The Seizure of Power
By Czeslaw Milosz
(Criterion)

In a recent issue of Encounter, the noted Polish modernist composer and conductor Anton Panufnik, who a year ago fled to the West, reported that Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind was circulating clandestinely among Polish intellectuals. The volume, published here two years ago, was a revealing document on the temper of the intelligentsia in the Sovietized countries. Here was a world far removed from ours, a world where the intellectual, serving the God of Diamat (the all-embracing system of dialectical materialism) finds escape from sterility only by engaging in the dangerous game of Ketman, or a type of “second-degree lie” whereby the intellectual systematically uses words with double meanings in order to conform to party dicta, yet cunningly register his own dissent.

Perhaps only in Poland would the book be sufficiently meaningful. For most of us, caught up in the prosaic routines of work, commuting, home, children, etc., the idea of “extreme” situations is only a literary one. Yet, increasing numbers of men have had to face the question of “commitment.” And in choice, as modern existentialism reminds us, character is defined.

Milosz, a young Polish poet and skilled translator (of T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare), lived through the fighting in Warsaw and chose then to accept the new regime. He did so because in the old order feudal reaction overlay the bourgeois dross. As an intellectual he could only choose a regime that supported culture. In The Captive Mind he told us, intellectually, how false the illusion was. A cultural attache in Paris, a member of a privileged class, nonetheless he chose the hard road of breaking, and living in exile—and became a writer in the most difficult straits—cut off from native audience, and even native tongue. He became a member of a new generation. Not an ex-Communist, stamped on the obverse medallion to the Communist (Milosz was never a party member), but the post-Communist, the man baked and blanched, who has gone through the inferno, and now, with unblinking eyes, stands against all illusions. In his second book. The Seizure of Power, a novel which won the Prix Litteraire Europeen, he has gone back to the days of the fighting in Warsaw, and sought to recreate the atmosphere in which the initial choice was made.

The novel opens with the advance of the Red Army into Poland. Peter Kwinto, a pre-war intellectual who had dabbled in French modernist poetry, is with it as a propagandist. So, too, are a number of other intellectuals, mostly Jews, several of whom, like Kwinto, had been in Russian concentration camps. Some nourish hope of finding place in the new regime; Kwinto goes along because his mind is not yet made up. The novel soon shifts. New characters enter. We are with an underground unit in Warsaw, loyal to the government in London, which has just opened battle. Then, like one of the early Russian movies, the novel gathers staccato force through rapid cutting to quick scene after scene: A train takes Poles to German concentration camps, the Red Army advances. A love scene in a gutted cellar, as a last act of life. The resistance ends. The NKVD moves in. Guerrillas hide out in the woods. The impressions rise to a flood tide, and the reader is pulled dizzily along.

Yet, there is an important method in all this. Milosz is trying desperately to convey the bewildering sense of reality and he can only do so by fragmenting it. Time has lost its simple metric sense of regular, rhythmic continuity. All is “moment,” event, duree. Each little scene, like a movie scenario, is an event, and time jerks ahead in kaleidoscopic flashes. The characters (and fifteen or more are rapidly introduced in the short space of 223 pages), go their own separate ways, brushing up against each other lightly, the tangled skein held loosely, as it would be, in the hands of the NKVD agent who himself is trying to fit the pieces together.

Unlike Silone’s and Koestler’s works, this is less a novel of ideas. If anything, its progenitor is Malraux in Man’s Eate. The problem for both is how, in the contemporary novel, one conveys the fluidity of action, the confusions of experience. As the painter faced the competition of photography, so the “modern” novelist faces the challenge of the cinema. And, as the modern painter breaks up the canvas, so the modern novelist is forced to break up the story. Action moves by rapid juxtapositions, by short flashes, by quick evocative descriptions, by interweaving simultaneous events, by so chopping up the story that the reader can no longer stop and engage in dialogues with the character; the experience is thrust upon him.

In all this, as in modern abstract art, a revolution in sensibility is taking place. The key element is an emphasis on sensation, simultaneity and immediacy. Space and time are broken up, and one lives, so to speak, as if the four dimensions are gathered into one. As William Barrett has noted, this is the “orientalization” of Western art.

Western thought and Western art have been “rational.” The characteristics of Western cosmology are that it emphasizes beginning and end, cause and effect; art has bounded space and perspective that defines form. Time as a quantitative, metric dimension is itself a Western invention. The clock, a means of measurement, defines an hour by a movement of a tell-tale indicator through 360 degrees of space; the day is defined by the spin of the earth, the year by the ellipses of the globe. In the rationalization of thought we begin, with Aristotle, with first cause and seek sequence. Thought and action, presumably, are directed by some purpose, and, bound by this teleology, we frame our basic categories in terms of means and ends.


Yet there is another, Eastern tradition (of which the growing interest in Oriental painting, in Jungian archetypes and Zen metonymy is symptomatic) wherein the cosmos is boundless, wherein there is neither, beginning nor end, where only the concrete, or the moment, is real. In painting this tradition has already captured the West. In abstract expressionism there is no perspective, no sense of form organized through depth: There is only the flatness of surface in which the pigment is “pushed,” so to speak, toward the spectator so that it leaps immediately to the eye, and the sense of distance between viewer and object is eclipsed.

This eclipse of distance has its counterpart in another area of our experience. In the unconscious, says Freud, there is no sense of time. Every event in the past still carries the immediacy and emotional charge of that event. Where it bursts through, distorted as in a dream, or acted out as in neurotic panic, it is not even as if we are in the past, but the past is the present. The function of the ego, of maturity, is to interpose a sense of time between the self and experience so that it can be ordered, so that it can be put into perspective and judgments made.

The singular triumph of modern art is (more than in the simple meaning of surrealism) the triumph of the “unconscious,” for the newer art forms, particularly modern painting and the screen, attempt precisely to eclipse the sense of distance between the spectator and the experience and, literally to engulf him. In the screen not only are scenes selected by the camera, and the pace and emotion imposed by the cutting, but with the large screen the onlookers are literally pulled into the picture. A dyadic relation between the spectator and the experience is broken; the contemplation of action is impossible; no longer do we have art as experience, all is experience, and all is sensation.


It is in this sense that Milosz’s book assumes an intent technical interest. In his effort to recapture the experience, he is forced to break down the traditional structures. We realize early in the book that we are, in a sense, in media res. Life has been going on for some time before the book has started. Individuals have touched each other somewhere in the past and may, or may not see each other again. It is almost an accident, in fact, that the printed page has begun where it has. There is no beginning to the story, only a plunge into its life. The pace of the advance of the army, the swelling omnipresence of the NKVD permit no distance between the individual and the events; the two are fused as one, and the reader, having been pull through the page, becomes swept along as well.

When all is said and done, what emerges is a graphic picture of the confusions that follow in the tide of war and some quick, impressionistic sketches (some superbly realized) of intellectuals trapped by forces more powerful than they: an ultra-nationalist Catholic and a positivist skeptic, hating each other, yet locked by circumstance in the same resistance group; a Jewish intellectual, bitter at the Home Army, who can only find a place among the partisans; an aristocrat manque who knows, that like his feudal forbears, he will end up as one of the rulers of the new society because of his role in the NKVD, and Kwinto (a hint at a self-portrait) who understands finally that he must flee.


Despite these portraits, there is little talk, little of the long, involved discussion of ideas we have come to expect in the political novel. In part this is a product of the impressionist technique which fragments action and does not permit continuity of ideas. Beyond the technique, there is a “functional” reason why there are no discussions. This is a world where people do not talk. Talk can mean betrayal, and all thoughts are private thoughts. One is forced to use official language, and the function of official language is to deprive one of the experience of reality.

So, the characters do little more than muse, half-sardonically, half-bitterly. “When the masses begin to understand that nobody is personally responsible, they become apathetic; then it is easy to mold and shape them,” reflects Wolin, the aristocrat manque. The lesson is dear. To be human is to accept moral responsibility. But can one? As the German said after Hitler, “but what could I do. . . . “ And, as the American may say after the H-bomb has fallen, “but what could I. . . . “

Talk, where it exists, is allusive. After all, the facts of life are dear to everyone and explication is unnecessary. Even where politics comes to the fore the answers are elliptical. Artym, a venerable socialist, when asked by Kwinto whether he sees any hope in the new regime, makes off-hand reference to the theories of Machajski (a long-forgotten Russian anarchist whose theories had a slight vogue here when introduced by Max Nomad in 1932 in the pages of The Modern Quarterly). For those who know, the reference has a political moral, for as early as 1905 Machajski theorized that the socialist movement was merely an instrument of the intellectuals as a class, to assume power, and that in the nature of society, workers (meaning manual laborers), would always find themselves involved in a permanent class struggle.

In these ways Milosz hints at his own stand. Kwinto notes ironically about Seal, a courageous fighter in the Warsaw streets who had gone to Artym for advice, that he had “a suppressed need for enthusiasm, and . . . that Seal, more easily than he, could become a fanatical adherent of the Eastern Doctrine.” Why fear enthusiasm? Because enthusiasm, as the history of religious sects shows, has a tendency to carry the believer into a worldly absolutism. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, believing out of a quasi-mystical experience that they now possessed grace, and therefore were no longer in a state of sin, felt able to murder for the faith since their acts were no longer touched with sin. Similarly the modern ideologist, touched with “truth” can excuse many acts for the sake of advancing the true belief. If any explicit statement of a standpoint emerges it is in the counterpoint of the slow, philosophical prefaces to each part and in the coda. Professor Gil, an old pre-war liberal who has lost his university post under the new regime, makes his living by translating Thucydides.

The passages he is translating deal with the Corcyreans. Though the war was between Athens and Sparta, Corcyra was pulled in because of her navy and her trade, and though Corcyra was not directly concerned, the civil war raged more fiercely and the internal strife rent the city more violently than in any other city in the Peloponnesian War. Such is the fate of the bystander. Thucydides, as commonly interpreted, is sparing of moral comment. Man, in Thucydides’ view, is trapped by necessity or circumstance, so there can be little moral comment other than the pieties. And this may be the surface detachment that Milosz seeks to convey. Yet, as David Grene points out, there is more in Thucydides: there is a sense of awe in the face of chance, the sense of waste in the fate determined—in short the common ingredients of tragedy—but also the sense that where choice and true freedom of decision are possible, tiny though they may be, then moral judgment, even for the historian, is imperative.

For Milosz, as a refugee without a home, a fate shared by millions, there is the moral imperative, if only, as a stoic, to fight against the sense of meaninglessness that affects one when one’s lifespace has shrunk. And even for a man, isolated in a corner, reduced to translating the dead musings of the past, obsessed by futility and the sense of being cut off from the common heritage, “is it not better to ponder the only important question: how [can] man preserve himself from the taint of sadness and indifference?”

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