What to make of a young man who wrote literary criticism in Nazi-occupied Warsaw? The young Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wished to restore the categories of Western civilization in the midst of its destruction. His country was at the center of a war of totalitarianisms. First Poland had suffered joint Nazi-Soviet invasion in 1939. Then Germans had turned on their Soviet allies in 1941, occupying all of Poland along the way. Milosz fully expected the Soviets to return. His wartime prose, completed in January 1944, published in a single volume in Polish in 1996 and now available in Madeline Levine’s sublime translation, brings us closer to this Polish experience of totalitarianism. Because the essays themselves are of very high quality and admirable limpidity of style, Legends of Modernity also brings us a bracing, if not always convincing, reading of the American, English, French, Polish and Russian writers Milosz discusses.

Milosz (1911-2004) was as cosmopolitan as the interwar Poland that formed him, perhaps even more so, but he wrote these essays in a world defined by racial slavery and murder. The Nazis meant to destroy Poland as a society that could think for itself. Auschwitz, where Jews were being sent to die, had originally been built as a camp for Polish political prisoners. At the time Milosz was writing, the German ambition to decapitate Polish society was understood and the German plan to eliminate the Jews was becoming clear. To write in occupied Warsaw, Milosz believed, was to take part in an alternative polity that resisted the Germans. As he put it a few years later, “The whole country was sown with the seeds of conspiracy and an ‘underground state’ did exist in reality, so why shouldn’t an underground literature exist as well.” Writing was indeed an act of resistance, yet Milosz was writing to gain understanding rather than to advance a political cause.

The literary criticism in Legends of Modernity, much like the underground state, was audacious. Milosz wished to explain not only the causes of the Polish defeat but the roots of National Socialism and totalitarianism more broadly defined. In his view, totalitarianism was the outcome of Western modernity itself, and his project in these essays was to take modernity apart, to subject its mythologies to unflinching critique.

That he chose to do so in a work of literary criticism rather than history or sociology reflected the classical Eastern European supposition that literature defines society. The method of critique, although it reflects close reading and an excellent memory of books long before read, hangs on the selection and development of a single theme at the conjuncture of a book and society. Each essay in Legends of Modernity seeks to deconstruct a particular mystification of the world found in a work of literature. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example, reveals the “legend of the island”: that our surroundings are responsible for the evil within us and that, given a fresh start, we could reform and even perfect ourselves. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black Milosz perceives the “legend of the will”: that a lone individual can apprehend the complexity of society as hypocrisy and assert his authenticity by rebelling against it. Balzac’s La comédie humaine, in Milosz’s reading, manifests the “legend of the monster city”: that somewhere beneath the hurly-burly of the metropolis lurks the real city, a secret society known only to locals.

The innocent island, the willful rebellion, the authentic city: All are delusions, according to Milosz. The evil is within us, and follows us wherever we may go. Willful rebellion leaves the individual vulnerable to sentimentalism about the past and overconfident about his ability to change the future. Urban life is not authentic communication but selfish voyeurism. The anonymity of city life is a “cap of invisibility” that turns us into peeping toms indifferent to our fellow citizens. Milosz makes the dandyish point here that going to the movies is the natural conclusion of urban life: anonymous watching without participation. Yet in 1943 he said the same thing about the heartlessness of anonymous observation in his poetry, only with respect to Poles observing the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. This is the theme of two of his celebrated poems of that year, “Campo dei Fiori” and “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” In these poems Milosz implies that observation ought to create a kind of moral community, and that neighbors ought one day to be held to account.

Milosz believed that the Christian worldview had succumbed to the legends of modernity, but his description of a fallen civilization is unmistakably Christian. Our souls are flawed, and reason deceives us as to the evil of our actions. Original sin is, among other things, an epistemic problem. Reason betrays us “by adorning the blind workings of instinct with bright and cheerful colors.” Our personal delusions are the threads we spin between our flawed souls and the world around us. When many of us tell the same stories, they are woven together–Milosz seems to be saying–in a broader tale, a legend. In Legends of Modernity Milosz suggests that Catholicism is the kind of humbling metaphysics that provides an indispensable defense against the totalitarian temptation. This is no longer available, a fact he recognizes and rues. Thus modernity is the era of legendary thinking par excellence. Inverting the whole scheme accepted by rationalists and romantics alike, Milosz maintains that the Middle Ages were a time of clear thinking compared with the present day. Characteristic of modernity, says Milosz, is the construction of legends–the most important of which is that modernity has done away with legends. This supreme legend leaves us helpless before the great lies of our time.

Of the French Revolution Edmund Burke wrote regretfully that “pleasing illusions” would “be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.” The opposition between reason and illusion, says Milosz, was itself a legend of the nineteenth century. The progress of science left us more rather than less vulnerable to legendary thinking. Darwin’s evolutionary theory was popularized in liberal, socialist and nationalist variants, all of which placed man at the center of the narrative. The problem is not, says Milosz, that the spread of scientific knowledge impaired our moral faculties. On the contrary, evolutionary thinking makes us believe that we (our class, our race, our nation, etc.) are the heroes of a story of progress toward the good. The problem is that evolutionary thinking kills the metaphysical idea of a truth beyond the observable. It creates the sense that truth is what is immediately useful, that which advances the group. Since nothing is true in itself, reason defines the good instrumentally, based upon inferences about the present moment and guesses about the future. Without metaphysics, ethics makes an empire of us, and this is the problem of modernity.

In an essay on William James, Milosz argues counterintuitively that mysticism makes pragmatism possible. Mysticism maintains that the guide to truth is the individual’s experience of it. Yet even granting that truth itself can give rise to a personal experience of truth, it does not follow that every such personal experience is brought about by truth itself. One can have the experience and wrongly conclude that one has truth. When people know that others regard internal feelings as the guide to truth, they then set out for their own reasons to generate experiences that others will confuse with the truth.

This endeavor is modern propaganda, a subject Milosz addresses in an essay on André Gide, who until his visit to the Soviet Union in 1936 had been an enthusiast of communism. Gide, wrote Milosz, had “draped a cloak of beauty around the most poisonous and destructive intellectual currents, which prepared a worldwide cataclysm.” Without a metaphysics, we are drawn to whoever offers us the most plausible simulacrum of truth. In such a world totalitarians are at a natural advantage, for they are adept at creating an “appropriately reconstructed pragmatism” or indeed “planned animality”–one thinks of Hitler’s rehearsals, or of Stalinist denunciations (or, for that matter, of the British tabloid press and Fox News). War then finishes the job, as Milosz argues in a study of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. War makes the biological perspective appear to be the only plausible one. The ethics of struggle for the immediate good of the group prevail. “To be sure, there is no truth, no beauty, no goodness–but there is German truth, German beauty, and German goodness.” The writer makes himself useful to the state by generating plausible myths for popular consumption.

Those who remember Milosz’s most famous prose writing will feel a quiver of recognition. Legends of Modernity was in many ways a prelude to The Captive Mind, Milosz’s 1951 study of the attractions of communism to intellectuals. The resemblances between the two books are striking: Each is a series of literary essays, each a search for the sources of totalitarianism, their composition bracketing in time Milosz’s collaboration with Stalinism just after the war. The most interesting ideas of each book, as Milosz acknowledges in both, are adaptations of concepts of the Polish painter, philosopher, novelist and dramaturge Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. The study of Witkiewicz that closes Legends of Modernity reads a bit like a first draft of the one that opens The Captive Mind. In both books Witkiewicz is credited with formulating the ideas of hypertrophied ethics and totalitarian pragmatism. Here Milosz is appealingly loyal, and indeed deferential, to a great writer, but also to the Polish milieu that nurtured him. When the Red Army invaded Poland in September 1939, Witkiewicz took his own life.

Madeline Levine’s translation of Legends of Modernity, like the Polish original, includes (as Milosz wished) a final section composed of wartime letters exchanged between Milosz and fellow writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. Here the calm mastery of the essays is gone. Although the level of discourse remains (especially by our standards) preposterously high, Milosz is less sure of himself, and open to his friend’s counsel. This Andrzejewski provides, noting where Milosz seems to have fallen prey to legendary thinking. After the war was over, Andrzejewski, previously known as a Catholic novelist, chose to collaborate with Poland’s Stalinists. In The Captive Mind, Milosz portrays Andrzejewski as a writer wishing to be useful. Having failed to become a sincere Catholic writer in interwar Poland, and having despaired of his wartime ethic of loyalty after the Germans massacred his friends in the underground, Andrzejewski decided to serve the winner. Once the Red Army had driven the Germans from Poland in 1945, this meant the Stalinists. So says Milosz.

“Only a passion for truth,” writes Milosz in The Captive Mind, could have saved Andrzejewski. It is clear as can be, from the letters published in Legends of Modernity, that the two men trusted and loved each other during the war. Yet the essay about Andrzejewski in The Captive Mind, written just a few years later, is one of the most pitiless condemnations of one intellectual by another in print. What makes this odd is that the two men did not really part ways politically after the war. Both collaborated with the new power. Milosz went to work for the Stalinist regime as a diplomat in 1945 and repudiated communism only when he defected in 1951. Can the literary use of one friend by another be explained by reference to Milosz’s emerging “passion for truth”? Perhaps, insofar as Milosz admits ever so softly that the errors of prewar writers and postwar collaborators were also his own. The literary criticism of both books was also self-criticism, although the places where Milosz says so explicitly are very few. The essay in Legends of Modernity about one of his university teachers, in which he treats (his own) generational rebellion as a legend of modernity rather than a human imperative, brings home this sense of remorse. He was sorry once. Then he was sorry again. In both books, though, other writers are made to do the apologizing for him.

What is permanent, Milosz concludes in that essay on his teacher, is the human “metaphysical yearning.” This, too, was a bridge to The Captive Mind. There Milosz argued that writers in Stalinist Poland are seduced not only because the hypertrophied ethics of totalitarian pragmatism have supplanted a metaphysics of truth but also because they yearn to belong to something. In Legends of Modernity Milosz had longed for a new set of “universally binding principles,” which both he and Andrzejewski found, after the war, in communism. Modernity claims to have transcended legend; communism replies that the bourgeois period is as infected with self-delusion as the feudal period, but that communism delivers objectivity; The Captive Mind defined this conviction as a legend of literati, treating communism itself as a legend of modernity, the victorious one as it appeared at the time. The irony is that Milosz already knew this when he completed Legends of Modernity, which was not just anti-Nazi but anticommunist and anti-totalitarian; The Captive Mind was a rediscovery and hence a rather similar book. Even after his brush with Stalinism, Milosz retained the capacity to make the master narratives seem slavish.

For the young Milosz during World War II, literary criticism was motivated by his “hope that by destroying the legends he creates about himself, it will be possible to locate the surest footing.” Milosz had lost his own footing with the rumble of German and Soviet tanks in 1939, and Legends of Modernity helped him find a new fulcrum, at least for a time. After he finished the essays another shock came. Having crushed the uprising of the Polish underground, the Germans destroyed Warsaw in 1944. The city in which Milosz had written his essays, and exchanged letters with Andrzejewski, was burned to the ground, building by building. Then came the Stalinists, who presented themselves amid the ruins as the people who would prevail and rebuild. Having lost their footing again, Milosz and some of his fellow writers went along, at least for a time.

The publication of Legends of Modernity at the end of Milosz’s life, decades after its composition, has left us to ask what happened to his critical sense between 1944 and 1951. His was a generous parting gesture. Even the best of us can lose our footing in troubled times. The crucial thing is to keep after the truth.