In previous posts, we’ve seen the tremendous appeal of the totalitarian ideology to the intellectual as a means of overcoming social alienation and the terrific social pressure on doubters that ensues after the ideology has become ascendant. This ascendancy is unstable, however, because the totalitarian ideology is, ultimately, a lie.
Moreover, it is a lie that is quite often directly opposed to the work of the intellectuals themselves. Can we truly square Plato, Confucius, Jane Austen with the ideology? What can it mean to study these figures through a lens expressly hostile to their deepest convictions? Or, to move beyond specifics, how can we pursue the truth through the means of a truth-denying lie?
The success of the ideology, therefore, leads to a sort of schizophrenia. The intellectual must become double-minded, seeking truth in a conceptual framework that denies the existence of truth (implicitly or explicitly). Double-mindedness manifests in a deep-seated anxiety:
A patient has a hard time, however, when the moment comes for him to swallow the [ideology] in its entirety. He becomes such a nervous wreck that he may actually fall ill.
The Captive Mind, 17
There’s a marked unhealthiness, mental and physical, to the intellectual world. Interestingly, Milosz suggests that guilt is at the root of much of this anxiety, something I had not considered previously, but fits with the alienation between the Procrustean bed of theory and actual objects of study, the mutilation necessary to make reality “fit” the ideology. There’s an awareness that something real, beautiful, and meaningful is being destroyed/lost in this process. Since we crave reality, beauty, and truth this loss is deeply upsetting, even if only subconsciously. Intellectual life is thus pervaded by a mournfulness for what was and what could be.
The result is acedia, that most besetting of modern sins. Milosz doesn’t actually use the term, but it’s quite obvious that’s what he’s talking about:
The one thing that seems to deny the perfection of [the totalitarian ideology] is the apathy that is born in people, and that lives on in spite of their feverish activity. It is hard to define, and at times one might suppose it to be a mere optical illusion..Yet there is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate of such cities as Warsaw or Prague
The Captive Mind, 23-4
Apathy and torpor, despite frenetic activity, with an accompanying despair of any possibility for meaningful change. As a result, we’re miserable, no matter how fancy our offices, how lush the campus, how privileged the position we hold:
Whatever we may call it, this much is certain; if Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.
The Captive Mind, 24
In the face of this misery, it takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the ideology, to buttress social pressures, to assuage misgivings with material comforts, to punish dissenters. There comes a point where maintenance costs become untenable, where they system becomes deeply fragile and unable to respond to crisis without huge expenditures, expenditures which deplete the ability of the system to respond to subsequent crises and even to day-to-day stresses. Increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to quash dissent and enforce intellectual hegemony are a symptom of what is likely an irrevocable decline. Ketman proliferates. Ideological collapse is imminent.
The sheer mass of machinery required to maintain the ideology is the greatest sign of its weakness. The apathy and despair of the majority is to the advantage of the reformer. To cast off the ideology is simpler than it seems, though not easy (like all good things). One simply must have the will, the courage, to do so. The true enemy, therefore, is not external structures or other people or even the ideology itself, but our own cowardice and torpor. To overcome the forces Milosz so ably diagnoses, we must overcome ourselves.