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Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland 1942-43

by Czeslaw Milosz & translated by Madeline G. Levine

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-18499-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Essays that anticipate themes that Polish-born Milosz would develop in The Captive Mind.

“When someone begins to admire totalitarianism, I look at him as if he’s a madman.” Thus the future holder of the Nobel Prize in Literature, at about the age of 30. Thoroughly schooled as a Catholic intellectual, Milosz had formulated an anti-modernist view of the world that opposed the individual to the state and presupposed that the individual would forever be adrift outside of the nurturing community of the church. The first essay in this collection, written in 1942, centers on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and a lawless world in which the hawk tears apart the bird (“that’s me,” he writes) and armies of ants clash. Crusoe’s island is less perilous to body and soul than modern times, though, and Milosz, sounding here like Solzhenitsyn and there like John Paul II, weighs in on the soullessness that permits a virus like Nazism or Stalinism to flourish. Blame it on the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche. And of the then-influential French writer André Gide, whose “depravity does not reside in his homosexuality . . . [but] on having draped a cloak of beauty around the most poisonous and destructive intellectual currents, which prepared a worldwide cataclysm.” And not just Gide, the former apologist for the Soviet regime, but also Marinetti, the Italian Futurist who “offended the public with his roars in honor of energy and brutality and called for the destruction of museums,” and all the other European nihilists who paved the way for the dictators. Denouncing the exuberant anti-intellectualism of the day, Milosz layers in learned references to Catholic thinkers who are little known except to students of theology today, quotes from authors and philosophers, and urges that the life of the mind is to be prized over the active life, even though the latter “is far more attractive to the masses.”

Of interest to Milosz completists—and antimodernists.