The Captive Mind

Chapter 2 of Milosz’s Captive Mind is titled Looking to the West and examines how Central and Eastern Europeans see the West.  Milosz states that those in east see the West with both despair and a mix of hope, and that this mostly a product on the WWII.  The war not only destroyed their economies but also the East’s values system which seemed, prior to war, unshakable.  This is because man sees his world as natural and cannot believe that one day someone will show up on his street with a gun and start executing people or (if we think more recently) that nine men will fly planes into sky scrapers.  However, man adapts and begins to shift his understanding of what is important – a corpse on the street no longer attracts attention because corpses become ubiquitous and asking questions can make one a corpse.  Ultimately, what Milosz is saying in the beginning of this chapter is that the war fundamentally changed society’s value system.  That the city becomes a jungle, man changes his name, and killing cause no moral qualms.  So, Milosz asks a philosophical question –  is the world that existed before the war, or after the world natural?  Answer: They are both natural as they are both within the realm of human experience.  Man is plastic and malleable and can change instantly to suit his new surroundings.  Yet, the man of the west has never had to go through these experiences which demonstrates how relative mans judgments and thinking are.

Milosz states, that after the war, the man of the East also viewed the man of the west as inferior because they did not have the knowledge of war and did not understand that man is malleable; that his “natural” world is a façade that could disappear at any moment.  Furthermore, the man of the East believed that those in west waste the talents of intellect and artist.  They work hard and produce wondrous works but never achieve the fame, recognition and wealth.  They find it ridiculous that those of middling intellect may become rich and famous through accident.  Thus the observation is that the West does not adequately reward those who work hard.  However, in defense of the West, Milosz notes that though the avant garde artist may not directly influence the rabble, he does influence that newest fashions and design that are made for mass consumption and that they therefore do have some prestige.

In discussing the East’s relation with the West, Milosz points out that the East, specifically the center, do use and distribute western culture, but only that part of culture that suits the center.  Those in power denounce the west and the cosmopolitanism that the West produces, but the center will, in actuality, pick and choose parts of western culture to bring to the East.  Science and engineering topics are almost always imported as the center must maintain its technological might.  Yet in other ways the center will bring western culture, – music and art – that it finds suitable for the mass consumption or whatever supports the centers worldview, and the rest will remained banned.  Most of the Western cultural ideas allowed into the Soviet was that produced before WWII.

Prior to the war, Eastern European intellectuals were irritated by the West’s refusal to place Eastern Europe with in the concept of Europe, and in this case, they felt some solidarity with the Russia who have long been the scion of Western Europe.  In terms of cultural influence in the East, prior to the war, there was the West, and though it was disappointing that Eastern culture was not as influential as Western culture, it did exists.  Authors, poets, painters, and others were able to produce what they wanted with no fear of state repercussion, but, under the Soviets, those in the East have no ability to produce their culture even if certain critics consider it to be inferior.  Here again Milosz emphasizes the negativity of the Soviet Union for intellectuals.

Milosz concludes that the Eastern intellectuals’ relationship with the west is complicated.  The West does not fully understand the East and the Soviets governing style sufficiently enough to understand the problems.  Therefore the Eastern intellectual must continue to work for the center until it falls and then hope that the west will understand.

From my understanding of this chapter, Milosz is showing why the post-war did West not understand the East.  The average Western man did not experience war in his neighborhood and therefore has a difficult time grasping the reasoning of those in the East and their support of the Soviets.  Furthermore, Eastern intellectuals at the time believed that Western intellectuals, painters, writers were treated as second class citizens in the West – they had no prestige or power.  Thus, seeing this, it made more sense for those with these talents in the East to stay and support as system they did not support so they could be respected for their talents and intellect.  They believed that staying in the repressive East and being respected was better than being disrespected in the democratic West.

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