When we last left the intellectual, he found himself increasingly drawn to the ruling ideology as a means of overcoming his alienation and general uselessness to the prevailing culture. In the new world of theory, the intellectual is not merely useful, but essential and superior. Alongside this attraction, Milosz identifies another form of alienation and concomitant resentment that draws the intellectual to the totalitarian ideology: his disdain for bourgeois culture.
The intellectual, being a cultured sort (and in the examples Milosz provides, being an artist himself), recognizes the essential vacuity of bourgeois arts and manners, an emptiness that is especially pronounced in the previously-diagnosed absence of a common faith.1 The intellectual, displaced from their cultural station due to the separation of intellectual pursuits from anything the average person is actually interested in, is drive into the bourgeois class and thus into this emptiness, a situation that generates considerable resentment. But in the new world, under the new system, they get to be in charge again, to tell the bourgeois what they are allowed to enjoy and do and what art and activities, previously sanctioned, are now insufficiently revolutionary.2 Milosz:
The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of birth and death.
The Captive Mind, 11
Again, participating in the new system is a source of meaning, belonging, and social capital. And this meaning, belonging, and status is purchased by the remaking of the world, the destruction of the old order. Milosz sums up the mindset:
Let a new man arise, one who, instead of submitting to the world, will transform it.
The Captive Mind, 10
Here is where gnosticism enters the picture. I use the term in the same sense as the great political philosopher Eric Voegelin, whose ideas are far to complex to easily distill in a single post.3 In brief, the gnostic thinker is dissatisfied with the situation of the world, and who wouldn’t be? It is fallen, after all. But their reaction to this dissatisfaction is to attribute the world’s problems not to human fallibility, but to the system of the world itself. In other words, the problem is not sin, but the order of things. Thus, to overcome the evil of the world requires only human action, action taken to destroy the system of the world4 and usher in a more perfect system.
Milosz’s intellectual sets himself up as what Voegelin would call a gnostic prophet, the individual tasked with proclaiming the formula of transformation (a formula of destruction and renewal) to the masses. And who wouldn’t want to be a prophet? Much more fun than being a mere academic.
Next time: maintaining orthodoxy
1. Two points. First, you might object that modern intellectuals in fact appear quite enamored with popular culture. Witness the enthusiasm of the “elites” for works like Harry Potter or the Disney Marvel films which can, at best, be classified as “entertaining trash.” This doesn’t point to an error on the part of Milosz, rather it suggests that these works are themselves products of the totalitarian ideology. Enthusiasm among intellectuals (and the hand they have in creating these works) is simply a sign that they have “bought in.” In this view, the absurd over-enthusiasm works like these generate among the wannabe intellectual set (say, journalists) is a form of status signalling.
Second, to be fair to the intellectual, we should note that he’s correct about the cultural desolation in the absence of faith.
2. I’m confident the reader can insert the appropriate modern condemnations.
3. I’ve long promised myself that I would similar series to the current on Voegelin. Now, I’m promising you, dear reader.
4. Up to an including the very order of being itself. Voegelin notes that it ultimately terminates in the murder of God.