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Czeslaw Milosz


Dissimulation as a form of art, deceit as a way of life, theatrical artifice and ‘presentations of self’ so interwoven with everyday thought and feeling that even close friends, in private, could hardly tell what each of them truly believed.

This was Ketman. Milosz had found its description, he wrote, “in a book by Gobineau entitled Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia.” The author (a dangerous writer, Milosz warns in passing) had spent many years in Persia and discovered there the rules whereby those who know the truth—in this case the truths of Avicenna, which had to be concealed from vengeful Shiite mullahs—manage to intellectually survive alongside those of great power, malice, and dogmatic certainty.

And this was also exactly the strategy required for a poet, a scientist, a teacher, a philosopher, to survive under the power and malice and dogmatic certainties of communism in Poland. As Milosz explained in The Captive Mind, all of them became full-time actors, and good ones too: “after 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, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.” (Note: a discussion of acting and social life, On the Way to the Pig Festival, can be found at Encounter Essays.)

Ketman taught that “He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error”. So one should keep silent about one’s true convictions if possible.

Nevertheless (writes Gobineau), 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 that 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…

Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king; to him who uses Ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!

Some think George Orwell provided the key to understanding totalitarianism. But if you want to understand the mental contortions needed to adapt and survive under communism (or about the lies and compromises required in many PC humanities departments today), the poet and amateur psychologist Czeslaw Milosz is a subtler guide. An example of his later work is presented below.

this world

It appears that it was all a misunderstanding.
What was only a trial run was taken seriously.
The rivers will return to their beginnings.
The wind will cease in its turning about.
Trees instead of budding will tend to their oots.
Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror—
They are children again.
The dead will wake up, not comprehending.
Till everything that happened has unhappened.
What a relief! Breathe freely, you who suffered much.

Posted in Arts and Letters, For the Record, Notes.

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