Monday, October 04, 2010

Judt on Milosz

A few months back I picked up a copy of  The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz' spirited dismantling of the mindset of the (Communist) true believerI put it down again.  My motivation came not from any disappointment with the thrust of the argument, or the lucidity of the presentation.  It was rather that it all seemed so antique.  I had been looking for a book that might help me get a handle on modern Poland, and Milosz' presentation bore all the marks of a creature from another era.

Comes now (the late) Tony Judt to tell me I'm not alone.  Here's his account of trying to teach it in the modern academic environment:
...The Captive Mind often encountered incomprehension.  Milosz takes for granted his readers' intuitive grasp of the believer's state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression.  In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon--whether associted with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression--would be familiar.

And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a "captive mind" was not a good thing.  Thiry years on, my young audience is simply mystified: Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one?  By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist.  A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach.  When I started out, my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism: today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.
 --Tony Judt "Captive Minds," New York Review of Books.Sept 30, 2010, 8-10, 10

Judt goes on to argue that the 21st Century analog to the thrall of Marxism is out faith in "the market," but I don't think the comparison holds.  No doubt there are those who walk among us quacking about "the market"with the same kind of uncritical self-assurance that you once might have encountered in the old-fashioned Communist cadres.  The Communists kept their critics in line with imposed self-criticism and public mockery (and, of course, the execution chamber).  These days, public mockery is widely and freely administered against the market itself.

No comments: