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272 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1953
The rage one feels on reading sixteenth-century memoirs whose authors, mostly priests, recount the atrocities committed in America by Spanish Conquistadors is senseless. It cannot resurrect the Caribbean population slaughtered by Ponce de Leon, nor shelter the Inca refugees pursued through the mountains by knights fighting with faith and a sword. Those who have been defeated are forgotten forever; and anyone who would look too closely into the record of past crimes or, even worse, try to imagine them in detail, must either turn gray with horror—or become completely indifferent.This work is toxic in such a way as to render all defenses that go along the lines of "we can't evaluate the past with modern standards" null and void, for the sheer persistence of this book with its shiny rating and even shinier name shows how idiotic it is to consider time's forward movement the ultimate indicator of progress. Perhaps Miłosz can be excused a tad due to his having written this in the dreaded 1950's, but where are the reviews condemning this as US propaganda masquerading as social criticism? Where are the reactions that decry his flagrant appropriation of the histories of colonized countries as rhetorical tool for his analysis of Soviet takeover? This is not a work that would survive the merest flick of a finger from the likes of Fanon and hooks, and yet survive it does in flourishing solipsism.
Surely man has never before been subjected to such pressure, never has he had to writhe and wriggle so to adapt himself to forms constructed according to books but obviously not to his size.If you're going to limit your philosophical digressions to a happy-go-materialism view of the 'West' and the white part of the 'East', you cannot make statements like this. It is a blinder of such an obtuse level of privilege that begs the question of why the analysis is being conducted in the first place, for a "captive mind" that ignores women, those of non-European descent, those who are not rich, those who have no nation, and ultimately those who have no culture beyond what they have saved, cherished, and built upon despite centuries of annihilation, is to a great extent enjoying its captivity. The fact that white people in the US have stolen and continue to steal culture from their black population scoffs at this work's hesitating minutiae over the mentality of various Soviet artists, minutiae that is granted a great deal of space by the sacrifice of the peasant artist, the female artist, the artist in the 'West' whose problems are much more threatening than materialism or the emptiness of capitalism. This bell jar pretensions of universal meaning are common enough in esteemed literature, and apparently it was foolish to hope that a Nobel Prize of Lit Winner who had experienced the European breeds of Fascism and Socialism would be any different.
These persons, no matter how capable they are of murdering millions of people in the name of Communism, try to compensate for their professional severity and are often more honorable in their personal relations than people who affect individualistic ethics.Belying the cloying androcentricity and the self-satisfied naïvety of the last sentence, I give two stars for tidbits like these that, despite Miłosz' utmost refusal, can be easily extended to oppressive structures that thrived as strongly then as they do today. This does not mean, however, that this book is worth reading, for it aspires to be equated to works of brilliant magnitude and life-giving thought without giving any credit to such works that lie outside its limited circle of peers. The author equates forced immigration to a vacuum, historical guilt or awareness of privilege to "subterfuge of a guilty and lying conscience", and the sexual objectification of a dead woman to love of humanity. Nowhere is there any observation that this is simply the latest in line of humans experimenting on each other with the tools of indoctrination and massacre, the only difference being that the humans being shaped cannot be as casually tortured and erased as their non-European counterparts have and continue to be. In short, this work is kin to A Clockwork Orange, albeit of higher stature and greater insidiousness. Unlike Burgess, Miłosz encompasses my reaction to his work quite nicely in the following.
The lone individual inevitable asks himself if his antagonism is not wrong; all he can oppose to the entire propaganda apparatus are simply his irrational desires. Should he not, in fact, be ashamed of them?
Life in constant internal tension develops talents which are latent in man. He does not even suspect to what heights of cleverness and psychological perspicacity he can rise when he is cornered and must either be skillful or perish. The survival of those best adapted to mental acrobatics creates a human type that has been rare until now.
Pablo Neruda, the great poet of Latin America, comes from Chile. I translated a number of his poems into Polish. Pablo Neruda has been a Communist for some ten years. When he describes the misery of his people, I believe him and I respect his great heart. When writing, he thinks about his brothers and not about himself, and so to him the power of the word is given. But when he paints the joyous, radiant life of people in the Soviet Union, I stop believing him. I am inclined to believe him so long as he speaks about what he knows; I stop believing him when he starts to speak about what I know myself.