In the previous two posts, we’ve explored the social alienation afflicting the intellectual and the allure of the newly ascendant totalitarian ideology as a means of overcoming that alienation. I think it’s important to note that this alienation is a very real and serious thing. We are social beings and to be detached from society is the cause of considerable suffering.1 The intellectual does not err in seeking to become re-integrated into society, they err in that the ideology they are drawn to is wicked and false (and thus can only increase alienation in the end with a good bit of suffering on the way). Thus, the point of Milosz’s book, and my summaries of it, is not to be cruel or act superior to the intellectual (there is considerable sympathy in the portrayals of individual artists under the Soviet regime that make up the bulk of the book), but rather to understand the complex, sobering reality of the intellectual life under totalitarianism.2
Once the ruling ideology has become dominant among the intellectual class, the pressure to conform becomes immense. If the individual speaks out:
He would invariably be crushed by superior reasoning plus practicable threats against the future career of an undisciplined individual. Given the conditions of convincing arguments plus such threats, the necessary conversion will take place. That is mathematically certain.
The Captive Mind, 13
By “superior reasoning,” Milosz does not, I believe, mean that the Soviet ideology was in fact rationally superior to what it was supplanting, but rather that it had an answer for everything and that its supporters had a readily available stock of responses by which any challenge to the system could be disrupted and incorporated. In other words, that any objection only serves to demonstrate 1.) the unworthiness/wickedness of the objector and 2.) the truth of the system. This dynamic becomes self-reinforcing and moves outside the realm of ideas and into that of real-life consequences thanks to the ever-increasing control of the ideology over the means of disseminating ideas, hiring committees, media outlets, etc.:
I predict the house will burn; then I pour gasoline over the stove. The house burns; my prediction is fulfilled….I predict that a work of art incompatible with socialist realism will be worthless. Then I place the artist in conditions in which such a work is worthless. My prediction is fulfilled
The Captive Mind, 15
Thus, you end up conforming. Although you might never truly agree with it, you give lip service to the ideology, nodding along as if you agree, while keeping your doubts hidden. Milosz, borrowing a term from the Islamic tradition, refers to this as “ketman.” He details a number of forms this can take, but the one most common to the Academy in my experience is the type he calls “professional”:
since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.
The Captive Mind, 69
Keep your head down, do your work, don’t rock any boats and all will be well. The truth is, if you manage to avoid the occasionally-invisible shoals, all probably will be well. You’ll carve out a quiet little space to be left alone and can ride out the storm. Unless they stop leaving you alone.
We are left, therefore, with a loud and powerful group, likely the minority, that enthusiastically supports the ruling ideology, and a larger, but cowed, set that pays lip service to it, concealing disagreements behind a veil of acceptance.3 The intellectual class is converted, the dominance of the ideology appears complete.
Next, the final (?) installment: the problem is, this drives you insane and murders your soul.
1. The breakdown of social bonds, societal atomization and its attendant pathologies are perhaps the single most serious issue facing us today.
2. And perhaps to banish any idea that salvation from the totalitarian will derive from the intellectual class in their capacity as intellectuals or that they are somehow insulated from the effects of the ruling ideology by virtue of their intellect.
3. And periodically helping destroy the more courageous and outspoken challengers to the ideology, thankful that it is not them who is in the dock. In these moments we see that ketman is not merely a survival strategy, but moral rot.
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