The Captive Mind Now
What Czeslaw Milosz understood about Islam.
Most of the tributes and obituaries for Czeslaw Milosz laid due emphasis on his artistic and intellectual prescience concerning fascism and communism. To have survived the Nazi invasion of Poland, and then the Stalinization of the country, and to have made his own peaceful transition from communism well ahead of the intellectual pack and ended his days as the national poet laureate is an extraordinary set of achievements for one lifetime, however long.
Not entirely by chance, I was rereading his classic collection of essays The Captive Mind in the weeks before his death. I was very struck by the courtesy and grace of this famous polemic and by the way that Milosz combined firmness on his own part with an understanding of the position of others. Here's how the volume was reintroduced by him close to its 30th anniversary:
This book was written in 1951/2 in Paris at the time when the majority of French intellectuals resented their country's dependence on American help and placed their hopes in a new world in the East, ruled by a leader of incomparable wisdom and virtue, Stalin. ... When my book appeared in 1953, it displeased practically everybody. The admirers of Soviet Communism found it insulting, while anti-Communists accused it of lacking a clear-cut political stance and suspected that its author was a Marxist at heart.
This tone, serious and incisive yet modest, is kept up throughout. Reviewing the trammeled life of the Eastern European intellectual, which he had recently escaped by defection, he noticed that "a few have become acquainted with Orwell's 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party." See how much work that sentence does: 1984 had only been published in 1949. It contained within itself, among other things, a secret, esoteric book known only to an Inner Party. ...
In an essay on the absorption into the USSR, as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact, of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Milosz reproved one of the senior apologists for tyranny in these terms:
Pablo Neruda, the great poet of Latin America, comes from Chile. I translated a number of his poems into Polish. Pablo Neruda has been a Communist for some ten years. When he describes the misery of his people, I believe him and I respect his great heart. When writing, he thinks about his brothers and not about himself, and so to him the power of the word is given. But when he paints the joyous, radiant life of people in the Soviet Union, I stop believing him. I am inclined to believe him as long as he speaks about what he knows: I stop believing him when he starts to speak about what I know myself.
Could one phrase it more generously than that, as one writer to another? (Neruda was to return the compliment by writing an ode on Stalin's death in 1953 so fawning and disgusting and clumsy that it is usually not reprinted.) Considering that Milosz himself was a native of Lithuania, he might have allowed himself a little more spleen at having his homeland obliterated. Coming from that part of the world, by the way, with its ancient mixture of Polish and Jewish and German, he was quite happy during his long roost in Berkeley, Calif. "Multiculturalism" was not something he had to be taught. It was there that I visited him, in early 1989, to find him watching a smuggled video of a huge nationalist rally on the sports field of Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno, the variously named Lithuanian capital city. Perestroika had spread, and the empire was dissolving. In his 1951 essay The Lesson of the Baltics, Milosz had compared the extinguishment of these nations to the cruel destruction of the Aztecs or the Incas, or the Caribbean populations, by the conquistadores. In the Stalin period, Milosz had received a letter from some Lithuanian deportees to the Siberian Gulag, full of apparent banalities yet on second look manifesting a slight stress on the last letter of each line. Read vertically as a single line, this had yielded the words "Eternal Slave." Yet here, 40 years later, was sudden evidence that, from under the rubble of Soviet colonization, and in the wake of mass deportations and an attempted cultural erasure, a stubborn language and people were reviving.
So, I read through these essays again, finding something fresh and worthy each time. But the one I was actually looking for did not have anything, at least ostensibly, to do with the battles against modern tyranny in Europe. It is titled, cryptically, "Ketman.""Ketman" is a term from ancient Persia, brought to Milosz's attention by Arthur Gobineau's book Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. (Gobineau, now rather despised for his ethno-theories, was a senior French diplomat in Tehran for many years of the mid-19th century.) He had noticed that the dissidents in Persia, long accustomed to theocratic tyranny, had evolved a style of their own. As Milosz had himself observed about intellectuals under totalitarianism, the need for survival often involved more than just keeping your mouth shut. Tough moments could often arise where you had to make positive, public affirmations of loyalty and even enthusiasm. So with the oldest form of oppression known to the mind: that of religion. As Gobineau had phrased it:
There are occasions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. Then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one's true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one's adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith than can please him, one performs all the rites one recognizes to be the most vain, one falsifies one's own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit.
Gobineau cited the efforts of one Sadra, a rationalist disciple of Avicenna. This savant carefully observed all the cardinal dogmas of Shiism, spent hours elaborating the minutest details of the faith and proclaiming his superior knowledge of them, until he had won great praise from the mullahs and imams. Then, "seasoned with unimpeachable professions of faith, he succeeded in spreading Avicennism throughout the entire lettered class; and when at last he believed he could reveal himself completely, he drew aside the veils, repudiated Islam, and showed himself the logician, the metaphysician that he really was."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Czeslaw Milosz by Krzysztof Wojciechowski/Reuters.