Legends of Modernity, now available in English for the first time, brings together some of Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz's early essays and letters, composed in German-occupied Warsaw during the winter of 1942-1943.
As relevant today as when they were written, the essays collected in this volume record the young Milosz's attempt to answer the question, "Why did the European spirit succumb to such a devastating fiasco?" Half a century later, when Legends of Modernity saw first publication in Poland, Milosz said, "If everything inside you is agitation, hatred, and despair, write measured, perfectly calm sentences." That concept is applied in these essays to an extended analysis of what Milosz sees as the inevitable consequences of specific notions as represented in the writings of Defoe, Stendhal, Balzac, William James, Gide, and Stanislaw Ignacy Witiewicz, among others. While the essays here reflect a "perfect calm," the accompanying contemporaneous exchange of letters between Milosz and Jerzy Andrzejewski expresses the raw feelings of "agitation, hatred, and despair" as experiences by these two close friends struggling to understand the proximate causes of this debacle of Western civilization, and the relevance, if any, of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
"These early reflections . . . written in the midst of unspeakable horror, form a remarkable testament to an uncaptive mind consecrated to living in truth."—Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times Book Review
"[The book] is in some sense Milosz's attempt to reconcile everything he knows about literature and humanity with the total destruction he was witnessing."—Anne Applebaum, The New York Sun
"Essays that anticipate themes that Polish-born Milosz would develop in The Captive Mind. 'When someone begins to admire totalitarianism, I look at him as if he's a madman.' Thus the future holder of the Nobel Prize in Literature, at about the age of 30. Thoroughly schooled as a Catholic intellectual, Milosz had formulated an anti-modernist view of the world that opposed the individual to the state and presupposed that the individual would forever be adrift outside of the nurturing community of the church. The first essay in this collection, written in 1942, centers on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and a lawless world in which the hawk tears apart the bird ('that's me,' he writes) and armies of ants clash. Crusoe's island is less perilous to body and soul than modern times, though, and Milosz, sounding here like Solzhenitsyn and there like John Paul II, weighs in on the soullessness that permits a virus like Nazism or Stalinism to flourish. Blame it on the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche. And of the then-influential French writer Andre Gide, whose 'depravity does not reside in his homosexuality . . . [but] on having draped a cloak of beauty around the most poisonous and destructive intellectual currents, which prepared a worldwide cataclysm.' And not just Gide, the former apologist for the Soviet regime, but also Marinetti, the Italian Futurist who 'offended the public with his roars in honor of energy and brutality and called for the destruction of museums,' and all the other European nihilists who paved the way for the dictators. Denouncing the exuberant anti-intellectualism of the day, Milosz layers in learned references to Catholic thinkers . . . quotes from authors and philosophers, and urges that the life of the mind is to be prized over the active life, even though the latter 'is far more attractive to the masses.'"—Kirkus Reviews
"In his landmark 1953 book, The Captive Mind , Nobel-winning poet and essayist Milosz discoursed on the havoc totalitarian rule plays on the mental processes of intellectuals. Here we see Milosz's own mind at work in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, crafting essays of ideas, pursuing a fantastically high-minded correspondence with friend and fellow writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, and developing themes inspired by the works of Defoe, Balzac, Gide, Stendhal and Nietzsche. Call it 'The Captive Mind in Action.' Curiously, the tension implied by Milosz's situation is hardly evident in the essays: where one might expect his tone to be skittish, fearful, foreboding, the most remarkable aspect is his ability to ensconce his steady authorial voice so luxuriantly in the unpressing issues of, say, the imaginative projection required today to view Giotto's medieval saints properly. The most interesting essay demonstrating this phlegmatic tone enlists Tolstoy's War and Peace to help Milosz understand the global conflagration of his own time. But anger, bitterness and self-recrimination rage in some of the letters, where he says he thinks of writing a 'confession . . . that would exceed in its violence and scream of pain, [the] Romantic era's settling of accounts of the conscience.' For those who hanker for the high seriousness of continental thinkers like Camus, this volume is a welcome beacon from the past."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)