capital after the Warsaw Uprising, he and Andrzejewski walked together through the rubble and ruins of the city. Milosz then expresses a belief that Andrejewski's belief in the values of honor, patriotism, and loyalty had been destroyed by the horrors of the Uprising.

After the war, Andrzejewski began writing and, as the new Polish began slowly demanding blind obedience from him, he obeyed without question even publicly denounced his past writing for deviating from Socialist Realism. Despite having once written Catholic novels, Andrzejewski also willingly accepting a position making speeches denouncing The Vatican. Ever after, other intellectuals began calling Andrzejewski, "the respectable prostitute."

Chapter V

Beta, The Disappointed Lover

In 1942, Czeslaw Milosz first encountered Tadeusz Borowski[8] at an underground literary reading in Occupied Warsaw. At the time, Borowski was writing poetry striking for its Nihilistic tone. In 1943, Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned in Auschwitz.

With extensive quotations from Borowski's short stories, Milosz describes how the former poet survived by being assigned to help unload the transports of Jews who were bound for the gas chambers. In return, Borowski was allowed to keep their food and clothing for himself. Milosz expresses a belief that Borowski's stories should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand totalitarianism.

After the war, Borowski returned to Poland and, like Andrzejewski, became a propagandist for the ruling Party. Eventually, however, he became disillusioned and fell into a crippling depression. After making several statements about the 1930 suicide of disillusioned Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Borowski took his own life. Despite his doubts, his funeral was exploited for propaganda by the Stalinist Government of Poland.

Chapter VI

Gamma, the Slave of History

Jerzy Putrament[8]

Chapter VII

Delta, the Troubadour

Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński[8]

The book elaborates the idea of "enslavement through consciousness" in the penultimate chapter, and closes with a pained and personal assessment of the fate of the Baltic nations in particular.


The Captive Mind was an immediate success which was to bring its author international renown.[9] While banned in Poland, it circulated underground there, Miłosz being among those authors whose name could not be mentioned even in order to denounce. The book is described by historian Norman Davies as a "devastating study" which "totally discredited the cultural and psychological machinery of Communism".[10] In that the book represents the view of an insider and draws on extensive analysis, it has been compared to Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.[9]

Miłosz has said of the book "It was considered by anti-communists as suspect because I didn't attack strongly enough the communists. I tried to understand the processes and they didn't like that. And it also created the idea, particularly in the West, that I was a political writer. This was a misunderstanding because my poetry was unknown. I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself."[11]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Bibliography (Polish), the Official Website for Czesław Miłosz, accessed 10 September 2017.
  2. ^ Interview with Czesław Miłosz,
  3. ^ Milosz (1953), page 58.
  4. ^ Milosz (1953), pages 57–60.
  5. ^ Milosz (1953), pages 61–63.
  6. ^ Milosz (1953), pages 63–64.
  7. ^ Milosz (1953), pages 64–69.
  8. ^ a b c d Stewart, Gaither (Autumn 2004). "Czesław Miłosz: The Unfashionable Poet". The Paumanok Review. 5 (4).
  9. ^ a b Krzyżanowski, Jerzy R. (Autumn 1999). "The Captive Mind Revisited". World Literature Today. World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 4. 73 (4): 658–662. doi:10.2307/40155072. JSTOR 40155072.
  10. ^ Norman Davies, Heart of Europe. A Short History of Poland, Oxford University Press 1984.
  11. ^ A century's witness, The Guardian, accessed 31 October 2009.
This page was last edited on 23 July 2019, at 17:00
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