‘The Polish August’ and ‘The Captive Mind’ (07/82)

The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution by Neal Ascherson (Viking, 320 pages, $14.95; also available as a Pen­guin import paperback)
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz (Vintage, 251 pages, $4.95 paperback)

The stores are full of books on Poland. Serious studies like those of Ascherson and Milosz, which will introduce most readers to a species of contemporary European history more chilling than they ever imagined, vie for shelf space with the star-time scrapbooks on Lech Walesa. As happened with Mario Savio of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement or Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the May 1968 revolt in France, the media selected a figurehead for the Polish near-revolution—along with the election of Ronald Reagan perhaps the most important political event of the last de­cade—and the selection made sense. Like Savio and Cohn-Bendit, Walesa was a real leader, and he had a real constituency. He was not a fraud, and organizing the story around him simplified it and made it accessible to a large number of busy, distracted readers.

But the media’s constituency is never that of the leader of a revolt, and the true story of an authentic revolt is never accessible to simplification. Ultimately, the organization of the story of the Polish rebellion around Walesa was less a way of managing the event than of rendering it meaningless. Walesa remains in prison; the newspapers give the impression that were he to be released, Solidarity would be redeemed: everything would be okay. So much for the countless Poles deported, murdered, or stripped of their voices by the Soviet client governments that have ruled Poland since 1944. So much for the thousands of Solidarity members who will keep the prisons full long after Walesa goes home. So much for the thousands of Poles who will enter prison long after Walesa is condemned to the sterility of a Western exile. In a year, the remainder tables will be full of books on Poland.

Neal Ascherson is a British foreign correspondent who witnessed many of the Polish events. Save for a brief postscript, his book was written before last December’s destruction of Solidarity by Poland’s new military government, but it begins with a recognition of the losses that occur when a mass movement is reduced to the image of a leader. The Polish August opens on December 16, 1980, in Gdansk, when the then new, since deposed Polish government, the leaders of Solidarity, and the Catholic church combined to dedicate a monument to the martyrs of December 1970, when striking workers who anticipated the great revolt of 1980 were shot down by Polish soldiers.

The ceremony signified, Ascherson writes, “that the victims of 1970 had been welcomed into the company of those who died not just for bread or higher wages but for the nation.” But there was “something alienating about the ceremony,” which was in effect “produced and directed” by the filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron). “It was, indeed, a spectacle: the ordinary people who had brought all these things about by asserting their right to be subjects as well as objects of history now stood in darkness and watched the show as if they were watching a film… In deciding that December 1970 was too important to be left to the people, the Party and the Church and the brand new union leaders were implicitly declaring that August 1980 was also too important to be left to the masses.” The “spectacle” of the Gdansk ceremony was the first installment of the transformation of a revolution into a representation of itself—a process that ended with the obscenity of the TV spectacular Let Poland Be Poland.

Hindsight is cheap, but it is all we have. Was the only alternative to such a retreat—to such a realization that “it was time to put the brakes on,” to manage the revolution from the top down—an all-out attempt to destroy the Polish state in the hope that a generalized Eastern European chain reaction would defeat or deter a killing Russian response? Ascherson did not write to judge, or to predict, but one of the great virtues of his book is that he makes the reader aware of the possible costs of every compromise, every victory. Reading The Polish August, one constantly feels a sense of danger.

Half of Ascherson’s book is taken up with an account of the development and failure of postwar Polish Soviet bureaucracy, the imposition on the country of a huge, immobile, corrupt administration that could suppress the population without ever integrating it spiritually into the postwar “new society.” It is a clear, careful, endlessly depressing story, and it presses against the story of the birth of Solidarity. The narrative is complex and delicate. Ghosts of generations of Polish resistants (from 1956 and 1970, but also from 1944 and from the depths of the nineteenth century) share the pages with the terrifying spontaneity of Solidarity—terrifying because the rebels had no plan, no strategy, because they had to discover their goals and their doubts by the day (see the daily strike bulletins collected in Oliver MacDonald’s The Polish August: Documents From the Beginning of the Polish Workers’ Rebellion, Ztangi Press, 55 Sutter Street, San Francisco 94104; $6 paperback). The balancing act Solidarity had to perform was scarier still: it had to bypass the bureaucracy without destroying the Polish state, a clear impossibility. In a bizarre way, Poland in August 1980 saw the beginning of an authentic revolution without an authentic field of action. The only way to “self-limit” the revolution was to make it into something other than a revolution—which would have been possible only if Solidarity could have prospered without the goals that gave it life and if the government could have regained a legitimacy it never had.captive_1024x1024Only those who are unaware of the terrible history set forth in The Polish August, and even more powerfully in The Captive Mind (first published in 1953, two years after Milosz, now a professor at Berkeley, left his post at the Polish embassy in Paris for exile in the West), can sniff at Solidarity’s compromises. Poland has been a prison since the war, but before that it was an abattoir. The Nazis exterminated millions at Auschwitz and massacred hundreds of thousands in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, as the Red Army waited patiently on the other side of the river for a clear shot at a dead target; once Russia took over, thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia for use as slaves. Milosz on War­saw in 1944: “Whoever saw, as many did, a whole city reduced to rubble—kilometers of streets on which there remained no trace of life, not even a cat, not even a homeless dog—emerged with a rather ironic attitude toward descriptions of the hell of the big city by contemporary poets, descriptions of the hell of their own souls.”

The Captive Mind is a study of the adaptation of Polish intellectuals to Soviet-style totalitarianism. Along with a detailed account of how freedom to think and write is taken away, Milosz offers a more telling account of how freedom dissolves, is surrendered, until it is almost forgotten, until it seems like the twitch of an amputated limb. “What we find in the people’s democracies,” Milosz wrote in 1953, “is a conscious mass play… After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance.” In literature, this means that what was in a free society “the individual temperament refracted through social convention” becomes “social convention refracted through the individual temperament.” Such false literature—socialist realism, the praise of the state, propaganda created by artists—is not necessarily false from the perspective of the artist. It may be part of a mass play, but the play is real, and so are the actors, and so is the audience.

At the heart of The Captive Mind are critical biographies of four postwar Polish writers, men Milosz knew before the Russian takeover and whom he identifies only as “Alpha,” “Beta,” et cetera. These first two are the most interesting and, in The Captive Mind, the most important; they are also worth naming, because at least some of their work is available in English.

Milosz’s “Alpha” is Jerzy Andrzejewski, author of the most famous (at least in the West) postwar Polish novel, Ashes and Diamonds (published in 1948, it was made into an award-winning film by Andrzej Wajda in 1959 and is in print as a Penguin paperback). To Milosz, Andrzejewski is perhaps the ideal novelist for a totalitarian society because his work was from the beginning motivated by a desire to please. Milosz calls him “the moralist,” because even before communism, before socialist realism, he was always quick to structure a situation so as to make it give up an ideal for living. “We used to feel strangely ashamed,” Milosz writes of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, “whenever Alpha read us his stories in that war-contaminated city. He exploited his subject matter too soon, his composition was too smooth. Thousands of people were dying in torture all around us; to transform their sufferings immediately into tragic theater seemed to us indecent.” “Only a passion for truth could have saved Alpha from developing into the person he became,” Milosz concludes—could have saved Andrzejewski from becoming a distinguished prop of Stalinism—but he had a greater passion for shapeliness. The tragedy here is not that of the artist but of the people who read him and take him for one.

Milosz’s “Beta” is Tadeusz Borowski, who wrote This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin), short stories that stand as probably the coldest and most terrible of all Auschwitz memoirs. He became a Party journalist and turned his back on fiction. To Milosz, the progression—the “self-annihilation” of an artist—makes perverse sense. The stories in This Way for the Gas are the finest, most brutal nihilism; Borowski, in postwar Poland, took “his vengeance on mankind (upon others and upon himself) by demonstrating that man is dominated by a few elementary laws.” In other words, Borowski exchanged the nihilism of Auschwitz for the nihilism of Soviet totalitarianism. Just as he had embraced the former—his stories are horrifying because they are about how one adapts to the worst conditions, how one makes them into ordinary life—he embraced the latter.

But, Milosz was told by others, Borowski did not become, at Auschwitz, the craven, valueless flunky who is the protagonist of the Auschwitz stories; that was a literary creation, a specter of possibility, a comment on mankind. He became that person only when he left the camps and returned home, and found that with each passing year home became more and more like the world he had left—“the world of stone,” which was the Polish title of Borowski’s Auschwitz book. And so he became the best and most committed of hacks, and in 1951 he killed himself.

These are, of course, old stories, from a distant time: Stalin was still in power, the first of the postwar Polish revolts had yet to take place, Solidarity was undreamed of. And yet, with Solidarity crushed, these old stories work as pictures from inside Poland today, metaphors for those who will remain in prison and for those who will emerge and find their way to accommodation. “What is not expressed does not exist,” says Milosz: that is the totalitarian gamble, and it is on the basis of that wager that a government like that which presently rules Poland takes literature far more seriously than does anyone in the West. The Captive Mind, like The Polish August, can be read as notes from, in A.J. Liebling’s phrase for occupied France, the “kidnap house”: Ascherson’s book as an account of its construction, Milosz’s as a description of its interior.


A Companion to California, by James D. Hart (Oxford, 504 pages, $9.95 paperback). The one essential book. The quickest glance establishes its range: on the first page there’s “Acorn” and also “Abdul-Jabbar” (not to mention “Abdul-Rahman,” that is, Walt Hazzard). There’s a whole page on car culture and half a page on Bernard Maybeck, the architect who did as much as anyone to shape the face of Berkeley. My sole complaint is that Professor Hart has not updated the volume since it appeared in cloth in 1978; if he had, he could have noted that Black Bart, the legendary nineteenth-century badman and poet (“I’ve labored long and hard for bread/For honor and for riches/But on my corns too long you’ve trod/You fine-haired sons of bitches”), has since given his name to a burglar alarm company.

Waiting for Dessert, by Vladimir Estragon (Viking, 227 pages, $13.95). A collection of cooking columns from The Village Voice—and while recipes are included, this is not a recipe book. Rather, it’s about food as an organizing principle of marriage, child rearing, work, friendship, and pleasure. Estragon—who as Geoffrey Stokes wrote Star-Making Machinery, the best book about the record business—has been around long enough to remember the Shmoo and to have developed an acute sense of nostalgia (what is memory without smell, and what are smells without food?), but he writes with a constant sense of discovery and a sense of humor. “There are places where one can find asparagus year-round,” he notes, “but I always get nosebleeds when I shop in them. I’m too used to being called `buddy’ to be comfortable with `sir,’ and anyway, at $4.29 a pound, ‘sir’ isn’t enough. ‘Your High­ness,’ maybe.”lulu2 Lulu in Hollywood, by Louise Brooks (Knopf, 109 pages, illustrated, $15). Anyone who has seen Brooks in Pandora’s Box will want this book, because in that film, shot by G.W. Pabst in Berlin in 1929, a black-haired Kansas girl created the most disturbing sex­ual mystery in the history of the movies. Lulu in Hollywood is successful as a talisman (the photos glow); it is less so as writing. The arch distance in Brooks’s tone preserves the sense of wonder one brings to her memoirs—seven pieces written over the last two decades—but doesn’t allow a reader to do much more than circle around most of the stories she tells. Fittingly for a woman who loathed Hollywood, Brooks’s best essay is a long piece about the making of Pandora’s Box (“[Pabst] was not aroused by sexual love, which he dismissed as an enervating myth. It was sexual hate that engrossed his whole being”); here, it’s as if the weight of a thousand sexist Philistines had been lifted from her shoulders.

Biff Kardz by Mick Kidd (Biff Products, BCM IT, London WICN 3 XX, U.K., $3 plus $2 airmail postage). A set of fifteen post­card comics in which the most advanced pretensions of the intellectual left meet their inevitable pop-cult opposition. In “A Short History of Western Philosophy,” two cowboys debate the meaning of life. “The way I see it, Brad,” says the first wrangler, “somewhere between the puritanical practice and the hedonistic gullibility is the fusion of permanence and change, madness and cool reason—yeah?” “Absolutely, Zeke,” says his stern-jawed opposite number, thinking, “This geezer’s totally ga-ga!” This overlay of smudgy Brighton Beach humor on the void of nouvelle vague-inspired film criticism takes poststructuralism to the limit: if the latest pickup line is, “I’m really into semiology,” then the only response is, “What’s your sign?” Amaze your friends!

California, July 1982

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