Milosz on Ketman

I have been reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. According to Wikipedia:

The Captive Mind was written soon after the author’s defection from Stalinist Poland in 1951. In it, Milosz drew upon his experiences as an illegal author during the Nazi Occupation and of being a member of the ruling class of the postwar People’s Republic of Poland. The book attempts to explain the allure of Stalinism to intellectuals, its adherents’ thought processes, and the existence of both dissent and collaboration within the postwar Soviet Bloc. Milosz described that he wrote the book “under great inner conflict”.

Like many, I am most fascinated by his description of a phenomenon he calls ketman.

Ketman is a strategy for coping with ideological oppression. I would characterize ketman as a practice of method acting ideological conformity, while carefully maintaining an inner intellectual life partially or wholly in conflict with the ideology.

Milosz watched the intellectuals around him — at least the ones with active aesthetic or intellectual intuitions — cope with the spiritual impossibilities of totalitarian Soviet domination by adopting varieties of ketman, each of which he describes at some length. Below is the beginning and end of his chapter on ketman, but skipping his typology.

Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people’s democracies [Soviet Bloc states]. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.

It is hard to define the type of relationship that prevails between people in the East otherwise than as acting, with the exception that one does not perform on a theater stage but in the street, office, factory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in. Such acting is a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong moment, a glance that is not all it should be can occasion dangerous suspicions and accusations. Even one’s gestures, tone of voice, or preference for certain kinds of neckties are interpreted as signs of one’s political tendencies.

A visitor from the Imperium [the Soviet Bloc] is shocked on coming to the West. In his contacts with others, beginning with porters or taxi drivers, he encounters no resistance. The people he meets are completely relaxed. They lack that internal concentration which betrays itself in a lowered head or in restlessly moving eyes. They say whatever words come to their tongues; they laugh aloud. Is it possible that human relations can be so direct?

Acting in daily life differs from acting in the theater in that everyone plays to everyone else, and everyone is fully aware that this is so. The fact that a man acts is not to his prejudice, is no proof of unorthodoxy. But he must act well, for his ability to enter into his role skillfully proves that he has built his characterization upon an adequate foundation. If he makes a passionate speech against the West, he demonstrates that he has at least 10 percent of the hatred he so loudly proclaims. If he condemns Western culture lukewarmly, then he must be attached to it in reality. Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people’s democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one’s role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training. 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. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.

Ketman as a social institution is not entirely de­void of advantages. In order to evaluate them, one need only look at life in the West. Westerners, and especially Western intellectuals, suffer from a special variety of taedium vitae; their emotional and intel­lectual life is too dispersed. Everything they think and feel evaporates like steam in an open expanse. Freedom is a burden to them. No conclusions they arrive at are binding: it may be so, then again it may not. The result is a constant uneasiness. The happiest of them seem to be those who become Communists. They live within a wall which they batter themselves against, but which provides them with a resistance that helps them define themselves. Steam that once evaporated into the air becomes a force under pres­sure. An even greater energy is generated in those who must hide their Communist convictions, that is, who must practice Ketman, a custom which is, after all, not unknown in the countries of the West.

In short, Ketman means self-realization against something. He who practices Ketman sufers because of the obstacles he meets; but if these obstacles were suddenly to be removed, he would find himself in a void which might perhaps prove much more painful. Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure.

He who practices Ketman lies. But would he be less dishonest if he could speak the truth? A painter who tries to smuggle illicit (“metaphysical”) delight in the beauty of the world into his picture of life on a collective farm would be lost if he were given complete freedom, for the beauty of the world seems greater to him the less free he is to depict it. A poet muses over what he would write if he were not bound by his political responsibilities, but could he realize his visions if he were at liberty to do so? Ketman brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.

Who knows whether it is not in man’s lack of an interal core that the mysterious success ot the New Faith and its charm for the intellectual lie? By subjecting man to pressure, the New Faith creates this core, or in any case the feeling that it exists. Fear of freedom is nothing more than fear of the void. “There is nothing in man,” said a friend of mine, a dialectician. “He will never extract anything out of himself, because there is nothing there. You can’t leave the people and write in a wilderness. Remember that man is a function of social forces. Whoever wants to be alone will perish.” This is probably true, but I doubt if it can be called anything more than the law of our times. Feeling that there was nothing in him, Dante could not have written his Divine Comedy or Montaigne his Essays, nor could Chardin have painted a single still-life. Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone. As long a he believes this, there is little one can reproach in hs behavior. Perhaps it is better for him to breed a full­-grown Ketman, to submit to pressure and thus feel that he is, than to take a chance on the wisdom of past ages which maintains that man is a creature of God.

But suppose one should try to live without Ketman, to challenge fate, to say: “If I lose, I shall not pity myself.” Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one’s own inner tension — then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith.

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