Fighting Words

The Captive Mind Now

What Czeslaw Milosz understood about Islam.

Czeslaw Milosz 1911-2004

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.”

Not everybody possesses the arcane intellectual credentials, or the sheer nerve, to practice ketman at this exalted level, but Milosz points out that it can be employed, or perhaps better to say deployed, in less rigorous and demanding forms. One of these is “aesthetic ketman,” which relies upon the need of even the most absolutist society to boast of some sort of cultural or academic capacity. “Aesthetic ketman,” observes Milosz,

is expressed not only in that unconscious longing for strangeness which is channeled toward controlled amusements like theater, film and folk festivals, but also into various forms of escapism. Writers burrow into ancient texts, comment upon and re-edit ancient authors. They write children’s books so that their fancy may have slightly freer play. Many choose university careers because research into literary history offers a safe pretext for plunging into the past and for converse with works of great aesthetic value.

He goes on to say:

How can one still the thought that aesthetic experiences arise out of something organic, and that the union of color and harmony with fear is as difficult to imagine as brilliant plumage on birds living in the northern tundras?

The reason for my wanting to look up this essay again was as follows: It seemed to be an almost perfect prefiguration of Azar Nafisi’s wonderful book Reading Lolita in Tehran. Those of you who have read this beautiful and stirring work will perhaps guess what I mean. (And those of you who have not read it should go straight and purchase the new paperback.) Azar Nafisi, like many of the radical young women who had opposed the regime of the shah, hoped to participate in a revolution that would include general enlightenment and emancipation. Everybody knows what happened: They soon found themselves in a dank and fetid prison for the mind, with conformity imposed at gunpoint by coarse and ignorant clerics. Driven from the university by Khomeini’s goons, Nafisi inaugurated a secret parallel seminar in her own home, where the doubly oppressed young women of the campus could continue their study of classical literature. For part of each dreary week, they could take off their disguise of compulsory headgear and chador, wear ornaments, literally let their hair down, and discuss the lasting significance of Jane Austen, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow, among others.

Both of Milosz’s paragraphs above are vindicated by the book. The young women discover that the personal is indeed highly political, but not in the sense that the mullahs and clerics intend. For instance, while there may not be a perfect “fit” between Stalinist cultural bureaucrats and Islamist ones—the latter being more fascinated and horrified by sex—what is to us a highly “traditional” novel can spring to vivid life in these conditions if it shows a Henry James heroine, say, doing what an Iranian girl cannot and rejecting a suitor chosen by her family. Indeed, half of the subversion practiced by this female school is the result of insisting that religious propaganda be taken at its own face value. Otherwise, satire would be impossible. Of especial interest is the moment when classes are still just “open” and Nafisi takes on the Islamists by putting The Great Gatsby (the banned novel itself, not the character) on public trial, with herself in the dock. The literal-minded do what they must do as prosecutors, and the ironic do as much as they dare. Glance at the Milosz paragraphs above and then look at Nafisi’s own analysis:

Unable to decipher or understand complications or irregularities, angered by what they considered betrayal in their own ranks, the officials were forced to impose their simple formulas on fiction as they did on life. Just as they censored the colors and tones of reality to suit their black-and-white world, they censored any form of interiority in fiction: ironically, for them as for their ideological opponents, works that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous.

On the post-dedication page of Reading Lolita in Tehran, there appear these lines:

To whom do we tell what happened on the
Earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge
Mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up
And will stay so?

This is, charmingly enough, from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Annalena.”

An equally intriguing moment occurs at the other end of the book, on the pages devoted to “Acknowledgements.” Here one finds a tribute to “Paul (thank you for introducing me to Persecution and the Art of Writing, among many other things).” The title mentioned—but unattributed—is that of a celebrated essay by Leo Strauss (while the “Paul,” you may care to know, is Paul Wolfowitz). Strauss wrote this essay in 1941, while the younger Milosz was living on starvation rations in a shattered Poland, and those who find his prose difficult or obscure or even sinister would perhaps benefit from glancing at it. It is a perfectly intelligible defense of the practice of writing, and of reading, “between the lines.” Persecution is not always as fearsome as it looks, says Strauss, “for a man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection. He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines.” According to some, I might add, one can even paint between the lines: Yevtushenko has not been the only poet to speculate that court portraitists openly yet secretly made their subjects look ridiculous by representing them as they truly were: Why else should our most famous folk tale concern the emperor and his gorgeous “clothes”?

Suppose, says Strauss, that a respected historian but secret liberal in a totalitarian system were “to doubt the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion.” His best recourse would be to “state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated.” And then, “his reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.” As with all such analogies of prohibition, this is consciously or subconsciously an attribution to religious tyranny (in this case to Christianity, for which Strauss had no time at all). But it could as well be an Islamic one. The Persian poets had long experience of evading or mocking Koranic clerical authority. As Omar Khayyam has it, in the version translated by Richard * le Gallienne:

And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret—and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it? Believe that, too.

This demonstrates, I think, that it isn’t great minds that think alike—because they most certainly do not—but free or independent minds that do. The long-term achievement of Milosz was to have scrutinized, not just in between but clean through, and well beyond, the party “lines” that claim for themselves exclusive truth. In doing so he shamed the so-called intellectuals who managed the ugly trick of denying freedom to their own minds, the better to visit the same deprivation upon others.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2004:This article originally and incorrectly referred to Richard le Gallienne, the translator of Omar Khayyam, as Robert le Gallienne. (Return to the corrected sentence.)