Towards an estimation of the Slavic soul

November 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Captive Mind is a writer’s apology in a unique time historically when free writing did need explanation, at the cost of death. At an imagined podium before Zeus, the book’s author, Czeslaw Milosz, already has a plea prepared:

Many people spend their entire lives collecting stamps or old coins, or growing tulips. I am sure that Zeus will be merciful to people who have given themselves entirely to these hobbies, even though they are only amusing & pointless diversions. I shall say to him: “It is not my fault that you made me a poet, & that you gave me the gift of seeing simultaneously what was happening in Omaha & Prague, in the Baltic states & on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I felt that if I did not use that gift my poetry would be tasteless to me & fame detestable. Forgive me.” & perhaps Zeus, who does not call stamp-collectors & tulip-growers silly, will forgive. (251)

Milosz does not shy away from the dangers of his predisposition in spite of putting the impulse on equal footing as perfectly inoffensive hobbies; entirely assuming the role of poet [what he felt himself to be above & before all else] means not contradicting the multi-perspecitvity of his eyes. It goes against the state.

Adaptation & compromise are his greatest enemies. To his time & profession, this enemy took the shape of the enforcement of a literary style, namely Socialist Realism. Four chapters of The Captive Mind are models of failed, though largely sympathetic, responses to the injection of Socialist Realism. For Milosz, resistance was not so much a question of integrity but one of survival — no matter the risks from outside, self-judgement is always worse. By this law, his scrutiny was reserved only for himself, knowing that individualistic values rule above all else. This is a rare wisdom in youth.

What he sees, above all else, is the use of dehumanisation to unify & subjugate the masses. “Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone” (81). Alienation is more horrifying than crimes against humanity. This is equally applicable to Russia & its subject nations, to Germany, & to America. To will standing beside someone is to will making oneself comparable to them; imitation is a question inseparable from the social or political. If all lived for & by themselves, people would never have to develop language, understanding, or produce work. All development, every achievement is indebted to society, especially when targeted against society.

20th Century Europe was terrorised by the human condition being dethroned by the Social Question as the primary force. Values lost their balance, allowing for crimes against reason & humanity. “Human thought had no significance; subterfuges & self-deceptions were easy to decipher; all that really counted was the movement of matter. [Man] absorbed dialectical materialism as a sponge soaks up water. Its materialistic side appeased his hunger for brutal truth; its dialectical side permitted a sudden leap above the human species, to a vision of humanity as the material of history” (127). The argument of historical necessity “leads the human material to a feeling of ‘fiction’. Nothing is spontaneous” (245). Every siege, every burnt body or unused mind has its place in a grand narrative. & this is all taken to be good because it leads to the future which means that people [select demographics] will survive & live differently. The logic may be bad, but it is necessary.

To attempt to order & explain to the point of indoctrination, which historical necessity always does in its teleology, is incompatible with any call to thought [Hannah Arendt at the same time was coming to the same conclusions]. Humanity approached a second either/or. “One must either die (physically or spiritually), or else one must be reborn according to a prescribed method” (6). “[T]he measure of the Method’s accuracy lies in the strength of those who rule in its name” (51). The hegemony create society according to their method, proving its validity only retroactively. People come to believe in it. & sure enough, it is true under those conditions.

It is the eastern bloc populations that are notorious in Europe for changing hands between powers quickly as in a game of cards. The Baltics are used as an example of identity dissolved, of silent places hollowed as the imprint of a boot. Milosz regrets silences, as is best discoverable in his estimation of ketman — the practice of “keep[ing] silent about one’s true convictions if possible” (57), whether it be to protect the innocent in their blissful blindness or oneself in the face of disagreement. “In short, Ketman means self-realisation against something” (80). By recognising where your individual philosophy contravenes with society’s method, you come to know yourself.

No one will contest that “[l]ife in constant internal tension develops talents which are latent in man. He does not even suspect to what heights of cleverness & psychological perspicacity he can rise when he is cornered & must either be skilful or perish” (78). Eastern Europe has been an ideal farm-ground for Ketman & general feigned complicity. But “[a]fter 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” (55). Too much socially intelligent silence & the geographical misfortune of being between Russia & the West have together been responsible for Eastern Europe’s uncertain borders, alliances, & identities. Milosz calls to end the silence.

Pride is key in this narrative. It forms by the awareness of self as a complex being & one in opposition [an effect of ketman]. More & more is expected of one’s work & mind. The nation gives less. So the rift between society & self grows. Self-reliance & -reservation follow. Sometimes self-destruction too, but a destruction borne out of love. Withal, “he takes his vengeance upon mankind (upon others & upon himself) by demonstrating that man is dominated by a few elementary laws; at the same time, he feeds his sense of superiority & proves himself acute & strong enough to dispense with prejudices” (131). These “prejudices” are the forms of reasoning that absolve more than they explain. The only true questions, it comes out, are the bestial ones, & these cannot be compromised.

All of the elements of the popular image of the Slav are there: proud simpletons, passionate but not sensational. That is what has survived of the eastern bloc identity from this terrible period & where Milosz places his hope. He praises this figure for being close to life in ways undreamable to the mind of the “New Faith” of communism or one dazzled by capitalism. Milosz distinctly notes that his praise is antihistorical — against the movement of the times, it does not anticipate an end. Instead, the figure represents a lost humanism: a sense, an ethic that loses currency in times preoccupied with progress.


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