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The "Memory" of Czeslaw Milosz, 1911--2004

Hilton Kramer

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I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don't know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.
Czeslaw Milosz, "Consciousness"

Among the many enduring literary monuments that have been left to us in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of the international Communist movement, and the end of the Cold War, none has proven to be more profound in its comprehension of the evil character of Soviet power that Czeslaw Milosz's Captive Mind (1953). Written at the height of the Cold War and at a time when elite intellectual opinion on both sides of the Atlantic--but most emphatically in Western Europe --was aggressively promoting a craven détente with Stalin's slave-labor empire, The Captive Mind was a good deal more than a political polemic. It was a detailed and devastating analysis of the morally corrupting and intellectually bankrupt character of Soviet culture, and all the more powerful in coming from a poet of world-class distinction who had first-hand knowledge of the blight that had been visited upon Russia and his native Poland by the yoke of Stalin's tyranny.

The Captive Mind was something else as well: an elegy for the civilization that had already been destroyed wherever Soviet power reigned, and a visionary indictment of the "New Faith" that was rapidly supplanting the surviving remnants of that civilization--a Faith in which even the memory of the non-Communist past was held to be a punishable heresy, if not indeed grounds for political murder.

There are many good reasons to honor the memory of Milosz, who died in August at the age of ninety-three. He was not only a writer of multiple achievements but also a prophet of liberation for whom the individual exercise of disabused memory came to constitute a spiritual vocation. So let us, as a tribute to his memory and his elevation of memory to a moral imperative, recall some of the key passages from The Captive Mind.