VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #13
The Incarnational Mind vs. the Captive Mind

October 1992By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Politi­cal Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, as well as the mother of four children. A Contributing Editor of the NOR, she is the author of, most recently, Women and War and Power Trips and Other Journeys.

The Captive Mind. By Czeslaw Milosz.

A faculty reading group of which I was a part last year was dedicated to exploring the politics and literature of the new central/eastern Europe. We decided to go back to Czeslaw Milosz’s classic, The Captive Mind. It was derid­ed when it appeared (the early 1950s) by those still enamored with the world-historical project of Marxism. It also got located and even ground into pieces as but one of many polemi­cal entries in Cold War argumentation. (Curi­ously, Milosz was informed by a member of his tenure review committee at Berkeley that he received tenure in spite of, not because of, the book. Oh, how hard it can be for liberals to be liberal!) The book deserved and, over time, has been dealt a somewhat better hand from the always fickle gods and goddesses who anoint or anathematize literary works, often for extra-literary reasons.

Hoping to come up with a fresh “take” on Milosz, I volunteered to lead the discussion on The Captive Mind and then found myself strug­gling to evade the sin of lifeless ratiocination, to forestall abstractions from a text as stubbornly incarnational as Milosz’s in framing my own comments on this enormously subtle work. Why incarnational? Here I have in mind Milosz’s determination to be fleshly, concrete, and particular. An incarnational text is a world of concrete presences; it derives from an im­pulse to make “real” that which is symbolized or represented. A symbol, a metaphor, a fig­ure does not stand apart from but participates in “the thing itself.” The writer aims neither for a pure realm nor an ideal form but for a way to express reverence for that which is: the feel of fresh, cold earth being squeezed through one’s fingers on a chilly spring morn­ing; the slosh of cream from a porcelain pitch­er as it pours over a bowl of strawberries; the high-pitched, insistent whistle of the tea kettle on the stove, the howls of first one dog, then another, and another, each alone and all together, creating the eerie sensation of lonely, wild animal life in a middle-class neighbor­hood bereft of people who are all off working or shopping. Well, Milosz does this much better than I. I think, for example, of my favorite passage from The Captive Mind in which Milosz describes walking through a train station in Ukraine in the desperately disor­dered time of the beginning of World War II. He is caught up short by the following scene:
A peasant family — husband and wife and two children — had settled down by the wall. They were sitting on baskets and bundles. The wife was feeding the younger child; the hus­band who had a dark, wrinkled face and a black, drooping mustache was pouring tea out of a kettle into a cup for the older boy. They were whispering to each other in Polish. I gazed at them until I felt moved to the point of tears. What had stopped my steps so suddenly and touched me so pro­foundly was their difference. This was a human group, an island in a crowd that lacked something proper to humble, ordinary human life. The gesture of a hand pouring tea, the careful, delicate handing of the cup to the child, the worried words I guessed from the movement of their lips, their isolation, the privacy in the midst of the crowd — that is what moved me. For a moment, then, I understood something that quickly slipped from my grasp.
Perhaps, one might suggest, something about the fragility and miracle of the quotidian. Milosz is rightly celebrated for capturing such moments in his poetry, moments that quickly slip or threaten to slip from our grasp. His poems, he tells us, are encounters with the “peculiar circumstances of time and place.” This is true as well in The Captive Mind. The portrait of that forlorn bit of humanity, hud­dled together, uprooted, yet making and pouring tea — this, too, says something about the quotidian that can neither be added to nor subtracted from.

In a review of The Witness of Poetry, Milosz’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, Leon Wieseltier describes Milosz as a “poet of the subject-object relationship. He never quits the senses. He trusts them more than the mind.” Milosz’s belief in “miracles” is not so much the sign of a dogmatic faith as a conviction that epiphanic disruptions of the natural order draw one into “a more strenuous relationship with it.” Thus, for Milosz, one touchstone for the 20th century’s politics of terror is the immediacy of stark, physical pain. Here I think of the comfort a “Mother of the Disappeared” from Argentina told me she found in Milosz’s passage which goes thus:
A living human being, even if he be thousands of miles away, is not so easily ejected from one’s memory. If he is being tortured, his voice is heard at the very least by those people who have (uncomfortable as it may be for them) a vivid imagination. And if he is already dead, he is still part of the present; for the man who killed him or who gave the order that he be killed is sitting down somewhere, at some precise point on the face of the earth, with his family; bread and tea are on the table, and his children rejoice over a gift he has brought them.
These words spoke to her of the pain and tor­ture of her own disappeared children; they seemed to gesture toward a humble yet realiz­able hope.


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